Zeebrugge Raid and Naval Operations in 1917

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Obstructed channel after the Zeebrugge Raid.

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One adventurous operation sanctioned by the Admiralty against the submarine menace was the Zeebrugge Raid of 23 April 1918. There had long been a variety of plans to try and block the Zeebrugge and Ostend entrances via canals to the Bruges lair of the Flanders U-boats. The final version of the plan was overseen by Vice Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. An aged – and hence expendable – cruiser, the Vindictive, was to lie alongside the long Zeebrugge harbour mole and launch an attack by a 900-strong landing party who were to overwhelm the German gun batteries covering the entrance to the harbour. To prevent reinforcements intervening the C1 and C2 submarines had each taken on board some five tons of high explosives to destroy the viaduct linking the mole with the shore. During the chaos created by these actions and amidst a smokescreen, three more old cruisers, the Thetis, the Intrepid and the Iphigenia, would be scuttled across the entrance to the Bruges Canal.

The Vindictive and the block ships were all crewed by volunteers. When Able Seaman Wilfred Wainwright first went aboard the Vindictive he was greatly impressed by the measures that had been taken to fit her out for her special – and extremely dangerous – role alongside the Zeebrugge Mole.

She had been stripped bare of everything bar the essential parts, her mainmast having gone and her foremast cut short above the fighting top. Along her portside ran an immense wooden chafing band reinforced with huge hazelwood fenders and on the port quarter a part of the main mast had been cemented to the deck to enable her to lay alongside any wall without swinging out, head on stern. Covering her port battery ran a false deck lined with sandbags, and towering above this deck was an array of improvised gangways, sixteen in all, flanked by two huge metal huts housing the foremost and aftermost flame throwers. At the break of the fo’c’sle and the quarter deck were two grapnels fitted to wire pennants and leading respectively to the foremost and after capstans. Here fore and after guns had been replaced by 7.5 howitzers and midships abaft the after funnel was an 11-inch howitzer, the port battery had been replaced with 2-pound pom-poms, with the exception of the foremost and after 6-inch gun, whilst two pom-poms adorned the fighting top. There is no denying it she was ugly, as she lay there, a veritable floating fortress, a deathtrap fitted with all the ingenious contrivances of war that the human brain could think of, but we took unholy pride and a fiendish delight in her.

Ordinary Seaman Wilfred Wainwright, HMS Vindictive

Naturally, the atmosphere was extremely tense aboard the ships as they sailed across the North Sea. The men could not but be aware of the terrible risks they were taking. The success of the raid demanded that almost everything went off perfectly. There was no margin for error. But for the most part they were young and ready for anything. As they approached the mole, despite the smokescreen, they were soon detected and exposed to close-range fire from the German batteries.

Night had turned into day by searchlights and star shells, and all the venom and hatred of the shore batteries seemed concentrated on us, salvo after salvo struck the ship, doing indescribable damage in the packed starboard battery where all the storming party were awaiting to land; the foremost howitzer’s crew were wiped out with the exception of the voice pipeman, who was a couple of yards away. The strangest part of this was that the trench mortar battery, not more than 4 feet away, did not receive injury at that time. Within the space of a few seconds the leading seaman in charge of our battery had been hit in the back of the head, whilst half a dozen of our battery had received superficial scratches. We were now alongside the Mole and sheltered a little from the murderous hail of shell from the forts, which continued to keep up a burst of shrapnel around our funnels, which showed up and made excellent targets. Every gun in the Vindictive that could bear had now given tongue and the night was made hideous by the nerve-racking shatter of the pom-poms, the deep bell-like boom of the howitzers and trench mortars, and all-pervading rattle of musketry and machine-gun fire; it was hell with a vengeance and it seemed well-nigh miraculous that human beings could live in such an inferno.

Ordinary Seaman Wilfred Wainwright, HMS Vindictive

Just after midnight the Vindictive had crashed alongside the Mole some 300 yards further away from the German fortified area and gun batteries than had been intended. This added to the already intense difficulties facing the landing parties forced to clamber ashore under heavy fire.

Already a gaping hole had been torn in the side of our ship by a shell. As we swarmed down the landing boards we hurriedly bade our nearest comrade ‘goodbye’ and ‘good luck’. Each section had its appointed task. Shells were raking backwards and forwards, terrific explosions followed, and groans and cries and shouts filled the air. Star shells shed their light on the scene, and all the time our lads were creeping steadily forwards in the darkness, pelting away at the black masses of the enemy, which loomed ahead.

