Infamous raid on coast that should never have happened

Sir Edward Grey with Winston Churchill
Sir Edward Grey with Winston Churchill
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The German Navy’s bombardment of the East Coast in December 1914 could and should have been prevented. 
Andrew Robinson reports.

EIGHTEEN died in Scarborough, two in Whitby and a further 102 were killed in Hartlepool in a notorious raid on the morning of December 16 1914.

As the dust settled, the coroner of Scarborough wanted to know where the Royal Navy had been and newspapers questioned why the Germans had been able to reach the coastline and escape.

According to author and historian Taylor Downing, whose recent book Secret Warriors deals with Admiralty code-breaking in the First World War, the raids could have been prevented had the Admiralty acted quicker on the German signals it had intercepted.

Mr Downing says the Admiralty was aware that a German raiding party was on its way and had a “rough idea” where an attack might come.

He is critical of Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, for allegedly failing to ensure critical information was acted on. “There were a whole series of delays in interpreting pieces of information. The Admiralty knew the German fleet, or a raiding party, were coming out.

“They knew roughly where they are going, although they didn’t know they are heading for Scarborough or Hartlepool – but they don’t alert the British Fleet.”

Churchill, says Downing, was in the bath when he was told shells were raining down on Scarborough. “It dawns on him that he has been too slow in alerting the fleet. I am quite critical of Churchill, particularly in the delays in the process of reacting and keeping all the information to himself.”

He adds: “The Admiralty had enough information to be able to intercept the Germans. They had 24 hours which would have been perfectly adequate to get the fleet down from Scapa Flow. They could have prevented what happened at Scarborough had they acted quicker.”

Further blunders were to come when the British failed to block the Germans as they escaped.

One theory is that the Admiralty had gambled on allowing the raid to take place in the hope of sinking the German ships on their return.

Intelligence experts have defended their 1914 counterparts.

A spokesman for British security agency GCHQ said signals intelligence was in its infancy in 1914. “Despite the Admiralty knowing that some ships of the Imperial German Navy were putting to sea, their cryptanalysts had only been able to decrypt encoded German messages for five or six weeks and, even when they were decoded, were having to learn how to interpret the German texts, which took time.

“So when the movement of vessels was noted, they at first speculated that the Germans were on a training exercise and they had no clarity about where they were going or what their intentions were, nor the size of the deploying force: the signals intelligence just wasn’t yet sophisticated enough to guide the Royal Navy during an action.

“However, the perceived need to protect the source of the information at all costs meant that even if the true significance of the German messages had been fully understood, there were no procedures in place to allow timely warnings to be given to civil authorities on the East Coast without compromising the source.

“On December 14, the Grand Fleet were ordered to deploy ships but not enough were in the area of Scarborough to engage them properly and no instruction could be given to the town of Scarborough, partly because the threat to it was not perceived and partly because there were no cleared people to act on any information.”

• Taylor Downing is giving a talk at Scarborough Art Gallery on October 10 entitled, Winston Churchill, code breaking and the blunder that led to the shelling of Scarborough. The talk starts at 7.30pm and entry is £6. Booking details on 01723 374 753.