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Dover: Lock and Key of the Kingdom

Dover in the First World War - The Zeebrugge Raid

The ships of the Dover Patrol en route to Zeebrugge.
Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes (later Baron Keyes of Zeebrugge  and Dover) had taken command of the Dover Patrol 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 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 gap. 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  action. 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 assault on Zeebrugge Mole.
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, filled  with 1,500 tons of concrete and fitted with electrically fired scuttling charges. 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 twist”. 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 ‘Intrepid’ and ‘Iphigenia’ sunk in the entrance to Zeebrugge harbour. The heavily damaged Vindictive at Dover awaiting preparation for her second trip to Zeebrugge as a block ship. The Zeebrugge Bell. The heavily damaged Vindictive after the raid. Back to First World War Index
After the 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 Town Hall, where it is rung  every year on St George’s Day in honour of the  Dover Patrol.