In collecting our list of things to do at the local tourist office when we first arrived in Brugge, we found that there was an exhibit taking place in the center of town to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an attack on the town’s harbor. The raid, by the British, occurred late in the Great War, which was an attempt to blockade the submarine ports that had been set up in Brugge’s harbor of Zeebrugge. By 1918 the Germans, who had occupied the city from the very beginning of the war, had built a vast base that protected, repaired, armed and launched raids against the British supplies coming in through the North Sea. The base was extremely well protected, given the technology available at the time.
While I loved to spend time in my career on the two world wars, and by the latter part of any school year there were great reasons for launching into the events of the wars- it really appealed to the boys and the consequences of each war were so profound on the succeeding decades that it set up the political realities of the world and life as we know them today- the problem with covering these wars was that the unbelievable number of events, fronts, individuals and motivations made it extremely difficult to maintain context and purpose in a lesson. It was like throwing spaghetti at the wall to get a overall picture of the thing in the days or a couple of weeks one could devote to it. Then, there is the Treaty of Versailles, which is as important as the war.
The main problem was trying to make sense of the motivations of the many countries involved in the war, to account for the hundreds of battles taking place literally throughout the war (though those in Europe held precedence), and to give fair and equal accounting of the Eastern, Western, Balkan, Italian and Ottoman fronts, and other world regions, which often left what was happening at sea to be filled in around the events as the four-year war unfolded.
Yet, the importance of what happened on and under the sea cannot be minimized, even though it was always shortchanged in a sophomore history class or in an IB course that expects even more comprehensive understanding of significant events than can be given to such a section in the unit. I ended up hating giving assessments that ticked off a bunch of facts and names, always hoping that the students would gain understanding, make the connections and demonstrate understanding through analysis of what had transpired. That meant having enough information to make judgements.
It also meant that Belgium, in any such class on World War One, gained very little traction in planning a lesson about the war. The Schlieffen Plan, the surprise attack of Germany to march through Belgium, encircle Paris and get the French out of the war within two months, was the only marker placed in the list of events and places used in lessons. Our week here has enlightened us considerably about the impact of the war on the country. It was devastating in some areas, and Brugge was a prize that was never given up by the Germans until the very end.
The Great War, as it was then called, was one that found the technology far advanced of military planning (and one can, and has, argued that the minds doing the planning were often using egos, politics or outdated mindsets for conclusions). So many times military leaders, either in the army or the navy, and in the newly developing air force, had no idea how to use their new weapons most effectively. Politicians and royalty were really looking at traditional options, which meant they held power over all reason, as they wished to maintain- and grow- sovereignty over their dominions.
What they did have was millions of men, so they used them as they needed, often making horrible, seemingly unintelligent and tragic decisions that left thousands upon thousands of men maimed or dead, or perhaps damaged psychologically for the rest of their lives (even with no visual physical injury). I tend to be unforgiving of the many leaders of this war for making those decisions, though I also know full well that they were under tremendous pressure to move the marker on the planning maps in their favor and that historians are of the ilk of Monday Morning Quarterbacking who have the luxury of hindsight, something with which no general or politician is armed. True, keep in mind after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, General Moltke, nephew of the great commander during the Bismarck years, advised suing for peace as he knew the war was lost. He was dismissed. And, on a very few occasions the gambles of leaders were successful and they are credited with being brilliant on those occasions. Still, so many deaths and disabilities suffered because of so many apparently horrible decisions to simply throw men at the enemy.
As the fourth year of the war arrived, and the Brugge/Bruges Offensive of 1917 having been renamed the Battle of Passchendaele by the Brits and Douglas Haig to save face, Brugge was still German and an elusive goal. At this point of the war, Haig had already been through three years of conflict, not only with the Germans, but with his own leaders. The most important adversary for Haig was his Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. Lloyd George was unsparing in his criticism of Haig in his post war memoirs. And, since their publication in the 1930s, Lloyd George’s war memoirs formed the dominant view of the British army in the First World War, as “lions led by donkeys”. Lloyd George settled his personal score with Haig with the damning phrase “brilliant to the top of his army boots.” But, that is another blog and included here only to demonstrate the pressure on all involved in the Western Front.
