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Zeebrugge Raid 1918
23rd April 1918 Zeebrugge Raid 1918 The Zeebrugge Raid (23 April 1918), was an attempt by the Royal Navy to block the Belgian port of Bruges-Zeebrugge. The British intended to sink obsolete ships in the canal entrance to prevent German vessels from leaving port. The port was used by the Imperial German Navy as a base for U-boats and light shipping, which were a threat to Allied shipping, especially in the English Channel. Several attempts to close the Flanders ports by bombardment failed and Operation Hush a plan to advance up the coast in 1917 proved abortive. As shipping losses by U-boats increased, finding a way to close the ports became urgent and a raid was considered. The first attempt on Zeebrugge was made on 2 April 1918 but cancelled at the last moment, after the wind direction changed and made it impossible to lay a smoke-screen. Another attempt was made on 23 April with a concurrent attack on Ostend. Two of three blockships were scuttled in the narrowest part of the Bruges Canal and one of two submarines rammed the viaduct, which linked the shore and the mole, to isolate the German garrison. The blockships were sunk in the wrong place and the canal was open after a few days, to submarines at high tide. British casualties were 583 men and German losses were 24 men; the raid was publicised as a great British victory and many medals were awarded.
Background and Strategic developments
At the end of 1916 a combined operation against Borkum, Ostend and Zeebrugge had been considered by Admiral Lewis Bayly, Senior Officer for the Coast of Ireland. The plan was rejected due to the difficulty of supplying a landing force and the vulnerability of such a force to counter-attack. Subsequent proposals were rejected for the same reasons. A bombardment of the Zeebrugge lock-gates under cover of a smoke-screen, was studied by Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, Commander of the Dover Patrol and the Admiralty in late 1915 but was also rejected as the risks were considered excessive. In 1916 Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt proposed an attack to block Zeebrugge which was rejected and led him to propose a more ambitious operation to capture the mole and the town. This was to be a prelude to advancing on Antwerp. Bacon was asked to give his opinion and rejected the plan as did the Admiralty. Admiral Roger Keyes was appointed Director of the Plans Division at the Admiralty in October 1917. On 3 December he submitted another plan for the blocking of Zeebrugge and Ostend, using old cruisers in a night attack in the period from 14–19 March. Bacon also proposed an operation on 18 December, which combined Tyrwhitt's landing on the mole with a blocking operation. The monitor, Sir John Moore was to land 1,000 troops on the mole. The monitor General Craufurd was to bombard the lock gates and fortifications from short range and blockships were to enter the harbour in the confusion. The raid was proposed in 1917 by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe but was not authorised until Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes adapted Bacon's plan for a blocking operation, which would make it difficult for German ships and submarines to leave the port. The raid was approved in January 1918 and crews were obtained from the Grand Fleet "to perform a hazardous service".
The possibility of a landing on the Belgian coast was not abandoned, despite the number of rejected plans and early in 1917 Bacon assisted in the planning of Operation Hush. This was to land three brigades of infantry around Middelkirke, behind the northern extremity of the Western Front. The operation was dependent on the advance of the British armies in the Third Battle of Ypres and would have no influence on events at Zeebrugge and Ostend. If landings at the ports were achieved the forces involved would be doomed unless they were relieved by the advance of the armies in Flanders. Bacon devised a plan to destroy the lock gates at Zeebrugge by bombardment with 15-inch guns in the monitors Erebus, Terror and Marshal Soult. The bombardment would have to be undertaken at long range, because of the danger of return fire from the Kaiser Wilhelm battery at Knocke and meant aiming at a target 90 by 30 feet at a range of 13 miles, using directions from an artillery-observation aircraft. Bacon calculated that 252 shells would be necessary and take at least 84 minutes. If the attempt began with surprise and the bombardment ships were obscured by a smoke-screen the German guns at Knocke might not have time to commence return fire accurately before the bombardment ended. Bacon thought that the destruction of the lock gates was worth the sacrifice of a monitor but that risking all three for no result was impossible to avoid. The plan needed a combination of wind, tide and weather which occurred rarely; to obtain surprise the monitors would need to be in position before dawn, mist and low cloud would make artillery observation from an aircraft impossible and the wind would have to be blowing from a narrow range of bearings or the smoke-screen would be carried over the ships and expose them to view from the shore. Such conditions were unlikely to recur for several days and so a second bombardment on the following day would be most unlikely. The bombardment force sailed for Zeebrugge three times, when changes in the weather forced a return to England but on 11 May Bacon ordered another attempt the next day. A buoy was laid 15 miles (24 km) to the north-west of the mole as a guide and a second buoy was placed in the position selected for the bombardment. A bearing was taken from the buoy to the base of the mole at Zeebrugge by a ship sailing from the buoy to the mole despite a mist which reduced visibility to a mile and meant that the ship would advance dangerously close to German shore batteries. The ship returned to the buoy by 0445 with the bearing and distance. The bombardment ships had taken position, the motor launches had formed a line, ready to generate the smoke-screen and the escorts formed a square round the monitors. Five destroyers zigzagged around the fleet as a screen against U-boats, the minesweepers began operating around the monitors and the covering force cruised in the distance ready to intercept a German destroyer sortie.
