|A Blast From the Past 1918|
|"The storming of Zeebrugge and glory on St George's Day "|
April 24th: Winston Churchill has described it as one of the finest feats of arms ever known. Others will see it as the bloodiest, and most questionable, action of the Great War .
The assault last night on the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. In little more than an hour of fighting, 200 men were killed and more than 400 wounded. The 4th Battalion of the Royal Marines was almost wiped out, ships were battered beyond recognition and at least eight heroes have been recommended for the Victoria Cross.
Admiralty sources say the raid has been a success, even if it did not achieve its object of blocking the harbour entirely to German submarines, "but it was a magnificent feat of arms, a great morale booster for Britain and there should be a respite for merchant ships carrying food across the Channel". Certainly Zeebrugge may never again be used by the Germans as a naval base.
The plans for the raid, drawn up by Admiral Sir Roger Keyes in command of the Dover Patrol, were to close canal entrances at the two ports by blockships and, at the same time, storm the Zeebrugge mole and cause as much damage as possible. The armada assembled in theThames Estuary and at Dover. It was led by the 5,750 ton cruiser Vindictive from Chatham, followed by two former Mersey ferry boats Iris and Daffodil. Three old cruisers, the 3,600 ton Thetis, Intrepid and Iphegenia their hulls filled with 1,500 tons of concrete ? were behind the ferries. Straddled across the black water were a further 160 ships. From Deal, where they had been training for weeks, came the 700strong 4th Battalion of the Royal Marines (previously stationed at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth), accompanied by 200 Royal Navy seamen in naval assault parties.
The raiding party left on April 22nd, the eve of St George's Day with Admiral Keyes on board the destroyer Warwick. His message signalled to the armada "St George for England" brought this instant reply from the Vindictive "May we give the dragon 's tail a good twist." The German battery crews othe Belgian coast saw the Vindictive emerge from the fog and smoke screen and began to fire. The action which then took place has been described as "heroic" by the officers who returned because the Vindictive, seriously hit, continued to approachh the mole at Zeebrugge with the intention of putting its guns out of action.
Storming parties assembled on the deck were mown down by shells. Some men landed on the mole and were killed immediately. A howitzer crew was wiped out so the replacement crew took their place. They, too, were all killed. A shell landed on the ship's foretop and killed everyone but a marine sergeant who continued firing. The dead and dying lay on the mole, or in the water, others were killed striving to jump the gap from the ship but they still inflicted great damage to the Belgian port. Three of the blockships also ran into trouble. The Thetis failed to reach the lock gates, the Intrepid was sunk on the western bank of the canal entrance and the Iphegenia was grounded.
A submarine, C3, managed to demolish an iron viaduct forming part of the mole and the crew made their escape in a skiff just seconds before the submarine was blown up by explosives. The return of the expedition to Dover was an event always to be remembered. Twelve times the Iris was hit with heavy loss of life but the real heroine of the night was the Vindictive. She berthed at Dover, so battered, that she was almost unrecognisable.
On board sailors were still wearing lifebelts and others were badly wounded. The landing of 151 shellmangled bodies was a saddening sight. They were taken to the Market Hall while the wounded were taken to Naval hospitals. Today King George and Queen Mary visited the hospital at Chatham and were told by one sailor: "It was bad, very bad, but it was worth it". The Royal Marines are now on their way back to their respective ports.
From Deal they marched from the depot to the railway station with heads bandaged and arms in slings, watched by hundreds of cheering people. Their rifles were decorated with flags. They were in high spirits despite the fact that their numbers had been reduced by more than half. As a mark of respect the 4th Battalion will now disband and it is unlikely that it will ever be reformed. Sadly the Ostend force was not able to achieve its aim, the ships having been grounded before reaching the canal entrance but, despite the loss of life, the Zeebrugge raid is seen as one of the most brilliant actions in the history of the Royal Navy.