The Norfolkmen in the Great War’s greatest naval raid
- Credit: Archant
Hailed as one of the Royal Navy's finest feats of arms, the St George's Day raid on Zeebrugge 100 years ago struck a psychological blow at a key moment. Steve Snelling charts the fortunes of some of the Norfolk men who embarked on a First World War 'mission impossible'.
The foggy air was thick with fumes as Edward Hilton Young marvelled at his good fortune. Behind him, cloaked in a man-made smog, a motley flotilla of craft was less than a mile from its daunting objective: one of the most heavily-defended ports in enemy-occupied Europe.
Every passing minute he expected the eerie peace to be shattered by a devastating explosion of gunfire from a myriad of shore batteries. But there was nothing. Not even the hint of a searchlight pricking the gloom.
'Fortune,' wrote the 39-year-old politician turned man o' war, 'was favouring us beyond our dreams.'
But not for much longer. Suddenly, a perfect rain of star shells burst above them turning night into day. They were barely 400 yards from the nearest enemy guns when, as Young put it, 'the storm broke'.
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Within moments, the sea was a boiling cauldron of shell bursts. From his shelter on board the cruiser Vindictive, he was near enough to see the 'quick flashes' of the guns and feel the fearful impact of the 'swift, shaking detonations' as shells slammed into their target from point-blank range.
But for a few moments he was too focused on his own job to notice much. Only later did the Norwich MP recall 'the eruptions of sparks… the crash of splintering steel, the cries, and that smell which must haunt the memory of anyone who has been in a sea-fight - the smell of blood and burning'.
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It was around midnight on the eve of St George's Day 1918 and Operation ZO, the Royal Navy's audacious attempt to block the German-held ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend was in full swing.
Hailed by Winston Churchill as possibly 'the finest feat of arms in the Great War', the joint raids, heroically carried out by a mostly volunteer force under the direction of Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, were conceived to counter the menace of enemy submarines operating out of their inland base at Bruges via canals linking them to the twin Belgian harbours.
Of the two operations, the attack on Zeebrugge was the most complicated, involving a diversionary assault on a mole bristling with gun batteries by a force of seamen and marines landing from the specially-converted Vindictive while three blockships dashed into the harbour to scuttle themselves in the main channel.
The raiders were under no illusions about the hazards involved. So fraught with danger was it that Churchill, then Minister of Munitions, told some of them: 'You are going on a daring and arduous stunt from which none of you may return…'
Not for nothing did the men making up the landing force and the ships' companies bound for Zeebrugge and Ostend claim membership of the 'Suicide Club'.
And yet there was no shortage of volunteers, after months of inaction in the wake of the great fleet action at Jutland.
Among them were a number from Norfolk who took their places in a 'comical' collection of vessels that featured expendable cruisers and obsolete submarines alongside modern destroyers and waspish motor boats.
They included 31-year-old regular seaman Frank Gale from Beetley, a chief engine room artificer aboard the blockship Thetis, and 21-year-old leading seaman Daniel Bowthorpe, a printer in civilian life, who found a berth on the force's assault ship Vindictive, alongside the MP.
The raid that followed at the third attempt on St George's Day a century ago was an epic of courage and ingenuity which, though only a partial success at Zeebrugge and a total failure at Ostend, delivered a timely boost to morale to a war-weary nation.
Young's contribution was brave but brief. Vindictive, its shell-scarred superstructure resembling a sieve, had not yet reached the mole when a shell burst behind him in the 6-inch gun battery that he commanded.
'Something went ponk!' he later wrote. 'A Titan blacksmith whirled a heavy sledge-hammer and hit me with all his might a blow on the right arm that sent me spinning down the narrow entry, to fall in the middle of a group of marines who were crouching on the battery deck.'
A kick revived him before he slipped back into unconsciousness, his 'universe' becoming 'a black star' with its radiant point just below his shattered right shoulder.
Eventually, he managed to crawl through heaps of bodies and wreckage to reach a dressing station. Though he gallantly endured shot and shell to cheer on his gun crews and even ventured on to the fire-swept mole, he was, for the most part, restricted by his injuries to the role of observer.
