Topic: BatzN - Zeebrugge
Belgium, 22-23 April 1918
Zeebrugge, a naval operation conducted against the Flanders coast on 22-23 April 1918, aimed at closing off the Belgian port of Bruges from use as a base for German submarines. The port itself lay thirteen kilometres inland, its access to the sea being via a ship canal exiting at Zeebrugge or a series of minor waterways leading into Ostend harbour. Both exits were vulnerable to blockage if ships could be sunk in their narrow mouths, although such an enterprise was an especially difficult undertaking. Not only was the entrance at Zeebrugge shielded by a 2.5 kilometre long mole, swinging in an arc from west of the canal mouth to provide a barrier against fierce North Sea storms and creating an artificial harbour, but the whole stretch of coastline from Nieuport to Knokke was heavily fortified by more than 200 German guns ranging in calibre from 3.5 inches to 15 inches.
In February 1918 a call was made among naval units in Britain, seeking volunteers for 'special service'. Men from the RAN battlecruiser Australia (then in port at Rosyth, Scotland) offered themselves, and one officer and ten ratings (five seamen, five stokers) were chosen. These were detached for training at Chatham depot, before being assigned to ships in the attacking force. The core of this force was five old light cruisers specially prepared as blockships – three (Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia) planned for use at Zeebrugge, the other two (Brilliant and Sirius) against Ostend. The stokers from Australia joined the crew of Thetis, the leader of the ships to block the channel, while the seamen joined HMS Vindictive as bomber - throwers in a storming party to he landed on the Zeebrugge mole. The officer, Artificer Engineer William Edgar, was placed in charge of the engine room of the Mersey ferry-boat Iris, whose role was to attend Vindictive during the landing of the storming party.
The attacking force sailed late on the afternoon of 22 April, 146 vessels making for Ostend while 76 headed for Zeebrugge. The latter group was nearing its objectives when the Germans opened fire at 11.50 p.m. Although lashed by hire from the defenders' guns, Vindictive succeeded in reaching the mole although sadly out of position, and with the assistance of Daffodil, one of the two supporting ferry boats managed to land her storming parties. A company of naval assault personnel in Iris could not also be put ashore, however, because of' the water turbulence and the fact that the scaling ladders carried on board were too short. The success of the submarine C3 in reaching its assigned position under a section of viaduct near the mole's land-end, before tonnes of high explosive packed on board were detonated, ensured that the garrison did not receive reinforcements which made the storming parties' task impossible.
Meanwhile the three blockships charged forward, making for the canal mouth. Subjected to massive enemy fire and caught in a strong current, Thetis missed the gap in the enemy's net defences and became ensnared, trailing this wreckage which eventually pulled her up 300 metres short of the canal mouth where she went aground. The two vessels following managed to get inside the two piers which jutted out into the sea from either side of the entrance, before charges were blown which put them on the silty bottom. The crews of all three ships were taken off by a motor launch, but only after the storm of fire directed at this vessel had caused heavy casualties among the men packing its decks.
An hour after the action began the signal was given for the attackers to withdraw. Retrieving as many of the assault personnel as could get hack, Vindictive and her two ferry-boat consorts pulled away from the mole while making thick smoke to mask their escape. At this moment Iris had the misfortune to be hit by heavy shells fired blind by the enemy through the smokescreen. The explosions caused heavy casualties and set the vessel on fire, but Iris still managed to reach Dover at 2.45 p.m. that same day under her own power.
While the Zeebrugge raid had broadly achieved its goal, that on Ostend failed completely. The action of the Germans late on the afternoon of 22 April in shifting or removing two marker buoys critical to accurate navigation meant that the attacking squadron lost its way. The two blockships went ashore on the sand north of their intended mark, their crews also being picked up by motor launches. The failure of this part of the operation prompted a second attempt against Ostend on 9-10 May, this time using the battered Vindictive as blockship. It, too, failed to quite achieve the desired result, in that the old cruiser sank just clear of the central channel into the harbour. This mattered less, however, since only small shallow-draught vessels could use the canal system here, and ocean-going submarines and destroyers already at Bruges were thus bottled up. And although the Germans managed to bring Zeebrugge back into service by removing the piers and dredging the sides of the canal, this still only made possible the passage of small submarines at high tide.
In addition to restricting the use of the port facilities at Bruges, the Allies had won a significant moral victory with this epic raid. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won during the combined operation of 22-23 April. Although heavy, losses had not been crushing; in the 1,784-strong Zeebrugge assault force, for example, there were 170 killed and 400 wounded. None of the Australians present were among the casualties - Australia was, in fact, the only ship providing volunteers who did not post losses. This was purely by good luck, since one of the stokers in Thetis recorded that on making their way from the wrecked blockship they were obliged to row a lifeboat some 800 metres under fire before being picked up by a motor launch. At the height of Iris's withdrawal, Edgar had also braved fire on the upper deck to turn on the vessel's smoke apparatus; his service in the action earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and promotion to Engineer Lieutenant rank. Three of the RAN seamen in Vindictive were also awarded Distinguished Service Medals.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 143-145.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
Arthur W . Jose, ( 1928), The Royal Australian Navy 1914-1918, Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: Zeebrugge, Belgium, April 22 to 23, 1918