Able Seaman Cyril Widdison, HMS Vindictive

It proved impossible to reach the batteries so they did what damage they could. Private William Gough was encumbered with a flamethrower intended for use against the occupants of sheds located on the inner side of the mole.

The flamethrower was a heavy, unwieldy cylinder containing a mixture of fuel oil and petrol, squirted from a nozzle, and ignited by a electrically fired flare in front of the nozzle. The jet of flame extended for about 30 yards. Because of the awkwardness of this weapon, I lost much time reaching the sheds, having to negotiate several obstacles including a 15–20 foot wall, using ropes and ladders to scramble down it. As a result I lost touch with my little party of marines. On reaching my objective, and entering the shed, I realised I was not needed there. The building had been blown up leaving four wrecked walls, shattered rifles and two dead Germans. Pressing on, I found myself up against an iron handrail at the water’s edge, and in front of me a German destroyer, with her guns firing and most of her crew on deck. I turned my flammenwerfer on them, sweeping the deck with flames. I must have killed a whole lot of them. I tried to reach the bridge, from which someone was potting at me with a revolver, but the range was too great, and my flamethrower ran out of fuel. As the bullets from a machine-gun further up the mole got too close for comfort, I left my now useless weapon and took cover behind a low wall.16

Private William Gough, 4th Battalion, Royal Marines, HMS Vindictive

Getting back on to the Vindictive was no easy matter.

Just after one o’clock the retreat was sounded, and all those of us who were left ran breathlessly back – ran for our lives amid a hail of shot and shell. Of 14 or 16 landing boards only two remained, and these creaked and bent ominously as 300 or 400 of us scrambled aboard. Some of us were helping wounded comrades along; and whilst other fellows had to be carried aboard, I found one poor lad lying helplessly on the shore, only a few yards from the gangway, and with a pal’s assistance I managed to get him safely on board.

Able Seaman Cyril Widdison, HMS Vindictive

From the Vindictive Captain Alfred Carpenter watched the block ships make their way into the harbour, sadly still under heavy fire from the mole batteries. They had all been filled to the gills with concrete in readiness for the detonation of explosive charges placed aboard their hulls to facilitate rapid scuttling.

We saw Thetis come steaming into the harbour in grand style. She made straight for the opening to the Canal, and you can imagine that she was a blaze of light and a target for every big thing they could bring to bear. She was going toppingly, all the same, when she had the rotten luck to catch her propeller in the defence nets. Even then, however, she did fine work. She signalled instructions to the Intrepid and Iphigenia, and so they managed to avoid the nets. It was a gorgeous piece of co-operation! In went Intrepid, and in after her went Iphigenia. They weren’t content, you know, to sink themselves at the mouth of the Canal. That was not the idea at all. They had to go right in, with guns firing point-blank at them from both banks, sink their ships, and get back as best they could. And they did it. They blocked that Canal as neatly and effectively as we could have wished in our most optimistic moments, and then, thanks to the little motor-launches, which were handled with the finest skill and pluck, the commanders and men got back to safety. As soon as we saw that the block ships were sunk we knew that our job was done.

Captain Alfred Carpenter, HMS Vindictive

As they withdrew it was time for the British to count the cost: they had lost a destroyer and two motor launches and suffered 170 dead, 400 wounded and 45 missing. But had Captain Carpenter been right? Had they really managed to block the Zeebrugge entrance to the Bruges Canal? Certainly, the simultaneous raid on Ostend had been an abject failure, but at least at first there seemed good reason to celebrate success at Zeebrugge and eight VCs were awarded. In the event, the Germans were merely inconvenienced in their navigation by the block ships before a new channel was dredged just three weeks later. All that the British had achieved was a short-lived propaganda coup which had no effect on the submarine war in contrast to the less glamorous hard graft of convoys escort details where the submarine war was being fought and won.

Coincidentally, the High Seas Fleet had made a sortie on 24 April 1918 into the North Sea to try and intercept one of the regular Scandinavian convoys. These large convoys were often escorted by heavy ships and posed a tempting – and isolated – target. This time the Germans concealed their intentions from the British by maintaining strict wireless silence and a great success looked likely. Yet, for all the planning, Scheer had omitted to check with the German embassy in Norway as to the sailing dates of the convoys. In fact, none was scheduled for 24 April. The problems mounted when the battlecruiser Moltke suffered a catastrophic engine breakdown which ultimately required her to be taken in tow. The wireless signals exchanged during this incident were intercepted by Room 40 with the result that Beatty and the Grand Fleet sailed from Rosyth, steaming across the North Sea on an intercepting course. In the end, they were too late and Scheer escaped back to harbour. Both sides had failed, but the British still held the ring around Germany. It would be the last outing for the High Seas Fleet.

