The Zeebrugge Raid

Posted on Tuesday 23rd April 2013


By Philip Warner, extracted from The Zeebrugge Raid and reproduced by permission of Pen and Sword Books Limited.
On 23 April 1918 a force drawn from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines launched one of the most daring raids in history. The aim was to block the Zeebrugge Canal, thereby denying U-boat access, although this meant assaulting a powerfully fortified German naval base. The raid has long been recognised for its audacity and ingenuity but, owing to the fact that the official history took overmuch notice of the German version of events, has long been considered only a partial success. The crews of the launches and coastal motor boats were frequently ‘amateur’ sailors but their courage and skill were second to none. Indeed no less than nine Victoria Crosses were awarded for the Zeebrugge Raid.
As early as the autumn of 1914 there had been a suggestion to block Zeebrugge and Ostend harbours. Nothing came of the first suggestion but the scheme was again raised in 1916 and considered in detail. Again it was rejected. In 1917 a more ambitious proposal was put forward; this involved the capture and occupation of Zeebrugge and its subsequent use for an expeditionary force to march to Antwerp and thus get in behind the German army.
This plan was abandoned not so much because it was hazardous as that it was thought to be unnecessary. Military optimism was considerable at this time and there were confident assumptions of over running Belgium and thus of our needing the Belgian ports in an undamaged state. These expectations were soon found to be unrealistic and once again the plan to block the ports came to the fore.

image

On 28th December 1917 Rear-Admiral Roger Keyes, aged 45, had been appointed to the Dover Command, with the rank of Vice-Admiral. Keyes was the sort of man who inspires others to give of their best under all conditions. Eleven days after a German destroyer penetrated the protected zone covering the Channel and sank shipping, on 24th February 1918, Keyes was proposing to the Admiralty a scheme for blocking Zeebrugge and Ostend; it was approved. The task which the Navy had set itself might well have thought to be verging on the impossible. It was envisaged that Zeebrugge could be blocked simultaneously with Ostend at a date early in April. In the event the first plan was postponed, happily perhaps, because eventually it took place on St George’s Day, 23rd April. It would be difficult enough to sail into an enemy-occupied and well fortified port but it was infinitely more so at Zeebrugge which had the advantage of being screened by a long mole.
That mole was, and is, the longest in the world. Its total length is just over 11/2 miles. It begins on the west of the canal entrance and curves north-east in an arc. The Mole itself was joined to the shore by a causeway three hundred yards long. The fact that this was a viaduct made a most important part of the operations feasible. The Mole itself has subsequently been widened and dockyard buildings occupy part of the extension today. However it is perfectly possible to see the original form of the Mole and, as there is a plaque in the wall at the point, to see where HMS Vindictive came alongside. The visitor will note the considerable drop from the parapet to the lower platform; this proved to be no slight problem on the night itself in spite of suitable preparations for it.
Although the Germans did not expect the Mole to be attacked they had taken every precaution to make such a procedure highly dangerous for anyone venturesome enough to attempt it. This fact was known to the British through previous aerial reconnaissance. Preparations had included the installation of a dozen heavy guns (some 5.9 inch), anti-aircraft guns, machine-guns, blockhouses, barbed wire, a seaplane base, four hangars, a submarine shelter and accommodation for the garrison of a thousand. The raiding party would therefore not only be outgunned but also outnumbered if successful in setting foot on the Mole. There were additional hazards such as the constantly changing sandbanks which lay off the Belgian coast. Pre-war the hazards had been marked by buoys but the Germans had thoughtfully removed these as being likely to be of more assistance to a potential enemy than to themselves. This was not quite all a raider would have to contend with for in order to block the Bruges canal, which lay some distance back from the harbour, quite large – and thus easily hittable – ships would have to cover half a mile under intensive fire. Looked at with the advantage of hindsight the Zeebrugge Raid was not merely suicidal; it was attempting the impossible. But perhaps the Royal Navy’s motto is: ‘The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes us just a little longer.’

image
An aerial photograph taken after the raid showing the size of the Mole and harbour.

