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

On this day – The Battle of the Sunda Strait – 28 February 1942

HMAS Perth Sunda Strait.JPG

The naval Battle of the Sunda Strait began on this day 76 years ago.

Sunda Strait lies between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. On the night of 28 February-1 March 1942 it was the location for a fierce naval battle between the Australian modified Leander class light cruiser HMAS Perth (shown above during the battle) and the American Northampton class heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30), and a numerically superior Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) task force.

Following the disatrous Battle of the Java Sea the day before, late on 28 February 1942, USS Houston and HMAS Perth received orders to sail through Sunda Strait to Tjilatjap, on the south coast of Java.  They departed without any escort at 7pm under the command of Captain Hector Waller (shown below), the Commanding Officer of HMAS Perth.

Hec Waller

At 10pm that night the Japanese invasion convoy of over 50 transports was entering Bantam Bay near the north west tip of Java. The convoy was escorted by the 5th Destroyer Flotilla (8 destroyers) and 7th Cruiser Division (3 cruisers).

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At 11.15pm the Japanese destroyer IJS Fubuki sighted the allied Cruisers halfway across Bantam Bay. In the ferocious action that followed both HMAS Perth and USS Houston (shown below) were sunk with the loss of 1,071 sailors lives. Japanese losses were two Transports and a minesweeper.

USS Houston Sunda Strait

The Captains of both Allied ships were among those lost. Captain Albert Rooks of USS Houston was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

You can find out more about HMAS Perth II here: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-perth-ii

You can find out more about USS Houston here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Houston_(CA-30)

Customs and Traditions – Naval Pennants

HMS Ocean

With HMS Ocean (L12) entering Portsmouth for the final time late last week flying her paying off pennant, before she is decommissioned and transfered to the Brazilian Navy, it is worthwhile looking at the naval tradition of flying pennants.

A pennant is a flag that is larger at the hoist than at the fly, and can have several shapes, such as triangular, tapering or triangular and swallow-tailed.

In the days of chivalry, knights carried pennants on their lances, just as men-of-war flew pennants from their masts. During the conflicts of the thirteenth century, when merchant ships were commandeered and placed in command of military officers they transferred their pennants from their lances to the mastheads of the ships they commanded. The tradition continued until the end of the Napoleonic Wars when the Royal Navy adopted the style of pennants used today.

Today the pennant is hoisted on the day a warship or shore establishment commissions and is never struck until the day of decommissioning. Onboard ship the pennant is flown at the masthead, for which reason it is also commonly referred to as a ‘masthead pennant’. In the Royal Navy (RN) today there are two types of pennant – a ‘Commissioning pennant’ and a ‘Paying off’ pennant.

In the RN the commissioning pennant (shown below) is flown continuously in every ship and shore establishment in commission unless displaced by a senior officer’s Rank flag. The masthead pennant is a cross of St George in the hoist and a white fly.

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It is the custom in many navies for a ship which is ‘paying off’ to wear an extremely long commissioning pennant, which is normally at least the length of the ship, and the length of which reflects the length of service. HMS Gloucester (D96) is shown below flying her paying off pennant in 2011 when she decommissioned.

HMS Gloucester Paying Off Pennant

The term ‘paying off’ refers to the fact that RN ships formerly ‘paid off’ each time they returned home after a commission overseas. The ship’s sailors were not paid until the ship returned home, to avoid desertion.

In the US Navy (USN) the commissioning pennant is ‘blue at the hoist, bearing seven white stars; the rest of the pennant consists of single longitudinal stripes of red and white’. Like their RN cousins, ships of the USN fly the commissioning pennant from the moment of commissioning until the decommissioning ceremony. The commissioning pennant of USS McInerney (FFG 8) is shown below.

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The US Navy has no tradition of flying a paying off pennant before decommissioning. US Navy ships maintain a separate tradition of flying a ‘Homeward Bound’ pennant when returning from a deployment to their home port. The dimensions of the pennant are not prescribed by regulation, but the customary practice is one white star for the first nine months of continuous service outside the US, plus another for each additional 6 months. The overall length of the pennant is one foot for each member of the ship’s company on duty outside the United States for more than 9 months, but not to exceed the length of the ship itself. Below is a picture of USS George Washington (CVN-73) flying her 297 foot ‘Homeward Bound’ pennant returning from deployment in 2015.

USS George Washington Homeward Bound Pennant

On this day – Queen Victoria approves the introduction of the Victoria Cross (VC) awarded for gallantry ‘in the face of the enemy’ – 29 January 1856

Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross, Britain’s (and some Commonwealth countries) highest award for gallantry for members of the Armed Forces, was officially constituted by warrant on this day in 1856.

Since that time the medal has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients. Only 15 medals have been awarded since the Second World War.

As of 2018, there are six (6) living recipients of the Victoria Cross, three (3) living recipients of the Victoria Cross for Australia and one (1) living recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand. They are:

  • Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank VC, 210 Sqn RAF (awarded  for his actions in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1944)
  • Sergeant Bill Speakman VC, Black Watch attached to King’s Own Scottish Borderers (awarded for his actions in Korea in 1951)
  • Captain Rambahadur Limbu, VC, MVO, 2nd Battalion, 10th Princess Mary’s Own Gurkha Rifles (awarded for his actions in Borneo in 1965)
  • Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Payne VC, AM, Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (awarded for his actions in South Vietnam in 1969)
  • Corporal Willie Apiata VC, New Zealand Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2004
  • Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry, VC, CNG, 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (awarded for his actions in Iraq in 2005)
  • Corporal Mark Donaldson VC, Australian Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2008)
  • Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG, Australian Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2010)
  • Corporal Dan Keighran VC, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2010)
  • Corporal Joshua Leakey VC (shown below), 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2015)

Joshua Leakey VC

The largest collections of VCs in the world are held by the Ashcroft Collection in Britain (established in 1986) which now contains 210 medals and the Australian War Memorial, which has 69 medals on public display.

You can find out more about the Ashcroft Collection here: http://www.lordashcroftmedals.com/

You can find out more about the AWM collection here: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/vic_cross

 

 

 

Naval News – RFA Mounts Bay (L3008) the ‘RFA Ship of the Year 2017’

RFA Mounts Bay

The Royal Navy announced on 10 January 2018 that RFA Mounts Bay (L3008) has been awarded the title of ‘RFA Ship of the Year’ for 2017, the second year in a row that she has won the award.

RFA Mounts Bay Ships Crest

Commissioned in 2006, RFA Mounts Bay is one of three 16,000 tonne Bay-class auxiliary landing ship dock (LSD(A)) of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. She is named after Mount’s Bay in Cornwall.

RFA Mounts Bay was the first British naval vessel to arrive in the Caribbean following Hurricane Irma, which devastated Anguilla, the Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands. She remained on station for almost a month delivering aid and materials ashore.

The award allows the ship to fly the Fleet Efficiency Flag for another year.

RFA Mounts Bay Ship of the Year 2017

You can find out more about RFA Mounts Bay here: https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/our-organisation/the-fighting-arms/royal-fleet-auxiliary/landing-ships/rfa-mounts-bay

 

 

 

Naval News – HMS Ocean (L12) sold to Brazilian Navy for £84 million ($145 million)

HMS Ocean

The current flagship of the Royal Navy (RN), HMS Ocean, has been sold to Brazil for £84 million.

The 22,000-tonne Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) carrier will be formally decommissioned from the RN in spring this year. Whilst it was well known that HMS Ocean was up for sale, with interest from Brazil and Turkey, reference to the sale was contained in the Brazilian Navy’s end of year statement published on Christmas Eve. To date, no official statement confirming the sale has been released by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) or the Royal Navy.

HMS Ocean was built for £150 million and was commissioned in September 1998. She underwent a £65 million refit in 2012, extending her life by three years.

Six RN ships have borne the name HMS Ocean.

HMS Ocean Badge

Motto: Ex undis surgit victoria (‘From the waves rises victory’)

Battle Honours:  Al Faw 2003

You can find out more about HMS Ocean here: https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/our-organisation/the-fighting-arms/surface-fleet/assault-ships/hms-oceanhttps://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/our-organisation/the-fighting-arms/surface-fleet/assault-ships/hms-ocean

 

Customs & Traditions – Naval Toasts

 

The Wardroom of HMAS Vampire

There are many customs and traditions associated with the Royal Navy (RN) and many of these are carried on by other Commonwealth Navies, like the RAN, RCN and RNZN.

The Toasts of the Royal Navy are a set of traditional drinking toasts that take place during formal dinners and on particular days of the week.

The main toast, and the first one given following the completion of the dessert course at a formal dining in night, is the ‘Loyal Toast’ to the Sovereign. This toast was originally made seated, apparently due to the danger of low deckheads on wooden sailing ships, rather than potential inebriation!

Port Glass

There then follow special toasts dependent on the day of the week. They are:

  • Sunday –  “Absent Friends
  • Monday –  “Our Ships at Sea
  • Tuesday – “Our Men
  • Wednesday – “Ourselves” (as no one else is likely to be concerned for us!)
  • Thursday – “A Bloody War or a Sickly Season” (and a quick promotion!)
  • Friday – “A Willing Foe and Sea-Room
  • Saturday – “Wives and Sweethearts” (may they never meet)

In 2013 the RN changed the Tuesday and Saturday toasts to reflect the fact that women had been at sea for nearly two decades.

Officially the Tuesday toast is now “Our Sailors” and the Saturday toast is “Our Families“*. However, apparently the majority of personnel prefer the traditional toasts and they are still widely used.

Toasts are made from port glasses and typically given by the youngest officer present at a Mess dinner, in their capacity as Dining Vice President or ‘Mr Vice’.

The port is ‘passed’ in decanters to each person at the dinner to then fill their glass. Naval tradition is that the decanter should be passed along the table, as lifting it a on moving ship could result in spilling the precious liquid!

* – in the Royal Australian Navy the wording of the Saturday toast is slightly different – ‘Our Partners’. Since 1999, in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) the Thursday toast is ‘Our Navy’ and the Friday toast ‘Our Nation’.