German Navy Bombards British Towns

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 158th installment in the series. Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.

December 16, 1914: German Ships Shell Scarborough, Hartlepool, Whitby 

Protected by the English Channel and the North Sea, the British Isles had passed through almost a thousand years of European strife largely untouched. The First World War changed all that, as the British experienced hostile fire on their own soil for the first time in living memory thanks to high-powered modern weaponry, including long-range naval guns, zeppelins, and heavy bombers.

After a mostly symbolic (meaning ineffective) raid on Yarmouth on November 3, the real wakeup call came on December 16, 1914, when German cruisers shelled the northeast seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby, killing 137 people and injuring another 592. Many of the victims were civilians, including a number of children, sparking outrage across Britain. The shelling of Scarborough and Whitby, both widely known as pleasant resort towns, struck many observers as especially perverse (below, a prewar postcard showing the Scarborough waterfront).

The raid was carried out by four German battle cruisers and an armored cruiser, apparently as part of a broader plan to lure British ships into a trap; any British ships pursuing the raiders would run into the main dreadnought force of the High Seas Fleet lying in wait east of Dogger Bank, a collection of shoals and sandbanks in the North Sea. Meanwhile, the British Admiralty, which had access to captured German codebooks, knew the Germans were planning something and put a smaller force of dreadnoughts and cruisers on alert south of the Dogger Bank, hoping to catch the German raiders coming or going.


However, it was the British who were caught unprepared. In the early morning hours of December 16, the cruisers approached the North Yorkshire coast, emerging out of the fog to take the inhabitants completely by surprise. At 8 a.m., two cruisers began shelling Scarborough, hitting landmarks including the Scarborough Castle and Grand Hotel, killing 18 people and triggering panic in the defenseless town (below, damage at the Scarborough Castle Barracks).

Reginald Kaufmann, an American living in Britain who happened to be visiting Scarborough, recalled the sudden rain of high explosives on the seaside resort:

From one end of it to the other, the shells were falling. Westborough, as the central portion of the chief business street is called, was full of darting bits of iron; men and women had dropped by the curb; to north and south, the entire city was being lashed with a whip of iron thongs… Portions of roofing danced through the air; chimney-pots flew around like so many kites…

According to Kaufmann, residents fled the town by any means they could. “There were children astride of donkeys once rented to excursionists for five minutes’ ride on the South Sands; wives still in the aprons they had been wearing in the kitchen when the first shell exploded; collarless husbands in smoking-jackets and carpet-slippers; even a few late-rising children, barefooted and wrapped in blankets.”

A few minutes later at 8:10 a.m., the other cruisers began shelling Hartlepool, firing a total of 1,150 shells over 40 minutes and killing 86 people in a rain of steel that hit hundreds of houses and seven churches in addition to factories, utilities, and railroads (top, damage at Hartelpool). Several naval artillery guns guarding the Hartlepool harbor on land scored a few hits against the German ships, but inflicted minimal damage. By the same token, because the German ships were firing at relatively close range, the fuses on a number of shells failed, leaving the inhabitants of Hartlepool with some chilling souvenirs (below).

Around 9:30 a.m., the first cruisers moved on from Scarborough to Whitby, shelling a coastguard station and damaging Whitby Abbey, a Benedictine monastery famous, among other things, for helping inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, Stoker’s Victorian Gothic tale paled in comparison to the horror of modern warfare. One grade school student in Whitby was playing outside when the shelling began:

“First we heard a sound like thunder echoing across the playground. I looked up to see a shell hit a building across on the Westside, sending slates and masonry flying. Our teacher, clearly petrified, ushered us back to the classroom. That was the first we knew that the Germans were attacking Whitby!”

After two hours of terror, the bombardment ended and recovery efforts began, led by dazed civilian officials and volunteers. Kaufmann observed the aftermath in Scarborough:

Towards the hospitals, through many a street, were moving little processions of Boy Scouts bearing stretchers on which lay figures swathed in bloody bandages, the faces ashen, the eyes glazed… I walked for some hours through the town [seeing]…[t]ottering chimneys, tiles trembling on roof-edges, rows upon rows of splintered windows, roofs open to the sky, brick walls crushed to powder, house-fronts stripped away, and the interiors of bedrooms bare to the sight as if they were stage scenes…

The raid fueled public outrage at Germany for targeting civilians and immediately became a favorite theme of recruitment efforts in Britain, where the government still relied entirely on voluntary enlistment and soon realized the value of combining emotional and patriotic appeals (below).

The shelling of Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby also spurred fresh criticism of the Royal Navy, which had failed in what many viewed as its main mission—defending British soil. Even worse, the returning German flotilla managed to elude the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, which belatedly sailed from its base in Scapa Flow off the coast of Scotland in pursuit. The British ultimately missed several chances to engage the outnumbered enemy due to excessive caution combined with muddled communications between ships at sea.

In truth, the Royal Navy was tasked with duties much larger and more complex than simple coastal defense, chief of which was securing Britain’s connections to the Empire and protecting international maritime trade routes. But for ordinary Britons, the hit-and-run attack on British home territory was a visceral humiliation and affront nonetheless.

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Orson Welles's Former Hollywood Hills Estate Is Taking Vacation Reservations

Fred Mott, Getty Images
Fred Mott, Getty Images

Orson Welles's former Hollywood Hills estate is a perfect place to get away from society, grow a bushy beard, and brood over a bottle of whiskey.

Interested? The late Hollywood icon's 3000-square-foot home is available to rent for about $755 a night through HomeAway. The house, which sits on its own private 15,000-square-foot knoll, was home to Welles at the very beginning of his career and is where he wrote the screenplay for 1941's Citizen Kane. Bring along your typewriter and try to channel some of his greatness.

Quite a few other celebrities have inhabited the house as well, including Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and David Bowie. Features of the grand four-bedroom mansion—built in 1928—include a lagoon pool, Jacuzzi, deck, and both canyon and city views.

There's never been a better time to rent Welles's abode: his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, is set to premiere at this month's Venice Film Festival before arriving on Netflix. The unfinished flick, which was shot intermittently between 1970 and 1976, has been completed and restored for its much-anticipated release. (Of course the mansion has plenty of TVs for your viewing pleasure.)

The property has a three- to five-night stay minimum, depending on the season. For more pictures, see below or head to HomeAway. And since you're already in vacation-planning mode, another creative celebrity abode to consider is F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's Montgomery, Alabama home, which is available to rent via Airbnb.

Orson Welles' house
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles mansion
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

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