Bombardment of Zeebrugge, 12 May 1917
The bombardment opened late because of the need to tow Marshal Soult and haze off the harbour. Two Royal Naval Air Service artillery observation aircraft from Dunkirk, which had taken off at 0200, had to wait from 0300 over Zeebrugge for almost two hours. The aircraft were met by seven Sopwith Pups from 4 Squadron, which patrolled the coast from 0545 and six Sopwith Triplanes of 10 Squadron flew over the fleet. One of the artillery-observation aircraft had engine-trouble and force-landed in the Netherlands and the other began to run short of petrol. Firing from the monitors commenced just after 0500 and at first fell short, many of the shells failing to explode, which left the aircraft unable to signal the fall of shot. The bombardment became very accurate soon after and Marshal Soult hit the target with its twelfth shell and Erebus with its twenty-sixth. Terror was most hampered by the loss of one of the aircraft and dud shells. Only forty-five of the 250 shells fired were reported and the aircraft had to return because of low fuel at 0530, leaving the last half-hour of the bombardment reliant on estimated corrections. Two relieving aircraft had also had engine trouble and failed to arrive. In the first hour of the bombardment, the German response was limited to anti-aircraft fire and attempts to jam the wireless of the artillery-observation aircraft. When the Pups from 4 Squadron arrived, twice the number of German Albatros fighters engaged them and some of the aircraft from over the fleet joined in the dogfight. The British claimed five German aircraft shot down and the fleet was enabled to complete the bombardment. Later, a third patrol shot down a German seaplane into Ostend harbour and lost one fighter. At 0600 the ships weighed anchor just as the Kaiser Wilhelm battery opened fire. Two seaplanes which attempted to approach the fleet were driven off by fighter seaplanes which escorted the fleet home. Bacon returned with the impression that the bombardment had succeeded, but aerial photographs taken the following week, revealed that about fifteen shells had landed within a few yards of the lock gates on the western side and on the eastern side four shells had come just as close. The basin north of the locks had been hit and some damage caused to the docks but Zeebrugge remained open to German destroyers and U-boats. It was concluded that had the monitors been ready to fire as soon as the observer in the artillery-observation aircraft signalled or if the shoot had been reported throughout, the lock gates would have been hit and Bacon prepared to bombard Ostend harbour.
