A Brief History of Modern Yorkshire – World Wars I & II

So, esteemed readers, we have nearly reached the end of our gloriously uncomprehensive history of Yorkshire series. From the first human habitation of the area in 10,000 BC to the bloody battles of the Civil War that occurred on Yorkshire soil and all the way up to the county’s ascension to a dominant power in the Industrial Revolution – it’s been a long and hopefully interesting journey. We last left off this epic story in the 1870s, as the workers of Sheffield and Rotherham continued their struggle for better rights. The county continued to modernise and industrialise over the next 30 years, until the next historically significant events just after the outbreak of World War I.

1914: Although it was a global war, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the horrors of World War I never reached the lands of Yorkshire. However, you would be wrong. In December 1914, the Yorkshire coastal towns of Scarborough and Whitby were given a true introduction to the war. Unwilling to engage the larger fleets of the British navy in open combat, German U-Boats and destroyers had prowled the North Sea coast for months looking for soft target undefended ports to attack. On the morning of December 14th, the cruisers Derfflinger and the Von der Tann opened fire on the town of Scarborough. Lacking any kind of military garrison, local residents fled or hid and were unable to retaliate. The Grand Hotel and three churches were hit with direct fire – although luckily, as it was out of season, no-one was killed in either incident.

In total, the two ships fired over 800 rounds in half an hour before moving up the coast to Whitby. Here, four people were killed as the German boats shelled the Coast Guard base and – inadvertently – destroyed several arches at the famous and ancient Whitby Abbey. Fortunately, this would be Yorkshire’s last direct involvement in a war until the outbreak of World War II 26 years later.

1940: From 1940 to 1942, the cities of Sheffield and Hull were extensively targeted by Axis forces as part of the Blitz bombing campaign. Sheffield’s heavy industry and Hull’s significant port city status made them both obvious choices for bombers outside of London. Over 80,000 buildings were damaged and 1,200 killed during the Hull raids – making it the location of the second deadliest Nazi bombing campaign in England during the war. Notable buildings that were destroyed or damaged by the Germans included the 12th century St Margaret’s Church in Hilton and the National Picture Theatre. The latter was bombed during a night-time showing of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, with a quick evacuation saving the lives of all 150 members of the audience.

A Brief History of Modern Yorkshire – World Wars I & II

1942: After the destruction of Lubeck in Northern Germany, the Nazi powers decided to retaliatory strike centres of cultural and historical importance in Britain. Selected merely on these parameters, and not by military value, this put the ancient city of York firmly in the firing line. Colloquially they were known as the Baedeker Raids, due to the popular Baedeker’s Guide to Great Britain that the targets were rumoured to have been picked from. Overall, over 1600 civilians were killed in a year of bombing raids. Although, we would say that York came off somewhat lightly when compared to the German city of Dresden who saw 25,000 residents killed in an Allied bombing campaign just three years later.