On this day – The first Commando raid in history at Zeebrugge – 23 April 1918

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One hundred years ago today, on St George’s Day 1918 the Royal Navy (RN) carried out an audacious raid on the German held port of Zeebrugge in occupied Belgium. It was the first Commando raid in history.

In February 1915 Germany declared the waters around the UK and Ireland to be a war zone with any British merchant vessels encountered at risk of being sunk. Germany realised that they could not compete with British naval strength and that the only possible way they could impose a blockade on Britain was using the U-boat. Germany’s U-boat force was primarily based in Ostend in Belgium giving them good access to the sea lanes around the UK.

Zeebrugge and Ostend

Throughout the remainder of 1915 and 1916 German U-boats sank over 3.6 million tonnes of Allied and Neutral shipping and it was not until April 1917 that Britain introduced a convoy system to provide some element of protection.

Despite its introduction German U-Boats remained a serious threat to Allied shipping throughout the remainder of 1917 and into 1918. Many were based in occupied Belgium, particularly Bruges, from where U-Boats and Torpedo Boats could make their way through the canal system into the English Channel at the port of Zeebrugge.

Zeebrugge Sir Roger Keyes

In late December 1917 Rear Admiral Sir Roger Keyes (shown above) took over command of the Dover Patrol and soon set his sights on Bruges and began planning a raid on its ports, Zeebrugge and Ostend.

Zeebrugge harbour was an extremely difficult objective to attack. Keyes understood that it was too difficult to destroy the lock gates, as they were half a mile up the canal, and that the channel leading to the gates could be closed by sinking blockships in the entrance.The mouth of the canal was also protected by a Mole (see below), or breakwater, which created an artificial harbour surrounding the entrance. It was a mile and a half long and was linked to the shore by a 300 yard long causeway, half a mile west of the canal mouth.

Zeebrugge Mole

All along the Mole were German machine gun nests and artillery pieces. With another Battery of 5.9 inch heavy guns behind the Mole itself covering the entrance to the channel. In total more than 1,000 German soldiers and sailors defended the harbour.

Keyes’s overall plan was simple. The Mole would be attacked first by Royal Navy and Royal Marines landing parties, whose objective was to silence the guns. Even if all of the guns were not destroyed the attack would divert their attention from the blockships until it was too late and they were in the canal entrance.

Keyes requisitioned six obsolete Light Cruisers and selected three HMS Thetis, HMS Iphigenia, and HMS Intrepid as the blockships. Another, HMS Vindictive was modified with 18 narrow ramps on her port side, to allow her to carry the majority of the raiding party. Weapons were added where they could be installed. These included two (2) 7.5 inch howitzers, an 11-inch howitzer, sixteen (16) Lewis light machine guns and three quick-firing cannon. Sandbagged huts were built fore and aft, each one enclosing a flamethrower and all of the Cruiser’s exposed positions were covered with sandbags and mattresses.

In addition to the Cruisers, Keyes added two shallow-draft Merseyside ferryboats Iris II and Daffodil, which had all of their internal fittings removed and replaced by armour, smoke-making equipment, grapnels and scaling ladders for the remainder of the storming party.

Zeebrugge HMS C3 2

Rounding out the assault force was two old ‘C’-class submarines C1 and C3 (shown above). Each carried a small crew of six and five tons of explosive. Their mission was to work westward around the Mole to the open pier, wedge themselves beneath it, light the fuses and withdraw via small boat. The resulting explosions would destroy the pier and cutoff the Germans on the Mole.

Unsuitable weather conditions forced two earlier attempts to be aborted but by 22 April conditions had improved. That afternoon the raiding force (consisting of over 165 vessels including Cruisers, Destroyers, Monitors, Submarines and Motor Launches) weighed anchor.

By 10pm the force rendezvoused with patrolling Destroyers and were now only 15 miles from the Mole. At 11:10pm British monitors began bombarding the German coastal defences with fire opening on Zeebrugge twenty minutes later. At the same time coastal motor boats moved off at high speed and laid a preliminary smoke screen across the entire line of advance.

Two groups of coastal motor boats then attacked the western end of the Mole to distract the enemy’s attention while HMS Vindictive approached. Miraculously the entire expedition had reached its destination unreported and unobserved.

Just before midnight HMS Vindictive came through the last smoke screen, moving across the narrow strip of water that separated her from the Mole. She continued her approach under a hail of fire which inflicted heavy casualties on her crew and the landing parties. The tidal stream was also causing problems as she struggled to lay alongside the mole.

