Prime Minister David Lloyd George spent the night of 22 April 1918 wide awake. He was noticeably on edge all that long night as he waited with growing impatience for news from the continent - what Sir Winston Churchill would later call ‘the finest feat of arms in the Great War’. The raid of which he spoke was that planned against the port installations of Zeebrugge and Ostend.
The importance of these ports to Germany were paramount, and to the British their capture or destruction was of equal importance. First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Jellicoe pessimistically declared in June 1917 that, if the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge were not denied to enemy forces, the Allies could easily lose the war. A land assault was planned by General Sir Douglas Haig, but the Prime Minister was not prepared to accept the projected casualties; especially after the disastrous campaigns at Messines, the Third Ypres and the Battle of Passchendale.
What was needed was another option. Aerial attack by aircraft of the RAF was also considered inadequate, which left the Royal Navy and the Marines.
Zeebrugge, and to a lesser extent Ostend, had been utilised by the German navy as a base for coastal torpedo boats which harassed Allied shipping to the continent. These small fast craft were inexpensive to build and man, and caused considerable destruction of much larger and more expensive warships and supply ships.
Planning for the Zeebrugge raid had commenced in late 1916, as it was felt a full invasion of the Belgian coast would come with too high a price in men and equipment. In November 1916, then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith gathered the heads of the armed forces for a conference. Sometime during the meeting he turned to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson and said, “There is no operation to which the War Committee attaches greater importance than the deprivation to the enemy of Ostend and Zeebrugge.”
Within that day, detailed planning commenced and key appointments were made. Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt proposed an amphibious assault on the mole that stretched out into the North Sea at Zeebrugge, and the sinking of blockships at the entrance to the Bruges Canal. All of 1,698 men, including officers and 660 Royal Marines, started two months of intensive special training for the operations to come. Crucially, every last man was a volunteer.
Over one-hundred small and medium-sized vessels were collected in the Thames estuary hidden away from spies and reconnaissance aircraft. Many were given extra armament. For the Royal Navy, this meant adding some unusual equipment to the veteran cruiser HMS Vindictive, including an 11-inch Howitzer flame throwers, stokes mortars and a dozen long-hinged brows on her port side to allow the Royal Marines off at speed.
Five elderly cruisers of 3,600 tons, HMS Brilliant, HMS Iphigenia, HMS Intrepid, HMS Sirius and HMS Thetis were selected to be used as the block ships. For this role, each had 1,500 tons of concrete poured into their hulls as well as electrically-fired scuttling charges. Two obsolete submarines, C1 and C3, were loaded with large explosive charges in their forward compartments, and the upper works of the Mersey ferries Iris II and Daffodil were provided with bulletproof plating backed up by mattresses.
The date chosen for the attack was 11 April and, under the command of Rear Admiral Roger Keyes, the force sailed. At 2300, the force split into two with those ships destined to attack Ostend under the command of Commodore H Lynes sailing on a different course. Rear Admiral Roger Keyes onboard the destroyer HMS Warwick continued on to Zeebrugge. At the stroke of midnight, the ships commenced a blistering bombardment of both ports while a large flotilla of motor torpedo boats laid a smokescreen. Sadly for the British, the wind that night was not ideal and the smokescreen was ineffective, forcing Keyes to reluctantly cancel the operation and return home.
On the second attempt on 13 August, the wind - this time a gale - once again tore into the British plans, forcing Keyes to cancel the attack.
The weather was not the only problem to befall the raid. British secret operational orders for the grounded fast torpedo boat CMB33 were obtained by Admiral von Schroder, the Commander of German coast defences. Fortunately, the Germans failed to make the most of the information and failed to fully protect Zeebrugge.
For Keyes, he hoped that, third time, would be lucky when the fleet sailed on the afternoon of 22 April, the eve of St George’s Day. This gave Keyes an idea to boost morale. From his ship, he signalled “St George for England”. Captain AFB Carpenter, in command of HMS Vindictive replied, “May we give the dragon’s tail a damned good twist.”
The German defences at Zeebrugge were impressive. Lined up against any attacking force were 225 guns of which 136 were 6-15 inch. As the British monitors HMS Erebus and HMS Terror started their bombardment at 23.50, the Germans fired back at the glimpsed targets seen through the heavy smokescreen. At 23.50, however, the defenders were shocked to see the 5,750 tons of the cruiser HMS Vindictive tearing towards the mole at just 1,500 metres distance. They did not panic, but instead wrought deadly withering fire onto the British cruiser, decimating the naval and marines’ storming parties which had been standing ready on her upper deck and superstructure. Among the dead were their commanders Captain H C Halahan and Lieutenant Colonel B N Elliot.
The first block ship, HMS Thetis, sailed out of the smokescreen into withering fire before fouling on a net obstruction, and then grounding. Her crew set the scuttling charges and abandoned the ship away from her planned position. HMS Thetis was a failure, but the next ship, HMS Intrepid was not. Lieutenant S Bonham-Carter took his ship straight into the canal’s mouth and scuttled her. Her sister ship HMS Iphigenia followed her in. The pair effectively blocked the canal by turning their wheels hard over and sticking fast in the tight and narrow entrance.