VALOUR WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN" by Mike Webb
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
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.
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
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
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