The aim of the raid was first to block the Bruges Canal by sinking several blockships at the point where it entered the harbour and at the same time damage the port installations at Zeebrugge as much as possible.
Simultaneously the canal to Ostend was also to be blocked by sealing up the harbour. In the event the Ostend raid, both on 23rd April and when attempted later on 9th/10th May, failed through unpredictable hazards. Nevertheless it should not be overlooked that as much courage and ingenuity went into the Ostend raids as did into Zeebrugge. The core of the Zeebrugge problem was the Mole itself. Being of stone it could not be effectively damaged by bombardment, even from monitors. Monitors carried heavy guns on platforms which proceeded under escortto points at which they could bombard the enemy shore. These ungainly monsters were used both at Zeebrugge and Ostend to ‘soften up’ (in modern parlance) the enemy before the raid and again during the raids when they fired into the area from which German reinforcements would be forthcoming. So that the preliminary bombardment gave no hint of forthcoming events, it had been started some time before as a routine operation. As it was clearly impossible to neutralize the Mole itself by bombardment alone, its defences had to be tackled in some other way.
It would be impossible to sail blockships through Zeebrugge harbour and into the canal entrance unless the attention of those manning the guns on theMole was suitably occupied. Passing the end of the Mole the blockships would be engaged by five guns (4.1 and 3.5) and that would be only the beginning of their problems – if they survived the experience. There was therefore mounted a ‘diversion’ in the shapes of an old cruiser HMS Vindictive, and two ferry steamers, Iris and Daffodil specially brought from the Mersey. The ferry boats had the advantage of a very shallow draught, which would enable them to ride over and clear any mines (it was hoped). The inhabitants of Merseyside were not pleased when they saw their ferry-boats departing in early April but accepted their removal philosophically when told they were urgently needed to ferry more troops – mainly American – over to France.
When they saw them after the raid and learnt the truth, pride and astonishment knew no bounds. One of the tasks of the ferryboats at the Mole was to press alongside the Vindictive and keep her in position. HMS Vindictive was a curious looking ship even before she was converted for the raid. She had been commissioned in 1898 and at no time in her life had she looked an elegant craft. She had three large funnels, for she was a coal-burning ship. It was astonishing that after the battering she had received on the night of the raid she was still able to proceed back to Dover under her own power.
As soon as Vindictive was in position – and it was hoped that the smoke screen laid by the escorting craft would enable it to travel most of the way undetected (in the event this proved not to be) – an assault party would land on the Mole, deal with any opposition, and then destroy the German guns which would otherwise be preventing the three blockships Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia, from reaching the Bruges Canal where they planned to scuttle themselves. All three were obsolete cruisers, and for their task would be heavily loaded with cement, making them sink quickly; it would also make them very difficult to remove. Two other craft were to play an important part in the operation. They were two old C-class submarines and their assignment was to be loaded with explosives and proceed to the arches under the viaduct. There the explosives would be detonated taking a substantial portion of viaduct with them. Of this more later. In addition to the main elements – the assault craft for the Mole andthe blockships – there were a host of other craft involved. They included the two monitors, Erebus and Terror. There was a variety of destroyers: Termagant, Truculent, Manly, Scott, Ullswater, Teazer, Stork, Phoebe, North Star, Trident, Mansfield, Whirlwind, Myngs, Velox, Morris, Moorsom, Melpomene, and, of course, Admiral Keyes’ flagship, the destroyer Warwick.

