Friday, 11 August 2017

The Zeebrugge Raid Part One - Saint George’s Day 1918

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Extent of British Front Line early 1918 (Solid Black Line)

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,...

By the end of 1916, it was becoming clear to British military planners and their French allies, that despite the appalling losses of Verdun and the Somme, the only way to defeat Imperial Germany was by offensive action. Whatever has been written in hindsight about the "stalemate" of the Jutland naval battle, the German fleet never committed itself to major fleet action for the rest of the Great War. Verdun and the Somme bled the French and the British Empire white, but it had the same effect on Germany. It was also clear that offensive action required a vast logistics train to transport men, fuel, guns, ammunition, food, medicines, fodder and horses across the narrow English Channel.


It was also clear to the German Imperial Staff that the ships transporting the British logistics were vulnerable to attack in the Channel and North Sea. While their Grand Fleet would never consider a foray into the narrow neck of the North Sea, the Germans still had plenty of coastal ships and U-boats and they used those most effectively to harry and sink British shipping. They had also reinforced and dug in around the Ostend/Bruges/Zeebrugge triangle. Since 1914 the British had recognised the importance of the Belgium ports, but thought they could be captured during the inevitable counter-offensive in 1914 that never came. During the first three years of the Great War, several attempts were made to close the Flanders ports by naval bombardments, without success. Operation HUSH a plan for a combined ground advance up the coast and amphibious attack to capture the ports in 1917, was abandoned because of other offensives on the Western Front and the perceived risk. Ostend was bombarded on 5th June 1917 with limited success and the Harwich force of four light cruisers and eight destroyers was repulsed by German destroyers.

Nevertheless, shipping losses mounted and reinforcements from Britain were essential to halt the German's last-ditch Spring Offensive of 1918. On 24th February 1918 a German destroyer entered the protected zone of the Channel and sunk shipping. Vice-Admiral Roger Keys of the Dover Command presented a plan to the Admiralty, to block Ostend and Zeebrugge to German shipping in early April. The plan on a well-defended target was postponed because of the weather, but would go ahead on St George's day 1918.

The Germans had ensured that the coast and ports were well covered by artillery batteries of 150mm guns, a garrison of over 1,000 troops, seaplane bases and U-boat harbouring. At that time Zeebrugge had the longest harbour mole in the world at around 1.5 miles. Another problem that had to be factored into the planning were the constantly shifting sandbanks off the Belgium coast and for obvious reasons, the Admiralty Charts were out of date. The primary aim of the raid was to enter the harbour of Zeebrugge and block the Bruges canal with block ships. Additionally, the raiding force was to cause as much damage to the harbour facilities as possible. The secondary objective was to block the Ostend/Bruges canal by entering Ostend harbour and sealing it, again with block ships.


Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The plan would see monitors that would bombard the shore to soften-up the defences, but fundamental to the Zeebrugge attack was the mole itself, which was difficult to damage by shellfire because it was a vast, stone structure. However, it had a weakness in the form of an arched viaduct that connected the mole to the land. It would be impossible to sail the blocking ships into the harbour if the German batteries on the mole weren't either silenced or distracted. There would be a "distraction” in the form of an old cruiser, HMS Vindictive and two Mersey Ferry steamers, Iris and Daffodil. Because of their shallow draft it was hoped they would override any mines. The decidedly unlovely HMS Vindictive would carry the raiding parties of Royal Marines and the two ferry boats would press against the side of HMS Vindictive, to keep her in position against the mole.

Once Vindictive was in position and under cover of a smoke screen, the raiding force was to roll-up the mole and take out the German batteries. The three block ships, old cruisers HMS Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia would be heavily loaded with cement and sink quickly in the entrance to the canal, as well as being very difficult to remove. Also essential to the plan were two obsolete C-class submarines, which were to be loaded with explosives and detonated under the arched viaduct, to prevent the Germans reinforcing the mole. Other components of the raid were the two Monitors HMS Erebus and Terror and the 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. Thirty-three motor launches were to lay the smoke screens.

The raid would require a myriad of specialist pyrotechnics in the form of flares, flame throwers, smoke and fog dispensers and their creator was Wing Commander F. A. Brock, whose family created Brock’s Fireworks. Brock was not only industrious, but he had founded the RN’s Experimental Station at Stratford. Somewhat uniquely he held the commissioned ranks of Lieutenant Commander RN, Lieutenant Colonel in the Army and Wing Commander RAF, as the RAF had been formed on 1st April that year. Brock had been asked to attend a demonstration of Zeppelins in 1914 disguised and dressed as an American tourist. Brock should have been too valuable to the war effort to be a part of the Zeebrugge raid, but he insisted that he go to ensure his specialist apparatus worked and to get a look at high-quality range finding equipment, that the Germans were thought to be using.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Area of Operations

The ships required extensive work to be completed before the raid. The Mersey ferry boats were fitted with armour plate and HMS Vindictive needed gangways welded on to the side of the ship, because she would be sit much lower in the water that the twenty-nine foot top of the mole. Once on it there was a was sixteen foot drop from the parapet down to the mole level, so scaling ladders would be carried. Vindictive also needed to be able to fire down to suppress enemy action, so an armoured fighting top was constructed above the ship's superstructure.

It was initially proposed that the Army would provide the assault teams, but Vice- Admiral Keys insisted that the Royal Marines should comprise the raiding party and the 4th Marine Battalion was formed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Elliot The battalion comprised of 740 officers and men plus a further 200 sailors. Many had served in France with the Naval Brigade and they were no strangers to getting up close and personal with the enemy.

The assault task force assembled off the Essex coast. Before they set off, the order was given that the crews of ships should be kept to a minimum and all surplus personnel disembarked. Many men, including civilian workers hid in the nooks and crannies of the ships and stayed there until it was too late to be returned. When the ships were well on the way they appeared and asked to be issued with rifles and ammunition, which they received. These men would go on to give sterling assistance to the wounded and many would never come back alive.

At 1700 on the 22nd of April 1918, Keynes sent the battle signal, referring to the next day: "St George for England." Captain Carpenter commanding HMS Vindictive replied: "May we give the dragon's tail a damned good twist."


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