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Scarborough Bombardment 1914

Beginning at 8am on Wednesday 16 December 1914 two German battleships, Derfflinger and Von der Tann, bombarded the undefended Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough for about half an hour. During that short period over 500 shells rained down on the castle and town, killing 17 inhabitants and injuring many more. Houses right across the town had walls blown out, roofs ripped off and windows smashed by shellfire and there was widespread panic as people quite understandably thought the bombardment was the precursor to a German invasion.

The castle was one of the first targets of the battleships. They began by directing their fire at the coastguard station on the cliff edge which was totally destroyed though the small company of men manning the look-out were safe in the shelter of a nearby underground cistern. Elsewhere in the castle grounds, the medieval curtain wall overlooking the town was hit by several shells making several breaches in the ancient defensive wall.

A reconstruction of the bombardment created for a postcard showing shells hitting the castle curtain wall and the old barrack block.
A reconstruction of the bombardment created for a postcard showing shells hitting the castle curtain wall and the old barrack block. No photographs are known to survive of the bombardment as it took place but reconstructions like this designed for a postcard convey the drama of the event.

Further along the castle curtain wall the eighteenth-century barracks was shelled repeatedly. The building had not housed troops for many years and was being used as a store at the time of the bombardment. The structure was damaged beyond repair and it was never replaced.

The old barrack block on the castle curtain wall
The old barrack block on the castle curtain wall was so badly damaged by the bombardment that it had to be demolished and was never rebuilt. The building was unoccupied at the time of the bombardment and was being used as a store.

The battleships also sent shells towards the medieval keep at the heart of the castle. Constructed during the reign of King Henry II in the 1160s and with walls around 30 feet thick, the old building was hit twice but was able to withstand the damage. One shell pierced the wall and the other hit the corner of the building leaving scars that are still visible today.

Shell damage to Scarborough Castle
This photograph taken soon after the bombardment shows the side of the castle keep where two shells hit. One pierced the wall creating a small gap that at first glance looks like a window, while the second area of damage was on the corner of the building. Both these scars are still visible today.

Around 8.30am the two battleships sailed off to the north and then shelled Whitby before heading east back out into the North Sea. Around the same time, a second German naval force attacked the port of Hartlepool causing far more death and destruction than at Scarborough. While the feared invasion never materialised, the motive behind the German navy's attack on the east coast ports is still debated. At Scarborough, the Germans may have thought that castle was still garrisoned when they directed their fire at the old barracks and they might also have known about a secret government wireless station on the edge of the town since some of their shells were aimed towards it, though the building survived unscathed. More likely though, is that they wanted to spread fear and panic and to test the strength of the Royal Navy. On the British side though, the attack on defenceless civilians handed the war effort a major propaganda tool and the cry 'Remember Scarborough' helped boost the recruitment drive.

English Heritage are keenly aware of the significance of the centenary of the bombardment and have created a film and a graphics story both entitled An Episode of War.  The film focuses on the events at the castle and uses a mixture of photographs from the time alongside new artistic illustrations created by John Vallender.

Download from below the graphic story which has been illustrated by Judith Dobie and is based upon the experience of Mrs George Rowntree who lived on Scarborough's South Cliff and who recorded the events of that day in her diary.

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