WWI Submarine Attack

Probably the most significant event affecting Whitehaven in World War I was the bombardment of the West Cumbria Coast by a German submarine in August 1915. The German and Austrian newspapers made much of this affair, it being the first such assault upon the West Coast of Britain.

German Press reported that the attack took place because "Whitehaven is a fortified port and possesses a lighthouse".

It was on the 16th August 1915, that a German U-boat surfaced off the coast of Cumberland, near Harrington, and fired several shells towards the Lowca area between 4.30am and 5.20am.

None of these missiles caused any material damage as they hit the railway embankment although some inconvenience was caused through the delay of the train service North from Whitehaven. There was no naval vessel in the vicinity to challenge the U-boat which then submerged and left the area.

Local legend has it that a quick thinking local worker opened a relief valve which sent up an impressive plume of burning gas, so the submariners thought they had destroyed their target and left. Apparently the only fatality of the incident was one local dog.

The reason for the attack was, prior to the outbreak of the Great War, a German Company had installed a benzene-extracting plant at Lowca, utilising local coal production. One of the constituent products extracted was toluene which was used in the manufacture of the TNT explosive. Obviously, this work had been carefully noted by German Intelligence, thus the surprise attack, as the plant had been designated Top Secret – a rather superfluous gesture seeing that the Germans had installed the plant in the first place.

The real point of the attack though was to prove to the British, especially to the Royal Navy, that enemy vessels could penetrate into the Irish Sea intent on such attacks. Although the German Navy had been able to mount assaults on East Coast fortifications, it was the first occasion they had proved capable of penetrating into the Irish Sea.

An official report into the shelling declared:
A German submarine fired several shells at Parton, Harrington, and Whitehaven, between 4.30am and 5.20am today, but no material damage was caused. A few shells hit the railway embankment north of Parton, but the train service was only slightly delayed... No casualties have been reported.
German press reported the shelling of the Whitehaven coast as:
The German and Austrian newspapers are at pains to state that the bombardment of the coast old Cumberland took place because "Whitehaven is a fortified port and possesses a lighthouse." 
The Hamburgh, "Nachrichten special correspondent in Berlin states that "Parton and Harrington have signal stations and coastguards. The Harnburgh Journal declares that this is the first time that a submarine has attacked fortifications on land, and contends that the attack on the above-mentioned towns testifies to the extraordinary boldness of the commander and crew of the German submarine."
The semi-official "Neueste Nachrichten" says:-"Whereas the Eastern coasts of England and their fortifications have often been the aim of attacks by the German airships and cruisers, the Western coast has hitherto felt safe from German shells. Although the military effect or the bombardment of the Cumberland coast was not very considerable. its significance as a feature of the Anglo-German naval war is great. The extreme importance of this bombardment lies in the fact that it proves that the British Fleet is not able even to protect the coasts of the Irish Sea, which can almost be described as a 'mare clausum' from attack by German warships."
The best contemporary account of the Lowca part of the raid seems to be a poem by Joseph Holmes (1859-1930, then a stationmaster on the Lowca line) which was sold on handbills for 1 penny:

The Bombardment of the Cumberland Coast

On August Sixteenth, old Kaiser Bill
Said to his men, "Now prove your skill,
And try and reach the Cumberland coast,
The feat of which I'd like to boast."

The Kaiser's word they did obey,
And fired away in Parton Bay,
With shot and shell they did their best
To put the Lowca works to rest.

The damage done was not so much,
The Benzol plant they did not touch,
One shell fell here, another there
Which gave the workmen quite a scare.

The inhabitants too grew quite alarmed,
Because this port is still unarmed,
This opportunity the enemy seized,
And rained the shells just where he pleased.

Two shells went through a cottage home,
The father shouts "A German Bomb,"
The children then ran out like bees,
And joined the Lowca refugees.

The submarine then made its way
Across the dub from Parton Bay,
To find some other defenceless port
Where German fiends could have their sport. The commander of U-24 was Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider (1882-1917):
  • 44 ships sunk with a total of 125,802 GRT
  • 1 warship sunk with a total of 15,000 tons
  • 5 ships damaged with a total of 21,956 GRT
  • 1 ship taken as prize with a total of 1,925 GRT
Schneider entered the Kaiserliche Marine in 1901 as a Seekadett. In June 1914 he received the Rettungsmedaille as a Leutnant zur See and was promoted Kapitänleutnant. He became CO of U24 and was responsible for the sinking of the British battleship HMS Formidable during the very first underwater attack at night on the 1st January 1915 off Portland Bill.

On October 13 1917, during very stormy weather, he was lost overboard from the conning tower of U-87. One of his shipmates managed to bring him back on board but it was too late. He was subsequently buried at sea between the Shetland Isles and Norway.

U Boat Attack upon Whitehaven
U Boat Attack upon Whitehaven

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ABOUT WHITEHAVEN
Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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