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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Thursday 22 February 2024

Zeebrugge 1918: The Greatest Raid of All

 I came across the Zeebrugge raid in my research for the Ambuscade book and the role of the Dover Patrol in WW1. While HMS Ambuscade didn't participate, I made a mental note to look further. At the York show, I picked up this book by Christopher Sandford on the subject from Dave Lanchester.

When we think of raids on occupied Europe, we gravitate to WW2 and the commandos. However, the Zeebrugge raid of April 1918 had many elements we would see in the later conflict and some of the same personalities.

The raid was a British-led naval operation aimed at blocking the German-held port of Bruges-Zeebrugge in Belgium. The port was a significant base for German U-boats that were wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, sinking two Allied ships a day on average. The raid involved a daring attempt to sink old ships at the harbour's entrance, blocking access to German submarines. The plan involved three old cruisers, HMS Thetis, HMS Intrepid, and HMS Iphigenia, packed with explosives and scuttled into the harbour entrance. Simultaneously, a diversionary attack was launched on the nearby port of Ostend to draw German forces away from Zeebrugge.

Sandford starts with the strategic background in the last year of the war. Zeebrugge was home to a force of 36 U-boats, which were causing heavy casualties to allied merchant shipping, despite the best efforts of the Dover Patrol to contain them, sinking six U-boats a month in the early months of 1918. Bombing the port wasn't an option because aircraft couldn't carry a heavy enough payload, and attempts to advance on land up the coast had failed. 

The defences of Zeebrugge were considerable. 232 guns protected the harbour, plus 128 machine gun nests, searchlights, and a garrison of around 700 men. Sea access was heavily mined, and heavy silt created natural defences. Sandford takes us through the options that the commander, Roger Keyes, considered and eventually got approval for. Back in the government, Churchill was also an enthusiastic supporter of the raid. He would recall Keyes to be the first Director of Combined Operations in June 1940.

Most of the book focuses on the raid itself in graphic detail, with many descriptions of outstanding bravery. Six VCs were awarded, some by unit ballot. This wasn't a clean commando raid, silent and violent. The cruiser, HMS Vindictive, carried most of the landing force of seamen and marines onto the mole. They suffered staggering casualties, yet amazingly, the ship managed to sail away. The mole itself probably saved the ship from a critical lower hit, but the superstructure was wrecked. 

Despite heavy casualties and the partial failure of some elements of the operation, the raid was ultimately considered a strategic success by the Royal Navy. While the harbour wasn't permanently sealed, it was sufficiently obstructed to disrupt U-boat operations temporarily and force the Germans to deploy additional resources to clear the blockage. Others regarded the achievements as modest for such casualties. Admiral Fisher was one critic, quoted as saying, 'No such folly was ever devised by fools as that at Zeebrugge.' If it was a failure, it was a classic British 'honourable' failure, which certainly raised morale at an important period in the war.

Although I am not beyond a bit of harbour building on the wargame table, Zeebrugge is beyond me. However, I have started a modest WW1 naval force and plan to refight some Dover Patrol actions. 

Next week, I am off to London for naval archival research at Greenwich and Kew. That may provide some further inspiration!


  1. The VC’s awarded clearly indicate considerable bravery. I always assumed (much like Rorke’s Drift) that the Government was trying to distract attention away from the not insignificant casualties and trying to present the action as a success, demonstrated by the number of gongs awarded. Still, as I said above, the bravery of the soldiers and sailors involved is beyond doubt.

  2. And more would have been awarded, justifiably reading some of the accounts in the book, had the unit ballot rule not been invoked.