WW1 100 YEARS ON - A COASTGUARD REMEMBERED

Coastguards from Whitby are attending a service to commemorate those who died in the German Bombardment of Whitby 100 years ago today.  For HM Coastguard, this is an especially sad day as Coastguard Frederick Randall was killed in the attack. 

During World War One nearly two thousand Coastguards died at sea with 1,459 lost in one battle alone.  Frederick Randall is the only Coastguard who died during the war who is buried on land and the Whitby team will paying their own personal respects to their predecessor who gave his life. 

This is an account of the attack that has been provided to us.

GERMAN BOMBARDMENT OF WHITBY 16 DECEMBER 1914

THE STORY OF A COASTGUARD FATALITY

The funeral of Coastguard Randall
During the opening months of the First World War the Imperial German Navy was seeking opportunities to draw out sections of the British Fleet which it could trap and destroy.  Rear Admiral Franz Hipper, the commander of the German Battlecruiser Squadron, proposed a series of raids on English east coast towns might produce the required effect.  The first targets identified were Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool and the submarine U-17 was sent to investigate the areas and to reconnoitre the existing coastal defences.

Hipper's force included the battlecruisers SMS’ Seydlitz, Von der Tann, Moltke and Derfflinger; the slightly smaller armoured cruiser SMS Blücher, four light cruisers SMS’ Strassburg, Graudenz, Kolberg and Stralsund and 18 destroyers.  Ingenohl took the 85 ships of the German High Seas Fleet to a position just east of the Dogger Bank, where they could assist if Hipper's ships came under attack from larger forces, but were still safely close to Germany as standing orders from the Kaiser instructed.  At 0300 hours on the 15th of December, the ships left the Jade River and headed out across the North Sea. 

Approaching the English coast in the early hours of the 16th of December, the force split up – the Sydlitz the Moltke and the Blücher proceeded to Hartlepool, whilst the Von der Tann and the Derfflinger, accompanied by the Kolberg approached Scarborough, (the destroyers and the other three light cruisers had been ordered back to port as a precaution).  At 0800, whilst the Kolberg laid mines off Flamborough Head, the two battlecruisers opened fire on the town.  Extensive damage was done to prominent buildings including:  Scarborough Castle, the Grand Hotel, several churches and the Railway Station; as well as numerous private dwellings and shops.  Over 500 shells were fired causing 42 deaths, with 153 injured.  At 0830 the bombardment stopped and the battlecruisers moved northwards towards Whitby.  The following extract from the Whitby Times best describes the subsequent chain of events:

“Whitby is still throbbing with excitement over the bombardment of the town in the morning hours of Wednesday, and a considerable number of householders sent their wives and children out of the place by the afternoon trains, to remain out of the way until safety seems assured. in view of the fact that at least a hundred shells were fired into the town, it is remarkable that only two persons were killed, and only one seriously injured.  Many people had extraordinary escapes, for about thirty houses were wrecked or seriously damaged, but most of the inmates were only hit by flying splinters.  The cannonade lasted about seven minutes, and during that time the shells came hurtling over the town with a noise like that of claps of thunder, and with scarcely recognisable intervals between the shots.


POWERFUL BATTLE CRUISERS

It was five minutes past nine o'clock when two enemy ships opened fire.  Just before that time they were seen approaching the coast from the south-east at a tremendous speed by the coastguards at the signalling station, which is prominently situated on the edge of the East Cliff, near the famous Abbey ruins.  One of the men on duty was at the moment hoisting the white ensign, and almost immediately afterwards the warships, now within a mile and a half of Whitby, stopped and started to fire at the signalling station.  The coastguards say that they were powerful battle cruisers of 25,000 tons each, and capable of firing a tremendous weight of metal.



A COASTGUARD SHOT DEAD

The Coastguard lookout at after the attack
The first shot fell short, but the third killed one of the coastguards, Fredrick Randall, a married man who lives in one of the Admiralty cottages.  He had just stepped outside his house when a shell burst close to one of the outbuildings and blew his head clean off.  His wife was in the house at the time.

