A desperate raid to save the merchant ships that supplied the Allied cause
From the first months of 1915, when the Great War on the Western Front ground to a stalemate of fixed lines of trenches, the protagonists were committed to a conflict of attrition. Neither side could affect a military breakthrough, but the Allies had the distinct advantages of both unrestricted access to the worlds seaways and the a steady stream of materiel which crossed the Atlantic from the United States of America. To disrupt this essential war traffic Germany fine tuned submarine warfare in the form of the U-Boat. This countermeasure proved so effective that the huge number of merchant vessels sunk by German submarines meant that by 1917 there was a realistic potential that the Allies might lose the war having been denied sufficient resources to continue to fight. To hinder the effectiveness of the U-Boat ‘wolf-packs,’ a daring raid was devised to blockade the principal submarine base at the port Zeebrugge in Belgium by sinking a vessel in the approaches to its harbour. This audacious action, carried out by the Royal Navy, became one of the most remarkable feats of naval warfare of the First World War. This Leonaur book contains two accounts of the Zeebrugge Raid and is recommended.
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Captain Halahan, commanding the naval storming forces, who had repeatedly told me this was to be his last fight, was shot down and killed at the outset. Commander Edwards, standing near him on the gangway deck, was also shot down and completely incapacitated. Colonel Elliot, commanding the Marine storming forces, and his second-in-command, Major Cordner, were killed on the bridge, where they had taken up a commanding position in full view of the gangway deck. Many others were killed or wounded. The death of so many brave men was a terrible blow. Nobody knew better than they the tremendous risk attached to their actions—the pity of it was that they should not have lived to see the success for which they were so largely responsible.
At one minute past midnight the ship actually arrived alongside the Mole, one minute late on schedule time, having steamed alongside at sixteen knots speed. The engines were immediately reversed at full speed and the ship bumped the Mole very gently on the specially constructed fender fitted on the port bow.
The conning position in the flame-thrower hut was well chosen, our heads being about five feet above the top of the Mole wall. We had previously devoted many hours to studying photographs of the Mole with the idea of recognising objects thereon. Our aerial confrères had photographed every portion of the Mole from almost every conceivable angle with both ordinary and stereoscopic cameras. We had also had picture postcards and other illustrations at our disposal. Though none of us had ever actually seen the Mole itself we felt pretty sure of being able to recognise any portion of it immediately. In that we were over-confident. The smoke, the intermittent glare and flashes, the alternating darkness and the unceasing rain, added to the disturbance of one’s attention caused by the noise and the explosion of shell, rendered observation somewhat difficult.
As far as we could see we were to the westward of our desired position. The engines were, therefore, kept at full speed astern and the ship, aided by the three-knot tide running to the eastward, rapidly drifted in that direction. When sufficient sternway had been gathered the engines were put to full speed ahead to check her. A low building was then observed on the Mole abreast the ship, but it was not recognised immediately as the northeastern shed (No. 3), which we had expected to appear much larger. The distance in the uncertain light was also very deceptive, the building in question appearing to be situated within a few feet of the outer wall, whereas it must have been at least forty-five yards away.
But time was pressing. Our main diversion had certainly commenced, but at all costs we must have it fully developed before the blockships arrived at twenty minutes past midnight. The order was therefore given to let go the starboard anchor. A voice tube, for this purpose, led from the flame-thrower hut to the cable deck. The order was certainly not given sotto voce. But the noise at this time was terrific. I could not be certain whether the order was received as no answer was heard in reply. Certainly the anchor was not let go. Meanwhile the engines were ordered at full speed astern and full speed ahead alternately to keep the ship in position; the manner in which these orders were carried out by the engine-room staff, under the command of Engineer Lieutenant-Commander Bury, was admirable. No reply being forthcoming to questions as to the delay in anchoring, Rosoman left the conning tower and went below to investigate. The din had now reached a crescendo. Every gun that would bear appeared to be focused on our upper works, which were being hit every few seconds. Our guns in the fighting-top were pouring out a continuous hail of fire in reply. One could aptly say that we could hardly hear ourselves think.
At last I had news from the cable deck—this was a great relief as I feared that the two heavy shell which burst between decks had killed all the anchoring party. The starboard anchor had jammed somewhere. It had been previously lowered to the water’s edge and nothing was holding the cable, but it refused to budge. The port anchor was, therefore, dropped at the foot of the wall and the ship allowed to drop astern until a hundred yards of cable had been veered. The cable was then secured.
The ship immediately swung bodily out from the Mole. With the helm to starboard she swung in again, but with her bows so tight against the Mole, and her stern so far out, that the foremost gangways just failed to reach the top of the wall. With the helm amidships the ship lay parallel to the wall, but no gangways would reach. With the helm to port the ship again swung away from the Mole. This was an exceedingly trying situation. Everything now depended upon the Daffodil (Lieutenant H. G. Campbell).
It will be remembered that, as a result of the towing hawser having parted, and in consequence of our increase of speed when running alongside, the Iris and Daffodil had been left behind. We knew that whatever happened we could absolutely depend on Gibbs, (Commander Valentine F. Gibbs), and Campbell making short work of any surmountable difficulty, and our trust was not misplaced. They must have cut off a considerable corner to have arrived as early as they did. The Iris steamed past us at her utmost speed, which was very slow, and went alongside the Mole about a hundred yards ahead of Vindictive exactly as laid down in the Plan. Of her more anon.
After we had been struggling against our difficulties alongside for about five minutes Daffodil suddenly appeared steaming straight for our foremast in a direction perpendicular to the Mole. Campbell pushed her nose against us, hawsers were passed to his vessel, and he shoved us bodily alongside the Mole, exactly in accordance with the Plan. Really he might have been an old stager at tug-master’s work, pursuing his vocation in one of our own harbours, judging by the cool manner in which he carried out his instructions to the letter.
Immediately the two foremost gangways reached the wall they were lowered until they rested on it. No other gangways were then available. The order was at once passed to “Storm the Mole.”