Naval attack on Scarborough, 16th December 1914

Today, I visited the Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough.  An odd thing to do in the middle of December, I agree, but it gave me the opportunity to reflect on a significant and still-controversial event from 102 years ago this week.

Around the turn of the last century, Britain had the largest and most powerful naval force in the world; its “two power standard” ensured that it was at least the equal of the next two strongest navies in the world combined.  After the declaration of the Great War in August 1914, Germany was forced to accept that its Kaiserliche Marine – its Imperial Navy – was simply no match.  Consequently, as the war evolved, they were forced to take to less conventional means when it came to naval warfare – in general, ones which did not pit the two navies head-to-head.

One early tactic of the Germans was to send groups of their warships to less strategic harbours, where they could attack British vessels whilst outnumbered, they could “draw the fire” of the British forces allowing other ships to lay mines in waters further out, and ultimately compel the Royal Navy to alter the disposition of its vessels in order to better defend some of these more unlikely locations.

A raid on Great Yarmouth had occurred in November 1914, but did not cause much damage to the town itself.  An attack further up the east coast on the morning of Wednesday 16th December 1914 was to feature many of the same vessels but, from a German perspective, was to be more successful.

The battlecruisers SMS Derfflinger and SMS Von der Tann were tasked with attacking Scarborough followed by Whitby, whilst SMS Seydlitz, SMS Moltke and the armoured cruiser SMS Blücher headed for Hartlepool, and SMS Kolberg set to work laying a field of 100 mines in the North Sea waters off Flamborough Head.

Scarborough, along with Hartlepool, was attacked as dawn broke at approximately 08:00, with very little warning for the people that lived there. The defenceless town was just beginning its day when 29 minutes of solid bombardment began, seeing a whopping 776 shells launched at it (that’s nearly 26 per minute!).  Initially the people did not recognise the gravity of the situation; as the Scarborough Mercury reported at the time, “numbers of people, in order to obtain a good view of what they thought was a naval battle, took up positions which they afterwards recognised placed them in great peril”.

Ultimately, 18 people died – tragically, 4 of them from the same family – ranging from 65 years old to just 14 months.  Many buildings were damaged; among them, three churches, the castle and the Grand Hotel, as well as two schools – but, luckily, the children had not yet arrived.  Scarborough harbour did not even contain any warships – just four fishing vessels, the coastguard station and the lighthouse constituted the attack’s maritime casualties.

The terrified townspeople took to the roads leading away from the town, and also its railway station, boarding trains to escape to towns and cities further inland.  Remarkably, they were passed in the other direction by daytrippers who had heard news of the attack, and obviously saw the opportunity to see “the war” at first hand as one not to miss.

We might run the risk of judging these people too harshly with the benefit of a century of hindsight.  Even by this stage in the war, very little had been fed back to Britain regarding actual conditions in the trenches – the war was still commonly expected to be over imminently, and the papers were full of propagandistic depictions of naïve young men heading away with smiles on their faces, expecting simply a great adventure with their friends.  Most people had no idea of the horror unfolding on the continent, much less the horror that was to come on the “Home Front” at various times over the next 30 years.

The British propaganda machine reacted to the Scarborough raid immediately; focusing on it much more than the far more effective Hartlepool raid.  This shouldn’t really be surprising – Scarborough saw almost entirely civilian casualties, and numerous deaths of women and children, as well as being a holiday destination familiar to many.  It could be considered to have brought the war to familiar shores for the first time.  Posters implored young men to “Remember Scarborough” and enlist for the armed forces.  In this respect, it could be considered to have been a long-term failure for the Germans, as it was ultimately used to recruit even more people to fight against them, and gave them something tangible to avenge.

All but one of the German vessels involved in the operations of 16th December 1914 survived the war, mostly to be scuttled by their crews at Scapa Flow in 1919.  The exception was SMS Blücher, which was sunk during at Dogger Bank in early 1915.  There, its unfortunate crew were the victims of German ingenuity – the vessel itself was intended by the Germans effectively as a copy of the Invincible-class battlecruisers of the Royal Navy; but whilst Royal Navy ships and crews were engaged in rescuing its crew, a German Zeppelin actually mistook the stricken and doomed SMS Blücher for a British ship and commenced bombing, leading to the withdrawal of the British ships and the needless deaths of hundreds of their own men.  However, that is a story for another time.


Lt Cdr John “Jock” Moffat 1919-2016

Click here to read the article on the Royal Navy website

When the German battleship Bismarck sank the much-loved and vaunted Royal Navy flagship HMS Hood at 06:00 on 24 May 1941, with the heartbreaking loss of 1,415 of her 1,418 souls, it was a national tragedy.  Vengeance was sought against the vessel that had destroyed the ship that had taken on almost mythical connotations amongst the British people.

Just two days later, the Bismarck‘s fate was sealed by a torpedo dropped by a Fairey Swordfish from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.  The pilot of that Swordfish sadly passed away yesterday, 11 December 2016, at the age of 97.  That torpedo made the big German battleship unmaneuverable, and she limped around uncontrollably for over 12 hours before her crew scuttled her, by that time under intense fire from four Royal Navy warships which had caught up with the stricken vessel.  (There is, perhaps, a poetic irony to the one of the world’s most modern vessels being incapacitated by a rickety old biplane!).