Brugge was of continuing paramount importance to the Allied efforts, as the German submarine fleet that was so necessary to their war effort was located there. It was called the Flanders Flotilla. Therefore, in a lesson regarding the seas and their importance in the war, Brugge would have to be a significant part of any unit. I never had the luxury of enough time to include it in a lesson, other than as a mention in the Passchendaele Battle in 1917, which was really anticipated in its planning to really be the Bruges Campaign. At least I can learn more now and do it at my leisure and with pleasure. To have the opportunity to be in Brugge, to see their rich history dating from Roman times, but to more recently have had roles in both the First and Second World Wars, has been part of the pleasure of the time we’ve spent in Europe this April and May. It has become too clearly apparent that this wonderful country did nothing in either situation of the 20th century conflicts to deserve the fate of occupation and destruction that resulted simply in their prime logistical position between to larger advisories. Those two unwarranted and unjustified wars changed their citizens’ lives forever.
That Flanders Flotilla that grew in size and destructive capability because of the logistical advantages of Zeebrugge were always on the Allied minds when looking for a resolution to the war. Churchill said, in writing his memoirs in 1946, “The only thing that ever frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril” , though this also applied to the damage done by the NAZI U Boots in the Second World War. The strength of the Allied surface navies in both wars pushed the Germans into perfecting submarine warfare. The technology improved quickly, their numbers increased, as did the size and possibilities of what the U Boots could accomplish, and the hot spot for using them were Zeebrugge and Ostende harbors on the Belgian coast just outside of Brugge. The command post was in the Town Hall on the main square in town. Huge facilities were constructed of fortified cement to protect the fleet.
In early 1918 to plan was devised to cripple the access to the Channel from the inner harbor. The became known as the Zeebrugge Raid, which took place on the night of April 22/23 over the course of just about one hour. It was one that saw unbelievable heroism on the British side, though it is hard to imagine a comparison of what a soldier, facing machine guns, mortars and exploding artillery shells, had to muster in the way of courage going up the slope to the village of Passchendaele, for instance. In that hundred day battle, most of it in pounding rain with mud wet, oozing and deep enough to drown horse and man alike. What men did in battle in that war is perhaps like no other, in that the killing rate was among the highest in modern history and one knew what his chances were. The went forward anyway. The number of British killed, wounded or missing in action in the Zeebrugge Raid was about ten per minute, out of a small landing party and an overall group, all volunteers, of about 1700 men. A third of them were casualties and twelve Victoria Crosses were awarded for the bravery demonstrated by those involved. The exhibit has assembled the VCs for the first time in one place. The stories of those men are compelling and links are provided below to some of them. Two are noteworthy, George Bradford and Albert McKenzie. McKenzie survived the raid and was made a public face of the battle and used to raise moral at home. A Youtube of this event is in this link. His home town recently unveiled a statue of him in the raid to commemorate the 100 year anniversary.
In the Zeebrugge Raid, the plan was to present a diversion by having a group of marines land on the Mole and to dismantle the German weaponry posted there. Using a smoke screen to accomplish this, it would also clothe the approach of three obsolete ships filled with concrete that would be sunk in the opening to the harbor. That was about the extent of the plan, one that would take the volunteer force right into the teeth of the German defenses.
The commander of the raid, and I am not sure how much also he was involved in its planning, was Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes. As is often the case when you dig into the particulars of any incident, the individuals involved are critical and making judgements about them and their actions involves needed clarity, diligence and breadth to be fair to their reputations. I have done a bit on Sir Keyes and am still asking questions about his motivations, ego and competence. To quote him and the captain of the Vindictive going into the raid:
The significance of the date wasn’t lost on Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes, the driving force behind the Zeebrugge Raid. Before the attack, Keyes signaled from his flagship, “St George for England”, receiving Vindictive’s reply, “May we give the dragon’s tail a damn good twist.”
Following is an account of the raid as told in the Telegraph by Paul Kendall, author of a new book on the raid:
The sailors at Chatham dockyard had a name for the men preparing for the Zeebrugge Raid. The “Suicide Club”, they called them. Events were to prove it a bloodily accurate title.
The British are often accused of wallowing in their wartime exploits, but the operation to block the heavily defended, German-held Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend on St George’s Day 1918, thus denying their use to the U-boats ravaging Allied shipping, is barely remembered. There will, however, be a few people commemorating the 90th anniversary of the raid today.
In the face of withering fire at Zeebrugge, a few thousand men of the Royal Marines and Royal Navy attempted to silence German batteries and scuttle blockships filled with concrete in the entrance to the ports. More than 600 men were killed or wounded.
The propaganda offensive that followed, which greatly exaggerated the raid’s success, helped to boost the morale of an empire nearing exhaustion after almost four years of war. Churchill, then minister of munitions, described the men’s efforts as possibly “the finest feat of arms” in the conflict.
In terms of the result he was guilty of hyperbole, but his words were more than justified by the raw courage and sacrifice displayed.
The awards, many posthumous, tell their own story: 11 VCs and more than 600 other decorations. During the fighting at Zeebrugge, which lasted little more than an hour, medals were being won at the rate of six a minute.
The raid was a response to the havoc wrought by German U boats based at the inland port of Bruges, which relied on two canals, one ending at Zeebrugge and the other at Ostend, in order to reach the open sea. Their attacks were responsible for a third of Allied ships sunk in the war.
With Britain’s maritime lifeline in danger of being cut, Bruges needed to be put out of action. Blocking the canal entrances would force the submariners to rely on naval bases in north Germany.
The major British offensive in Flanders in 1917 had as its goal the seizure of Bruges from the landward side, but its failure in the blood and mudbath known as Passchendaele left a daring amphibious operation as the only alternative.
The operation was commanded by Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes and the only prospect he could offer for those taking part was death or capture. Chief Engine Room Artificer Thomas Farrell had served 18 years in the Royal Navy and was a volunteer. He nonchalantly informed a friend: “I’m off on a suicide job.”
To allow the three blockships at Zeebrugge to reach their positions, the German batteries had to be silenced. They were sited on the mole, a breakwater extending into the sea.
Its capture was the job of a contingent of sailors and Marines aboard the obsolete cruiser Vindictive, which was to charge out of the mist, moor up to the mole and disgorge the raiding party. The guns would be silenced and a submarine packed with explosives detonated midway along the mole to prevent German reinforcements reaching the scene.
Many of the British casualties were sustained when the Germans, alerted to Vindictive’s approach, raked her with fire. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting ensued. One blockship grounded before reaching the canal but the two others were scuttled. The operation at Ostend was a complete failure and had to be repeated the following month – with only partial success.
Lt Theodore Cooke was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for leading his platoon of Marines on the Zeebrugge mole. Wounded twice, the second time in the head, he continued to fight on before being evacuated.
His citation read: “By his personal bravery under fire, he set a magnificent example to his men, and led them forward with the greatest courage and dash in spite of being wounded. He was wounded a second time while endeavouring to carry a wounded man back to the ship.”
Churchill, who was a friend of Vice-Admiral Keynes, waxed to the point of hyperbole by claiming the raid to be perhaps the best feat of military execution in the whole war. The government downplayed any thoughts of failure and pushed the propaganda to the limit to bolster public opinion at the time. Remember, in 1917 there had been a French mutiny, a Russian Revolution and demoralizing campaigns. The submarines were causing unsustainable losses, the Germans were moving their troops from the Russian front to the Western front. Hopes of the American weight was slowly being realized, but not with the impact needed to sue for peace. Their would be attacks and counter-attacks by both sides before each side was exhausted, finally. In a side note, Keynes was present with the Belgian King Albert in liberating Bruges in 1918, later became a MP and his speech condemning the Norway Raid in 1940 (while leaving a significant proponent of the raid, Churchill, his friend, out of the condemnation) which was central in the fall of the Chamberlain government and the choice of Churchill as his replacement in May of that year. Politics….
If you wish to continue at some time, enjoy the links below
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVpG7mFMvs4 Albert McKenzie