Town became a pawn in World War gamble

Grace Parkin dusts off a large painting of the bombardment at whitby's art gallery which will come out of storage next year''w133415
Grace Parkin dusts off a large painting of the bombardment at whitby's art gallery which will come out of storage next year''w133415

Death emerged from a heavy blanket of North Sea fog on the morning of December 16 1914.

As 30-year-old Coastguard Frederick Randall sat eating his breakfast, he heard the thud of German artillery guns.

Whitby Abbey - partially destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries - looms over yet more devastation, wrought this time the German bombardment.

Whitby Abbey - partially destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries - looms over yet more devastation, wrought this time the German bombardment.

At that instant a shell tore through the wall of the East Cliff lookout station, beheading Frederick as he rose from his seat.

The boatman was one of three Whitby residents who lost their lives as a result of German gunners raining an estimated 200 shells on the sleepy town.

It began at 9am when the cruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger opened fire and the attack would last just 11 minutes.

Railwayman William Tunmore was another to die, struck by shrapnel while attempting to keep his horse under control.

The third death was that of Winifrede Miller, bedridden with illness at the time but stuck with shrapnel nonetheless, she would die after tetanus developed in her mortal wound.

In Scarborough 18 people died, including a child and two babies, while Hartlepool suffered the heaviest losses, with the death toll reaching 102.

Shells would fall across the town, with Fishburn Park repeatedly struck and the furthest falling inland at Woodlands and Thistle Grove in Sleights.

The German gunners would make light work of their prime target, destroying the look out point, while the west end of Whitby Abbey, was also seriously damaged.

One of the homes destroyed was at the stables, beside the old youth hostel. Rebuilt in the 1970s, it is now the home of Whitby Museum’s Roger Dalladay. He explained the accepted reason for the attack was to target the coastguard look out station, deemed a military target. “They had a list of everything that might be military,” he said. “They weren’t supposed to hit civilians, so that was more by luck than judgement.”

Yet the most alarming aspect of the atrocity is that the British High Command knew when and where it was going to take place.

Intercepted code manuals had given the British an insight into orders relayed to the German commanders, without their enemy’s knowledge. This codebreaking centre would become known as Room 40.

So began an elaborate game of cat and mouse, with civilians sacrificed to allow the Royal Navy a crack at destroying the Kaiser’s maritime fleet.

In his 1993 essay, the Imperial War Museum’s John Bullen explained: “The Admiralty gambled on a tactical trade-off in return for major strategic results: in effect, allowing [German commander] Hipper to attack the east coast objectives before intervening decisively. The loss of all or most of Hipper’s battlecruisers to the Royal Navy would be a prize outweighing any loss or damage inflicted by the German naval attack on the coastal port.”

So it was that instead of intercepting the German fleet as it steamed towards the undefended ports of Whitby and Scarborough, a posse of British vessels gathered at the southern end of Dogger Bank, to await their return.

Another smaller force would attempt to get in touch with the enemy off the British coast and shadow them, but not engage - even if the boats began shelling defenceless settlements.

Yet this plan was to descend into farce, thanks in no small part to the changeable weather of the North Sea coastline.

A heavy fog enveloped the mid-December sea and visibility was significantly reduced, meaning the vessels sailed past each other, largely unawares.

The British could not locate their foe to spring the ambush, while the Germans caught a brief glimpse and fled, fearing the vessels they saw were the vanguard of a much larger force.

Winston Churchill, at that time the First Lord of the Admiralty, heard the drama unfold from the Government’s Whitehall War Room. He said: “Only one thing could enable the Germans to escape annihilation at the hands of an overwhelmingly superior force. The word ‘Visibility’ assumed a sinister significance. To have this tremendous prize - the German battle-cruiser squadron ... actually within our claws, and to have the event turn upon a veil of mist was a racking ordeal.”

The great sea battle failed to materialise and the German force returned home, with Kaiser Wilhelm declaring the excursion a victory for the “brave” and “gallant” German navy.

An iron cross was even commemorated to mark the victory, one of which was purchased by Whitby Museum in 2000.

But the British would not forgive their attackers and the raids provoked a hatred for these German ‘babykillers’, helping to renew commitment in a conflict the public had grown apathetic towards.

This side-effect may not have been entirely unanticipated by those in command of the British war effort, but when the initial fury settled questions were asked about the lack of protection afforded the civilian coastline.

“We could not say a word in explanation,” Churchill would later write of the North Sea debacle. “We had to bear in silence the censures of our countrymen. We could never admit for fear of compromising our secret information where our squadrons where, or how near the German raiding cruisers had been to their destruction.”