World at War - M. B. Synge




The Dover Patrol and Zeebrugge

" So age to age shall tell how they sailed through the darkness,

Where, under those high, austere, implacable

stars, Not one in ten

Might look for a dawn again."

—ALFRED NOYES (THE VINDICTIVE).

Although America had joined the Allies in their naval attacks on the German submarines, yet in 1918 the submarine was still a very serious menace to shipping. As the years passed on, the submarines had been vastly improved—they were much faster, and their torpedoes could be fired a much greater distance than heretofore, and with greater accuracy. And in spite of all precautions they were sinking the Allies' merchant shipping at the rate of some half-million tons a month.

One of their headquarters was at Bruges—situated inland, but connected by canal with Zeebrugge and Ostend on the Belgian coast, the whole of which was now in the hands of Germany. The coast provided harbours from which German ships could make raids on the British coast as well as aeroplane attacks, which became a serious complication as war continued.

Thus, safe from attack themselves either by sea or land, German torpedo craft and submarines lay within safe base at Bruges, only sixty miles across the sea to the Straits of Dover. They were a constant source of anxiety to the "Dover Patrol," which for the last few years had nobly guarded the outlet by which the German submarines might escape into the Atlantic by the English Channel. The Patrol itself was made up of some eighty ships of every kind and description. Here were destroyers, steam-yachts, trawlers, obsolete battleships with short-range guns, mine-sweepers, drifters, fishing boats with crews from all parts of the country; there were men from inland towns as well as coast villages, merchants, artists, musicians, barbers, commercial travellers, who endured a life of danger and hardship during the years of war. The Patrol acted as "crossing-sweeper" to the hundreds and thousands of men who passed across the Channel between England and France, as well as to the thousands of merchant vessels which passed daily and hourly through the Straits.

But the German submarine commanders grew bolder and braver as time went on, and from their lair at Zeebrugge they would hurry out on the dark nights to attack the Channel ships.

For some time past a plan had been considered by which the homes of the submarine might be put out of action, and when, in 1918, Sir Roger Keyes became Commander of the Dover Patrol, he at once devised a daring plan for stopping the German raids at their fountainhead.

Briefly the idea was to block the end of the Bruges Canal at Zeebrugge, as well as the entrance to the harbour at Ostend—as hazardous an undertaking as ever fell to the British sailor. Every man concerned was a volunteer and fully aware of the danger he was facing—a picked man, who knew his job well, and could be relied on in emergency.

Now the harbour of Zeebrugge was as a sea-gate to the inland port of Bruges, its sandy roadstead guarded from the sea by a powerful crescent-shaped mole one and a half miles long, and connected with the shore by a viaduct built on steel pillars. Two heavy-timbered breakwaters, on each of which stood a lighthouse, led to the Canal. The harbour was known to be strongly fortified, machine-guns being stationed at various points to cover both mole and harbour.

It was truly a daring enterprise, for which a dark night, a calm sea, and entire secrecy must be combined.

An artificial fog or smoke-screen to hide the ships on their way was specially designed by Commander Brock of firework fame, who was unfortunately killed during the operations.

Three old cruisers—the Iphigenia, Intrepid, and Thetis—were filled with cement, and fuses placed so they could be sunk by explosion when in position. Motor-launches accompanied them to rescue their crews.

Then there were the twenty-year old cruiser Vindictive, with her false upper deck and gangways on the port side for the attack on the Mole, two old Liverpool ferry-boats, and other small craft. Twice the expedition actually started, but weather conditions failed, and twice they had to put back.

It was not till 22nd April 1918—the eve of St. George's Day—that the final start was made, and the strange little fleet set out for Zeebrugge. It was three hours before sunset, and Zeebrugge should be reached by midnight. From the destroyer Warwick, from which he commanded the operations, Sir Roger Keyes signalled the message, "St. George for England."

"Few who received that message expected to return unscathed, and in the block-ships—none."

It was a hazardous undertaking to approach a hostile coast teeming with enemy guns, without lights, ignorant of what new mines might have been laid, and at the mercy of the weather, a change in which might well expose the odd little fleet to the guns on the Flanders shore.

While the small craft were busy laying smoke-screens to hide the destination of the ships, out at sea two monitors began a bombardment of the German coast defences with their big guns and seaplanes.

On went the little fleet on its perilous way, still hidden by the smoke-screen. The Vindictive  was not far from the Mole, when a wind off the shore caused the fog to lift. The smoke-screen was rolled back—Vindictive  and harbour stood clear to the foe. Up went the German search-lights, fixing themselves on the British ships, and German star-shells soared into the sky, while every enemy gun from mole and coast came into action. With men falling slain around them, marines and blue-jackets swarmed up the gangways of the Vindictive, and, under a withering fire, disabled defences and destroyed blockhouses. Suddenly a gigantic explosion rent the air—the viaduct had been exploded. A young English officer in charge of a submarine laden with explosives, with a crew of seven on deck, had steered her straight for the viaduct under heavy fire. Astounded and amazed at his audacity, Germans watched the little vessel, till she slipped between the steel pillars under the viaduct. Then the fuse was lit, the commander and his plucky crew jumped off into another boat and got away, while flames shot high into the air from the explosion. "There was no more gallant exploit in all that marvelous night."

The storming parties on the Mole were still fighting desperately, when the three block-ships steered straight for the Canal. The Intrepid, every gun firing, reached her destination, blew up, and settled down in the channel on the western side. The Iphigenia likewise swung into the channel on the other side, and sank.

Hardly was this accomplished than the signal sounded for the dash back to the Vindictive. All that was left of the storming party clambered aboard the battered ship, and, belching fire from every one of her broken funnels, she broke away. The German fire redoubled, and every angry battery did its worst, but she slowly made her way back to Dover to receive the Admiral's well-earned greeting, "Well done, Vindictive!"

It had been a wonderful night of brave naval exploits; and if it did not wholly succeed in its material objective, yet the moral result was splendid, and the work of the men who took part in the great adventure sent a breath of inspiration throughout the navy and a wave of patriotism throughout the country. They were indeed

"Among the chosen few,

Among the very brave, the very true."