image
HMS Vindictive before the raid.
There were thirty-three motor launches (MLs) which had a variety of tasks, but mostof them were required to lay a smoke-screen for the approach. There was a patrol boat and a picket boat (to evacuate the crews of the submarines), there was a paddle minesweeper, and there were sixteen Coastal Motor Boats. In view of the vagaries of the Channel weather, which can match the worst in the world, the voyages of some of the small craft were likely to be nothing if not adventurous. In all there were seventy-eight craft of varying sizes engaged at Zeebrugge.
For the Ostend raid which was planned for the same time, there were fifty-nine. Both raids were covered in case of interference by the enemy, going or coming, by a naval squadron from Harwich. For escort duties there was attached the 61st Wing of the Royal Air Force and for attacking duties there was 65th Wing. These were for the operation only, not for subsequent employment.
The old cruisers which were to be used as blockships and the aged C-class submarines were regarded as expendable, but it was hoped that the ferry boats and the Vindictive might return under their own power, which they did. In view of their experiences Iris, Daffodil and Vindictive might well have thought themselves lucky. The destroyers were, of course, well able to look after themselves as well as others. Casualties among the MLs, which took impossible risks, were surprisingly low. The MLs and CMBs require a little explanation. MLs were mainly required for smoke-laying duties but they cheerfully took on other duties too. CMBs were faster than MLs but only, it seemed, because they were lighter. Their extra speed gave them a chance, when not laying smoke, of nipping in under the guns of enemy craft and despatching torpedoes to suitable destinations. No form of existence could be more hazardous and less comfortable than on these small craft, whizzing back and forth in the Channel, but no posting was more eagerly sought after than to them. They made war a very personal and individual matter.

preparations
In view of the number of German spies who must have been keeping an eye on the Dover area it is astonishing that the secret of the raid was so well kept. For two months beforehand, some very peculiar activities were going on. We have already noted the arrival of the two Merseyside ferryboats, which were now fitted with armour-plated sides.
There was also extraordinary activity on the Vindictive, mainly designed to solve the problem that on arrival she would be considerably lower than the top of the 29ft. high Mole wall. For this the Vindictive needed to be fitted with steel gangways which would project at 45° from the side of the ship and rest on top of the wall. At the critical moment the assault parties would run up these gangways to the top of the wall, jump down four feet to the parapet path, and then descend a further sixteen feet to the floor level of the Mole where most of the German installations were. However, sixteen feet is a long way to jump, particularly if you are loaded down with weapons, grenades, flame-throwers and the like, so it would be necessary for the storming party to carry ladders as well for this part of their task.
All this required provision of the right equipment, and adequate training and rehearsal in its use. So too did the procedure of grappling the three ships, Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil to the wall of the Mole on which the Germans could scarcely be expected to have provided convenient bollards. This was not all. It was essential for the Vindictive to be able to fire down on the Mole and this necessitated the construction of a complicated superstructure on which heavy guns could be mounted. The crews of these exposed guns inevitably took a fearful pounding but as fast as one crew was killed another rushed to take its place.
Much of the special equipment, such as flame-throwers and flares, devices for creating smoke and artificial fog, among many other inventions and developments, stemmed from the brain of Wing-Commander F. A. Brock. Brock's family were the creators of the famous Brock’s Fireworks, but Brock’s knowledge extended well beyond pyrotechnics. Brock’s inventive capacity was matched only by his industry. Admiral Lord Fisher wrote several letters telling him to stop working so hard. Brock doubtless appreciated the thought but carried on as before. Among Brock’s numerous inventions were Very pistols, signal flares and distress flares of great power and, perhaps more important than anything, flameless smoke screens.
Prior to Brock the flames from smoke screen apparatus had made boats clearly conspicuous at night and thus an easy target. Many of these inventions were produced at the RN Experimental Station at Stratford which Brock had founded and commanded. Brock had attended a demonstration of Zeppelins in 1914 in Germany, dressed up to look like an American tourist (nobody at that stage thought America would ever enter a European war). On the strength of his view of the Zeppelin he invented a special bullet for bringing it down. He held the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Army, Wing-Commander in the Air Force and Lieutenant-Commander in the Navy, apparently concur- rently, which must be unique. Brock was far too valuable a man to risk in a hazardous venture such as Zeebrugge but he insisted that he must go partly to ensure that all his special apparatus worked, and partly so that he could have a close look at some new range-finding equipment which the Germans were suspected of using. It was when looking for that very equipment on the Mole that he was killed. His body was never found but there is a memorial plaque to him in the military cemetery at Zeebrugge.
image
A demonstration of Brocks' smoke and fog producing machine on board the Daffodil.

In addition to the fitting-out of the ships for the raid there was the even more important problem of selecting the participants. Initially it had been thought that Army units should be used in the assault, rather than Marines or sailors, as they would have had experience of such work in trench warfare. This was not acceptable to Keyes and in consequence a battalion of Marines, the 4th, was formed from three companies, and put under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel B. N. Elliot. The Marine battalion totalled 740 officers and men and to it was added two hundred blue-jackets.
A number of these had served in France in the trenches with the Naval Brigade and were no novices at closequarter fighting. Fifty volunteers were taken from the Grand Fleet. They did not know what they were volunteering for but were merely given the reassurance that it was highly dangerous and they were unlikely to return alive!
For the assault itself the attacking fleet needed to muster at sea where it was hoped its presence would not be observed and attract the attention and suspicion of any enemy reconnaissance aircraft. Before they set off orders had been given that the crews of the assault boats and the blockships should be reduced to the minimum. Once the ships were at sea, all surplus personnel were to be taken off and returned to Dover. But even without knowing what was ahead of them many men, including even some civilian workers, were determined to be in on it however hazardous. The result was that when the time came to disembark surplus personnel there were no surplus personnel to be found. Somewhere and somehow they had found out of the way corners in which to conceal themselves until it was too late for them to return. Then they boldly emerged and asked for rifles and ammunition. They received them. Many did excellent work in helping with the wounded.
At 5 p.m. on 22nd April Admiral Keyes sent out a battle-signal. It read simply ‘St George for England’. His wife had reminded him just before he embarked that day that the following day was ‘St George’s Day’. Keyes felt this was an appropriate omen and thus came the signal. Captain A. F. B. Carpenter, in command of Vindictive, promptly sent back a lively re-joinder, ‘May we give the dragon’s tail a damned good twist.’ Thus came the inspiration for the Zeebrugge Association banner.

