Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Scarborough: A Near Disaster for the Royal Navy

Scarborough Castle Under Bombardment

Beginning at 8 a.m. on Wednesday 16 December 1914, two German battlecruisers, Derfflinger and Von der Tann, bombarded the undefended Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough for about half an hour. During that short period over 500 shells rained down on the castle and town, killing 17 inhabitants and injuring many more. Houses right across the town had walls blown out, roofs ripped off, and windows smashed by shellfire, and there was widespread panic as people quite understandably thought the bombardment was the precursor to a German invasion.

Around 8:30 a.m. the two ships sailed off to the north and then shelled Whitby before heading east back out into the North Sea. Around the same time, a second German naval force attacked the port of Hartlepool, causing far more death and destruction than at Scarborough. The attack resulted in 592 casualties, many of them civilians, of whom 137 died. While the feared invasion never materialized, the motive behind the German navy's attack on the east coast ports is still debated. 

Damage in Central Scarborough

On the British side though, the attack on defenseless civilians handed the war effort a major propaganda tool and the cry "Remember Scarborough" helped boost the recruitment drive. After the action, though, the deployment of Royal Navy assets to defend against the raid came under much criticism.  A disaster had been averted for the Grand Fleet.

The probability of attacks on England's east coast was long foreseen. On 14 December 1914 the Admiralty learnt of a projected raid on the Yorkshire coast by the German 1st and 2nd Scouting Groups, consisting of four battlecruisers, five cruisers, and 22 destroyers. The movements of the German battle fleet were not definitely known, but it was unlikely to remain in harbour and its support of the battlecruisers should have been assumed.

The appropriate authority to deal with this particular situation was clearly the commander-in-chief, Grand Fleet. It was his business to prepare beforehand for just such an eventuality. It was his definite and particular responsibility to take the necessary counter-measures which were greatly simplified by early warning. Instead of confining itself to supplying him with all available information, the Admiralty issued orders for four battlecruisers, six battleships, eight light cruisers and seven destroyers from the Grand Fleet to intercept the raiders about 120 miles to the east of Scarborough. This hasty and ill-considered action ignored the German battle fleet and set the stage for what might have been a major naval disaster. 

The enemy's battlecruisers were rapidly advancing toward Scarborough on the night of 15 December. The British force was proceeding southward to intercept them. Meanwhile, the whole High Seas Fleet—22 German battleships, several cruisers, and 44 destroyers—was steaming toward the probable point of interception. An overpowering German force was therefore closing on Beatty's weak detachment, whose nearest support was at Scapa Flow, 350 miles away. At 5:15 a.m. on 16 December, the opposing forces were about ten miles apart and some of the screening destroyers on either side were actually in action. The Germans had only to continue their course for another quarter of an hour or so to bring about that equalization of strength on which the hopes of the German nation were based. 

German Battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger

Fortunately, it was still dark and the German C-in-C (von Ingenohl) imagined himself in contact with the whole Grand Fleet. In accordance with the policy of not risking battle against superior forces, he turned about at 5:30 a.m. and set course for Heligoland. It may be assumed that if the C-in-C Grand Fleet had been permitted to do his own job, he would have concentrated the whole Grand Fleet between Scarborough and Heligoland and used it—superior speed to bring the weaker High Seas Fleet to action during daylight. He would certainly not have risked defeat in detail by detaching his battlecruisers and one battle squadron to face the whole High Seas Fleet.

Sources: The Naval Review (British), Feb 1955 and

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