The day German warships headed for Sunderland

Doxfords outfitting quay. Photographs courtesy of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
Doxfords outfitting quay. Photographs courtesy of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
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One hundred years ago this week, Sunderland came within a whisker of a mighty naval attack off its coastline.

It would have seen shells rain down on the city, just as they had done on neighbouring Hartlepool.

Torpedo boat destroyers at Doxfords. Photographs courtesy of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

Torpedo boat destroyers at Doxfords. Photographs courtesy of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

If it had happened, it could have altered the course of history, said Alan Owen.

The Sunderland historian explains how the First World War could have been shortened.

They were the hazy days of summer and the war seemed a million miles away.

But unbeknown to the people of Sunderland, it was almost on their doorstep.

Little did the people of Sunderland know how near they were to experiencing what would have been the greatest naval bombardment of all time, with tremendous loss of life and almost total destruction of all the industry along both sides of the river

Alan Owen, Sunderland historian

In fact, it was just off the coast and heading our way.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer was the commander in chief of the German Fleet and he had formulated a plan to bombard the town of Sunderland at sunset.

This was no idle threat. The North East already knew of the potential devastation a German attack could have.

Just nine days before Christmas in 1914, three battle cruisers had shelled Hartlepool and left 130 people dead. It was the darkest day in Hartlepool’s history - and Sunderland was next.

The German fleet had hoped to lure the British into the trap of a bloody battle at sea against the whole of their might.

History was created when the Battle of Jutland broke out on May 31, 1916.

The battleships of the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet clashed head on. The death toll was huge with 6,000 British sailors and 2,500 Germans lost.

The common tale is that the German Fleet never left port again after Jutland.

It’s not true, said Alan. His painstaking research showed they were back at sea on August 18.

“Little did the people of Sunderland know how near they were to experiencing what would have been the greatest naval bombardment of all time,” said Alan.

It would have brought “tremendous loss of life and almost total destruction of all the industry along both sides of the river”.

“On the other hand,” he adds “the name Sunderland may have become like Trafalgar - a battle cry which would go down in history as one of our nation’s greatest victories.”

Two out of Germany’s three squadrons were headed for Wearside that day.

Each had nine battleships, plus battle cruisers, light cruisers, destroyers and U-boats. Eight airships flew above to watch out for any approaching British ships.

Back in Sunderland, the city was bustling. You only had to read the Sunderland Echo of August 18, 1916, to realise that.

Liverpool House was announcing that the last day of its sale would be the next day, which was a Saturday. Binns was selling smartly trimmed yellow finished hats at 8 shillings and 11 pence.

The shipyards were so busy they were launching new vessels directly into the sea, as well as the river.

And Sunderland Empire was showing a daily 2.30pm special. It was a kinematograph review called Britain Prepared, all about the activities of His Majesty’s Military and Naval Forces.

All the while, Scheer and his ships sailed towards Sunderland.

Their plan was simple. They would progress towards Wearside with a line of U-boats protecting them.

If they encountered no ships, and if the British showed no signs of cutting off their retreat, it was straight on to Sunderland.

But there was a hitch. A big hitch. And Scheer didn’t know about it. The British Admiralty had broken the German naval codes.

The British Navy’s Admiral in Chief Admiral John Jellicoe was given word when the German fleet left harbour.

By the time Scheer had reached the North Sea, two main sections of the British Grand Fleet had already got there.

And with them, in one section, was an enormous force of 29 dreadnoughts.

Add to that the British submarines which were ordered to assemble 50 miles east of Hartlepool. A mighty battle looked imminent.

* Watch out for more in tomorrow’s Wearside Echoes.