Some of Hipper's ships, including the battle cruisers Derfflinger and Von Der Tann and the armoured cruiser Blucher, on their way home
Some of Hipper's ships, including the battle cruisers Derfflinger and Von Der Tann and the armoured cruiser Blucher, on their way home

HARTLEPOOL’S location on the North Sea coast made it a fall guy target for the German Navy in the First World War, a new book by a renowned naval and military author reveals.

Bryan Perrett’s ‘North Sea Battleground: The War at Sea 1914-18’ investigates how the North Sea became “the principal battleground between the navies of Britain and Germany” during the conflict and details a raid on Hartlepool that was not as straightforward as it may have seemed.

Germany’s military leader Kaiser Wilhelm II and his senior commanders were convinced that attacking North Sea coastal towns would cause panic among their inhabitants.

They thought people in Hartlepool and the rest of the North-East’s seaside towns would realise their coast could be reached and breached, leaving them in danger from marauding soldiers coming ashore to murder them in their beds.

This fear, the Kaiser’s chiefs believed, would cause the British to lose their stomach for the fight and revolt, leading to an early end to the war in Germany’s favour.

Employing their new strategy, the German Navy launched an attack on Hartlepool on the morning of December 16, 1914, while at the same time sending ships to attack Scarborough and Whitby to the south.

It was the first time that Britain had been subjected to a serious attack from the sea for centuries and made Hartlepool the first place on mainland Britain to be shelled by the Germans in the First World War.

In total, 118 people died, with 32 of them being women and 37 children.

Buildings crumbled as more than 1,000 shells rained down on the town during the surprise 40-minute attack by three heavy German cruisers.

Targeting Hartlepool would have seemed logical to the townsfolk, who may have assumed the two gun batteries at Heugh and Lighthouse on the Headland, along with a third at South Gare, were an obvious target for an invading enemy looking to disarm the town’s defences protecting extensive industrial and dockland areas.

But the lack of military installations in either Scarborough or Whitby made their attacks somewhat baffling to a population unaware that the Kaiser was simply trying to put the wind up them.

The German plan was a no holds barred attack on the three seaside towns with no regard for civilians, who were considered fair game along with property.

The only thing out of bounds to the German troops was property belonging to the Royal Family, with the Kaiser being grandson of Queen Victoria.

Standing between the attacking Germans and the people of Hartlepool that morning was Lieutenant Colonel Lancelot Robson, a Hartlepudlian who had served the town both as Mayor and soldier, having been commissioned as a gunner 40 years before and recalled into service at the start of the war.

Alongside Robson stood his elite band of troops, who were highly regarded in the British military for their ability to hit moving targets – ships – at long distances in all weathers.

Both Robson and his men were to benefit from the interception of German signal code books by British Intelligence and were at their posts before dawn on that filthy winter morning as sea swells rose and the German commander, Admiral Franz Hipper was warned that his lighter ships would not cope with the rough conditions.

But Hipper refused to back down and three ships headed for Hartlepool.

Thanks to the German signal code books they were to be intercepted by four British Navy ships before a shoot-out at sea as Hartlepudlians hurried to work and school.

Perrett’s book, which is published by Pen & Sword, has a hardback cover price of £19.99. ISBN 184884450-6. For more information logo on to www.pen-and-sword.co.uk