The firing was continued at a very rapid rate and in the same direction, and the Abbey itself had a fortunate escape from the complete destruction.  Numerous pieces of shell were afterwards found in the vicinity of the building, and there were large gaps in the stone walls of the ancient ruins.  It is not yet clear, however, whether this damage was caused by vibration or direct contact.  The adjacent church of St. Mary was not touched by shellfire, but the windows were broken by the confusion.

The cottage where Coastguard Randall died
When the warships had delivered their devastating message they suddenly turned to the east and disappeared in the mist, as silently as they had come.  The great majority of the shots had passed over the East Cliff, and fell half a mile further on in the region of the railway station, where nearly all of the material damage was done.  Here, in the Fishburn Park district, houses were wrecked right and left, and here it was that the second fatality occurred.  Wiliam H. Tunmore, a railwayman employed on the North-eastern Railway, was the victim.  He was driving a horse and cart at the Bagdale crossing near the railway station when a small shell struck him and killed him on the spot, though the horse was absolutely uninjured.  He was sixty-one years of age, and a married man, his home being in Grey Street.  The only other case was that of an invalid lady, Mrs Miller, of Springhill-terrace, who was hit in the side by a piece of shell while she was lying in bed.

ELEVEN INCH SHELLS

Other persons came off comparatively lightly with cuts and bruises. In some cases nearly the whole front of the house was torn away, and in others the shell fell on the roof and bored a gaping passage down to the kitchen floor.  Furniture of all kinds was smashed, and crockery became none existent.  In one case a projectile fell upon a bed which a young woman had occupied only a short time before.

The coastguards declare that the projectiles were 11 in. shells, and the huge, jagged splinters that have been picked up by the score in various parts of the town indicate that they must have been of very large dimensions.  A good many fell in the fields at Springhill, close to the police station, and here they made holes in the ground large enough to have buried a horse in.

P.C. Bainbridge had a lucky escape.  He was walking to the police station when a shell burst within a few yards of him.  He was splashed with mud and earth, but was otherwise untouched.  If the cannonade had come a few moments earlier, many children's lives would have been endangered.  There are two large fields in the midst of that part of the town which bore the brunt of the firing, and the way to these schools lay right in the path of the bursting shells.”



Whitby Sector Coastguards with the
wreath they are laying later today.
The Hartlepool attack killed 86 civilians and injured 424.  Seven soldiers were killed and 14 injured.  1,150 shells were fired at the town, striking targets including the steelworks, gasworks, railways, seven churches and 300 houses.  Once again people fled the town by road and attempted to do so by train.  Eight German sailors were killed and 12 wounded.  At 08:50, the German ships departed.  All Hipper’s ships returned safely to port.

The sad loss of Coastguardsman Randall was even more tragic given the fact that he had just returned to his post, having been released from naval service as a consequence of the huge loss of coastguards in the North Sea two months earlier in September with the sinking of the three elderly cruisers Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy.

The following extract taken from the obituary column of the Times of the 18th of December 1914, provides us with a little more poignant detail about William Randall:

German Bombardment of Whitby:

The inquest was opened at Whitby today on the bodies of Frederick Randall, Coastguard Boatman, aged 30, and William Edward Tunmore, North-Eastern Railway employee, aged 61, who were killed by shells during the bombardment of the Coastguard Signal Station on the East Cliff by warships of the Imperial German Navy on the 16th December.

C.S.Davey, Chief Officer of Coastguard, in his evidence described the bombardment, stating that the whole fire was directed at the signal station, and common shells, not shrapnel, were fired.  The first shot hit the cliff face, and this gave the Coastguards time to clear out of the signal station, which was demolished by the next shot.  About 100 to 150 shells were fired. Randall emerged from the Coastguard quarters and a shell blew his head off.  He left a wife and four children, the youngest being about six months old.




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