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The Ostend Raid 9-10 May 1918

The British raid on Zeebrugge and Ostend on 23 April 1918 was intended to block the entrances to the canals linking the German destroyer and U-boat base at Bruges to the sea. The failure at Ostend led Vice Admiral Roger Keyes, commander of the Dover Patrol, to plan another attack on Ostend. He planned to use the old cruiser HMS Vindictive, which had carried assault marines and sailors to Zeebrugge, as a blockship. She was captained by Commander Alfred E. Godal, who had captained the blockship HMS Brilliant during the previous attempt to block Ostend. She was ready to go on 27 April, but the weather was too bad to proceed.[1]

The night was dark enough in the first fortnight of May from 9:30 pm to 3:00 am. The attacking force would take two and a half hours to sail from Dunkirk to Ostend and would have to withdraw by 2:00 am in order to be clear of shore batteries by daybreak. It was decided, with advice from captains of Dover to Ostend steam packets, that the tides would be ideal on 10-13 May and almost so on 9 May. 14 May was a possible date but more doubtful. The delay allowed another old cruiser, HMS Sappho, to also be used as a blockship.[2]

The two blockships were accompanied by 18 motor launches and 10 coastal motor boats (CMBs, an early form of MTB/PT Boat). Fire support would come from seven monitors escorted by eight destroyers, five of them French, two motor launches and two French motor boats. The Allies did not know if the German destroyers of the Flanders Flotilla, which had returned to Germany in mid February, had returned to Zeebrugge, so another 12 British destroyers were deployed in three groups of 4 to cover against a German attack on the raiding force. Keyes commanded the northern group from HMS Warwick but Commodore Hubert Lynes commanded the expedition, known as Operation V.S., from HMS Faulknor.[3]

On the afternoon of 9 May Keyes and Lynes were lunch guests of the King of the Belgians at La Panne [De Panne in Flemish] in the unoccupied part of Belgium. Keyes noticed a change in the wind so left early, giving the king a hint why. He and Lynes hurried to Dunkirk to start Operation V.S.. Aerial reconnaissance revealed that the Germans had removed all the buoys in the approaches to Ostend. The British had allowed for this and HMS Faulknor carried an illuminated buoy to be positioned at the point where the attacking ships had to turn. To obtain surprise, the main bombardment from shore based guns, naval monitors and Handley-Page bombers would not start until the last moment.[4]

Vindictive and Sappho arrived at Dunkirk at 10:45 pm. The expedition sailed 45 minutes later but a boiler problem forced Sappho to drop out just before midnight. Lynes decided to go ahead with only Vindictive since she had been the only blockship available when V.S. was first planned.[5]

Faulknor dropped her buoy at 01:25 am on 10 May, with Vindictive passing it 12 minutes later. The British ships were covered by a smoke screen, and the only sign of enemy action until then was a single searchlight. At 01:43 am the British bombardment began. Five minutes later a mist descended, reducing visibility to a few yards and dividing the attacking force into a number of small, uncoordinated units. Vindictive was then about 12 minutes from her target. The destroyers outside the harbour and mist started firing star shells in order to illuminate the canal mouth.[6]

CMB 24 (Lieutenant A. Dayrell-Reed) and CMB 30 (Lieutenant A. L. Poland) fired torpedoes at the eastern pier head, damaging it. However, it is doubtful whether these brave attacks succeeded in reducing the German fire.[7]

Vindictive was finding it difficult to find the harbour mouth because of the mist. Godsal turned his ship in the hope of finding it. CMB 26 (Lieutenant C. F. B. Bowlby) did manage to identify the eastern pier head and fire a torpedo at it, but it hit the bottom and exploded so close to CMB 26 that she was badly damaged. Godsal was forced to order CMB 23 (Lieutenant the Hon. C. E. R. Spencer) to light a powerful flare in order to illuminate the harbour mouth. This showed Godsal the target but also showed his ship to the Germans. CMB 25 (Lieutenant R. H. MacBean) fired two torpedoes at the pier heads, which hit them but did not stop the fire that was raining down on Vindictive.[8]

Vindictive had to steer a course towards the western bank and then manoeuvre across the channel with the help of the east flowing tide in order to block the channel. As she began this manoeuvre, Godsal stepped out of the conning tower for a better view. A shell then hit it, killing him and knocking the navigator, Lieutenant Sir John Alleyne, unconscious. Vindictive remained on her existing course and had run aground by the time that Lieutenant Victor Crutchley was able to take command. He tried unsuccessfully to move Vindictive before ordering her crew to abandon ship and setting the sinking charges. She was lying at an oblique angle and did not block the channel.[9]

The survivors of Vindictive were picked up by motor launches 254 (Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Drummond), which took off two officers and 38 men and 276 (Lieutenant Rowland Bourke), which rescued Alleyne and two ratings from the water. Both launches were badly damaged, and Crutchley had to take command of 254 after Drummond was wounded and Lieutenant Gordon Ross killed.

Three men were found alive on board Vindictive by the Germans, despite Crutchley searching her before leaving.[10] Odsal, another officer and a petty officer were amongst the 16 British sailors killed in Operation V.S.: all are listed on Naval-History.net.

Shortly after Crutchley informed Keyes onboard HMS Warwick that the mission had failed she struck a mine. The enemy destroyers were absent and the mist was now protecting the British from German shore batteries. She was towed back to port.[11]

Keyes wanted to make a third attempt, which was in initially approved. By the end of May, however, the situation had changed with the result that the potential benefits would not justify the risks involved.[12]

The Dover Straits Barrage meant that U-boats could no longer travel through the English Channel to the Atlantic, reducing the effectiveness of boats based in Flanders. The Flanders torpedo boats and destroyers were by this stage of the war restricted to a defensive role.[13]

On 14-15 February 1918 German destroyers had sailed directly from the Helgoland Bight attack to successfully attack the Dover Barrage. This operation showed that destroyers did not need to be based in Flanders to threaten the Dover Barrage, but it was never repeated.

Crutchley, Drummond and Bourke were all awarded the Victoria Cross and a large number of other men were also decorated. See Naval-History.net for the VC citations and a list of the other men awarded medals.

[1] B. Pitt, Zeebrugge: Eleven VCs before Breakfast (London: Cassell Military, 2003), pp. 177-80.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 266-67.

[3] Ibid. pp. 267-69, footnote 1 on pp. 268-69.

[4] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 180-84.

[5] Ibid., pp. 184-85.

[6] Ibid., pp. 185-87.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, vol. v, p. 270.

[8] Ibid., p. 271.

[9] Ibid., pp. 271-72.

[10] Ibid. footnote 2, p. 272.

[11] Ibid., p. 273.

[12] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 203-4.

[13] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), pp. 207-8.

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The Zeebrugge Raid 23 April 1918

On 23 April 1918 the British raided Zeebrugge and Ostend with the intention of blocking the entrances to the canals linking the German destroyer and U-boat base at Bruges to the sea. These bases had been bombarded a number of times since August 1915.[1]

Approaches from Ostend and Zeebrugge to Bruges Docks. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeebrugge_Raid

Vice Admiral Roger Keyes succeeded Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon in command at Dover on 1 January 1918. Keyes had in his previous job as the Admiralty’s Director of Plans prepared a plan to block Ostend and Zeebrugge. Bacon had made several changes to the plan. Keyes dropped Bacon’s intention of destroying the lock gates as well as blocking the locks, as he thought that this was impracticable. He retained his predecessor’s idea of landing on the mole at Zeebrugge in order to capture guns that threatened the approach of the blockships and to provide a diversion. This meant that a battalion of marines was needed as well as sailors.[2]

The old armoured cruiser HMS Vindictive (Captain Alfred Carpenter) would carry the first wave of the Zeebrugge assault force. Her armament, apart from two 6 inch guns on each side of the upper deck was removed and replaced with weapons more useful in an opposed landing: an 11 inch and two 7.5 inch howitzers; two flamethrowers; five pom-poms; 16 Lewis machine guns; and 16 Stokes mortars. The rest of the troops would be carried by two Mersey ferries, Iris (Commander V. Gibbs) and Daffodil (Lieutenant H. G. Campbell), which had double hulls and double bottoms, making them hard to sink, and had a shallow draft, enabling them to steam over minefields. However, it also meant that their decks were low, so they needed 30 foot scaling ladders to reach the parapet of the mole. The three assault ships were all fitted with grappling hooks to secure themselves to the mole.