Frank Gale, in sharp contrast, was fully engaged in the raid's most critical mission of all. Stationed below decks, in charge of an engine room, he was key to Thetis' efforts.
At first all went well. With Vindictive pinned to the mole by one of two Mersey ferry boats attached to the operation and with landing parties providing a costly distraction, the blockships Intrepid and Iphigenia headed by Thetis increased to full speed and swept into the harbour.
In an account cited in Christopher Sandford's graphic and gripping new study of the operation sub-titled The Greatest Raid Of All, Gale related how his ship immediately became a target for the enemy's guns mounted just yards away on the end of the mole.
'They started firing at us as soon as we came round the lighthouse,' he said, 'but all we got in the engine room was splinters, smoke and gas. We put our gas masks on for a little while, but as they hampered our movements we took them off again.'
Bad as conditions were in the choking engine room, things quickly got a lot worse. Barely six minutes after reaching 'full speed', Gale's senior engineer officer, Lieutenant Ronald Boddie, was shocked to see the ship's starboard and then port engines come to 'a grinding stop'.
Both men were convinced they had run aground. In fact, Thetis had snared the harbour boom nets, damaging its propellers and bringing her to an untimely halt.
While the other blockships swept past, leaving Thetis a sitting target for every enemy gun within range, the engine room parties made their way up on deck to discover the trouble's true cause.
By then, Thetis, with one of her funnels shot away, was already a shrapnel-riddled wreck, but her wounded captain was defiant, urging the engineers to attempt to re-start the engines in a bid to complete their mission.
It seemed a forlorn task, but Boddie and Gale climbed down into the dark, partially-flooded compartments and, with shells peppering the ship, 'wrestled again with the engines' until, much to their astonishment, they spluttered into life and Thetis, with no one on the bridge to steer, moved 'sluggishly ahead' for another half mile before finally running aground.
On a night crowded with extraordinary feats of heroism against the odds, their achievement was one of the most remarkable and was duly recognised with richly-deserved gallantry awards.
The most dramatic night of their lives ended with their near miraculous escape, emerging onto a deck that was being flailed by all manner of fire from 'three directions' at once before, in Gale's words, 'slipping down' ropes into the last (and leaking) cutter.
Transferring to a rescue launch which had bravely followed them into the harbour, they made their escape, covered in soot, through a hail of fire to reach Dover at 10.15am, 'famished and filthy', having been given up as lost.
Incredibly, Norwich's battle-scarred MP made it back too. Somehow he had contrived to haul his pain-wracked body back to his post in readiness to shoot it out with the mole batteries during Vindictive's withdrawal.
But the anticipated bombardment never came. Vindictive, her ruptured decks littered with dead and injured, slipped away through a pall of smoke. 'I could hardly trust myself to believe it,' he wrote. Before drifting off into a morphia-induced fug, he heard his captain say that 'the blockships had got in…'
Young survived, albeit with the loss of his right arm, to fight again in Russia and to marry the widow of Polar explorer Robert Scott before concentrating on a political career that would see him serve as Minister of Health and honoured with a peerage.
His fellow constituent aboard Vindictive was not so fortunate. Having been seriously wounded during the fight on the mole, Daniel Bowthorpe lingered for a day after the raid, succumbing in Dover Hospital on April 24. He was one of 227 men killed in a casualty list totalling more than 600 from a force of just 1,600 men.
A few days later, as the Germans toiled to undo the magnificent efforts made by the blockship crews at Zeebrugge, Bowthorpe's body was borne to its last resting place in his home city in a coffin draped with a Union Jack and with a seaman's cap perched on top.
One hundred years on, the inscription on his headstone in Earlham cemetery provides an eloquent echo of one of the First World War's most astonishing episodes:
'Here lies a gallant seaman… Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.'
Zeebrugge 1918: The Greatest Raid Of All, by Christopher Sandford, is published by Casemate, £19.99.