(Anzac Day has passed but in what seems like a season of remembrance, John Anderson recalls this little known attack – for Kiwis at least – on the seaport town of Hartlepool and the Royal Navy).
December dawns differ from June dawns on the North Sea. In the depths of the dark, dreary December days, the same North Sea grey is flecked with wind whipped white waves. Moreover there is a mucky mist to the day’s dawn. On land the dawns are dull and dank, unbearable perhaps if not for the Christmas illuminations near the end of the month.
Official history and local folk lore, tell of the December dawn when three smoke stacked ships of the Imperial German Navy arrived just off the coast, on those white wind-whipped waves. They had headed east from Wilhelmshaven overnight, to arrive off Hartlepool, undetected in the pre-dawn darkness. They were there to shell this industrial seaport, in a dangerous game to upset the Royal Navy’s strategy.
Behind the mist masked ships, the slow sleepy sun had not yet slid from its bed behind the German battle cruisers. The ships, shrouded in sulphurous smoke and mist opened fire on Hartlepool at ten past eight.
At eight twenty-three up came the sun to witness the deadly destruction. The same sun which at that moment would have just completed casting its warm summery glow on New Zealand. Now, it shone a cold watery, weak glow on helpless Hartlepool.
The unsympathetic sun illuminated the town and identified targets aided by the ribbon of red running steel in the steelworks. Lacking sympathy, the sun dazzled the defending gunners on the shore after sighting the ships. After Hartlepool’s hardest hour, the Hun turned and headed home with the Royal Navy at their heels.
No-one now remembers that dreadful dawn, which once marked so many many memories. Wikipedia says that in all, the German attack on Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby on 16 December 1914, resulted in 592 casualties, many of them civilians, of whom 137 died.
At sea, there were casualties on all three ships. A month later, one of them, the Blucher, reaped the whirlwind. She was caught on Dogger Bank by the Royal Navy and sunk with the loss of 792 men.
The other two ships were scuttled by their crews at Scapa Flow after being mauled by the Royal Navy at both Dogger Bank and later at Jutland, with many killed. Perhaps as revenge for the deeds they did that December dawn.