war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper






At noon on St George's Day, Sunday, April 23, Dovorians are welcome to attend a short, moving tribute. The mayor, in long-established tradition, will ring the Zeebrugge Bell from the Town Hall balcony. That weekend our Belgian friends in Zeebrugge will be showing their respects. Dover's act of remembrance for the heroes of the Zeebrugge Raid is followed by wreath-laying for the fallen, buried in St James' Cemetery.

During the First World War the Dover Patrol performed many tasks, including mine-sweeping, escorting ships, and anti-submarine warfare. The Patrol won 13 Victoria Crosses and suffered grievous casualties, losing 2,000 men. A number of these are named on the war memorial outside the council offices.

Dover's vital strategic role produced further staggering and heartbreaking statistics. More than four million troops were transported from our coast. Of those who survived the pitiless attrition of the trenches almost one and a quarter million returned wounded through Dover alone. The problems of logistics were massive. For example more than a million horses were shipped. To feed them required daily exports of 500 tons of fodder, more than the daily weight of ammunition.

The Zeebrugge Raid provides a microcosm of the slaughter and heroism. Belgium was German-occupied and enemy submarines from Ostende and Zeebrugge prowled the Channel. Our war cabinet knew that unless the submarine threat were reduced the war would be lost in 12 months through loss of shipping.

Huge losses had been taken in attempts to take Passchendaele Ridge to command the enemy's submarine bases with long-range gunfire. Bombing the inland docks at Bruge had failed due to the impregnability of the concrete submarine bunkers. From there these silent killers travelled the canal to Zeebrugge and out into the Channel. The harbour possessed one of the world's longest breakwaters, heavily fortified with gun batteries.

Hence the need for the Zeebrugge Raid. This was commanded by Vice Admiral of the Fleet Roger Keyes from his flagship HMS Warwick. HMS Vindictive was the main raiding cruiser. The Iris and Daffodil carried boarding parties. Incredibly these two vessels were Mersey ferries, commandeered for their low draught and double hulls which made them difficult to sink. Added to the flotilla were two submarines, 34 motor launches, three concrete-filled blockships named Thetis, Intrepid, and Iphigenia, 15 coastal motorboats, and another 10 assorted vessels. Volunteers comprising 82 officers, 1,000 men, and 700 marines took part.

This strange armada sailed on April 22, 1918, to Keyes's message "St George for England". Off Zeebrugge the expedition disembarked surplus blockship crews and cast off the submarines and other towed boats. Burning chemicals created smokescreens as the raid began.  Zeebrugge graves at St James, by Simon Chambers

Vindictive's commander Captain Carpenter later said, "They literally poured projectiles into us." Under torrential close-range fire, prevailing currents prevented Vindictive abutting the breakwater, so Daffodil nudged her in. The submarines discharged men who blew up viaducts. The three blockships were scuttled and Zeebrugge was sealed, achieving the key objective. Eight VCs were awarded for the bravery of that night. The human cost was horrendous: in an hour 214 men were killed and 383 wounded.

As to the success or otherwise of the Zeebrugge Raid historians disagree. Beyond question however is that the canal was impassable for large vessels for three weeks. Is this how success is measured?

The valour of that night remains a shining example of courage, devotion, and dedication. It is difficult to comprehend such slaughter and hellishness, so perhaps information form our War Memorial Project helps personalise matters.

Able Seaman Frederick William Bowlt of the Vindictive was one who died. His reward was grave reference PW12A in St James' Cemetery. He was 19. He never returned to his grieving parents, William and Olive, of 17 Union Road, or to his local, The Greyhound. Neither did his brother Bartholomew, a Merchant Navy fireman, killed in 1915. Both are named on our war memorial.

When passing our Town Hall read the inscription under the Zeebrugge Bell and spare a glance at the grappling hook, damaged by enemy fire, near our war memorial.

Every single Dover family suffered, on our behalf, at that time. This is why the bell will be rung. It is also, why, as Binyon said:

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."


This article first appeared in the Dover Express, p10, 6th April 2006
reproduced with permission

Zeebrugge graves at St James cemetery, Dover

Copyright 2006 Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved