The Zeebrugge Raid Part Two – Into the Maelstrom

Blown Periphery, Going postal
Daffodil rams HMS Vindictive against the mole. The Marines and Naval Landing Party are going in up the ramps. Shockingly there is not a fluorescent H&S tabard in sight

..I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

By 2330 hours on the 22nd April 1918, the fleet was closing in on the port of Zeebrugge under the cover of a smoke screen laid by the motor launches. The Germans couldn’t have failed to notice the presence of thirty-three launches busily moving at high speed and laying smoke floats. The Germans concentrated their fire on the vulnerable launches and significantly the smoke floats, but more seriously at 1156 hours the wind changed from blowing from the northeast and thus shrouding the mole with smoke and was now blowing from the south and the smoke was disappearing out to sea. The Germans were firing multitudes of star shells and were using searchlights to great effect. The intention was for HMS Vindictive to provide a diversion for the German guns and my God, what a diversion she made.

Into perfect visibility for the enemy gunners, the hulking form of the Vindictive made her appearance, like a pantomime’s ugly dame. The cruiser’s commander, Captain Carpenter was determined that as long as his ship or any part of her was afloat, he would put it against the mole. As the smoke disappeared, virtually every German gun that could be trained in her direction opened fire. As the salvos crashed into the ship, she returned fire, shot-for-shot. The noise was indescribable and it seemed impossible that the ship should survive. Carpenter ordered full speed and came in across the tide at 45° to the mole, providing an even bigger target for the enemy gunners. Riddled with shells, bullets and shrapnel, Vindictive came on, her decks clumped with bodies and awash with blood.

At 0001 on St George’s Day, HMS Vindictive’s bow crashed against the mole, her guns and their crews shredded. Among the dead were many crucial figures to the raid such as Lieutenant-Colonel Elliot of the Royal Marines, and Captain Henry Halahan, leader of the Naval storming parties. Some of these casualties could have been avoided if senior officers had been ordered not to put themselves in exposed positions which, without orders to the contrary and in the finest tradition of their Service, they were certain to do. The shellfire and the impact against the mole had damaged a number of the landing ramps and the cruiser’s final dash to the mole had resulted in her landing 300 yards further down than she should have been. Vindictive was therefore unable to use her surviving main guns to support her raiding parties. To compound a gathering list of problems, Vindictive was unable to use her grappling anchors until Daffodil and Iris arrived to shove her into position. The only advantage was this position afforded the ship some protection from the full fury of the German guns.

Two ramps near the bow were usable and up these swarmed two of the raiding parties, one Naval under Lieutenant-Commander Bryan Adams, the other of Marines under their Adjutant, the then Captain Chater. Both came under short-range machine-gun fire. Two more ramps were heaved into position and a mole anchor fixed when Daffodil arrived to ram the cruiser into position. The plan was for Daffodil to unload her troops across the cruiser while Iris would disembark her troops further down the mole. In the event the swell made this impossible and both ships unloaded their human cargo across the cruiser’s decks. Daffodil was manoeuvred into position by Lieutenant Campbell who had been wounded in the head and was blind in one eye and fixing the mole anchors cost the lives of several men including Lieutenant Commander Bradford who jumped on the Mole from a derrick carrying the anchor, which he secured. He was promptly shot and Petty Officer Hallihan, who attempted to recover his body, was also killed. The fighting top had also been hit but still alive inside Sergeant Finch, although severely wounded, kept a Lewis gun firing and eventually, when that too was destroyed, carried a badly wounded shipmate down to the sick bay.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
HMS Vindictive’s destroyed fighting top after the raid

For those ashore on the mole, the priority was to spike the guns and kill as many of the German crews and soldiers as possible, so the assault parties could not afford to be pinned down. The race to their objectives under heavy fire took an appalling toll. Among the first to land was Wing-Commander Brock. He ran quickly along the parapet wall towards the lighthouse, away from the shore. Here was a look-out point with a range-finder above it. A bomb was put inside the look-out post to make sure there were no occupants and as it was clear, Brock went to examine the range-finder above. That was the last that was ever seen of him.

