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News > General > The Zeebrugge raid of 1918

The Zeebrugge raid of 1918

The Zeebrugge raid was a daring but near-suicidal attempt to block the canal entrance at the German-held port of Zeebrugge, to stop German U-Boats entering and exiting the canal into the North Sea.
3 Nov 2020
General

April 23rd marks the anniversary of the Zeebrugge raid, a daring but near-suicidal attempt by the British to block the canal entrance at the German-held port of Zeebrugge, to stop German U-Boats entering and exiting the canal into the North Sea. One of the key players in the raid was Wing Commander Frank Brock.

Frank Arthur Brock was born on 29th June 1884 in Norwood. His father was the owner of Brocks fireworks which, during WW1 turned to the production of munitions. He left the Prep in 1897 for the Dulwich College, where he blew up a stove in his form room.

He was a prolific inventor and naturally focused on pyrotechnics. When war broke out he applied for a commission initially in the Royal Artillery, but in 1915 he was appointed Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service. He was promoted to Wing Commander in April 1917 ‘in consideration of very valuable services performed for naval and military air services. Notably the invention of the Brock incendiary bullet, designed to ignite the gases in zeppelin airships.

The plan for the Zeebrugge raid used submarines filled with explosives, two ferries and several old cruisers including HMS Vindictive. Zeebrugge harbour and the canal entrance were shielded by a long mole that had been used by the Germans as a defensive position, with gun batteries, machine guns, and garrisons of men stationed along it. Vindictive would land troops on the mole to take out the shore batteries. The submarines would be blown up under the viaduct connecting the mole to the harbour, and blockships, filled with concrete, would be scuttled, blocking the harbour entrances. Brock’s role in the raid was in designing the machine to produce the smokescreen used by the ships to mask their approach.

The British force left from Dover and Harwich on the afternoon of April 22nd, some accounts stating that Brock had taken several bottles of vintage port on board Vindictive that were consumed during the crossing. The artificial fog smokescreen was deployed and was at first extremely successful in masking the arrival of the raiding force. However, a sudden change in the direction of the wind blew the cover away and the full weight of the German fire was opened on the approaching vessels. Despite suffering heavily, Vindictive managed to manoeuvre alongside the mole and put her remaining troops ashore. One submarine was exploded under the viaduct, and two blockships scuttled at the canal entrance.

The attacking troops paid a heavy price, and of the 1,700 who took part nearly 600 hundred were killed or wounded. German casualties were much lower, figures of eight killed and 16 wounded often being cited. One graphic account of the Vindictive’s return to Dover records ‘And there was blood. There were smears of blood high on the funnels. Half-congealed blood lay heel deep in the wrecked foretop, a mushroom-like box stuck up in front of the forward funnel. In that foretop pieces of skull and hair and skin were wedged into battered gun-sights, and it looked as though someone had sloshed buckets of blood on to the walls and ceiling. Below decks, and tucked in odd corners, there were torn clothes, boots, bandages and blankets, all dark and soggy with blood. The salt sea air had not been able to cleanse out the smells of gas, lyddite, cordite and blood.’

Brock’s fate during the raid is unclear. It seems he went ashore to try and locate German sound range-finding apparatus; a Warrant Officer who also took part in the raid stated Brock was ‘going singlehanded for a gun’s crew’. He was last seen with pistol and cutlass in hand on the mole, where he was ‘knocked out’.

The effectiveness of the raid was negligible, and the U-Boats were using the canal again within a few days of the raid. However, Zeebrugge was presented by British propaganda as a success, and eight Victoria Crosses were subsequently awarded.

Captain Alfred Carpenter, who was awarded the VC for his command of Vindictive during the raid, said ‘It would be difficult for anybody to speak too highly of Wing-Commander Frank A. Brock. He was a rare personality. An inventive genius, than whom the country had no better.’

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