Pages

Monday, 23 April 2018

Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids: One hundredth anniversary

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend. The main purpose of the raids was to block the seaward exits of the canals that linked Bruges to the sea, and to prevent the German submarines and destroyers that were based there from gaining access to the English Channel.


I first became aware of the raid when – as a young child – I saw the model of HMS Vindictive in the Imperial War Museum as she was at the time of the raid. As I grew older I read more and more about the events of 23rd April 1918, and it has become a scenario that I have always wanted to recreate on the tabletop but never quite got around to. More recently my wife discovered that one of her relatives – Able Seaman Sydney G Digby (J36259) – was one of the Royal Navy volunteers who took part in the raid, and who was killed very early on in the action.

The Zeebrugge Raid

The raid on Zeebrugge began with an assault on the mile-long mole. This was intended to disrupt the German defences – particularly the gun batteries on the mole – and was undertaken by a mixed force of Royal Navy personnel and Royal Marines.

The main assault force was carried aboard the heavily modified Arrogant-class cruiser HMS Vindictive. Additional troops were carried aboard the requisitioned Mersey ferries Daffodil and Iris. Two obsolete C-class submarines (C1 and C3) that had been turned into floating bombs by the addition of five tons of explosives in their bows, were tasked with crashing into the viaduct that connected the shore to the mole. Once in place, the explosives were to be detonated after the crews had been evacuated by motor boats.

To help to obscure events from the shoreside defenders and coastal defence batteries, motor launches and coastal torpedo boats were fitted with smokescreen equipment developed by Wing Commander Brock (of the famous family of firework manufacturers) and were supposed to lay a dense smokescreen offshore.

Whilst this diversionary attack was taking place, three old cruisers that had been converted in blockships – HMS Thetis, HMS Intrepid, and HMS Iphigenia – were supposed to sail into the mouth of the Bruges-Zeebrugge canal and then be scuttled so that they blocked it.


Things began to go wrong as soon as the operation began. The wind blew the smokescreen out to sea rather than inland, and the Vindictive came alongside the mole in the wrong place. Many of the assault force were killed before they even made it ashore, and those that did had a very hard fight in their hands trying to beat off the German defenders and to reach and neutralise the mole gun batteries before the blockships arrived.


The three blockships did manage to reach the outer entrance to the canal but sank before they had blocked it completely. One of the submarines – the C3 – did manage to reach the viaduct (the other had not managed to reach Zeebrugge in time due to a broken tow rope) and when its explosive charge went off, it not only destroyed the viaduct but also killed a number of German bicycle troops that were crossing it at the time.




The raid was not a 100% success – the Bruges-based submarines and destroyers were soon able to use the canal again after some dredging work had taken place and the canal entrance had been widened – but it took place at a time when even a reasonably successful aggressive action was welcomed by the British government.

Of the 1,700 men involved in the operation, 227 were killed and 33 wounded. Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded, and the recipients were:
  • Major Edward Bamford DSO (Royal Marine Light Infantry)
  • Lieutenant Commander George Nicholson Bradford (Royal Navy)
  • Commander Alfred Francis Blakeney Carpenter (Royal Navy)
  • Lieutenant Percy Thompson Dean (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve)
  • Sergeant Norman Augustus Finch (Royal Marine Artillery)
  • Lieutenant Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison (Royal Navy)
  • Ordinary Seaman Albert Edward McKenzie (Royal Navy)
  • Lieutenant Richard Douglas Sandford (Royal Navy)

The Ostend Raids

The attack on Ostend was an altogether smaller affair and involved a much smaller force. Only two blockships were involved – HMS Sirius and HMS Brilliant – and there was no assault by Royal Navy personnel or Royal Marines. There was considerable fire support from four Lord Clive-class and three M15-class monitors and they engaged the German coastal defences.

Just as at Zeebrugge, the smokescreen was blown away from the land by the prevailing wind, and meant that the blockships could not see their target. They tried to navigate by dead reckoning and using a navigation buoy that marked the channel towards the canal. Unfortunately, the buoy had been moved by the local German commander and both ships ended up sinking in the wrong place.

This raid was a total failure, and a second raid was mounted on 10th May in which HMS Vindictive was used as the blockship.


A further three Victoria Crosses were awarded for the second raid. The recipients were:
  • Lieutenant Commander Roland Bourke DSO (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve)
  • Lieutenant Victor Alexander Charles Crutchley, DSC (Royal Navy)
  • Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Heneage Drummond (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve)
This was second raid slightly more successful, but it proved impossible to block the seaward exits of the Bruges-Zeebrugge and Bruges-Ostend canals.

16 comments:

  1. As a young Royal Navy Officer I was fortunate to be part of the 60th anniversary celebrations. We took a number of very frail veterans across to Zeebrugge in HMS JUPITER - it was due to be the final "official" celebration because of the age and infirmity of those very brave men.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jeremy Ramsey,

      What an honour it must have been to be able to meet such brave men.

