At 8am on the morning of Wednesday, December 16th, the people of Hartlepool were startled by the sound of heavy distant firing. At first nothing was visible but flashes of flame far out at sea, but after a time the coastguards could faintly make out through the morning mist the dim outlines of three ships. The watches on shore believed at first that the ships were part of a British fleet, firing on some approaching Germans, and they tried to exchange signals with them, but could obtain no reply. A number of men and women flocked down to the edge of the Town Moor to witness the spectacle. Word was passed to two patrol boats in the harbour and they made ready. A small force of garrison artillery – Territorial, with a few old regulars among them stood by their guns at the fort. The local force of Durham Light Infantry took up positions at various points ready to resist any attempts at landing.
The ships gradually drew nearer, until they were little over two miles from the shore. It has since been said that they approached flying the White Ensign and that they were firing out to sea to deceive the local garrison. Neither of those charges can be sustained. The morning was too misty to distinguish their flag, but responsible observers declare there was no reason to believe it was the White Ensign.
The German ships came suddenly out of the fog on the British flotilla and immediately started firing. They concentrated their fire on H.M.S. Doon, a destroyer of the ‘E’ class, and H.M.S. Hardy, a destroyer of the Acasta Class. Two men were killed, seven wounded, and three slightly wounded on the Doon, and two were killed, one died of wounds, fourteen wounded and one slightly injured on the Hardy. It was impossible for the destroyers to stay and fight the great German cruisers. They were, as one explained, like little rowing boats alongside of men of war, and all they could do was attempt to escape, which they did. There is little credit to the German crews that they did not sink them. Evidently they believed that had done so, for in their official report they stated that one destroyer was sunk and the other disappeared in a badly damaged condition.
Suddenly the foremost German ship swung around and fired three shots right at the Royal Garrison Artillery battery, they were well aimed. One fell to the right of the battery and killed several men, and a second, aimed a little high, struck the upper floors of a house nearby. Two maiden ladies lived there, one of them was in the passage making for her sister’s bedroom, possibly disturbed by the noise outside. The shot struck one sister, inflicting terrible wounds in the chest and killing her instantly. After the bombardment when neighbours went to search for the second sister, they could not at first find her. Careful exploration of the wrecked house showed later that she had been literally blown to bits.
Even as the first shell came tearing through the air the Territorial gunners in the battery opened fire in return, and it was the first time a British battery on British soil had fired upon an enemy fleet at sea. However, the British soldiers were hopelessly handicapped by inadequate guns.
The infantrymen occupying positions around never wavered, the 18th Service Battery of the Durham Light Infantry, a “Pals” Company of lads with three months training, stood their ground under heavy fire at every point. A shell burst at the lighthouse battery, killing two gunners and two infantrymen and wounding seven others. Two infantry sergeants went out of cover, exposed to the full German fire, and rescued a fisherman who had his leg broken in getting out of his boat. When the bombardment ceased the troops led in the highly dangerous work of picking through the wrecked and falling house and rescuing the wounded.
The three German ships, skilfully handled, moved rapidly to avoid submarine attack, and kept up an unceasing bombardment on the port with 12 inch, 11 inch, 8 inch, and 6 inch guns. Competent military observers estimate that within fifty minutes about 1,500 shells were fired. A large number of these were directed into the waters of the bay, probably to cripple any approaching submarines. Most of the remainder were fired over the fort into the docks, the gas and water works. The two leading ships, after bombarding the batteries, passed north, and from a new position fired indiscriminately over West Hartlepool, some shots fell far out into the country, others buried themselves in the sand. The third ship remained off the battery and the gunners stationed here remained in action until the close of action and fired a parting salvo at the departing German ships. Many of the German shells fell in the quiet business and residential streets of West Hartlepool on one side and in the crowded streets of old Hartlepool on the other. These shots covered so wide an area that they cannot be explained by bad marksmanship. The German ships undoubtedly deliberately bombarded the residential part of the two towns, the fort, the docks and the public works.
The attack came unexpectedly, there were no public instructions about what an individual should do in case of a raid. The first indication most people had that anything was wrong was the tremendous noise of the firing of the heavy guns, the tearing approach of the shells and the crash and the roar as they burst and scattered. Fragments of shell came hurtling in all directions, varying from monster noses and thick steal bases, weighing from twenty to forty pounds, to jagged, terrible particles weighing only a fraction of an ounce. Windows broke with the concussion. Houses shook until it seemed as though they would fall.
The streets of Old Hartlepool suffered most of all, with one wrecked and others being badly damaged. The people did not know what to do, whether to remain indoors or to rush out, many ran to the railway station, and here a dense crowd assembled. Women in all stages of undress, some barefooted, some in their night clothes, some with shawl or waterproof hastily thrown over them. The people were rushing into a danger in coming to this spot, and the few policemen and officials present who knew it, quietly tried to move them out to the country. A shell caught the top of the Carnegie Library nearby, and sent great stone corner pieces and ornaments down among the crowd. Some of those who started out were caught by the shell fire as they stepped on the pavements. Others were struck down as they ran along the street. One sad case was that of the wife of a solider, who sought to make her escape with her six children. A shell burst nearby, three of the children were killed, a boy of seven, a girl of eight, and a boy of fourteen, two of the other children were injured, and the mother was maimed. She was carried to hospital, where she lay for weeks before she was told of her children’s death. A girl, nineteen years old, rushed into the streets when the bombardment commenced. She was missed, and her body was found later in the mortuary by her step father. One arm and part of her head had been blown off. A poor woman had her body riddled while she was gathering sea coal. A lad of sixteen was killed while he was setting out to bring his mother, sister and brother to safety. A young woman, twenty five years old, was blown up by a shell just as the family were sitting down to breakfast. Adjutant William Avery, of the Salvation Army brought his family downstairs and was coming down himself when a shell caught him and killed him instantly. A mission woman living in a house two of three doors off was killed by the same shell.
Perhaps the most tragic part was the deaths of the young children. Two brothers, six and eight years old, were going to school when two fragments of shell struck them, one was killed outright, and the other died later. A little girl of three was killed. The wife of a gunner in the Royal Artillery was taking her children to a place of safety when there came a tremendous explosion and she was plunged into darkness and almost suffocated. When she got free she found that her boy, was badly injured in the leg and he later died in hospital. Two little girls, four and six years old, the daughters of a Navy Stoker, were killed by a shell which struck the house where they stayed with their grandfather. There were some curious escapes however, one mother was killed while carrying her child and the young child escaped unhurt. In another case a young woman was hurrying along with her little brother, her brother was killed while she was uninjured.
Churches seemed to suffer especially. The old church of St. Hilda was struck by a shell which fell on the roof, broke it without exploding, and then burst close to the rectory doing a great deal of damage. A shell passed right through the Baptist Church, smashing it front and rear and it then penetrated into the bedroom of a young lady in the house behind, but did not injure her. The Scandinavian Church was badly splintered, broken and damaged.
The shipyards, the gasworks and the dock were subjected to special fire. At Messrs Irvine’s Middleton shipyard two men were killed, and the electrical and riggers’ shops were set alight. A steamer in course of construction was hit by a shell, which pierced her hold, killing a man working there. The well –known work of Messrs Richardson, Westgarth & Co suffered severely, and it was reported that seven men were killed there. Shells struck three great gasometers, the officials in charge had let the gas out of two at the first intimation of danger, the third burst into flames injuring several men. The office of the ‘Northern Daily Mail’ was also hit.
Some people were so filled with adrenaline that in several cases did not realise that they were shot until sometime after the event. One man whose left hand was struck off declared that he never knew his hand had gone until he chanced to look down at the stump. Many were struck by splinters and knew nothing of their wounds until the bombardment was over.
The barrage from the German ships lasted for about fifty minutes, and then they retired in a northerly direction. The firing had barley stopped before men were at work everywhere repairing the damage, calming panic-stricken people, and attending to the wounded. It is said that within 30 minutes of the battle glaziers were at work in business houses in West Hartlepool mending the broken panes. A number of buildings were turned into temporary hospitals and over forty of the wounded were conveyed to the workhouse. The Masonic Hall was used as a refuge. Forty odd cases were taken into Hartlepool Police Station and laid around the men’s billiard room there and all the Hospitals were taxed to their utmost capacity.
The first estimates of the injured were 22 killed and 50 wounded. It soon became apparent that these figures were wholly inadequate. Within a few days it was known that the deaths were closer to 100, as one after another of the badly wounded died, the death toll rose until early in January it had reached 113 with nearly three times as many wounded.
The raid had an enormous effect upon British public opinion, both as a rallying cry against Germany for an attack upon civilians, and in generating criticism of the Royal Navy for being unable to prevent it. The attack became part of a British propaganda campaign, 'Remember Scarborough', used on army recruitment posters, as shown below.