the attack
By 11.30 p.m. the fleet was closing on Zeebrugge under the benefit of a smoke screen laid by the MLs. The presence of twenty-four MLs and eight CMBs running very close to the Mole at high speed and laying smoke floats could hardly fail to attract German attention. Constant and accurate fire was directed at both the busy little craft and the smoke floats they were laying on the water; many of the latter were sunk, but enough remained to produce an effective screen. Much more serious was the fact that at 11.56 p.m. the wind suddenly changed from the northeast, which was exactly what was required to keep the smoke drifting towards the Mole and, instead, came from the south and began to blow it away. As the Germans were firing star shells as fast as they could manage, as well as using searchlights, the Vindictive was now proceeding to its destination in conditions of excellent visibility - especially for enemy gunners. Two people were probably more on tenterhooks than any others at that point, one was Captain A. F. B. Carpenter who was quite determined that while a single piece of the Vindictive was still afloat it should get to the Mole, and the other was Lieutenant-Commander Rosoman, who had been responsible for all the extra fittings on the ship and was equally determined to get there and prove they worked.
As the smoke cleared and Vindictive became clearly visible, the expected happened. Every German gun which could be trained on Vindictive opened fire at that moment and continued firing. Almost every German shell was a direct hit but as the salvos crashed into Vindictive she returned shot for shot from her own guns. The noise was indescribable and it seemed that under no circumstances could Vindictive survive, let alone reach the Mole. But Carpenter altered course slightly, increased speed and came in across the tide at 45° to the Mole. This had the effect of making the ship an even broader target for the German gunnery but as German shells and bullets ripped into her or ricocheted off her, she gradually closed that last vital 300 yards. In the last part of it, rifle fire was also added to the general din but with pieces of her superstructure falling away, and with men dying every minute, Vindictive surged on; at 00.01 on St George’s Day, 23rd April, she came alongside the Mole.
But as one set of problems was solved another set appeared. Although neither steering nor engine room had been hit, many men and their guns had been reduced to twisted shambles. Among those killed were key figures such as Lieutenant-Colonel B. N. Elliot of the Royal Marines, and Captain Henry Halahan, leader of the Naval storming panics. Some of these casualties could have been avoided if senior officers had been ordered not to put themselves in exposed positions which, without orders to the contrary, they were certain to do.
Another unsuspected problem created by the five minute dash through the hail of German fire was that Vindictive’s speed and course had taken her 300 yards further along the Mole than originally intended. The consequence was that she was unable to use her larger guns to support her own assault parties. This fact reflects all the more credit on those parties for accomplishing so much without adequate covering fire.
As the Vindictive came alongside the Mole, the wash caused by her speedy arrival ground her against the wall damaging ramps not already ruined by enemy gunfire. Until Daffodil and Iris arrived to push Vindictive close to the Mole the special grappling anchors could not be used. The only benefit was that in that position the Germans could no longer bring their heavy guns to bear on her. Two ramps were usable and up these, thirty feet at forty-five degrees, went two parties, one Naval under Lieutenant-Commander Bryan Adams, the other of Marines under their Adjutant, the then Captain A. R. Chater, whose viewpoint of the raid appears later. Both came under short-range machine-gun fire.
Two more ramps were now worked into position and also a mole anchor fixed. The plan was for Daffodil to come alongside Vindictive and disembark its assault parties over the cruiser’s side. In the event this was impossible and Daffodil had to disembark her men over her bows – in those conditions. Iris had planned to land her assault crews on the Mole with scaling ladders but the swell made this impossible and eventually Iris also had to land from over Vindictive.

image
The vulnerable position of the fighting tower on Vindictive where Finch put down suppressing fire on the enemy.

Scenes of superhuman sacrifice and courage took place as the landing parties fought their way ashore. The top priority was not merely to land and kill enemy soldiers but to demolish the guns by which the blockships could be prevented from reaching their destinations. The assault parties therefore simply could not let themselves be pinned down. However their efforts to reach their objectives took an appalling toll.
Almost impossible risks were taken in securing the gangways to the Mole, for the rise and fall of the sea lifted them up and down a dozen feet. The same problem arose with the ferry boats. Daffodil was manoeuvred into position by Lieutenant H. G. Campbell who was already wounded in the head and unable to see out of one eye. Iris was in great trouble from the fact that the scaling ladders would not stay in position because of the heaving of the swell and several were broken. Fixing the Mole anchor cost several lives, including that of Lieutenant Commander G. Bradford who jumped on the Mole from a derrick carrying the anchor, which he secured. He was promptly shot and Petty Officer M. D. Hallihan, who attempted to recover his body, was also killed.
Other German guns had now ranged on the Vindictive and the whole of the ship’s foremost 7.5 Howitzer crew were wiped out. A Naval crew promptly took their places and were also killed. The foretop was hit but Sergeant N. A, Finch, although knocked over backwards and severely wounded, kept the Lewis gun going and eventually, when that too was wrecked, carried a badly wounded shipmate down to the sick bay. He lived to receive his VC.
Among the first to land was Wing-Commander Brock. He ran quickly along the parapet wall towards the lighthouse (i.e. away from the shore). Here was a look-out point with a range-finder above it. A bomb was put inside the look-out post to make sure there were no occupants and as it was clear Brock went to examine the range-finder above. That was the last that was ever seen of him.
This detachment was commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Adams who led it with great verve and courage. Unfortunately for them when they moved beyond the look-out station they found themselves under fire from German destroyers anchored on the inside of the Mole and also German machine gun fire from further along. At this point there arrived on the scene Lieutenant-Commander A. L. Harrison who had been wounded on the Vindictive and left there unconscious with a fractured jaw. On recovering consciousness, before having his wound dressed, Harrison had forced himself up the gangway on to the Mole. He promptly took control, sent Adams back for reinforcements, and then led a charge against the German machine gun post. Their objective was the German 4.1 but owing to the fact that the Vindictive had landed 300 yards further away than expected and the Mole was brilliantly lit they faced a near impossible task. Nevertheless, although they did not demolish this battery it never went into action against the blockships, so it seems that this storming party killed enough of the gun crews to neutralise the guns.
Inevitably the gallant Harrison was killed. He was an English Rugby football international and on many occasion had led English forwards with the same dash that he displayed on the Mole. He was a product of Dover College. How he managed to lead a charge with a head wound and a fractured jaw is a mystery. He was awarded a posthumous VC.
Meanwhile the Marine assault group had the double task of holding off reinforcements from the shore and also attacking the fortified zone 150 yards from the seaward end of the Mole. There was in fact insufficient time to do both before the blockships had passed the end of the Mole and the recall sounded. All this time, of course, while German attention on the Mole was being occupied, the blockships Intrepid, Iphigenia and Thetis, were creeping nearer to round the edge of the Mole, pass through the harbour and sink themselves in the Bruges canal. On the Mole No 5 Platoon, Royal Marines, under Lieutenant T. V. F. Cooke, led the attack, wiped out a sniper post, and covered the advance of the other Marine platoons. Cooke was twice wounded and was eventually carried back to Vindictive by Private J. D. L. Press, himself also wounded.

