Edwardian Britain was deeply neurotic about invasion. From as early as the 1870s, books about hypothetical invasions by foreign forces, particularly the Germans, proliferated, and by the turn of the century, books on this theme such as HG Wells The War In The Air (1907) and Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903) were popular bestsellers. One author, William Le Queux, made an entire career out of ‘invasion fiction’, his most popular being the Invasion of 1910, published in 1906. PG Wodehouse’s The Swoop! (1909) parodies the genre, with England being invaded by nine countries at once.
At the height of this anxiety however, the 1905 Owen Committee report on Britain’s coastal defences stated that several key coastal areas were not significantly at risk, including Tyne and Wear, and recommended that the majority of funding to coastal defence here could be cut. This was despite the fact that Teesside, Wearside and Tyneside were all manufacturing armaments. Fortunately, the Admiralty went back on this decision in 1913, restoring the guns just in time for the outbreak of war.
It’s just as well, because it was only a few months into the war that the fight came to the North East coast – the target, however, was Hartlepool. In mid-December 1914, German battleships set out across the North Sea to test Britain’s naval defences and get a few early blows in for the war effort. Hartlepool was the focus for its coal and steel industries, but the unassuming Yorkshire seaside resorts of Scarborough and Whitby were also targeted, mainly to undermine morale.
Two groups of German battleships set out that night, but one group turned back after spotting a fleet of British warships. The second, a smaller group of six, continued its journey, unaware that it was now alone. This group of six split in half, with one half heading for Hartlepool and the other to the Yorkshire coast. The ships then proceeded to fire shells, some weighing up to a ton, at the coastal towns. A total of 152 people were either killed instantly or fatally injured. Thankfully, unlike the Yorkshire resorts, Hartlepool was ready for such an attack. As a result, the Heugh Battery is the only battery in mainland Britain to exchange fire with Germany during WW1.
This appalling incident would have been fresh in the minds of those who had lost family when in 1915 the Admiralty decided it no longer had enough ships to keep a sustained patrol of the North East coast. In place of a naval presence, the North East was instead offered two gun turrets from a decommissioned warship, HMS Illustrious. One was mounted at Marsden (known as Kitchener’s Battery) and one at Hartley. Beneath them were huge underground networks of barracks, control rooms and magazines. A fantastic resource – except they weren’t finished in time. In fact, they weren’t finished by the time Armistice was declared in 1918. Kitchener’s Battery was still being built until 1921.
However, the Admiralty had at least been right to identify the bigger threat to Britain, which was zeppelins. From 1915, zeppelins had been targeting bases, barracks and other important military sites throughout the country, with regular raids on the London Docklands and the industrial powerhouse of the Midlands. In April 1915, war came to Northumberland when a zeppelin mistook the Wansbeck for the Tyne and bombed Blyth. A follow-up attack on the North East in August 1916 saw bombs dropped on Whitley Bay, Jarrow, Wallsend and South Shields.
Hartlepool was the target of three zeppelin raids. The first was on the night of the 8th August 1916, when bombs were dropped in fields at Longhill by a zeppelin cruising under cover of dark clouds. Some houses were damaged before it made its retreat. Later that year, a second and more sustained raid took place on 27th November. A zeppelin slipped past the coastal defences and glided over Church Square, dropping bombs in the lake and on the terraced walkway at Ward Jackson Park, followed by several streets in West Hartlepool.
The zeppelin was heroically brought down by a brave fighter pilot, Lieutenant Ian Pyott, a South African and son of a Scottish biscuit manufacturer who was based at the Seaton Carew aerodrome. The airship was seen coming down behind St Hilda’s church, engulfed in flames, before eventually crashing into the sea. The bodies of the crew washed ashore in January 1917 and were buried in Hartlepool. Pyott was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. A letter he wrote just 10 days later can be found online. It begins, ‘we have had a very quiet week here. ‘Full of historical colour, Pyott remarks on flying over ‘the famous Middlesbrough suspended moving bridge… which is quite a new sensation.’
Today the Heugh Battery is home to a volunteer-led museum, commemorating the area’s unique status as a World War I battlefield. A remembrance service is held on 16th December every year, with locals giving their time to remember the community who experienced the horrors of war at home, as well as the brave men who fought abroad. With any luck, in the centenary year we will also remember the bravery of Ian Pyott too.