Some 150 minutes after the first shots were fired, the Zeebrugge raid was over. Keyes received bad news from Ostend. The two blockships, HMS Sirius and Brilliant, had been scuttled without reaching their planned locations; the plan had not provided navigators familiar with Ostend harbor for the volunteer crews. German resistance there had been less intense; Ostend had no equivalent of the heavily fortified mole and did not require an assault to suppress the defenses. The small German coastal U-boats and torpedo boats could use the lateral inland canals and the unblocked Ostend exit to go to sea.
After the Raid
Despite the loss of more than 600 men killed, wounded, and missing – German casualties had been light – Keyes was committed to using what remained of the raiding force to close Ostend, even though the element of surprise was obviously lost. Twice more, Keyes and the force went back to Ostend. On the second attempt, on the night of May 11-12, Vindictive, hastily patched together as a blockship, was scuttled in the channel of Ostend harbor. But a single blockship was not enough to block it. A third attempt, planned for June, was cancelled.
The boost to Allied morale from Zeebrugge was considerable. Winston Churchill – then Britain’s Minister of Munitions – wrote that it “may well rank as the finest feat of arms in the Great War.” The heroism of those involved had been astounding. Eleven of the raiders – including Carpenter – received the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for valor, more than in any other comparable-sized action in the war.
The Germans immediately set about repairing the damage, using dredgers to remove obstacles and create new channels. British naval bombardments and air attacks on the ports inflicted more damage and hindered repair efforts. The raid never completely blocked U-boat operations from Zeebrugge and Ostend. But the canal linking the two ports was effectively closed to larger U-boats and destroyers for 50 of the 70 days following the raid, by which time the British had been able to reinforce the defenses of the Straits of Dover. The Belgian U-boat bases remained operational until the last weeks of the war, with the victorious Allied armies advancing and the German navy, its morale collapsing, starting to mutiny.
The motivation and courage of those who carried out the Zeebrugge raid proved not to be a substitute for flaws in the improvised planning, intelligence preparation of the battlespace, and the training and rehearsal leading up to it. Tremendous heroism did not prevent heavy losses and did not yield decisive results. In the years that followed, the British – especially the Royal Navy – turned away from special operations. This proved to be a costly decision when, in 1940, Britain, standing alone against Nazi Germany, had to hastily re-create a special operations capability. Zeebrugge provided a model for direct attack special operations such as the 1942 raid on the French port of St. Nazaire.
Similarly, the small combatants – coastal motorboats and motor launches – that had played a major role in the raid were not part of the post-1918 Royal Navy. Again, they had to re-create this force when World War II loomed.
A century later, Zeebrugge’s lessons are valuable to today’s special operations forces. The direct attack mission remains a core special operations competency in all domains – land, air, and sea. Direct attack is seen as vital for countering the weapons of mass destruction that in the hands of state and non-state threats present a greater existential threat than the Kaiser’s U-boats did in 1917. Similarly, potentially powerful morale effects remain an important consideration in planning and executing special operations. The German navy’s successful defense of Zeebrugge and effective repair efforts did not prevent that service’s mutinies following within months.
Zeebrugge demonstrated that a special operations capability cannot be improvised. The hasty planning by Keyes and his staff – experienced naval officers but with no special operations experience – suffered from the need to maintain a high level of operational security. Planning and training alike were carried out in the dark, reflecting the limited intelligence support available. In addition, they didn’t understand the difficulty of what they were asking the raiders to do under heavy fire. The all-important intelligence and targeting, especially the capability to identify where the raiders might do the most damage and how the Germans might be able to mitigate the damage, was lacking.
The raiders themselves had been excluded from the planning process. They had been unable to socialize or refine Keyes’ plan. The raid’s dependence on smokescreens, the vulnerability of the unarmored landing gangways and ramps and the unprotected personnel on Vindictive, the choice of blockships and the locations where they were to sink: All these proved on the night to be costly – yet avoidable – flaws in the planning. The raiders, brave and motivated, lacked either special operations experience or even training in defeating fortified machine guns using the fire-and-movement tactics that the British Army had evolved on the Western Front.
Zeebrugge could have provided cautionary lessons to those that planned the Son Tay raid in 1970 or the Iran hostage raid in 1980. These raids were also both carried out by improvised – though high-quality – forces. The overall leaders were not experienced in special operations. Intelligence that could have made a difference between failure and success was not made available to the raiders or planners. Operational security considerations limited the raids’ training and coordination. At too many points in the plan, something failing could doom the entire mission. Multiple “moving parts” in a high-friction environment result in a high-risk operation.
Zeebrugge was planned and executed with only a limited understanding of what effective special operations – including direct attack – require to be successful. But the spirit and courage of those who carried out the raid, as well as the impact on morale that these qualities achieved, remain as important to today’s professional special operations forces as they were to the hastily improvised force of volunteers that attacked Ostend and Zeebrugge on April 23, 1918.
This article was first published in the Special Operations Outlook 2018-2019 Edition publication.