image
Artist impression of the close quarter fighting once they had disembarked onto the Mole.


Other platoons from the depleted A and B Companies were landed and took part in the battle here, but time ran out before they could complete their task. C Company had planned to demolish targets in this area but as it was crowded with our own men had to be content with hand-to-hand fighting and also throwing some bombs on to the decks of the German destroyers anchored alongside.
While all this was going on another surprise was being arranged for the Germans. The obsolete submarines C1 and C2 had been packed with explosive and towed towards the Mole by the destroyers Trident and Mansfield, after that they were to proceed under their own power. They were fitted with gyro-controls so that at the very end of their voyage the crews could be taken off and the submarines reach their suicidal destination empty of everything except high explosive.
By a strange mischance the tow rope of C1 broke when it was still in mid-channel and C3 arrived alone. That did not dismay her commander, Lieutenant R. D. Sandford, and disregarding the presence of the gyro equipment, which he did not feel could be entirely relied on, he steered C2 into a viaduct arch with sufficient force to jam her there. Then he ordered his small crew into the skiff and himself lit the vital fuses. Losing no time at all he joined his comrades in the skiff on which, although they did not know it, the propeller shaft had just broken.
The Germans on the viaduct above, who at first had been amused by the antics of this stupid submarine which had presumably tried to pass under the viaduct and had jammed itself, now determined the crew should not escape and opened up on them with rifles and machine-guns. The skiff made slow headway being pulled against the current by oars, and with several men wounded their plight seems to have amused the Germans.
A few seconds later there was a mammoth explosion and a great piece of viaduct went hurtling into the air. Unaware of what had happened, a company of German reinforcements, pedalling frantically towards the Mole, came to the point where the viaduct had just been blown and rode straight into the sea. All were drowned. The noise of the explosion was heard all over the Mole, but only just, as all on the Mole and the ships at the time are quite certain they had never before experience such a general noise in their lives. Sandford, alas, who commanded C3 so gallantly, died of typhoid six months later.
The blockships had been timed to pass the end of the Mole at twenty minutes past twelve. It was essential that the Germans should be kept occupied on the Mole while the blockships crossed the harbour, but once they were in then Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil must re-embark their storming parties and make their way back to Dover – if possible.
But retiring is not easy when you have roused a hornet’s nest, particularly if you are determined to leave neither your wounded nor your dead behind. It was an awkward time, for the ships were under constant fire from the shore batteries. Yet men went back and forth for their comrades. Casualties were still being sustained, Carpenter was hit but not seriously, and Rosoman, his first lieutenant, was wounded in both legs. Finally it was done and the ships pulled away.
As they left, the shore batteries redoubled their efforts. One caught Iris on the bridge killing both Commander Gibbs and Major Eagles of the Royal Marines among others. As Iris lurched on, other shots crashed down on her and only a timely smoke screen from an ML enabled her to limp into obscurity. Even then she was not safe for another salvo caught her, setting her alight. The last explosion scattered her own bombs over the decks and Able Seaman F. E. M. Lake calmly but hastily picked them out of the debris and hurled them overboard. His hands were badly burned in the process, but if he had not continued the consequences would have been unimaginable. He received a well-earned CGM.
So many were the casualties on all three ships that the sick bays were crammed and the surgeons overwhelmed. They worked swiftly and without pause, surrounded by wounded and dying. Here was perhaps the greatest test of all. It is one thing to be cool and brave in the impending excitement of battle when all your limbs are intact, but quite another when battered, lacerated and close to death you wait your turn with the surgeons. Some of the wounded were past human aid and died where they lay. Those who lived bore their pain and discomfort stoically, even cheerfully.

