20 April 2018

Remembering the men who stormed Zeebrugge

Monday 23 April will mark 100 years since the Zeebrugge Raid. One of the most celebrated episodes of the First World War at sea, the Royal Navy attempted to block the Belgian port and prevent the German navy from using it. More than 200 sailors and marines were killed and over 300 wounded. The dead are commemorated by the CWGC at sites in the UK and in Belgium, including Zeebrugge Churchyard which will be visited by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal over the weekend.

Aerial photograph of the British blockships HMS Thetis, HMS Intrepid and HMS Iphigenia in the mouth of the Bruge Canal at Zeebrugge. © IWM (Q 49164)

Aerial photograph of the British blockships HMS Thetis, HMS Intrepid and HMS Iphigenia in the mouth of the Bruge Canal at Zeebrugge. © IWM (Q 49164)

The background

German forces occupied the Belgian coastal ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge at the beginning of the war. Only 70 miles from Dover, they were used by German U-boats and surface raiders to threaten Allied shipping in the English Channel. The German submarine campaign of early 1917 prompted the Admiralty to develop a daring plan to block the ports and render them useless.

At Zeebrugge, an amphibious landing would secure the German defences on the port’s breakwater, or ‘mole’. A naval force would then approach and sink specially-prepared ships, filled with concrete, at the point where an inland canal entered the harbour. With their access blocked and lock gates destroyed, German vessels based at Bruges would be unable to reach the open sea.

It would be a dangerous mission. In February 1918, a call went out throughout the British Grand Fleet for volunteers. A force of nearly 1,800 was raised and given special training. Some 165 vessels, from warships to submarines and motor launches, were assigned to take part in the raid.

The attack

At 11.10pm on the night of 22 April 1918, Royal Navy warships began to bombard German coastal defences around Zeebrugge and laid down a protective smokescreen, vital for the success of the attack.

The cruiser HMS Vindictive approached the mole, with two old Mersey ferries – Daffodil and Iris. Vindictive carried a force of sailors and marines who were supposed to land at the entrance of the Bruges canal and destroy German positions. Meanwhile, motor boats attacked the western end of the mole as a distraction while Vindictive approached.

But the wind direction changed and blew away the smokescreen. The attackers came under heavy fire and suffered many casualties. The submarine HMS C3, filled with explosives, destroyed a viaduct connecting the mole to shore, but Vindictive was unable to fully support the landing parties and they were eventually forced to withdraw. Two of the old cruisers reached the canal entrance and were sunk, but not in the intended place.

The Zeebrugge Raid was a dramatic operation, and lauded in the press for the daring and courage of those who took part. However in the end, German access to the port was only hindered for a few days, and the raid at Ostend that took place at the same time also failed to prevent its use.

HMS Vindictive after returning to Dover following the Zeebrugge Raid, showing one of the two 7.5-inch howitzers and Stokes mortars specially fitted out for the raid to provide fire support for the landing parties in the planned assault on the German gun battery at the seaward end of the mole at Zeebrugge. © IWM (Q 55568)

HMS Vindictive after returning to Dover following the Zeebrugge Raid, showing one of the two 7.5-inch howitzers and Stokes mortars specially fitted out for the raid to provide fire support for the landing parties in the planned assault on the German gun battery at the seaward end of the mole at Zeebrugge. © IWM (Q 55568)

The fallen

The Commission commemorates more than 200 service personnel lost during the attack. In Belgium, casualties of the raid are buried and commemorated at Zeebrugge Churchyard and Memorial, Blankenberge Town Cemetery and Oostende New Communal Cemetery. In the UK most of the servicemen who died of wounds were buried in Dover (St. James’s) Cemetery. Those who have no known grave are commemorated on the Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth Naval Memorials.

Zeebrugge Churchyard and Memorial in Belgium, and Dover (St. James’s) Cemetery in the UK

Zeebrugge Churchyard and Memorial in Belgium, and Dover (St. James’s) Cemetery in the UK

The exceptional bravery of the men involved in the raid was recognised through the award of eight Victoria Crosses (VCs) and more than 500 other awards, including 143 Distinguished Service Medals and 283 Mentions in Despatches. The entire 4th Battalion Royal Marines was awarded the Victoria Cross triggering a rule that meant the actual recipients had to be selected by ballot.

Lieutenant-Commander George Bradford VCLieutenant-Commander George Bradford VC

HMS Iris II, Royal Navy

George is one of three brothers killed in action during the First World War. His brother Roland was also awarded the VC making them the only brothers to both be awarded the VC – no other family is more highly decorated in the history of British arms.

George died on his 31st birthday, while commanding the naval storming parties embarked in HMS Iris II. He was awarded the VC for his actions “of absolute self-sacrifice; without a moment’s hesitation”.

He is buried in Blankenberge Town Cemetery.

Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison VC

Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison VCHMS Vindictive, Royal Navy

Arthur was in command of the naval storming parties on board HMS Vindictive. Immediately before coming alongside the mole he was struck  by a fragment of a shell which broke his jaw and knocked him out. When he regained consciousness he proceeded on to the mole, and led a charge along the mole parapet in the face of heavy machine-gun fire. He was killed leading his men and awarded the VC for his actions.

He is commemorated on the Zeebrugge Memorial.

 

Stoker 1st Class Arthur Fletcher Ada

HMS Phoebe, Royal Navy

Arthur joined the Royal Navy in September 1916, training at naval stations including Chatham before being attached to HMS Phoebe. It is reported, towards the end of the attack Arthur had left his watch below and gone on deck to help rescue survivors of another ship which had gone down, when he was struck by a shell and died soon after. Before enlisting, Arthur was involved in the setup of the Volunteer Training Corps.

He is buried in Maidenhead Cemetery.

Latest News

16 November 2018

Exploring Our Archives

Over the next week the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) will be revealing the fascinating stories behind some of the objects in our archive, in support of Explore Your Archive 2018.

14 November 2018

Private George Ellison Image

George Edwin Ellison is believed to be the last British soldier killed on the Western Front before the Armistice brought the fighting to an end. He is buried in St Symphorien Military Cemetery, near Mons.

People have come together across the world at Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries and memorials this week to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice.