The Raid on Zeebrugge

‘The Raid on Zeebrugge may well rank as the finest feat of arms in the Great War and certainly as an episode unsurpassed in the history of the Royal Navy’  Winston  Churchill

The Mole

Zeebrugge stands at the end of the canal connecting Bruges with the North Sea 

The canal was completed in 1908 with lock gates at the Zeebrugge end

The Mole (a harbour wall with warehouses and a quay) was built to create a harbour around the canal entrance


The Mole and its warehouse buildings were connected to the mainland by a viaduct

The viaduct carried a railway track and the electricity supply to the Mole

A light house was constructed at the far end of the harbour wall


The U-boat threat

In August 1914 the Germans invaded Belgium giving their submarines direct access to the North Sea via Zeebrugge.

They built heavily defended submarine pens inland at Bruges, out of range of the guns of the Royal Navy's battleships


The submarines travelled to the coast via the Zeebrugge and Ostende canals and on into the North Sea, the English Channel and the Atlantic

German submarines sank a huge amount of merchant shipping in an attempt to starve Britain out of the War

Zeebrugge was a vital part of this strategy and was very heavily defended and German naval vessels were based on the Mole

And submarine nets were laid across the harbour entrance

The Plan

Royal Navy officers Dickenson, Walker, Adams, Osbourne, Harrison and Hawkins at a briefing aboard HMS Vindictive before the Raid. When the German guns opened fire, Adams was the only officer left to lead the assault onto the Mole

The Royal Navy realised that a seabourne assault to capture Zeebrugge harbour was too ambitious.

Instead they decided to block the canal by filling with concrete the cruisers HMS Intrepid (above)

HMS Thetis (above) and HMS Iphigenia sinking them across the canal entrance

At the same time a raiding party of Naval ratings and Royal Marines was to land on the Mole from HMS Vindictive (above when new) and destroy the heavy guns guarding the harbour


 To prevent the Germans reinforcing their troops on the Mole during the attack, the viaduct which connected the Mole to the mainland was to be destroyed. An old submarine (C3 above) filled with explosives was to sail under the viaduct and be blown up

If all went to plan the crews from the blockships and from the destroyed submarine would be rescued by fast motor boats and ferried back to destroyers waiting outside the harbour.

A WW1 fast patrol boat awaiting restoration at Chatham Dockyard

A sketch plan of the attack


The Attack

On the evening of 22nd April 1918 a fleet of 76 vessels carrying 1700 men crossed the Channel. HMS Vindictive led the way commanded by Capt Alfred Carpenter.

Vindictive was towing the passenger ferries Iris and Daffodil, commandeered from the River Mersey to carry the Royal Marines contingent for the assault on the Mole.

Smoke screens, a relatively new invention, were laid in front of the Mole by fast patrol boats.

But the wind suddenly changed and the German shore batteries opened fire on Vindictive at close range killing many of the officers and badly damaging most of the special landing ramps.

Having reached the Mole Capt Carpenter had difficulty keeping Vindictive alongside and she started to drift away.

Lt Cmdr Harold Campbell commanding the ferry boat Daffodil quickly realised the situation and manoeuvred his vessel to push Vindictive back against the Mole. 





On The Mole

Once alongside the Mole, the Royal Naval assault party used the two remaining ramps to charge onto the Mole

But the angle of the ramps was much steeper than had been expected

and the troops were met by a hail of fire from the guns on the Mole and from German ships in the harbour

Because Vindictive had overshot her position, the troops had to fight through barbed wire defences they had hoped to attack from the rear

Adams led Albert McKenzie and the few other troops who had managed to get onto the Mole, along the top of the parapet wall (above) and over the iron railings onto the main part of the Mole. 

Whilst this assault continued the blockships sailed into Zeebrugge harbour

A sketch of troops planting the Uion Flag on the Mole (but I am not sure if this really happened)


Return to Dover

Vindictive's superstructure had taken a huge battering

but she made her way back across the Channel to Dover

and arrrived at 8am the following morning

she was welcomed back to cheering from all the other ships in the harbour 

and her crew were hailed as heros

her bullet riddled funnels and ventilators

and her damaged decks were the object of huge interest






The Result ?

Immediately after the Raid Admiral Keyes was hailed as a national hero and the attack was portrayed as a huge success. But over the years it has become clear that the Raid failed in its key objective and in many respects it can be argued that it was badly planned.

The bravery of those who took part cannot be denied as they knew they were on a suicide mission and yet they displayed the utmost courage.

But the main and lasting effect of the Raid is the huge boost to morale it gave to the British people in 1918. And the fact that the Raid is still remembered and commemorated every year in Dover, Zeebrugge and many other places, is a fitting tribute to those young men who died.

Whilst Vindictive's men attacked the Mole, the three blockships sailed into the harbour, two managed to scuttled themselves in the canal entrance and one further out in the harbour

although the objective was to prevent German vessels from using the canal, this failed as they could manoeuvre around the blockships

The submarine C5 was blown up underneath the viaduct as planned

but it did not completely sever communications and a small foot bridge remained


Victoria Crosses

30807 - 19 JULY 1918



NAVAL DESPATCH dated 23 July 1918


Honours for Services in the Operations against Zeebrugge and Ostend on the Night of the 22nd-23rd April, 1918.


Admiralty, 23rd July, 1918.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers and men:

Commander (Acting Captain) Alfred Francis Blakeney Carpenter, R.N. (above with arm in sling) For most conspicuous gallantry. This officer was in command of "Vindictive." He set a magnificent example to all those under his command by his calm composure when navigating mined waters, bringing his ship alongside the mole in darkness. When "Vindictive" was within a few yards of the mole the enemy started and maintained a heavy fire from batteries, machine guns and rifles on to the bridge. He showed most conspicuous bravery, and did much to encourage similar behaviour on the part of the crew, supervising the landing from the "Vindictive" on to the mole, and walking round the decks directing operations and encouraging the men in the most dangerous and exposed positions. By his encouragement to those under him, his power of command and personal bearing, he undoubtedly contributed greatly to the success of the operation. Capt. Carpenter was selected by the officers of the "Vindictive," "Iris II.," and "Daffodil," and of the naval assaulting force to receive the Victoria Cross under Rule 13 of the Royal Warrant, dated the 29th January, 1866.


Lieutenant Richard Douglas Sandford, R.N, For most conspicuous gallantry. This officer was in command of Submarine C.3, and most skilfully placed that vessel in between the piles of the viaduct before lighting his fuse and abandoning her. He eagerly undertook this hazardous enterprise, although, well aware (as were all his crew) that if the means of rescue failed and he or any of his crew were in the water at the moment of the explosion, they would be killed outright by the force of such explosion. Yet Lieutenant Sandford disdained to use the gyro steering, which would have enabled him and his crew to abandon the submarine at a safe distance, and preferred to make sure, as far as was humanly possible, of the accomplishment of his duty.


Lieutenant Percy Thompson Dean, R.N.V.R. (Motor Launch 282). For most conspicuous gallantry. Lieutenant Dean handled his boat in a most magnificent and heroic manner when embarking the officers and men from the blockships at Zeebrugge. He followed the blockships in and closed "Intrepid" and "Iphigenia" under a constant and deadly fire from machine and heavy guns at point blank range, embarking over 100 officers and men. This completed, he was proceeding out of the canal, when he heard that an officer was in the water. He returned, rescued him, and then proceeded, handling his boat throughout as calmly as if engaged in a practice manoeuvre. Three men were shot down at his side whilst he conned his ship. On clearing the entrance to the canal the steering, gear broke down. He manoeuvred his boat by the engines, and avoided complete destruction by steering so close in under the mole that the guns in the batteries could not depress sufficiently to fire on the boat. The whole of this operation was carried out under a constant machine-gun fire at a few yards range. It was solely due to this officer's courage and daring that M.L.282 succeeded in saving so many valuable lives.

