Bombardment: How Hartlepool’s darkest day unfolded

DARK DAYS ... Heugh gun battery volunteer Wally Stewart.
DARK DAYS ... Heugh gun battery volunteer Wally Stewart.

THOUSANDS of miles away - off the coast of Chile - Britain’s naval might took a battering on November 1, 1914.

A British cruiser squadron based in the South Atlantic was wiped out. The British swore revenge and the war of the seas was under way.

Back home, Fleet Admiral Jellicoe was under pressure from the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to disperse his ships amid fears that an invasion of Britain was coming.

It led to a battle squadron, cruiser squadron and half a flotilla of destroyers leaving English waters for Rossyth in mid November.

The British grand fleet was now in position way to the north of the English east coast and this was abruptly pointed out to Jellicoe.

His reply was infamous. He retorted: “The Germans would not waste their battle cruisers over a bombardment. I should be pretty surprised.”

The surprise was on its way and Hartlepool was in the firing line.

Heugh Gun Battery volunteer Wally Stewart is well-versed on all aspects of the Bombardment and gives talks on it.

He explains what happened next: “Although the German High Seas Fleet was inferior to the British in numbers, it was equal to, if not better than the British, technologically.

“The Kaiser had given orders that the fleet was not to be risked in a clash with the British, but he did not object to the fleet provoking the British in order to catch a small portion of the Grand Fleet and obtain a decisive victory.

“The Germans considered that the best way to do this, was to bombard Scarborough and Hartlepool, to goad the British into action.”

To prepare for the attack, Kapitan Leutnant Wegener, of the Uboat U27, was sent on a reconnaissance mission on November 24, 1914. He studied the east coast of England for mines, buoys, and lighthouses.

He was home within four days and reporting that, even though the English had laid minefields, all sorts of shipping was moving through them unhindered and a German fleet could easily get in under cover of darkness.

Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough were all to be attacked on November 29.

But then came a hiccup. The British were still after revenge for their South Atlantic humiliation.

Cruisers, dreadnoughts and the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron headed for foreign shores.

Wally said: “This was the perfect opportunity to strike when the British Fleet was weakest. U27 was sent out on a second recce and if Leutnant Wegener reported back favourably before December 12, then the attack would take place, even in poor 
weather conditions.

“The signal was sent on December 13 and the date was set for a German attack on December 14.”

Ironically, the British fleet achieved its mission in the South Atlantic, where a German squadron was destroyed. It was a major victory.

But the British were sure the Germans would be out to give their own people something to divert them from the news of the south Atlantic defeat.

They were braced for an attack on British soil.

Before dawn on December 15, the German battle cruisers Derfflinger, Von der Tann, Moltke, Seydlitz and Blucher left the Jade river under command of Admiral Von Hipper in the Seydlitz.

They met the rest of the German High Seas Fleet off Heligoland and proceeded on their mission.

But Britain was ready. Russian intelligence had intercepted the German codes and passed them on to Churchill.

He ordered three battle squadrons and a light cruiser squadron to steam at top speed to a point 110 miles due east of Bridlington.

But they weren’t there to stop the attack – they were setting a trap to catch the Germans as they fled for home after the bombardment.

l Tomorrow – the day 
Hartlepool wept.