Further Bombardment of Ostend, 5 June 1917
Attempts to bombard Ostend on 26 and 27 May were abandoned because of poor weather but on 4 June the bombardment ships sailed for the Ratel Bank off Ostend. The bombardment force was smaller and the covering force larger, since surprise was less likely. The Harwich Force provided a covering force of four light cruisers, a flotilla leader and eight destroyers off the Thornton Bank. A second wave of four light cruisers and eight destroyers were provided to guard against an attack from the Schouwen Bank. The firing buoy and its bearing and range from the target were established using the same method as at Zeebrugge and the escorting ships formed a square round the bombardment ships. German destroyers were sighted east of the Ratel Bank at 0142 by Lance and Lochinvar, which were steering towards Ostend to establish the range and bearing of the target from the sighting buoy. The German destroyers frustrated two attempts to enter the harbour, which left the fleet without sighting data and reliant on dead reckoning. At about 0230, gunfire was heard from the direction of Tyrwhitt's covering force to the north and at about 0300 the bombardment force motor launches began the smoke-screen. At dawn the coast was visible, Bacon corrected the position by a bearing on Ostend Cathedral and the bombardment commenced at 0320. German coastal guns replied within minutes of the bombardment from the monitors and fired accurately at Erebus and Terror but with no effect. The bombardment ceased at 0400 and the fleet weighed anchor at 0420 and withdrew northwards. Tyrwhitt's covering force guarded the ships from a point 5 miles (8.0 km) distant, having engaged two German destroyers as they tried to reach Zeebrugge and sunk S20. Ostend was a larger target than that at Zeebrugge and could be seen from the sea, which made accurate shooting easier. The dockyard was hit by twenty out of 115 shells and intelligence reports noted the sinking of a lighter, a UC-boat and damage to three destroyers. The reports also noted that the attack had caused anxiety to the German command. Had Bacon been able to repeat the bombardments at short intervals, the damage would have soon severely hampered German naval operations from the Flanders coast. Bacon planned more bombardments but these were all postponed because of essential conditions like adequate weather for the bombardments not being met and after several months the bombardments resumed after the Germans had been able to repair the damage caused by the bombardments. As prolonged methodical bombardments of Ostend and Zeebrugge had proved impractical, Bacon attached a large monitor to the forces which patrolled coastal barrages, to exploit opportunities of favourable wind and weather to bombard Zeebrugge and Ostend. Several bombardments were achieved but had no effect on the working of the ports.
German defensive preparations
By 1917 the German defences on the Flanders coast included Kaiser Wilhelm II a heavy artillery battery at Knocke, east of the Bruges canal of four 12 inches (300 mm) guns, with a range of 41,000 yards (37,000 m) and the Tirpitz battery of four 11 inches (280 mm) guns, with a range of 35,000 yards (32,000 m), 1.5 miles (2.4 km) west of Ostend. Two more batteries were being built in early 1917 and between the main defences were many mobile guns, entrenchments and machine-gun nests. The only vulnerable part of the German defensive system was the lock gates at Zeebrugge, which if destroyed would make the canal to Bruges tidal and drastically reduce the number of ships and submarines which could pass along it.
British offensive preparations
The cruisers involved in the blockade, including HMS Vindictive were equipped in Chatham, by over 2,000 workers for the special fitting out and stripping out (in the case of the ships to be sunk) of unnecessary equipment, including their masts. Iris, Daffodil and the submarines were fitted out in Portsmouth. The fleet made its rendezvous at Swin Deep, about 8 miles south of Clacton. Almost none of the participants were aware of their target. The first opportunity for the raid was early April 1918 and on 2 April the fleet sailed and Zeebrugge was bombed by 65 Squadron from Dunkirk. The success of the raid depended upon smoke screens, to protect the British ships from the fire of German coastal artillery but the wind direction was unfavourable and the attack was called off. Zeebrugge was visible to the fleet and the fleet to the Germans in Zeebrugge. Seventy-seven ships of all sizes, some with their lights already switched off, had to make a sharp turn to the west to return to their bases.