Five old unarmoured cruisers were chosen to be the blockships: HMS Thetis (Commander R. S. Sneyd), Intrepid (Lieutenant S. S. Bonham-Carter) and Iphigenia for Zeebrugge; and HMS Sirius and Brilliant for Ostend. They carried minimal crews but kept some guns in order to fire as they approached and were fitted with extra steering positions to prevent a single hit disabling them. They were filled with cement to make it harder to move them and fitted with explosive charges to blow out their bottoms and sink them in the locks, with firing positions both fore and aft. Two C-class submarines, C1 (Lieutenant A. C. Newbold) and C3 (Lieutenant R. D. Sandford), were to destroy the viaduct that connected the Zeebrugge mole to the shore by exploding charges stowed in their bows.[3]

The attack would be covered by a smoke screen. Existing phosphorus based ones made dense but also created flames that were a beacon at night. Keyes therefore got Wing Commander Frank Brock, a former Royal Naval Air Service officer now serving with the newly formed Royal Air Force, to devise a substitute. Brock, a member of the family that founded and then still owned Brock’s, a large fireworks company, used chlor-sulphonic acid to produce dense smoke without flames. It was also used in saxin, a synthetic substitute for sugar, and 82 tons were needed. There was only one British manufacturer, so tea drinkers who used sugar substitutes had to drink unsweetened tea in order to provide enough chlor-sulphonic acid.[4]

The German coastal defences were formidable. There were also anti-aircraft batteries, including two guns on the mole. The numbers below are British estimates, which according to Mark Karau underestimate the actual numbers. However, the British estimate of 38 U-boats and 28 torpedo boats at Bruges and 30 destroyers at Zeebrugge was too high.[5]

 

Size Ostend Zeebrugge Zeebrugge Mole
Star shell howitzer 1
3.5 inch (88 mm) 4 2
4.1 inch (104 mm) 5 4 3
5.9 inch (150 mm) 15 7
6.7 inch (170 mm) 4
8.2 inch (208 mm) 4
11 inch (280 mm) 12 8
15 inch (380 mm) 4

Source: Corbett, J. S., Newbolt, H., Naval Operations. 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938), vo. v, pp.246-47.

A 580 yard long railway viaduct, just wide enough to carry the railway, connected the shore to the Zeebrugge mole. The mole curved to the north east. It was 1,850 yards long and 80 yards wide and made of masonry. There was a 16 foot tall parapet on the western (seaward) side. A narrow masonry extension 260 yards long ended with a lighthouse. The mole batteries were on the extension, with an unimpeded arc of fire on any vessels approaching. the anti-aircraft guns were in a wired position 150 yards from the end of the mole, with a trench running across the mole. The gun crews and the mole’s 1,000 man garrison were housed in reinforced concrete sheds. There was a seaplane base at the south west end of the mole, which had its own garrison and concrete sheds.[6]

The British took advice from Belgian engineers, including two men who had recently escaped and had worked on a Zeebrugge dredger during the occupation, about the best places to position the block ships. The attack was to be preceded by aerial bombing and then an hour long bombardment of Ostend by seven monitors and Zeebrugge by two monitors. Similar attacks were made in the weeks before the operation to make this seem like a routine operations.[7]

A total of 165 vessels, 82 officers and 1,698 marines and seamen took part in the operation. As well as the assault and block ships, the monitors and numerous smaller craft, 29 destroyers would participate, with seven light cruisers, two flotilla leaders and 14 destroyers of the Harwich Force covering in case German ships tried to intervene from the north east. It was not an entirely British operation, as the French contributed seven torpedo boats and four motor launches.[8]

Keyes insisted that the men on the block ships and submarines should all be volunteers and unmarried. He said that the other participants were taking no greater risks than the infantry on the Western Front, but in practice the number of men keen to take part was far more than the number needed.[9]

Keyes originally intended to command from HMS Vindictive, but then realised that he needed to be able to move around to ensure that the various parts of the operation were going well. He therefore transferred his flag to the destroyer HMS Warwick.[10]

