Zeebrugge 90th anniversary


Lantern Swinger
I'm sure the RN and RM will be doing something official across the Channel come April 23, but in the meantime here's a taster of a commemorative supplement appearing in the April edition of Navy News.

IN THE dark of a bitingly-cold April night, figures clad in thick coats covered by a canvas cloak paced up and down the concrete and granite structure, occasionally pausing to stand at a parapet and stare at the waves crashing below.
The warm spring weather had given way to the return of winter. Rain fell incessantly. The bitter North Sea wind drove the damp cold down to the very bone.
There was no noise this night, save for the waters of the North Sea breaking against the pillars and granite of this great triumph of Man over Nature.
The Mole of Zeebrugge arched into the North Sea for more than a mile, a huge shield which protected a narrow lock and canal to the great city of Bruges.
The Mole was more than a mere breakwater, more than a mere pier. It was a marvel of Victorian/Edwardian engineering, 80 yards across at its widest point, carrying a road and rail line, goods sheds, cranes and derricks, a railway station.
To these peacetime features, the Germans had added at least half a dozen guns, bunkers, a flying boat base, barbed wire and machine guns.
It wasn’t just the Mole which was a fortress. There was no coastline on earth better safeguarded by steel and concrete.
Along a 15-mile stretch of Belgium’s shores, the Marinekorps Flandern stood watch with more than 225 guns – calibres ranging from small 3.5in to fearsome 15in. Fifteen batteries ringed Zeebrugge alone.
They protected the lair of the beast, the home of Unterseeootsflotille Flandern, the Flanders U-boat Flotilla. The beast was safe in his lair: huge concrete ‘pens’ protected these undersea monsters from the guns of the Grand Fleet and the bombs of the newly-formed Royal Air Force.
Even outside his lair, the beast seemed invulnerable. For every two merchant ships sunk in Atlantic waters by German submarines, at least one fell victim to boats of the Flanders Flotilla.
But the beast had an Achilles heel. His lair was eight miles from the sea. A canal bore him from his pen to open waters at Zeebrugge. Block the canal and the beast would be trapped.
It was too simple a plan for the ordinary German marine to comprehend. Rumours circulating the Marinekorps Flandern were far more grandiose, far more outlandish, far more believable.
“Over there, on the other side of the Channel, they’re up to something,†the men convinced themselves.
“Tommy is readying a great fleet – hand-picked assault troops and landing forces, 20,000 men in all.â€
Tommy would roll up the Flanders coast from east and west, smoking out every bunker, battery and dugout with flamethrowers.
The men’s leaders did nothing to dispel or quash such rumours. Warnings from above merely confirmed the marines’ doubts: crews of coastal batteries shall die at their posts!
But when? Not tonight. No tonight was like every other night in Flanders. The luminous hands of the guards’ wrist watches lethargically crept around.
“Nichts Neue?â€
Nothing new? the guards asked each other as they passed routinely.
“Nein, nichts Neue.â€
It was now approaching 1am on Tuesday, April 23 1918 German time – a few minutes before midnight on Monday April 22 in Britain.
One German sentry seized another.
“Horch, didn’t you hear anything.â€
“There’s a growling noise somewhere.â€
It was difficult to distinguish anything above the crashing of the waves against the granite wall of the Mole.
But the rumble grew louder, a constant, rhythmic sound, a noise made by Man, not by Nature.
“That’s the sound of an engine,†a guard yelled.
A star shell lit up the April night, slowly fading before being devoured by the grey-black heavens.
The sentries stared out across the Mole wall. The rain ran in small streams down their faces.
In the distance, somewhere over the horizon, a slight, brief flicker, then nothing.
Seconds later a huge fountain of earth was tossed up as a shell crashed into a meadow behind one of the 15 batteries ringing Zeebrugge.
“There! There! Alarm! Alarm!â€
Bunkers and dugouts along the Mole emptied as the men of the Marinekorps Flandern rushed for their guns.
The men seized their binoculars and scoured the ocean, but all they could see was a billowing, surging mist which hid everything.
Flares raced into the heavens but did little more than give the mist a yellow-brown hue.
“Can you hear that?†one sentry asked. “The noise of engines. Utterly clear!â€
In the signals bunker, a telegraphist hurriedly tapped out a curt message to headquarters: Z E E B R U G G E B E D R O H T. Zeebrugge in danger.
The batteries on the coast opened fire, hurling a curtain of steel into the mist. The guns on the Mole joined in.
The beams of lamps and searchlights danced in the April night. Suddenly they caught a dark shadow, racing at full speed for the Mole.
Alarm! Ein englischer Kreuzer!
Thus began the first commando raid.

I would post more, but the rest of the feature's in a state of incompletion...


Lantern Swinger
It's good but a bit dated; the best account I've found is one by Deborah Lake, The Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids 1918. Readable and very well-researched.
Seaweed said:
The book on it is 'St George's Day', Barrie Pitt, Cassell 1958.
The copy I have is also Barrie Pitt from Cassell, but is entitled "Zeebrugge - Eleven VCs before breakfast". First published 1958 so probably the same thing
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