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Whitby in times gone by, ads from the past here
At the start of WW1 deploying the German fleet was difficult, because the British guarded all routes out of the North Sea and stood ready to attack within it. Germany remained cautious when its High Seas Fleet sailed on 15 December 1914. The main intention was to draw out thinly spread parts of the Royal Navy and destroy them if possible, but other reasons contributed to the sortie. At that time Britain feared a small scale invasion of the North East coast which, to Germany’s advantage, would have kept some troops at home instead of in France. So Germany played up to this anxiety and perhaps even explored the possibility by testing defences, because elements of its fleet slipped towards the North East coast.
British Naval Intelligence possessed German signal code books and knew the High Seas Fleet was crossing the North Sea, but not detailed reasons why. So, it was decided to let the action develop and intercept afterwards rather than compromise intelligence advantage.
At 8 a.m. on 16 December 1914 the battlecruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger shelled Scarborough while a similar force targeted Hartlepool, the only town with any defences, albeit inadequate ones. With Scarborough damage done Von der Tann and Derfflinger steamed north to join the other raiders. Shortly before 9 a.m. they emerged from mist at Whitby. The following account in Whitby Library is full of contemporary flavour. From damage mentioned in this and other sources it seems the targets were the signal station on East Cliff and railway sidings beside the upper harbour. But without observed fall of shot and relayed corrections, only East Cliff hits could be seen from the warships, so other damage appeared indiscriminate.
Whitby people, on the morning of the bombardment, were commencing the day’s routine. And the children who had but a few minutes before been thronging the streets, had assembled in the schools. A few who had leisure were taking their customary walk along West Pier and the Extension, when from out of the haze which overspread the sea there emerged the towering grey forms of two battle cruisers. The love of the sea, which is inherent in Whitby folk, found natural expression in a word of admiration for the vessels, in the belief that they were part of the British North Sea Fleet, when bang! – shriek! – bang! – and in an instant it was realised that they were enemy ships bent upon the work of destruction and death.
German reports of the bombardment give Whitby as a “fortified town,” but the best answer to such a preposterous statement is to be found in the fact that, as at Scarborough, not a single weapon was available to turn upon the Kaiser’s warships.
For one moment, and one moment only, the townspeople were aghast at the wanton and cowardly attack, but these feelings quickly gave way to fierce indignation at the unwarrantable outrage. Wonderful calmness, considering the circumstances prevailed, though on the east side of town poorer folk were naturally very apprehensive of the dangers which threatened their homes.
The Coastguard Station on the East Cliff was soon wrecked, and the telegraph operator there had a narrow escape. Less fortunate was Coastguard Randall, a typical young product of the British Navy, who was decapitated whilst standing outside his house, one of the coastguard cottages close to the Signal Station; whilst Roy Miller, one of the Whitby troop of Boy Scouts, was struck on the leg by a piece of shell, and so injured that on the following day the limb had to be amputated, the unfortunate sufferer having the honour of being the first Boy Scout to be wounded in his country’s cause.
Directly in line of fire behind the Coastguard Station stood Whitby’s venerable ruin, the beautiful Abbey of St. Hilda, the pride of the north east Yorkshire, and a joy to the lover of the beautiful architecture of which it remains such a magnificent example. The German ships could not have left a more lasting reminder of their visit than that caused by the shell which struck the ruined pile, and destroyed the arch of the beautiful west doorway and the masonry above it, leaving a gap in the west wall.
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