Germany and Britain’s navies clashed off the Sunderland coast

A torpedo boat destroyer on the berths at Laings in Sunderland during the First World War.

A torpedo boat destroyer on the berths at Laings in Sunderland during the First World War.

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They were on their way with a deadly mission.

One hundred years ago today, the German Fleet was heading for Sunderland with a sinister aim of bombarding the city. They came perilously close.

A boy rivet heater at JL Thompsons.

A boy rivet heater at JL Thompsons.

If they had succeeded, the First World War could have taken a completely different course, said historian Alan Owen.

He explains more in the second part of this historic story.

From 5.30am on August 18, 1916, Britain and Germany were caught up in a string of manouevres on the high seas.

It shaped the future of Sunderland.

As it is possible that Germany would have turned on the Kaiser and forced him to abdicate, leaving Germany to become a republic, the war would have been over before the social structure of Germany completely collapsed, as it did after 1918

Alan Owen

Two squadrons of the German High Seas Fleet were heading our way, hell bent on destruction.

But at 5.30am, they ran into the path of the British submarine E23. And even though its torpedoes missed the first target, the submarine resurfaced in time to attack the last ship, the battleship Westfalen.

The German ship was so badly damaged, it was forced to return to base.

It was first blow to the Royal Navy and soon, events were unfolding fast.

Before long, Admiral Reinhard Scheer - commander in chief of the German Fleet - was getting reports of British surface ships being sighted.

His vast array of airships and submarines were feeding him the latest movements of the British.

8.30am - Airship L13 (positioned south of the fleet) sighted two flotillas of British destroyers with a squadron of cruisers behind them.

9am - More sightings ... this time from submarines U52 and U53 and the airship L21, including one that HMS Nottingham had been sunk off the Farne Islands.

10.40am -L13 sports cruisers. The alert was sent to Scheer that the whole British fleet was believed to be at sea.

This was all going on within miles of the Sunderland coast and Alan Owen told how vital the outcome of a sea battle was.

“The German army had suffered enormous losses during the battles at Verdun and the Somme in 1916 and the loss of their fleet who have brought her to her knees.”

But the Germans positioned off the North East coast were ready for the enemy.

Trouble was, so was the British Navy’s Admiral in Chief Admiral John Jellicoe.

And when he got a report of the German Fleet east of Clamborough Head, he ordered his fleet to about turn.

Scheer meanwhile was getting all sorts of conflicting reports on the British fleet and its size. At one point, he believed 16 destroyers - with accompanying small battleships, large battleships and cruisers - was moving south to north.

He estimated battle would begin in two hours if his fleet and the opposing British continued on the same course.

But then the British ships disappeared when they changed course once more to avoid a thunderstorm. Scheer had a decision to make.

Without knowing where the ships were, he decided the whole venture was too dangerous to risk and headed for home.

As it later turned out, he was 30 miles from Beatty’s cruisers and 60 miles from Jellicoe’s battleships.

But the toing and froing had left it too late for an attack. If Scheer had ploughed on for his target of Sunderland, he would have found a docks brimming with ships which would have stood no chance against his shells. In the end, Scheer returned to Germany with only HMS Falmouth damaged on the way home by a U-boat.

Alan added: “If Admiral Scheer’s High Seas Fleet had suffered a catastrophic defeat, what would have been the result.

“As it is possible that Germany would have turned on the Kaiser and forced him to abdicate, leaving Germany to become a republic, the war would have been over before the social structure of Germany completely collapsed, as it did after 1918.”

As a consequence, it could have given Germany a better chance to regain its position as a leader in the industrial world, said Alan.