The force sailed on 11 April. While it was en route the RAF bombed Zeebrugge. At 00:45 am the expedition stopped in order to remove from the block ships the men needed for the passage but not the assault. Before it could get underway again the wind stopped and then began to blow from the wrong direction for the smoke screens. Keyes decided that it was impossible to attack without a smoke screen and called off the mission. Coastal Motor Boat 33 was captured by the Germans, who found plans on board that revealed that a blocking expedition at Ostend was planned.[11]

Another attempt was made on 13 April, but it had to be called off because the wind was too strong. There would not be another period when there was sufficient darkness and high water for three weeks. The Admiralty was inclined to cancel the operation on the grounds that surprise had been lost and the men could not be kept cooped up for so long. Keyes, however, persuaded them to let him try again between 22 and 28 April, when the high water was suitable. However, there was a full moon on 26 April.[12]

The assault troops had been accommodated on the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Hindustan in port, but she was very crowded. Keyes arranged for HMS Dominion, another old battleship, to be sent in order to improve the living conditions ahead of the second attempt.[13]

The weather forecast on 22 April was favourable, with strength and direction of the wind being suitable and a good chance of clouds to obscure the moon. The expedition therefore set sail that day, with the attack to take place in the early hours of 23 April: St George’s Day.[14]

The aerial attack had to be cancelled because of rain, but the monitors started to bombard Ostend at 11:10 pm and Zeebrugge 20 minutes later. Coastal motor boats began to lay smoke screens at 11:30 pm and attacked the western end of the Zeebrugge mole in order to distract the Germans from the approaching Vindictive. Keyes had HMS Warwick positioned so that he could see both the attack on the mole and the approach of the block ships.[15]

 

Zeebrugge Raid 23 April 1918. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeebrugge_Raid

The Germans did not realise what was happening until the last minute, but then benefitted from a change in the wind. The smokescreen was blown across the approach routes, meaning that British vessels could not see each other, but the Germans could see them as they emerged from the smoke. Vindictive emerged just after midnight, coming under heavy fire. She suffered heavy casualties and many of her guns were put out of action. Captain H. C. Halahan, commander of the naval landing parties, Lieutenant-Colonel B. H. Elliot, commander of the Royal Marine landing parties and Major A. A. Cordner, his second in command, were all killed.[16]

Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil managed to get alongside the mole, a considerable feat of seamanship. Anchoring was very difficult. The surviving landing parties managed to get onto the mole under heavy fire. They could not destroy the mole’s guns, but the attack on the mole succeeded as a diversion. The Germans saw the block ships entering the harbour but probably assumed that the attack on the mole was the first stage in a landing.[17]

The towline of C1, one of the two submarines that were to be blown up against the rail viaduct connecting the mole to the shore, parted, meaning that only C3 reached the start line. Her crew were meant to abandon ship after setting her on a course for the viaduct, but her captain Sandford decided to ram the viaduct with the crew still on board and then light the fuses. They then took to a motor skiff that they had to row because of damage to its engine. They were just clear when the explosives blew up and destroyed 100 feet of the viaduct, including the telephone wires connecting the defenders of the mole to the German headquarters, They were then firing on HMS Thetis, the first of the block ships.[18]

Thetis was badly damaged and then was fouled by nets that had been laid across the harbour. She was unable to proceed to her target lock gates and ran aground before detonating her explosive charges. She had, however, cleared the way for Intrepid and Iphegenia to reach their target, where they grounded and blew themselves up. Motor launches took off the crews of the block ships. The British then withdrew, but the destroyer HMS North Star was sunk by the battery at the head of the mole. The destroyer HMS Phoebe took most of her crew off. Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil managed to withdraw, covered by Keyes’s flagship Warwick.[19]

The attempt to block Ostend failed, however. The shift in the wind had a more serious effect there. The Stroom Bank buoy had been moved a mile east of the position that the British expected it to be in. the block ship captains could not be sure of their positions because of the smoke blowing towards them. When they sighted the Stroom Bank buoy they did not realise that it had been moved, steered on a course based on it being in its previous position and sank their ships in the wrong place.