As part of the story, however, it should also be remembered that over 2,000 of the 2,200 on board the Bismarck perished too; loss of life on both sides on a tragic scale.

Farewell to HMS Illustrious

Today, 7th December 2016 saw the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious towed away from Portsmouth for scrapping in Turkey.  Why should we care?

Launched nearly 38 years ago in mid-December 1978, and commissioned in June 1982, “Lusty” (as she was known) was the middle sister of the three Invincible-class aircraft carriers – HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal being the other two – all manufactured by the famous Tyneside shipbuilding firm of Swan Hunter.  She served in a time when ship-to-ship combat was largely a thing of the past, and indeed as an aircraft carrier, that would never have been her primary role anyway.   But the part that she played was no less important than that of her forebears, not just as a cog in the war machine, but for humanitarian purposes too – all over the world.

Although her construction was accelerated due to the onset of the Falklands War – she was actually commissioned on the North Sea en route to the South Atlantic! – she was still on her way when the war reached its conclusion six days later, and therefore didn’t see active service in that conflict.  Despite that, she played a key role in operations around the islands in the post-war period – relieving HMS Invincible in the August, she served as a floating airfield until the runway at the island’s RAF base – the one bombed by Vulcan XM607 in the Black Buck raids – was repaired.

She carried Harriers and Sea Harriers – their vertical take-off capability being particularly useful here! – very successful strike aircraft that were finally retired from RAF service at the end of 2010 – as well as helicopters.  She lost her aircraft in 2010 following the “Strategic Defence and Security Review”, but continued to carry the helicopters.  This is a role now carried out by the “Mighty O”, HMS Ocean.  An aircraft carrier, however, is something that the Royal Navy does not currently have – and will not have, until the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales and their F-35 Lightnings take to the seas in around 2020.

HMS Illustrious served in most major conflicts that occurred during her lifetime – including the Cold War – but missed both the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars as she was undergoing refit on both occasions.  All three Invincible-class aircraft carriers were to be found in the Adriatic Sea during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s.  A no-fly zone was established over Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1992 by the UN and “Operation Deny Flight” was a NATO operation intended to enforce it.  The aircraft flying from the carriers on the operation were able to continue their work even when poor weather prevented jets taking off from bases on dry land, e.g. in Italy.

In January 2000, HMS Illustrious sailed to the Middle East, whereupon her Sea Harriers engaged in “Operation Southern Watch”, part of the ongoing military operation to enforce a no-fly zone declared over Iraq in an attempt to protect Shi’ite Muslims from aerial attack by Saddam Hussein’s forces.  A notable humanitarian diversion for the vessel in the spring of the same year came when she and her helicopters assisted in providing relief to Mozambique after catastrophic floods which followed five weeks of constant rain.  Approximately 750 people died and 44,000 were rendered homeless, and the helicopters (from the UK as well as from Germany, South Africa and Malawi) performed a vital role by lifting people to safety from the disease-ridden waters.  Later in the year, she (and her Harriers) took part in “Operation Palliser”, the British military intervention in Sierra Leone.

HMS Illustrious was again in the headlines for benevolent purposes in July 2006, when she took part in “Operation Highbrow”; a mammoth lift of British citizens from war-torn Lebanon, by both sea and air, necessitated by the onset of what was to be a month-long war fought between Israel and Hezbollah.  The navy’s efforts were essential – Beirut’s airport could not be used as it had already been damaged in the fighting – but they were not without risk, as the harbours from which they sailed were under bombardment too.  In what has been widely described as the largest evacuation since Dunkerque, 4,400 Britons were evacuated, largely by HMS York and HMS Gloucester which performed a “shuttle” service from Lebanon to Cyprus, assisted by HMS Bulwark – but aside from serving as a command centre, “Lusty’s” role was in fact in the aerial lift.  The Chinooks belonging to HMS Illustrious played their part, in many cases taking people to the aircraft carrier herself, out in the Mediterranean.

In November 2013, HMS Illustrious was in the Gulf when she received orders to proceed immediately to Singapore, take on stores and then proceed to the Philippines in order to work on disaster relief operations following “Typhoon Haiyan”, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of more than 6,300 people and destroyed the homes of more than 2 million, and is commonly understood to be the most intense typhoon on reaching landfall on record.  This was just another in a long tradition of humanitarian missions on the part of our armed forces, and HMS Illustrious, along with HMS Daring and an RAF Globemaster, represented $131 million, a contribution of higher value than any other nation.  Following the successful completion of its role in the aftermath of the disaster, HMS Illustrious returned to the UK.

Decommissioned on 28th August 2014, there were a number of bids to purchase the ship for preservation – including from the City of Hull which wanted it as the kernel of a maritime museum – however these eventually came to nothing, despite an MoD spokesman telling The Telegraph in 2014 that “the MoD hopes to preserve the legacy of the Invincible-class aircraft carriers by installing HMS Illustrious as a lasting tribute to the personnel who served on all three of the carriers”.