image
Mission accomplished. An aerial photograph showing the formidable gap in the Mole viaduct.

the blockships
The blockships, which were timed to round the Mole twenty minutes after the arrival of Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil, all had different tasks. Thetis, the leading ship, was to ram the lock gates, the other two were to ground themselves by the southern end of the piers. Breaking the lock gates would make it impossible to fill the canal and float any imprisoned craft, while the other two ships could be relied on to create a barrier of silt and complete the unnavigability of the canal.
Thetis duly rounded the Mole although under fairly heavy fire (though not as heavy as it would have been without the effects of the diversion) and promptly ran into anti-submarine nets at the harbour entrance. These she took with her. However she had been hit so often that both her engines went out of action and she began to sink. One engine was temporarily started and this was just sufficient to pull Thetis around into the dredged channel, where she would have the greatest nuisance value. Then orders were given to abandon ship. As Thetis settled down in the water, demolition charges blew out her bottom and she was there to stay.
Although not in the position originally intended she had done nearly as well. She was blocking a vital channel and in getting there she had gone through a wire net – at the cost of her own engines – leaving a clear passage for the other two blockships. Furthermore she had drawn the German fire on herself and enabled Intrepid to pass up the channel unscathed. But it should not be thought that Thetis took her pounding from the German guns impassively. Her own guns, though greatly out-numbered, fired till they were nearly red-hot. Needless to say there was an ML indifferent to its own risk ready at hand to rescue the crew of Thetis. Intrepid had not missed her baptism of fire even though she was screened by Thetis in the harbour itself. She had had a smart welcome from German shrapnel just before she reached the Mole and when she forced her way into the canal, the Germans, aware now of what was afoot, launched all the high explosive they could muster at her.
The channel was slightly narrower than had been anticipated and when Intrepid came to her intended position she was not as squarely across the channel as she could have wished. Attempts to square her off had no effect and she was therefore sunk in the best position she could reach. Disembarking her crew was no easy task for there were eighty- seven men aboard – thirty-three more than there should have been. However, as nonchalantly as if taking part in some peacetime regatta, the MLs buzzed around unconcernedly and rescued the crews from Carley floats, skiffs and cutters. Only one man was lost and he was killed by a machine gun bullet when actually in the rescue ML.
Iphigenia was also overmanned owing to adroit concealment when surplus personnel should have been taken off. She too had been greeted by German shrapnel off the end of the Mole. She had an awkward moment when suddenly caught by flares and two searchlights but managed to elude these by disappearing into a smoke screen. She was helped greatly by a green light on the starboard side of Thetis. At the canal entrance she was hit twice by shells, one of which cut the siren steam pipe and surrounded her with clouds of steam.
image
Jubilant survivors smile for publicity photographs on the upper deck of Vindictive after the raid.