Fortunately the ferry Daffodil saw her predicament and was able to hold HMS Vindictive (see below) alongside the Mole. The first of the storming parties then made their way down the gangways to begin their assault. A few minutes later Iris II was brought alongside.

Wyllie, William Lionel, 1851-1931; The Storming of Zeebrugge Mole, St George's Day, 23 April 1918

It was soon realised that there could be no thought of rushing the battery on the Mole head as had originally been intended as HMS Vindictive had gone past her assigned position leaving German machine-guns and barbed wire between the storming parties and the gun emplacements. Consequently the mission changed to one of holding ground, as a diversionary measure, despite the attackers being the focus of nearly every German gun.

Zeebrugge-MAP-4CJun06

By now HMS Vindictive‘s upper-works were being pounded by the gun battery on the Mole and many of her guns had been knocked out as two German Destroyers berthed alongside the inner Mole added their fire to the fight. Twenty minutes after HMS Vindictive had been put alongside the situation ashore was precarious. The Royal Marines had formed a bridgehead opposite the ship’s brows while the seamen had only partially secured HMS Vindictive to the Mole.

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Meanwhile the obsolete British submarine HMS C3 under command of Lieutenant Sandford had penetrated the harbour, rammed the viaduct and wedged itself tightly between its steel girders before the crew made their escape in a small skiff under a hail of enemy fire. The resultant explosion blew away 100 feet of the viaduct and cut communications to the Mole as the three British blockships were steaming into the harbour.

The blockships passed through the fire and steamed on towards the channel and canal beyond it. HMS Thetis had by this time sustained heavy damage and was taking on tons of water causing her to list heavily. She was brought to a halt 500 metres from her objective clearing obstacles on her way that allowed HMS Intrepid and HMS Iphigenia to pass through unimpeded.

Zeebrugge HMS Iphigenia in the Bruges ship canal at Zeebrugg
THE ZEEBRUGGE RAID, 22-23 APRIL 1918 (Q 22842) The blockship HMS Iphigenia in the Bruges ship canal at Zeebrugge. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205026707

HMS Intrepid entered the channel first and once inside, was put hard over and scuttled with most of her crew withdrawing in two cutters and a skiff. HMS Iphigenia was not far behind and made for a gap on the eastern side of the channel where she too was successfully scuttled. Her crew escaped in boats which they rowed out of the harbour before being picked up by fast Motor Launches.

Zeeburgger Blockships HMS INTREPID, HMS IPHIGENIA and HMS THETIS.
THE ZEEBRUGGE RAID, 22-23 APRIL 1918 (Q 20648B) Aerial view of the blockships in the Bruges ship canal channel at Zeebrugge after the raid. From left to right the ships are HMS INTREPID, HMS IPHIGENIA and HMS THETIS. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205026705

Back at the Mole HMS Vindictive continued to draw fire. The recall was sounded and the shore parties withdrew to their battered ships, carrying their wounded with them. Twenty five minutes later HMS Vindictive (see below) and Iris II withdrew and made for open water.

hms-vindictive-after-the-zeebrugge-raid-23-april-1918-2

As they left the scene Iris II came under direct fire from the German batteries and was riddled with shells, mortally wounding her Commanding Officer. On fire and with half of her bridge blown away she eventually steamed out of range.

The attack on Zeebrugge proved only a partial success. Although the harbour and canal were blocked for several weeks the Germans soon dredged a channel around the sunken blockships allowing Destroyers and Submarines to pass with extreme difficulty. During the attack 214 British personnel were killed, 383 wounded and 16 taken prisoner.

Zeebrugge HMS INTREPID and IPHIGENlA

The exceptional bravery shown by those who took part in the raid was recognised through the award of eight (8) Victoria Crosses (VC), four of which were decided by ballot which allowed for a recipient to be elected by those present at the action when it was considered that the corporate bravery of a unit warranted the award. They were:

  • Commander (Acting Captain) Alfred Carpenter, Commanding Officer HMS Vindictive
  • Lieutenant Richard Sandford, Commanding Officer HM Submarine C3
  • Sergeant Norman Finch, Royal Marine Artillery
  • Ordinary Seaman Albert McKenzie, HMS Neptune
  • Lieutenant Commander Arthur Harrison*, HMS Hindustan
  • Major Edward Bamford*, Royal Marines
  • Lieutenant Percy Dean, Motor Launch ML 282

*= indicates a posthumous award

You can find out more about the Zeebrugge 100 centenary commemorations here: https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2018/march/29/180329-zeebrugge-raid-centenary