The British lost two motor launches and HMS North Star plus the block ships and submarines deliberately sacrificed. They reported 70 dead, 400 wounded and 45 missing. I counted 199 listed on naval-history.net as dying at Zeebrugge on 23 April and 16 of dying of wounds during the next week, but there are probably others who later died of wounds. Wikipedia, sourcing P. Kendall, The Zeebrugge Raid 1918: The Finest Feat of Arms (Brimscombe Port: Spellmount, 2009), says that British casualties were 227 dead and 356 wounded. The Germans claimed that 214 British were killed, 383 wounded and 19 captured, themselves losing Germans lost eight dead and 16 wounded. The German destroyers V69 and S53 were lightly damaged and S63 heavily damaged but remained seaworthy.[20]

One of the German dead was Matrose [Seaman] Hermann Künne, who had previously killed a British officer, probably Brock, in a cutlass fight.

The success at Zeebrugge and failure at Ostend led Keyes to propose another attack on Ostend. This was approved, but the British could not be ready to carry it out until the next period of favourable tides, which began on 9 May.[21]

The Zeebrugge canal was left unusable at low tide. Admiral Ludwig von Schröder, the local German commander, feared at first that it would also be blocked at high tide, but four relatively small German torpedo boats though it on the evening on 24 April, with a U-boat following the next day. The larger destroyers would have to use the Ostend canal. By 14 May salvage work allowed them to use the Zeebrugge canal at high tide and a wooden walkway allowing foot and bicycle traffic to and from the mole was completed on 8 June,[22]

The raid was executed very gallantly but its main effect was to boost Allied morale at a time when their armies on the Western Front were retreating as a result of the German March Offensive. Flanders based U-boats had to travel round Scotland to reach the Atlantic because of the Dover Barrage, which the German attack of 14-15 February showed could be attacked by destroyers based in the Helgoland Bight without them having to go via Bruges. The Germans, however, chose not to repeat that successful operation. . Both sides were happy enough with the outcome of the Zeebrugge Raid to give their commander a high award: the oak leaves to the Pour le Merite, popularly known as the Blue Max, for von Schröder; and a knighthood for Keyes.

Eight men were awarded the VC: the citations. originally published in the London Gazette, are on naval-history.net. Four of the awards were made under Clause 13 of the Victoria Cross Warrant. It allows that in a case where a large number of members of a unit deserve the VC it should be awarded by ballot of their peers. In this case the officers and the other ranks of the crews of the assault ships and the naval landing parties and the officers and the other ranks of the marine landing parties each selected one of their number.

Six awards were announced in July 1918, all to survivors and including the four Clause 13 medals. The naval officers chose Carpenter and the naval other ranks Able Seaman Albert McKenzie. The marine officers voted for Captain Edward Bamford and the marine other ranks for Serjeant Norman Finch. The other two went to Sandford of C3 and Lieutenant Percy Dean, commanding Motor Launch 282, which picked up survivors of the block ship,

The award of posthumous VCs to Lieutenant Commander George Bradford, RN and Lieutenant Commander Arthur Harrison, RN, were announced in March 1919. Both had commanded landing parties.

Barrie Pitt’s book Zeebrugge: Eleven VCs before Breakfast also covers the 10 May attack on Ostend, in which another three VCs were awarded. It will be the subject of a later post.

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i, pp. 25-50.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, -pp. 242-44.

[3] Ibid., p. 245; M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), p. 190.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 245-46.

[5] Karau, Naval, pp. 187-88.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 247.

[7] Ibid., p. 249.

[8] Ibid., pp. 249-50.

[9] B. Pitt, Zeebrugge: Eleven Vcs before Breakfast (London: Cassell Military, 2003), p. 60.

[10] Ibid., p. 69.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v. pp. 251-52.

[12] Pitt, Zeebrugge, p. 82.-81

[13] Ibid.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v. pp. 252-53.

[15] Ibid., pp. 254-55.

[16] Ibid., p. 256.

[17] Ibid., pp. 256-60.

[18] Ibid., pp. 260-61.

[19] Ibid., pp. 261-64.

[20] Karau, Naval, p. 196.

[21] Ibid., p. 198.

[22] Ibid., pp. 200-3.

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