The ships of the Dover Patrol en route to Zeebrugge.
(later Baron Keyes of Zeebrugge and
Dover) had taken command of the Dover
on 31 December 1917. He was charged with
the task of stopping the marauding submarines and
destroyers working out of occupied Belgium. The threat
came from the main German naval base at Bruges, an
historic inland town linked to the sea by two canals,
one to Ostend and one (usable by the largest vessels)
to Zeebrugge. Keyes’ plan was to close the canal entrances
at the two ports with blockships. To increase the
chances of success at Zeebrugge, there was to be a
landing on the fortified mole to put its guns out
of action and cause as much damage as possible.
The cruiser ‘Vindictive’
was made ready to lead the assault on the Zeebrugge
mole. Inessentials were stripped, her armament was augmented
by howitzers, flame throwers and mortars, while ramps
for landing troops were hinged to her port side. With
her would go the Mersey ferry boats Iris and Daffodil
commandeered by the navy, and fitted out with mattresses
and steel plating to give troops some protection on
their upper decks. The old 3,600-ton cruisers ‘Thetis’,
‘Intrepid’ and ‘Iphigenia’ were converted into block
ships, their hulls filled with 1,500 tons of concrete
and fitted with electrically fired scuttling charges.
Blockships being prepared at
700 Royal Marines and
200 Royal Navy seamen were trained for the assault.
More than 160 ships were involved and assembled at Dover
and in the Thames Estuary. Twice the ships sailed and
were forced to turn back due to the weather. They left
finally on 22 April, the eve of St George’s Day, when
from the destroyer ‘Warwick’ Keyes made his famous “St
George for England” signal. From the ‘Vindictive’ came
the reply “May we give the dragon’s tail a damn good
The Vindictive on her way to Zeebrugge.
The Ostend force parted company
40 minutes before the main force reached Zeebrugge. As
the ‘Vindictive’ emerged from the fog and smoke screen
the German batteries on the mole opened up on her. Even
before being pushed up against the mole at one minute
after midnight by the ‘Daffodil’, the ‘Vindictive’ had
been seriously hit. In the rain of shells landing parties
on her decks were decimated striving to cross the gap
from the rolling ship. A howitzer crew was killed or wounded
and the replacement crew wiped out.
The submarine C3 ran a gauntlet of fire to demolish an
iron viaduct forming part of the mole. Beneath it she
was blown up to prevent German reinforcements reaching
the end of the mole. Some 15 minutes into the assault
the ‘Thetis’ passed the end of the mole, repeatedly hit
and with her own gunners blinded by smoke she failed to
make the lock gates. The ‘Intrepid’ following her was
sunk on the western bank of the canal entrance, while
the ‘Iphigenia’ was grounded to still further close the
The assult on Zeebrugge Mole.
At 1:10 am the sirens
sounded for withdrawal and in 20 minutes the embarkation
of the survivors was completed. The Iris was hit twelve
times as she made her departure with heavy loss of life
among the men packed on board. Battered almost beyond
recognition, the ‘Vindictive’ limped back to Dover.
The cost of the action was 214 men killed and 383 wounded.
The heroic achievement of the men involved in the attack
can be seen in the decorations awarded for the action
on St George’s Day. Over 200 decorations were earned
that night including eight Victoria Crosses, which worked
out at a rate of six medals for every minute of the
The heavily damaged Vindictive returning to Dover.
The attack on Ostend
was unsuccessful, as the blockships had run aground
before reaching the canal entrance. On 9 May, in a second
raid, ‘Vindictive’ returned to the Belgian coast. She
had been patched up and partly filled with concrete,
and in the face of heavy fire was sunk in the canal
entrance at Ostend.
The Vindictive, raised at Ostend after the war.
war the people of Zeebrugge presented Dover with the
Zeebrugge Bell, which had hung on the end of the mole
and was rung by the Germans to warn of a British attack.
The bell is housed on the front of the Old
, where it is rung every year on St George’s
Day in honour of the Dover Patrol.
The Zeebrugge Bell.