- Swinden, Greg
- WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
After reading Commodore Loxton’s letter to the Editor and his article concerning the Zeebrugge raid (in the last two issues of the Naval Historical Review), I thought a short letter in reply concerning the RAN involvement would suffice. That, however, would just further consign the actions of these men to the footnotes of history, and thus this article was born. As previously described in Commodore Loxton’s article, the Royal Navy carried out a major raid on the German Naval bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend, in German occupied Belgium, on the night of 22-23 April 1918.
The purpose of the raid at Zeebrugge was to land storming parties on the Mole (a large breakwater protecting the harbour) who would then seize the German gun positions there. This would then enable the blockships to steam into the harbour and be sunk in the Zeebrugge Canal. This would effectively `bottle up’ the German U-boats and torpedo boat destroyers which were based upsteam at Bruges. The raiding parties were also to blow up the viaduct which connected the Mole to the shore, thus preventing German reinforcements from reaching the Mole, and to do as much damage to any vessels alongside that they could.
A special force of 82 officers and 1698 men, all volunteers from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, was selected and given special training throughout February and March 1918 at either Chatham or the Royal Marine Depot at Deal. Many of the sailors were given training in trench warfare, bomb throwing, bayonet drill, use of mortars and assault tactics, while others were trained in demolitions work which they would need to carry out during the raid.
Among the special force were 11 men from the battlecruiser HMAS Australia. Volunteers, for an unspecified task, had been called for from the ship in February and a large number of men applied, but only eleven were chosen. These men were:
- Artificer Engineer W.H.V. Edgar,
- RAN Leading Stoker W.J. Bourke (Official Number 2237)
- Leading Seaman G.J. Bush (Official Number 7018)
- Able Seaman H.J. Gillard (Official Number 8517)
- Leading Stoker R. Hopkins (Official Number 3135)
- Leading Stoker G.J. Lockard (Official Number 3123)
- Stoker N.J. McCrory (Official Number 1183)
- Able Seaman L.T. Newland (Official Number 1937)
- Leading Seaman D.J.O. Rudd (Official Number 3389)
- Leading Seaman G.E. Staples (Official Number 2858)
- Leading Stoker J. Strong (Official Number 2536)
Over 100 ships, including monitors, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and motor launches were to be involved in the action. Artificer Edgar was allocated to HMS Iris, the five seaman to HMS Vindictive and the five stokers to HMS Thetis. Vindictive was to go alongside the Mole and her ‘storming party’ was to seize and destroy the German gun batteries. HMS Iris was to assist Vindictive and Thetis was one of the three blockships.
The actual attack on Zeebrugge commenced shortly before midnight on 22 April 1918 when Vindictive went alongside the Mole and her storming party of marines and seaman assaulted the German gun batteries. These storming parties suffered very heavy casualties and the batteries remained in German hands. Meanwhile the three blockships (Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia) steamed into the harbour and despite heavy fire from the German guns Intrepid and Iphigenia succeeded in reaching their allotted positions, where they were scuttled.
Thetis, which was the lead ship, was not sunk in her correct position as she had fouled some nets and buoys and she took these with her until brought to a halt by them. This effectively cleared the way for the other two blockships, which passed down her starboard side and on to where they were to be scuttled. During this time Thetis was under very heavy fire from the German gun batteries on the Mole which were only about 500 metres away.
The crews from the blockships then took to the ships boats and proceeded to row out of the harbour, while under fire, but after travelling less than half a mile they were picked up by fast Royal Navy motor launches and made their escape in them. In all some 214 men were killed and 383 wounded in the action which ended up being only a partial success.
Although the canal was blocked the Germans were able to dredge the canal near the blockships and within a few weeks U-boats and Torpedo Boats were again using the canal, albeit with some difficulty. The attack at Ostend failed to achieve its objective and another attack, on 9 May 1918, was later conducted with better results.