Perhaps, however, some sort of tradition won over in the end.  In 1948 (despite only being the leader of the opposition at the time) Winston Churchill insisted that the Second World War cruiser HMS Ajax was scrapped, rather than sold or preserved, in order to retain its proud legacy and history which included successes at River Plate, in the Mediterranean and on D-Day.  The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious is destined to be yet another famous ship remembered to future generations only through history books, monuments, street names in seaside towns, and conversations in hushed tones in honour of a true giant of the seas.

HMS Onslaught, 1960-1991

D832 "Onslaught" nameplate

Isn’t it strange to know that something is historically significant, but that most of us may never find out exactly why?

Today I enjoyed a ride behind the only currently operational ex-British Railways “Warship” Class locomotive – no. D832 Onslaught – at the East Lancashire Railway, a heritage railway centred on the town of Bury, roughly 10 miles north of Manchester.

The “Warships” were born out of the British Railways Modernisation Plan of the mid-1950s – directly replacing steam traction on the routes of the former Great Western Railway – and were essentially a scaled down version of the highly successful West German V200 class.  In the best tradition of the GWR, they all carried names on a theme – in this case, Royal Navy vessels – the irony being that these locomotives of impeccable German pedigree were named after a number of particularly renowned ships that, just 15 years previously, had played key roles in the defeat of Germany in World War 2.  Indeed, the destroyer HMS Onslaught herself was a veteran of convoys both in the Atlantic and off Scandinavia (where she was credited with putting the finishing touches to the destruction of the U-boat U-472 which scuttled itself in March 1944) and also of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

Following the sale of the destroyer HMS Onslaught to the Pakistani Navy in 1951, the name has been re-used by the Royal Navy just once – for an Oberon class submarine, pennant number S14 – which was coincidentally launched from Chatham Dockyard exactly 56 years ago today: Saturday 24th September 1960 – is of the same vintage as the locomotive, and is the subject of these ramblings.


The Oberon class were conventionally (i.e. non-nuclear) powered patrol submarines and were designed as a key British weapon for the Cold War.  At 295ft in length – equivalent to the proverbial football pitch – and carrying a crew of 65, they were sizeable enough beasts, yet intended to be stealthy, hunting down their Russian peers preferably without being detected.  Being both smaller and quieter than their nuclear counterparts, these diesel-electric submarines were deemed more appropriate for this type of work.  A total of 27 were built – 13 for the Royal Navy, with others for Canada, Australia, Brazil and Chile.

Following commissioning in 1962, HMS Onslaught first saw active service from Singapore during the Borneo confrontation (when fighting broke out after the creation of Malaysia in 1963) then during the British withdrawal from Singapore later in the decade.

However, it is what happened later in her life which is open to conjecture – the details remain classified information.  What is commonly accepted is that HMS Onslaught and her sisters spent a considerable amount of time in the Baltic Sea in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, engaged in clandestine operations against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War.  Iain Ballantyne in his book “Hunter Killers” recounts how HMS Onslaught once spent seven weeks in the Baltic with 17 intelligence specialists crowded on board, alongside her usual crew.  It has even been reported fairly extensively that British submarines even sent commandos ashore in the Soviet Union.  That in itself would be interesting enough, but it has also been suggested that commandos were secretly sent ashore to neutral nations on the other side of the Baltic – Finland and, particularly, Sweden.  These two countries formed a buffer between NATO and the Soviet Union and therefore were, usually passively, politically volatile during the Cold War.  They would definitely have been a target for Soviet invasion if they decided to mount an offensive heading West.  Sweden was aware that there were submarine incursions into its territorial waters on an increasingly frequent basis as the 1980s progressed – these were generally accepted as being of Soviet origin – but could they in fact have been Royal Navy?  Perhaps they were testing Sweden’s responses and anti-submarine infrastructure, to investigate what may happen if the Soviets did actually attempt an invasion?  The entire Cold War was shrouded in mystery and (particularly) suspicion, even of one’s own “friends”.

Britain has apparently publicly maintained that its Oberons were never in the Baltic.  They certainly have not admitted to any such covert operations within Scandinavia.  But the very fact that any information on the broad subject remains top secret, might be taken by the cynics among us as a hint that there remains something worth hiding…

What might HMS Onslaught and her sister vessels have been looking for?  More importantly, what might they have found?  It is possible that we will never find out, but equally, it is possible that our entire understanding of the Cold War may shift if we do.

HMS Onslaught was decommissioned in 1990 and scrapped in Turkey in 1991.  However, eight Oberons have survived in various forms around the world, and a number can be visited – although just one of them is in the UK.  Whereas HMS Onslaught was the penultimate Navy warship manufactured in Chatham, and did not survive; the final one, HMS Ocelot (S17), has returned “home” to the Kentish town, to form an important part of the Historic Dockyard Chatham attraction.  HMS Ocelot, too, retains her Cold War secrets – one day, we may know more about the service life of these enigmatic vessels.