      My wife and I had hoped that we could attend one of the 100th anniversary ceremonies, but it proved impossible to do so due to the number of people who were going to them. We did visit the graveyard in Dover on St George's Day some years ago, and were the only people there.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  2. Bob,
    Thank you for this post. Very interesting and dangerous operations which in theory should have been successful...plans made -and things go wrong on the day. The raid made by HMS Campbeltown was a success-though I do not know where....the ship was 'disguised' as German to go undetected as an 'enemy' during the operation- the Crew were captured by the Germans. Any information on this? Regards. KEV.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kev Robertson,

      Considering that the only means of communication available to the commanders on the spot were signal lamps and flags, it's amazing that the operation was as successful as it was. That was down to the individual leadership and heroism displayed by everyone from the lowest ranks upwards.

      The initial planning for the raid on St Nazaire to destroy the only dry dock in France capable of taking the Tirpitz took place whilst Sir Roger Keyes - the man who was in command during the Zeebrugge and Ostend raids - was in charge of Combined Operations. His replacement - Lord Louis Mountbatten - decided to continue with the plan. HMS Campbeltown was modified to act as an assault/blockship, and her silhouette was altered so that she resembled a German Torpedo Boat. She was accompanied by a flotilla of Motor Launches and Motor Torpedo Boats, which were tasked with landing additional troops and torpedoing moored ships and dock installations.. The MLs were also supposed to evacuate the assault forces at the end of the raid.

      The dock gates were destroyed, but many of the MLs and MGBs were sunk or damaged, and a significant number of the assault troops were captured.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
    2. Thanks Bob for information about St Nazaire and HMS Campbeltown.

      Delete
    3. Kev Robertson,

      Glad to have been of help.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
    4. There is a very good documentary on the St Nazaire raid with Jeremy Clarkson on Youtube. It has an equally good making of documentary to go with it.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQZKJcCbnec

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXFw7seYNOw

      Phil

      Delete
    5. Philip Richards (Phil),

      I also thought that Jeremy Clarkson's documentary (along with the ones he did about Arnhem and PQ17) was a nice balance of general interest and military history, and well worth watching again.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  3. Replies
    1. Phil Broeders,

      I'm glad that you enjoyed reading this blog entry. I have some associated blog entries in the pipeline, and hope to upload them later this week.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  4. Very interesting bit of history. Did you see the Maidstone Wargames Society's game at Salute of the attack on the Mole? A very impressive looking game that deservedly won some prizes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lee Hadley,

      I was very impressed by both Zeebrugge games at SALUTE for different reasons.

      I understand that Maidstone Wargames Society's model was going to be on show in Dover over last weekend.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
    2. Both of the Zeebrugge games at Salute (Maidstone Wargames Society and the Naval Wargames Society) were on display on April 22nd at the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard as part of their centenary event.

      As the person responsible for the Maidstone game it felt a little un-settling having the museum's Zeebrugge expert playing the games all day. Luckily he was too polite to point out the many inaccuracies.

      Bob - lovely post on the centenary of a very overlooked set of operations. Making the game in 28mm really brought home the scale of the undertaking at the individual level - you could appreciate the bravery needed to scale the brows from the Vindictive to the mole knowing that falling off would mean certain death.

      On Saturday I took my boys on a trip to Deal cemetery, hunting out the graves of Lieutenant William Ernest Sillitoe and Private John Bostock who both died on HMS Iris II. A little overlooked compared to the graves at Dover but as equally important.

      Phil

      Delete
    3. Philip Richards (Phil),

      I had no idea that the games were 'on show' at Portsmouth during the centenary event ... but they certainly deserved to be.

      May I congratulate the Maidstone Wargames Society on the quality of the game that I saw at SALUTE, and I am sure that anyone playing it and who knew anything about the actual events on 23rd April 1918, would understand that 100% accuracy in any wargame was impossible.

      As I wrote in my blog entry, the raid on Zeebrugge has fascinated me for a very, very long time, but it is only recently that I knew much about the operations at Ostend. I have visited Zeebrugge (and Blankenberge) many times, and would love to have been able to walk along the remains of the mole, something that is - alas - not possible.

      I was in Deal last Thursday, and had I realised that two graves of Royal Marines who died on Iris were there, I would have tried to find them to pay my respects.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  5. I also ran a convention game based on the Zeebrugge raid for some year, although we altered the scenario somewhat including disembarkation on the nearby beaches as well. Pictures here: http://snv-ttm.blogspot.be/p/raid-on-zeebrugge-crisis-2001.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Phil Dutré,

      Thanks for the link. The scenario is an interesting one, and can stand a degree of tinkering.

      Having walked along the beach between Zeebrugge and Blankenberge, landing there does make sense as the beach is relatively flat even if it isn't very sheltered.

      All the best,

      Bob

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete