IT was one hundred years ago next Tuesday that the Imperial Germany Navy's High Sea Fleet launched a devastating bombardment of three English seaside towns: Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

AT just after 8am on December 16, 1914, a Mr Crossland, who lived in Scarborough's Queen's Parade, saw three warships out at sea, apparently steaming towards the seaside town. At first, he assumed they were British ships - and that the spits of fire he could see were signals. But then, to his complete astonishment, a shell came hurtling through the roof of his house.

"The room was left in intolerable confusion, and holes were torn in walls," he was to tell the Scarborough Mercury later.

He wasn't the only one to be shocked to his core. For 45 minutes by some accounts - an hour and a half by others - six inch shells rained down on Scarborough, pounding the Grand Hotel, slamming into Scarborough Castle, damaging three churches, and hitting hotels, guesthouses shops and family homes in the Esplanade area. Terrified locals crowded to the railway station and poured onto the roads leading out of town, desperate to escape.

In his book Remember Scarborough, published by Amberley in 2010, historian Bob Clarke described how the roof and north-facing wall of Scarborough Castle were blown out by the shells. The Grand Hotel, meanwhile - probably the seaside town's most prominent and visible building from the sea - was hit no less than 30 times.

Worst of all, however, was the shell that hit No 2 Wykeham Street - home to the Bennett family and several paying guests.

Annie Agar saw what happened at Wykeham Street - and her eyewitness account was reproduced in Mr Clarke's book.

"The shell came flying straight over the railway bridge," she said. "It smashed a lot of windows in Gladstone Road School and went clean through Mrs Bennett's house. The place was blown up and things went flying in all directions."

Four people died that morning in that one house alone: 58-year-old Johanna Bennett; Albert Bennett, aged 22; John Ward, aged ten; and five-year-old George James Barnes.

Eighteen people were killed in Scarborough that morning, according to local author Malcolm Bruce, whose first novel Thunder From The Sea was set during the bombardment. Many more were injured. "It was only because it was early in the morning, before large numbers of people were about on the streets, that more deaths were not caused," he says.

"Huge damage was done to property, particularly in the Victoria Road area where hardly a property was untouched, the shrapnel type shells shattering just about every window in the road."

The bombardment last until about 9.30am by some accounts, when two German battlecruisers - the Von der Tann and Derfflinger - sailed on to Whitby, where they shelled the coastguard station and Whitby Abbey for good measure.

Another flotilla of German warships, meanwhile, had simultaneously opened fire on Hartlepool, further up the North Sea Coast.

In all, the death toll following the bombardment of the three seaside towns reached 135, with hundreds more injured.

Whatever the German motivation for the attacks, they proved a catastrophic miscalculation, howeer, fuelling a huge British recruitment drive.

The heaviest casualties that morning had been in Hartlepool - but if anything it was the attack on Scarborough that most incensed the British people.

"Men of Britain! Will you stand this? Enlist Now!" screamed one government recruitment poster, above a photograph of the Bennetts' shattered house.

A hundred years on from that dreadful day, Scarborough is preparing to commemorate those who died.

Next Tuesday - the actual anniversary of the bombardment - Scarborough Castle will be illuminated from 3.30pm onwards, and carol singers will gather for a short performance.

At 5pm, Scarborough Mayor Cllr Pat Marsburg will say a few words, before a beacon will be lit at the castle. It will burn for the rest of the night, a single flickering flame which will act as a poignant tribute to those who died so long ago.