British Allow Bombardment in Bid to Sink German Ships
Special to The Great War Project
(15-16 December) German warships are bombarding the British coast this day a century ago at the Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough, in the first German naval bombardment of civilian targets.
Many of the residents and visitors to Scarborough are “elderly widows,” reports historian Max Hastings, who are “reading their letters over genteel breakfast tables in the Grand Hotel.”
The hotel receives “a series of direct hits, devastating the interior.” The attack is coming from two German battlecruisers crossing back and forth on South Bay, firing steadily only several hundred yards off shore. “The gable end of the town hall was wrecked, along with shopfronts and boarding house bedrooms,” Hastings reports.
“A magistrate named John Hall was dressing when a shell obliterated his bedroom and himself.”
“Twenty miles away at Whitby, similar murderous scenes were played out by two other German cruisers…at nearby Hartlepool during thirty minutes of firing, German warships wrecked Lloyds bank and caused a gasworks to explode.”
Then the German ships turn for home.
According to Hastings, the British Admiralty “chose to allow the Germans to strike unimpeded because this would give them a much better chance of trapping” the German battlecruisers and cutting off their escape home, back to German ports.
“The objective of sinking the enemy’s battlecruisers outweighed any consideration of deflecting the enemy from British hearths and homes,” Hastings writes.
The battle erupts at Dogger Bank in the North Sea. The entire German High Seas Fleet is on the move there.
The outcome in favor of the British is not preordained. The British bring to bear substantial firepower — six battleships and four battlecruisers. Bearing down on them is the entire German High Seas Fleet with several dozen ships taking part, and clearly superior firepower.
If the Germans prevail they can “eliminate British superiority in capital [leading] ships,” observes Hastings.
During the planning stage of the German bombardment, Admiral Franz von Hipper, the naval commander, is “initially unenthusiastic about undertaking the bombardment of British towns,” Hastings reports, “which he considered both strategically irrelevant and at odds with the gentlemanly code of his profession.”
Shore bombardment represents a piddling gesture, the Admiral writes, not a serious operation of war.
The outcome at Dogger Bank is not decisive. The British prove superior in the art of naval warfare, but…
…key German ships escape the British trap and are able to limp to their home ports.
The death toll at Scarborough and at the two smaller towns nearby is substantial. One-thirty-seven die there, all civilians. More than five hundred are wounded.
Historian Hastings calls it “an inglorious day” for the British navy.
As for the Germans, Hastings asks “What had the Germans supposed they were doing, in bombarding the coastal towns?”
“Here was an exercise in terrorism with no military purpose, designed to demoralize the British people by demonstrating their vulnerability to German ‘frightfulness.’”
Instead and predictably, it only served “to fuel popular hatred of the enemy and strengthen the nation’s will to fight.”