The First World War had been ongoing for three months. In terms of warfare the two sides were at a stalemate, and Germany was looking to damage British morale and their munitions. In November the German Navy had managed to assess the defenses of the East Coast and had identified Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby as having little defenses and home to shipyards and engine works which supplied the war effort.
In the early hours of Wednesday 16th December five warships left Germany and proceeded towards the East Coast. They had been accompanied by about 18 destroyers and 4 light cruisers, but these ships had been forced to turn back due to poor weather conditions.
Although it was a site that supplied munitions for the war effort, the Hartlepools were not well equipped to defend themselves in the event of an attack from the sea. About seven British coastal defense ships were moored at Victoria Dock, but at the time of the attack four had gone on patrol down the coast and missed the attack, and the towns only had three 6-inch guns between the Heugh Battery and Lighthouse Battery.