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Zeebrugge 1918

The Great War’s Greatest Raid

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The force sailed again on April 13. Unfavorable winds, soon after leaving port, again forced a recall. Keyes was afraid that the aborted raids had alerted the Germans (they had). He could not keep the force in readiness until the next month’s moonless nights. He requested permission to attack as soon as winds and tides permitted, even in bright moonlight.

The Raid Goes In

The force sailed for the third time on the evening of April 22. By midnight, the wind still stood fair. The raid would take place on April 23, St. George’s Day, the patron saint of England. Keyes signaled the force by shrouded blinker light, “St. George for England.” Capt. Alfred Carpenter, commanding Vindictive, signaled back, “May we give the dragon’s tail a damned good twist.”

This time, the coastal motorboats were able to put down their thick smokescreen. This and the engine noise – the Germans had sophisticated sound detection equipment – alerted the defenses, already at high readiness. German coast artillery was locked and loaded when, just before midnight, Vindictive emerged from the smokescreen 200 yards from the most heavily defended section of the mole.

Iris-and-Daffodil-Zeebrugge

Iris (right) and Daffodil, the two ferryboats that went alongside the mole in support of Vindictive. They somehow survived the intense German fire. Author’s collection

Carpenter wrote, “the noise was terrific and the flashes of the mole guns seemed to be within arm’s length. Of course it was, to all intents and purposes, impossible for the mole guns to miss their target. They literally poured projectiles into us. In about five minutes we had reached the mole, but not before the ship had suffered a great amount of damage to both material and personnel.”

Vindictive’s surviving Marines and sailors were supposed to surge up gangways and ramps onto the mole and take the German gun positions. These had been shot to pieces by machine-gun fire from concrete emplacements. Most of the gunners aboard Vindictive were already casualties. Those that remained shot it out with the German guns. This gave Royal Marine Sgt. Harry Wright and his comrades of the assault force a chance. “Up the ramp we dashed, carrying our ladders and ropes, passing our dead and wounded lying everywhere and the big gaps made in the ship’s decks by shellfire. Finally we crossed the two remaining gangways, which were only just hanging together, and jumped onto the concrete wall, only to find it swept by machine-gun fire. Our casualties were so great before the landing that of a platoon of 45 men only 12 landed.”

Vindictive had landed against the mole 300 yards – all swept by machine guns and offering little cover – farther away from the coastal guns than planned. The tide was pushing Vindictive farther out of position. Two commandeered Liverpool ferry boats – Daffodil and Iris – had followed Vindictive to the mole and somehow survived the coast artillery’s fire. Daffodil pushed the cruiser alongside the mole, against the tide. Iris tried to land its Royal Marine reinforcements onto Vindictive.

Vindictive-modifications-Zeebrugge

HMS Vindictive steaming toward Zeebrugge, April 22, 1918. This image shows the full extent of the modifications for storming the mole, including the multiple brows and ramps, the splinter mat-armored foretop, the highest point of the ship (with machine guns and quick-firing cannons). Forward of that is the conning tower (where Capt. Alfred Carpenter was) and forward of that was a mount for a large flamethrower (another is aft). These were put out of action by German shellfire before they could be used. Smoke from only the after stack shows that the forward boilers have been secured. Author’s collection

The German guns, pounding the Vindictive, had not seen the obsolete British submarine C3. Running on the surface, it rammed the viaduct’s supports. It had been packed with 5 tons of explosives. Its skeleton crew set the delay fuse. Under heavy fire, they took to a small boat.

The viaduct exploded in an orange blossoming of flame. Leading Seaman William Cleaver wrote, “the boat rocked and swayed as though possessed. Flames shot up to a tremendous height. In their glare was visible a great break in the mole.”

HMS Thetis, Intrepid, and Iphigenia, the three blockships, emerged from the smokescreen. Their mission: to run through German gunfire to the mouth of the canal where it emptied into Zeebrugge harbor. Under heavy fire, Thetis’ screws caught in a harbor defense net. Prevented from turning broadside across the channel, Thetis grounded on a sandbank.  Intrepid, turning broadside to block the channel, discovered it to be broader than the blockship was long. Iphigenia got closer to the canal lock gates, but had not been ordered to ram them. The crews, escaping in small boats, were picked up by motor launches.

Vindictive-machine-gun-fire-Zeebrugge

HMS Vindictive after Zeebrugge, showing her funnels riddled with machine-gun fire from the German defenses on the mole. Library of Congress

On the mole, Marines and sailors had been fighting a savage close-quarters battle. On Vindictive, Carpenter experienced “the terrific noise, the darkness, the bursting of shell and the hail of machine-gun fire.” He sounded the recall signal. Carrying their wounded with them, the survivors made a fighting withdrawal to Vindictive and the two ferryboats, all somehow still afloat. The destroyer HMS North Star, covering the withdrawal, closed in, firing guns and torpedoes. It was hit repeatedly by the coast guns and started to sink.

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