Entering the canal she collided first with a barge and then with the port-bow of Intrepid. However the commander, Lieutenant E. Billyard-Leake, then swung her around, across the canal, blocking it perfectly. The crew embarked in the cutter and abandoned ship. The charges then blew out the bottom of Iphigenia. Most of the crew then transferred to ML 282, which, under the redoubtable Lieutenant Percy Dean, had already rescued the crew from Intrepid.
The courage and skill of junior officers on blockships and MLs was quite remarkable. No less remarkable was the complete understanding and trust between officers and all other ranks. Every man on every ship knew that at a moment of crisis his officer would be there calmly appraising the situation and utterly unconcerned for his own safety. Equally every officer knew that if he were wounded or killed one of his men would, at the first possible moment, carry his body back to the surgeons. This would not of course happen while the fight was continuing but it would certainly happen later.
Inevitably, public attention after the raid was concentrated on the main performers, Vindictive, Iris, Daffodil, Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia. However, all told 1,700 men were engaged in the Zeebrugge raid in various capacities.
'St George for England... May we give the dragon's tail a damned good twist.'
(Admiral Keyes)

image
Vice Admiral Roger Keyes.

image
The parapet of the Mole. The height of the platform created difficulties despite suitable preparations.

image
German Naval infantry dug in and prepared to repel a British attack.

image
German gunners guarding the Mole.

image
A fifteen inch (380mm) gun, one of the most powerful guns on the Belgian Coast.

image
Concrete German submarine shelters at Bruges.

'The aged C-class submarines were regarded as expendable, but it was hoped that the ferry boats and the Vindictive might return under their own power, which they did.'

image
The Mersey ferryboats, Iris and Daffodil.

image
A Royal Navy C-class submarine.

image
image
Wing Commander Frank A Brock, RNAS.

image
Five Platoon, 4/Royal Marine Light Infantry with Lieutenant Cooke.

image
Royal Navy Blue Jackets in landing dress.

'Almost every German shell was a direct hit but as the salvos crashed into Vindictive she returned shot for shot from her own guns.'

image
The landing brows or gangways fitted on the assault ship Vindictive.

image
Lieutenant Colonel Bertram H Elliot DSO, RMLI.

image
Sergeant Norman Augustus Finch VC.

image
The fighting top on Vindictive where Sergeant Finch earned his VC.

image
Lewis Gun, illustration by Jon Wilkinson.

image
Royal Marines storming the Mole up the gangways.

image
Sandford and crew fleeing the explosive laden submarine after ramming it into the viaduct which connected the Mole to the harbour.

image
The attack on Zeebrugge Harbour.

'A few seconds later there was a mammoth explosion and a great piece of viaduct went hurtling into the air.'

image
Lieutenant Richard Douglas Sandford.

image
The wrecks of Iphegenia and Intrepid.

image
An aerial photograph taken by the Germans at 11am on 23 April showing steam still emitting from Intrepid.

image
The shrapnel battered funnels on the Vindictive.

image
Prisoners of the Kaiser. Men from the RMLI pose for the camera.

Further Reading


The Zeebrugge Raid
(Hardback - 238 pages)
ISBN: 9781844156771

by Philip Warner
Only £19.99

On 23 April 1918 a force drawn from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines launched one of the most daring raids in history. The aim was to block the Zeebrugge Canal, thereby denying U-boat access, although this meant assaulting a powerfully fortified German naval base. The raid has long been recognised for its audacity and ingenuity but, owing to the fact that the official history took overmuch notice of the German version of events, has been considered only a partial success. The error of that view is now exposed, for…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...