The detachment commanded Lieutenant-Commander Adams with great energy and courage, came under fire from German destroyers anchored on the inside of the Mole and also German machine gun fire. Lieutenant-Commander Harrison who had been wounded on the Vindictive had been left there unconscious with a fractured jaw. On recovering consciousness and before having his wound dressed, Harrison had forced himself up the gangway on to the Mole. Being the senior, he promptly took control, sent Adams back for reinforcements, and then led a charge against the German machine gun post. Their objective was the German 105mm gun, but because the Vindictive had landed 300 yards further away than expected and the Mole was brilliantly lit, they faced a near impossible task. Nevertheless, although they did not destroy the battery it never went into action against the block ships, so it seems that this storming party killed enough of the gun crews to neutralise the guns. Almost inevitably the gallant Harrison was killed.

Other platoons from the depleted A and B Companies were landed and took part in the battle here, but time ran out before they could complete their task. C Company had planned to demolish targets in this area but as it was crowded with friendly troops, had to be content with hand-to-hand fighting and throwing grenades onto the decks of the German destroyers anchored alongside.

The obsolete submarines C1 and C2 had been packed with explosive and towed towards the Mole by the destroyers Trident and Mansfield, after that they were to proceed under their own power. They were fitted with gyro-controls so that at the very end of their voyage the crews could be taken off and the submarines reach their final destination empty of everything except high explosive. The tow rope of C1 broke when it was still in mid-channel and C2 arrived alone. Her commander, Lieutenant Sandford, didn’t trust the gyro equipment, so he steered C2 into a viaduct arch with sufficient force to jam her there. Then he ordered his small crew into the skiff and lit the vital fuses. The Germans on the viaduct above had been amused by the antics of this stupid submarine which had presumably tried to pass under the viaduct and had jammed itself. They were determined that the crew should not escape and opened up on them with rifles and machine-guns. The skiff made slow headway being pulled against the current by oars. A few seconds later there was a mammoth explosion and a great piece of viaduct went hurtling into the air. Unaware of what had happened, a company of German reinforcements, pedalling frantically towards the Mole, came to the point where the viaduct had just been blown and rode straight into the sea. All were drowned. The noise of the explosion was heard all over the Mole and far inland, despite the dreadful cacophony already coming from the harbour.

The block ships had been timed to pass the end of the Mole at 0022. It was essential that the Germans should be kept occupied on the Mole while the block ships crossed the harbour, but once they were in, then Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil were to re-embark their storming parties and make their way back to Dover – if possible. A fighting withdrawal is a notoriously difficult military manoeuvre when you have stirred a hornet’s nest, particularly if you are determined to leave neither your wounded nor dead behind. The ships were under constant fire from the shore batteries. Yet men went back and forth for their comrades. Casualties were still being sustained, Carpenter was hit but not seriously, and Rosoman, his first lieutenant, was wounded in both legs. Finally embarkation was completed and the ships pulled away. As they left, the shore batteries redoubled their efforts. One caught Iris on the bridge killing both Commander Gibbs and Major Eagles of the Royal Marines among others. As Iris lurched on, other shots crashed down on her and only a timely smoke screen from a motor launch enabled her to limp into the gloom. Even then she was not safe for another salvo caught her, setting her alight. The last explosion scattered her own explosives and shells over the decks and Able Seaman Lake calmly but hastily picked them out of the debris and hurled them overboard. His hands were badly burned in the process, but if he had not carried out this brave action the consequences would have been oblivion for all on the little ship.

The sick bays of the three ships were crammed and the surgeons overwhelmed. They worked swiftly and without pause, surrounded by the wounded and dying. Here was perhaps the greatest test of all. It is one thing to be seemingly composed and brave in the impending excitement of battle when your body is intact and pumped up with adrenalin, but quite another when you’re battered, lacerated, bleeding out and close to death, as you wait your turn with the surgeons. Some of the wounded were past human aid and died where they lay. Those who were still alive tried to bear their pain and discomfort stoically, even cheerfully. The three ships headed away from the mole, by now lacerated charnel houses and slipped into the darkness, their job done.

© Blown Periphery

More from Blown Periphery – here.