Skinningrove works under air attack
Then in 1916 - The weather was fine and warm on that autumn evening in 1916. Children played happily in the sunshine, and outside the rows of terraced dwellings, women gathered in small groups. There was only one topic of conversation and one question “would they come again tonight?”
As they talked earnestly, their eyes would search the blue heavens, and when the shift changed at the nearby Skinningrove Steel Works and they greeted home their men folk, all sweaty and blackened, the subject of their safety was re-addressed.
Their concern was understandable. A few months earlier, Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool had been bombarded by units of the German High Sea Fleet. This had caused so much panic in those who had seen the damage for themselves, that Skinningrove witnessed a mass exodus of its population as hundreds of residents fled up Liverton Lane leading in land to the safety of the open moors.
As the panic subsided it was generally agreed that safety could be found nearer to home and the search began for air raid shelter. Some chose the doubtful security of the hedgerows, whilst others preferred to seek shelter in the culverts beneath the railway tracks which were planked out to make them safer under foot. Others sought refuge in the stone buildings of the nearby pit. More enterprising, were the miners who tunneled into the clay slopes opposite the East Cemetery, to create a horse-shoe shaped shelter. This was shored up in normal pit mining fashion and even had some chambers running off it for a number of families. Tickets were issued to prove a family’s right to take shelter in these “rooms” and these allotted spaces were carpeted out and pictures were hung on the clay walls.
Local volunteers acted as “Patrols” warning residents of impending attacks helping women and children into the shelters. These precautions were just in time.
As the sun set that September evening and the eastern sky turned dark and cloudless, the drone of engines in the night sky heralded the approach of three German Zeppelins. These huge airships measuring 804 ft long and 135 ft at their largest diameter, carried a bomb load of 40 high explosives and the target - Skinningrove Steel Works.
These isolated works perched on the very edge of this stretch of east coastline were crucial to the war effort.
During the critical stages of the U Boat campaigns of 1914, not only did Skinningrove add two more steel furnaces and a mixer to the plant, but it doubled the size of it coke-oven installations to manufacture shell steel for the badly needed guns on the war fronts.
The by-products from these coke ovens were used to make high explosives and so helped to overcome the shortage of TNT.
In 1915 the Ministry of Munitions encouraged the dangerous attempt to produce TNT by the “one stage” method and two special buildings were erected on the western cliffs so any explosion during manufacture would be dissipated partly over the sea, with less damage to the the people of Carlin How. No doubt to the relief of of these residents, and although this research work was carried out without accident, it was decided in 1916 to revert to the much safer “two stage process” Two and a half million pounds of high explosive was manufactured at Skinningrove which was sent to the shell -filling factories throughout the country.
Additionally scientists at Skinningrove were researching the possibility of using the ethylene present in coke oven gas, to produce mustard gas, one of the principal weapons of the first world war.
Little wonder then that Skinningrove Steel Works was a number one target for the German Zeppelins. That night they dropped over a hundred bombs on the Works, including incendiaries on the naphthalene plant and the roof of the benzol house, yet incredibly only the steel plant offices were badly damaged and there were no reports of injuries.
To combat these raids a Royal Naval Air Service aerodrome had been set up at Redcar near the present race course, and at Seaton
Carew, to enable aircrews to hunt and attack the enemy before they could reach their targets. Anti-submarine airships were also moored in the woods around
At Seaton Carew 24 Float Seaplanes were moored off a 7 acre site in the vicinity of the present golf course. This airfield which housed 111 personnel, had a seaplane shed and two canvas hangers.
Redcar was an operational and training airfield with 41 aircraft flown by the 38 officers under instruction. The trainees were taught the theory of flying and navigation and one of the instructors was a Capt.
W.E. Johns, who later became the author of the “Biggles” stories.
It was an arduous course, with pilots, not only having to learn to fly their machines, but at the same time cope with aiming their guns, re-loading and un-jamming them. The nearby residents must have lived in a permanent state of fear as the Sopworth Camels flew over their houses at roof top level, often to crash before they made the airfield. The casualty rate was frightening. Of the 14,166 British pilots killed during the First World War, over half died during training.
About this time a School of Aerial Gunnery was formed at an airfield at
Marske-by-Sea. From here pilots would take off and practice machine gunning targets on the sand banks. A flag pole was erected opposite the site now occupied by Zetland Park and another in the vicinity of the paddling pool. The space between was used as a firing range. Red flags were hoisted and a sentry posted at each flag pole when firing was to take place.
Accidents were common place. One pilot had to make three forced landings in three days, one of which was 100 yards from the shore. Another flyer recorded in his diary how he crashed in a field in thick fog after his engine failed. To his amazement a mechanically minded policeman appeared through the hedge, and managed to get the engine started and despite the weather conditions, the pilot took off again without even getting the name of the helpful policeman. The church yard of St Germain’s at Marske bears testimony to the many flyers who lost their lives whilst training there. Major Leslie Peech Aizlewood’s headstone overlooks the sea where he met his end. He was demonstrating battle techniques for an instructional film., when his Camel spun into the sea. A court of enquiry found the elevator controls had become jammed because his flying clothes had become entangled with the control levers.
The Zeppelin attacks on Britain continued . On one occasion three airships left their bases to attack targets on the North East coast. Two turned back after being sighted by Royal Navy ships 110 miles off
Whitby. The third was more enterprising. The commander shut off his engines and glided silently over Hartlepool at 18,000ft from where 20 high explosives were dropped. The attack killed 8 residents and and seriously injured 39, and caused damage to 110 properties. The Seaton Carew airbase sent up three aircraft to intercept, but from the outset they were disadvantaged by the zeppelin’s significantly better cruising height and range and the intruder was soon lost to sight.
In November that year the Germans launched a massive attack on Britain when 10 zeppelins set out, half bound for the Midlands whilst the others flew North.
One of the raiders again dropped bombs on and around the Hartlepool area, and a Lt. Pyott of No.36 Squadron Seaton Carew was sent up in pursuit in a BE 26.
Pyott at 9800ft, saw the airship below him coming south in the beam of the Hutton Henry searchlight. With his machine guns blazing he attacked the intruder amidships. Suddenly an incandescent patch appeared on the body of the airship. Pyott watched fascinated as it gradually spread until the entire airship was engulfed in flames. He was so close at this point that his face was burned as he trailed the stricken airship until it crashed into the sea off Tees Bay. The blaze of the burning Zeppelin was seen as far south as Poppleton near York, and as far north as
This article originally appeared in the March 2000 issue of Now
& Then Magazine