Captain Edward Bamford, D.S.O., R.M.L.I. (from portrait in RM Museum Portsmouth) For most conspicuous gallantry. This officer landed on the mole from ''Vindictive" with numbers 5, 7 and 8 platoons of the marine storming force, in the face of great difficulties. When on the mole and under heavy fire, he displayed the greatest initiative in the command of his company, and by his total disregard of danger showed a magnificent example to his men. He first established a strong point on the right of the disembarkation, and, when satisfied that that was safe, led an assault on a battery to the left with the utmost coolness and valour. Captain Bamford was selected by the officers of the R.M.A. and R.M.L.I. detachments to receive the Victoria Cross under Rule 13 of the Royal Warrant, dated the 29th January, 1856.

Serjeant Norman Augustus Finch, R.M.A., No. R.M.A./12150. (from portrait in RM Museum Portsmouth) For most conspicuous gallantry. Serjeant Finch was second in command of the pompoms and Lewis guns in the foretop of "Vindictive," under Lieutenant Charles N. B. Rigby, R.M.A. At one period the "Vindictive" was being hit every few seconds, chiefly in the upper works, from which splinters caused many casualties. It was difficult to locate the guns which were doing the most damage, but Lieutenant Rigby, Serjeant Finch and the Marines in the foretop, kept up a continuous fire with pompoms and Lewis guns, changing rapidly from one target to another, and thus keeping the enemy's fire down to some considerable extent. Unfortunately two heavy shells made direct hits on the foretop, which was completely exposed to enemy concentration of fire. All in the top were killed or disabled except Serjeant Finch, who was, however, severely wounded; nevertheless he showed consummate bravery, remaining in his battered and exposed position. He once more got a Lewis gun into action, and kept up a continuous fire, harassing the enemy on the mole, until the foretop received another direct hit, the remainder of the armament being then completely put out of action. Before the top was destroyed Serjeant Finch had done invaluable work, and by his bravery undoubtedly saved many lives. This very gallant serjeant of the Royal Marine Artillery was selected by the 4th Battalion of Royal Marines, who were mostly Royal Marine Light Infantry, to receive the Victoria Cross under Rule 13 of the Royal Warrant dated 29th January, 1856.

Able Seaman Albert Edward McKenzie, O.N. J31736 (Ch.). For most conspicuous gallantry. This rating belonged to B Company of seaman storming party. On the night of the operation he landed on the mole with his machine-gun in the face of great difficulties and did very good work, using his gun to the utmost advantage. He advanced down the mole with Lieutenant-Commander Harrison, who with most of his party was killed, and accounted for several of the enemy running from a shelter to a destroyer alongside the mole. This very gallant seaman was severely wounded whilst working his gun in an exposed position. Able Seaman McKenzie was selected by the men of the "Vindictive," "Iris II," and "Daffodil'" and of the naval assaulting force to receive the Victoria Cross under Rule 13 of the Royal Warrant dated the 29th January 1856.



Admiralty, I7th March 1919

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the posthumous award of the Victoria Gross to the undermentioned officers:—

