An aerial view of Zeebrugge (1918)
For much of World War One, the German U-Boat reigned supreme on the seas. Much of these submarines originated from the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend occupied by the German Navy. Their proximity to England presented a major hazard to shipping and transportation for the Allies and “Britain’s continuing ability to wage war depended upon blocking the exits from both ports…thus denying German submarines convenient bases.” The plan to raid the two ports was secretly formulated in February 1918 by the British Admiralty with the objectives of; first, taking out a heavily fortified “mole” or jetty at the mouth of Zeebrugge and second, intentionally sinking ships in the harbor to block the port. The majority of the seventy-five dilapidated ships involved in the operation would be committed to the attack at Zeebrugge, while a smaller force was sent to Ostend with similar intentions.
It was decided to use derelict ships for the operation, and each spent months of overhaul, being scrapped and outfitted for their specific purpose, be it transportation or scuttling. W. Wainright, a sailor involved in the raid, described the Vindictive, the lead ship used to land troops under cover of smokescreen at the entrance to the Brugges Canal, as “an exceedingly unique specimen of warship, there being no comparison to her former days when she had been a pride to all who sailed in her..she had been stripped bare of everything bar the essential parts…she was ugly, as she lay there, a veritable floating fortress, a death-trap fitted with all the ingenious contrivances of war that human brain could think of.” This rag-tag fleet also consisted of ferries, the Iris and Daffodil and other ships, the Thetis, Intrepid, Iphegenia, Sirius, and Brilliant, surrounded by destroyers, and submarines to aid in the attack.
The dangerous trip across the Channel would take ten hours. Leading up to the raid, few sailors understood the enormity of what they were about to face, according to the memories of Wainwright. “I doubt if any there thought of the serious mission of this strangely assorted fleet…practically everybody snatched an hour or two’s sleep before the fateful zero hour; how anyone could sleep with an adventure like the one before us speaks volumes for the mental and physical fitness of the party.” When called to their stations, they did so “leisurely as if going to a football match.” Immediately before the battle, as Wainwright recalled, “the magnitude of the scheme overwhelmed (them)–the sheer audacity of tackling a place like Zeebrugge under the muzzles of the world-famed Blankenberghe Battery, where a change in the wind or tide at the critical moment would undoubtedly result in the total loss of the expedition.” The attack on Zeebrugge would begin early in the morning of 23 April 1918.
All casualness was left aside, however, as the operation began badly. Unexpected winds would disrupt the effectiveness of the smokescreen that was deployed to cover the troop landing. The diversion that the Vindictive was suppose to provide by taking possession of the mole, became almost all for naught. The Vindictive took heavy fire from the Germans and moored in the wrong position, causing its guns to be of little use in providing cover fire for the landed troops. Any ships attempting to enter the harbor would be sitting ducks; the blockships Iphegenia, Intrepid, and Thetis had little time to get into position for sinking. The mole would remain untaken, and German guns were able to disable the blockships, preventing them from scuttling themselves “in their correct pre-assigned locations at the narrow entrance to the canal.” A submarine, commanded by Lt. Richard Sandford, would ram the mole and cause an explosion which “left a gaping hole 100 feet wide,” lessening the barrage of German guns and buying considerable time for troops to make it to the transport ships.
The chaos of the battle shook those that participated in it. Wainwright recalled how “all the venom and hatred of the shore batteries seemed concentrated on us…salvo after salvo struck the ship, doing indescribable damage…where all the storming party were awaiting to land…it was hell with a vengeance and it seemed well-nigh miraculous that human beings could live in such an inferno.” The Germans barrage upon the Vindictive was unrelenting “and the dead and wounded were piled up three or four deep.” However, “the remnants of the platoon staggered through, reorganized, and carried on as though.” It was “not inspiring,” Wainwright wrote in his diary to see “the youth of England, laughing, cheering, and swearing, rushing into what seemed certain death.” He found it “heart-breaking” to witness such an event, thinking “that in these enlightened days, the youth of the country (were) being butchered in the cause of civilization.”
The “success” of the operation came with a high price tag. The British suffered approximately 200 fatalities, roughly 500 total casualties in all. Eight Victoria Crosses, the highest British honor for battlefield valor, were awarded. While the operation at Ostend was considered a failure, the battle at Zeebrugge was presented as “a tremendous British victory by Allied propaganda.” Another attempt would be made a month later at Ostend, but again, fail. The raid at Zeebrugge, however, “did not in reality hinder German operations from either port for more than a few days.” Victory was claimed by the Germans who saw themselves as successful in holding both harbors. Zeebrugge was quickly back in service and it took just a few days for U-boats to make it past the scuttled ships.
Duffy, Michael. “The Raid on Zeebrugge, 1918.” http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/zeebrugge.htm (8 January 2010).
Sandford, Daniel. “Heroes of Zeebrugge.” BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/southwest/series9/week_four.shtml (8 January 2010).
Wainwright, W. “Memoirs & Diaries – Zeebrugge.” http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/zeebrugge.htm (8 January 2010).
 Duffy, Michael. “The Raid on Zeebrugge, 1918.” http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/zeebrugge.htm (8 January 2010).
 Wainwright, W. “Memoirs & Diaries – Zeebrugge.” http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/zeebrugge.htm (8 January 2010).