After three years of grinding attrition, the First World War on the Western Front remained in a stalemate with the German and Allied armies stuck in opposing trenches divided by a barbed-wire fringed, cratered no-man’s-land. When the United States of America entered the contest there could be little doubt of an ultimate allied victory. Irrespective of the introduction of fresh fighting men, war materiel and other supplies were already streaming across the Atlantic Ocean to further the allied cause. To prevent the arrival of these supplies and to disrupt shipping in general the Germans had developed a highly effective submarine counter-measure in the form of the U-Boat. These submarines were operating from bases on the western continental coast notably at Zeebrugge in Belgium. To neutralise the U-Boats the Royal Navy devised a daring raid on those bases, which if successful would not only deny the U-Boats access to safe berths, but prevent those which were not already at sea from exiting to the ocean to prosecute their war. The objective of these raids was to neutralise the greatest maritime threat in order to speed victory on the field of battle The raid was imaginative, audacious and executed with incredible courage. Perhaps predictably, however, all did not go according to plan. This book contains two riveting accounts describing that famous raid and includes diagrams and photographs.
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There was nothing on the Mole of military importance to sanction the heavy expenditure of human life its capture would entail. But the Mole’s defences had it in their power to impeach or to hamper the passage of the block-ships; it was therefore imperative that they should be put out of action before the block-ships arrived. The scheme of attack projected two almost simultaneous operations—an assault upon the Mole’s batteries, particularly the three 5.9’s at its sea-end, by landing parties from Vindictive and the Liverpool ferry-boats; and the destruction of the iron viaduct in order to close the Mole against reinforcements. The latter operation was entirely successful. The former, while it failed to destroy the seaward batteries, which opened fire again as Vindictive and her escort withdrew, or to do as much damage as had been intended, was effective in causing a diversion during the critical period of the block-ships’ passage.
Zeebrugge Mole is a mile and a half long. The leading block-ship, Thetis, was timed to pass the lighthouse twenty-five minutes after Vindictive got alongside. (Dispatch of May 9, para. 71). The interval was brief, and the operations on the Mole necessarily were restricted to the critical positions which menaced the block-ships’ course towards the Canal piers. The most formidable of them was a battery of three 5.9 inch guns, (ibid), at the sea-end of the Mole proper, and the lighter guns on the Mole extension, three of which, after the evacuation, were found to be of 4.1-inch calibre, (ibid). The intention was to land storming parties on the top of the 5.9 battery, and to silence it and the guns on the extension before the block-ships arrived, (ibid). The operation was entrusted to three companies of bluejackets, under Lieutenant-Commander Arthur L. Harrison of Lion, (ibid). Captain Henry C. Halahan was in supreme command.
The second point selected for assault was a fortified zone on the Mole about 150 yards landward of the 5.9 battery, lying to the right of the berth Vindictive was intended to take. Its tactical position was of great importance, since it commanded the point at which Vindictive was planned to berth, and its guns could bear upon her landing parties as they dropped down upon the Mole. Its capture was entrusted to the Fourth Royal Marine Battalion, organised as four companies, under Lieutenant-Colonel Bertram N. Elliot, (Dispatch of May 9), and drawn from the four divisional headquarters and the Grand Fleet. It was equipped with four Stokes guns, one 11-inch howitzer, five pom-poms, and Lewis guns. All the crews had been specially trained, and the howitzer crews had been put through a course at Shoeburyness, (ibid). Having carried the fortified zone, the marines were instructed to proceed along the Mole towards the shore and cover the operations at the sea-end against enemy troops advancing across the Viaduct. The latter’s coincident destruction by submarine attack was intended to assist this result, (ibid).
The storming parties, having silenced the enemy’s guns, were to be followed by an independent ‘demolition force’, whose object was to do as much damage as possible to the structures on the Mole during the transit of the block-ships to the Canal. The party was composed of a company of bluejackets, under Lieutenant Cecil C. Dickinson of Resolution, (received the D.S.O). Twenty-two rank-and-file of the R.M.L.I. were attached for the transport of the explosive equipment, (Dispatch, para. 69, 82).
In view of the short time available for the operation, and of the circumstances of darkness and confusion under which it would be carried out, those engaged upon it had received specialized training on a replica of the Mole, described to the men, with intentional inaccuracy, as ‘a position in France’. To ensure success it was imperative that the topography made familiar to its assailants on the model should be encountered on the Mole itself; in other words, that the storming parties should land at the point where their assaults were to be delivered. Consequently, the plan was thrown out of gear by Vindictive, who, owing to the difficulty of recognising objects on the Mole, overran her assigned station and berthed about 400 yards nearer the shore than had been intended. It resulted that the storming parties were committed to their programme on a strange terrain, distant from the objectives for which their rehearsals had prepared them, (ibid).
The outer concrete wall of the Mole, as Vindictive berthed beside it, rose from the sea to a height of thirty feet. Along its inner side, four feet below the top, runs a lodge or parapet eight feet wide, bounded by an iron railing, (parapet can be seen in the earlier picture). The surface of the Mole, over ninety feet wide, lies fifteen feet below it. To facilitate landing on this formidable structure Vindictive was provided with a false deck on the port or landing side, and eighteen landing brows or gangways to bridge the space between the false deck and the parapet. Of this number only four remained serviceable, partly owing to severe enemy gun-fire, partly to the sawing of the brows on the parapet as the vessel rocked in the swell.
The small Iris II was equipped with scaling ladders. She and Daffodil had been selected on account of their carrying capacity (1,500) and shallow draft to act as Vindictive’s auxiliaries. (Dispatch of May 9). Daffodil carried two of the three parties of the demolition force, (ibid). which was not required on the Mole until the storming parties had prepared for it. Iris II carried the Chatham Company of the storming Marines, (ibid), and D Company of the naval storming party, (ibid). Both vessels landed their complements over Vindictive, whose initial error involved their forces in the resulting confusion. Iris’s difficulties, already narrated, also weakened both the storming and demolition operations on the Mole.
The rest of the forces were carried by Vindictive, and suffered much from enemy gun-fire while waiting to land.