Lieutentant-Commander George Nicholson Bradford, R.N.  For most conspicuous gallantry at Zeebrugge on the night of the 22nd-23rd April, 1918  This officer was in command of the Naval Storming Parties embarked in " Iris II." When " Iris II." proceeded alongside the Mole great difficulty was experienced in placing the parapet anchors owing to the motion of the ship. An attempt was made to land by the scaling ladders before the ship was secured. Lieutenant Claude E K Hawkings (late "Erin ") managed to get one ladder in position and actually reached the parapet, the ladder being crashed to pieces just as he stepped off it. This very gallant young officer was last seen defending himself with his revolver. He was killed on the parapet. •  Though securing the ship was not part of his duties Lieut.-Commander Bradford climbed up the derrick, which carried a large parapet anchor and was rigged out over the portside; during this climb the ship was surging up and down and the derrick crashing on the Mole; waiting his opportunity he jumped with the parapet anchor on to the Mole and placed it in position. Immediately after hooking on the parapet anchor Lieut.-Commander Bradford was riddled with bullets from machine guns and fell into the sea between the Mole and the ship. Attempts to recover his body failed. Lieut.-Commander Bradford's action was one of absolute self-sacrifice; without a moment's hesitation he went to certain death, recognising that in such action lay the only possible chance of securing "Iris I I " and enabling her storming parties to land.


Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison RN

For most conspicuous gallantry at Zeebrugge on the night of the 22nd-23rd April, 1918  This officer was in immediate command of the Naval Storming Parties embarked in " Vindictive."

Immediately before coming alongside the Mole Lieut.-Commander Harrison was struck on the head by a fragment of a shell which broke his jaw and knocked him senseless. Recovering consciousness he proceeded on to the Mole and took over command of his party, who were attacking the seaward end of the Mole. The silencing of the guns on the Mole head was of the first importance, and though in a position fully exposed to the enemy's machine-gun fire Lieut.-Commander Harrison gathered his men together and led them to the attack. He was killed at the head of his men, all of whom were either killed or wounded. Lieut.-Commander Harrison, though already severely wounded and undoubtedly in great pain, displayed indomitable resolution and courage of the highest order in pressing his attack, knowing as he did that any delay in silencing the guns might jeopardise the main object of the expedition, i.e., the blocking of the Zeebrugge-Bruges Canal.



'Old Vindictive'

The cruiser Vindictive was built in Chatham in 1897. She had a protective band of armour around her waterline as defence against torpedos and her bow was specially shaped and reinforced for use as a battering ram

she patrolled the Oceans of the world from South America to Russia often as a flag ship with an Admiral on board

In 1903 she towed the sailing ship 'Terra Nova' from Gilbraltar to Aden via Suez (below) on her urgent voyage to rescue Capt Scott's first Antartic Expedition; more images at: University of Aberdeen photo collection

In 1906 the launch of HMS Dreadnought with her heavy armour, large calibre turret-mounted guns and oil-fired steam turbine engines, made Vindictive and all battleships of her generation obsolete.

By 1918 Vindictive was at the end of her useful life and it was decided to risk her on the Zeebrugge Raid. All superfluous equipment was removed and her superstructure was completely remodelled to accommodate assault troops on an extra deck and gang planks to reach the top of the Mole

On the evening of 22 April 1918 Vindictive led the attack fleet across the Channel. She carried 300 assault troops and towed the ferries Iris and Daffodil carrying another 600 Royal Marines

But Vindictive was hit by German shells before she reached the Mole; ten of her twelve landing ramps were destroyed and many men and key officers were killed

Once alongside the Mole, the Vindictive came under a huge barrage of close range fire

After just over an hour of intensive bombardment the Vindictive left the Mole and headed for Dover

Back in Dover the damage she had suffered became very clear

but although she was in a bad way, it was decided to send her out again for an attack on Ostende

but this time she was not to return as she was scuttled in Ostende harbour

and there she lay until 1920 when she was raised to be broken up for scrap (note her battering ram bow)

her funnels and superstructure were removed and the damaged decks became a tourist attraction

her bows were removed and placed in the middle of a roundabout in Ostende where they stood for over 50 years

In early 2013 the Ostende town council removed Vindictive's bows and had them completely restored. They were then relocated in a specially prepared site overlooking the entrance to Ostende harbour on Staketsel Straat. The site was officially opened in a ceremony attended by the King of Belgium.

The King of Belgium (in the grey raincoat) lays a wreath at the site of the new Vindictive memorial

Nick McKenzie in front of the bows of HMS Vindictive March 2013