The blocking of Zeebrugge On 23 April 1918 a second attempt was made, in conjunction with a raid on the neighbouring harbour of Ostend. The raid began with a diversion against the mile-long Zeebrugge mole. The attack was led by an old cruiser, Vindictive, with two Mersey ferries, Daffodil and Iris II. The three ships were accompanied by two old submarines, which were filled with explosives to blow up the viaduct connecting the mole to the shore. Vindictive was to land a force of 200 Royal Marines at the entrance to the Bruges Canal to destroy German gun positions. At the time of the landing the wind changed and the smoke-screen to cover the ship was blown offshore. The marines immediately came under heavy fire and suffered many casualties. Vindictive was spotted by German gun positions and forced to land in the wrong location, resulting in the loss of the marines' heavy gun support. Eventually the submarine HMS C3 commanded by Lt. R. D. Sandford, destroyed the viaduct by explosion. Sandford was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action. The attempt to sink three old cruisers, to block the flow of traffic in and out of the Port of Bruges-Zeebrugge failed. The failure of the attack on the Zeebrugge mole resulted in heavy German fire on the three blocking ships, HMS Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia, which were filled with concrete. Thetis did not make it to the canal entrance, after it hit an obstruction and was scuttled prematurely. The two other ships were sunk at the narrowest point of the canal. The submarines C1 under Lieut. A.C Newbold and C3 under Lieut. R.D. Sandford were old, each with a volunteer crew of one other officer and four ratings. They had five tons of amatol packed into their fore-ends and were to be driven into the viaduct and then blown up, to prevent reinforcement of the German garrison on the mole. The crews were to abandon their submarines shortly before the collision with the viaduct, leaving the submarines to steer themselves automatically but during the passage from Dover, C1 parted with her tow and arrived too late to take part in the operation.
Henry Newbolt the Official Historian, wrote in 1931 that before the raid two submarines entered or left the Flanders bases each day and continued at that rate during the week after the raid. The block ships were not in the correct position when sunk and only managed to block the canal for a few days. The Germans removed two piers in the western bank of the canal near the block ships and dredged a channel through the silt near the sterns of the block ships. The Germans were then able to move submarines along the channel past the block ships at high tide. The average was maintained until June, when the rate fell to about one submarine per day, to an extent due to a bombardment of Zeebrugge on 9 June. After the damage was repaired, the rate of U-boat traffic did not return to the pre-raid level. Newbolt considered that this was caused by the recall of some U-boats to Germany in June, after reports that operations in the Dover Straits had become too dangerous. The usual remedy of increased destroyer raids was not possible, because of the difficulty in using Zeebrugge as a harbour. Newbolt also wrote that the raid on Zeebrugge was part of an anti-submarine campaign which had lasted for five months, using patrols and minefields to close the Straits and which continued despite the most destructive sortie achieved by the Germans during the war. The campaign inflicted a steady attrition of the Flanders U-boats and the attack on Zeebrugge came when the German blockade of Britain was supposed to have reduced drastically the resources and endurance of the British empire. News of the raid was skllfully exploited to raise Allied morale and to foreshadow victory Possunt quia posse videntur ("They can because they think they can"). Bacon wrote in 1931 that the operational failures were due in part to the recently appointed Keyes (an Admiralty man) changing the plans made by Bacon, a seagoing commander with intimate knowledge of the tidal and navigational conditions in the Ostend and Zeebrugge areas.
The Zeebrugge Raid was promoted by Allied propaganda as a British victory and resulted in the awarding of eight Victoria Crosses. Of the 1,700 men involved in the operation, Wise recorded 300 were wounded and more than 200 killed. Kendall gave figures of 227 dead and 356 wounded. One destroyer was sunk. Among the dead was Wing Commander Frank Arthur Brock, the man who devised and commanded the operation of the smoke screen. Some of the casualties were buried in England, either because they died of their wounds en route or because their comrades had recovered their bodies with the intention of repatriating their remains. Two men were buried in the Hamilton Road Cemetery, Deal, Kent. At least nine men were buried in the St. James's Cemetery, Dover. German casualties were eight dead and sixteen wounded.
On 23 April 1964, some of the 46 survivors of the raid, families, the mayor of Deal and a large Royal Marines Honour Guard held a service of commemoration for their fallen comrades at the Royal Marines Barracks in Deal. A tree was planted near the officers' quarters in remembrance. A message from Winston Churchill to the ex-servicemen was read to those assembled and the event was reported in The Deal, Walmer and Sandwich Mercury newspaper on 23 and 30 April 1964. In Dover there are two memorials, the Zeebrugge Bell with memorial plaque in the Town Hall, given to Dover by the King of the Belgians in 1918 and the Zeebrugge Memorial in St James's Cemetery, where a regular memorial service is held.
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