In August Scheer was appointed Chief of the German Admiralty Staff, with Hipper succeeding him as Commander in Chief of the High Seas Fleet. The British considered Hipper more aggressive than Scheer and nurtured hopes that ‘Der Tag’ might finally dawn. They were also well aware of evidence of unrest in the German fleet. Crews, cooped up in harbour for too long, had been increasingly influenced by socialist propaganda. British optimists hoped that the Germans might despatch the fleet off to sea – to allow the simmering crews to kill or be killed. In the event Hipper did plan one last great operation in the North Sea, but it was stillborn when the German crews mutinied on being ordered to leave Wilhelmshaven on 29 October. Seaman Richard Stumpf watched events from the pre-dreadnought Lothringen.

We all knew within our hearts – today is the last time we shall ever see many of our ships. My mind contemplated what would happen if we engaged and destroyed the enemy fleet. I toyed with the most grotesque possibilities. In the final analysis this might still result in our victory. Soon, however, an impregnable veil of fog descended upon the sea. The weather made any thought of sailing out impossible. In the sea of fog and fine rain one could no longer make out the stem of the vessel from amidship. Soon thereafter we heard that the stokers on three battlecruisers had deliberately allowed the fires to die down and had even extinguished them. At this time about a hundred men from Von der Tann were running loose about town; Seydlitz and Derfflinger were missing men. Thus the fleet could not have sailed even if there had been no fog. It is sad, tragic that it could go so far as this. But somehow even with the best of intentions I cannot suppress a certain sense of Schadenfreude. What has happened to the almighty power of the proud captains and staff engineers? Now at last, after many years, the suppressed stokers and sailors realise that nothing, no, nothing, can be accomplished without them. On the Thüringen, the former model ship of the fleet, the mutiny was at its worst. The crew simply locked up the petty officers and refused to weigh anchor. The men told the Captain that they would only fight against the English if their fleet appeared in German waters. They no longer wanted to risk their lives uselessly.

Seaman Richard Stumpf, SMS Lothringen

The High Seas Fleet was finished as a combative force. Hipper called off the operation and dispersed his fleet to try and dispel the mutiny. A subsequent investigation carried out by Hipper’s Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Adolf von Trotha, ranged wide and in its findings echoed earlier pre-war fears as to Germany’s ability to withstand a prolonged conflict against the Triple Entente.

There appears to be ample proof that our armed forces were unable to withstand such a long war, as soon as the moral boost of success was missing and particularly when want and deprivation were presenting the Home Front with such a prodigious struggle. The unceasing depletion in the front line ranks, of youthful enthusiasm and ability in officers and men; their replacement by older age groups already burdened by home worries, or by the very young and inexperienced age-groups, already influenced by the eroding effects of the struggle on the Home Front – this endless and inevitable trend created an unsound foundation and provided the essential ingredients for discontent. In spite of its much lighter losses, this process wormed its way into the Navy, too.

Rear Admiral Adolf von Trotha, Headquarters, High Seas Fleet

The German Navy had been defeated. Worse still, it had never really been put to the test in full-scale battle. No one would ever know what might have been had they sought out battle in 1914 when the Royal Navy was at its most stretched. The High Seas Fleet was a ‘risk fleet’ that in the end the Kaiser lacked the nerve. The Royal Navy was left frustrated not to have secured the destruction of the High Seas Fleet in battle; that indeed would rankle as long as the memoirs were written. Yet it had carried out its main duties in the Great War successfully. The safe passage of the British Army to the Western Front had been secured and guaranteed; the sea ways across the globe had been defended, even against the U-boat threat; and throughout the war Germany had been partially starved of raw materials by the blockade. These were the valuable rewards of the exercise of pure naval power. In the end the High Seas Fleet created by Tirpitz at such expense, the fleet that had guaranteed British enmity towards Germany, had not achieved much more than the harbour-locked Prussian fleet during the Franco-Prussian War back in 1870. It had all been for nothing.

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