Our picture shows Representatives from Belgium paying their respects at the 2017 Commemorations at St James’s Cemetery

Parades and services organised by Dover Town Council to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Zeebrugge Raid are to be held on St George’s Day (April 23).

The Zeebrugge Bell at Maison Dieu (Town Hall), Dover, has been struck each year at noon in memory of volunteers who took part in the audacious amphibious raid on the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. The raid was a desperate attempt by the Royal Navy’s Dover Patrol to stop German submarines wreaking havoc among allied shipping.

Many lives were lost and memorial services have been held in the coastal communities of Dover and Zeebrugge ever since, with this year’s events set to serve as one of the key commemorations of centenary events relating to the First World War.

Dover events 23 April 2018

  • 10.15am: Service and wreath laying at the Zeebrugge Memorial, St James’s Cemetery, Dover, led by the Mayor of Dover. Royal Navy and Royal Marines in attendance. Please note: The road to St James’s Cemetery and car park will be closed for public access surrounding the service and parade.
  • 11.30am: Parade from the Market Square to Maison Dieu (Town Hall) led by the Royal Marines and band.
  • Noon: Mayor of Dover rings ‘Eight Bells’ on the Zeebrugge Bell, followed by a short service.

HMS Somerset will take part in the commemorations in Belgium and sail to Dover for the anniversary.

Dover Museum will be staging an exhibition, Twisting the Dragon’s Tail – The Dover Patrol and the Zeebrugge Raid, which will include first-hand accounts of the raid and artefacts and photographs from the raiding force, as well as looking at the role of the Dover Patrol in keeping the Channel safe for shipping.

In anticipation of this year’s centenary, The Zeebrugge Bell has been restored and cleaned at the Loughborough bell foundry of John Taylor & Co and conservation work has been carried out on the bell housing and tower.

Other events

On April 23 in the afternoon, the Royal Marines Heritage Trails will be launched in Deal, a 2.5 mile self-guided walking tour that links 23 locations in Deal and Walmer that mark the Royal Marines’ 350-year association with the area. Royal Marines will also be exercising their Freedom of the Town.

The Royal Marines played a pivotal role in the 1918 raid on Zeebrugge with many of them trained at the Royal Marines Depot in Deal.

Members of the Royal Marines Association also mark the anniversary of the raid each year, first in Zeebrugge where a parade and church service is held and veterans visit the remains of the mole where so many of the attackers were killed as well as memorials marking key points of the engagement, then in Dover where this year they will march through the town.

The Dover event follows two days of commemorations at Zeebrugge and Ostend (April 21 – 22), which will be attended by the Mayor of Dover.

Historical background

By 1917, U-boats raiding shipping lanes in the Atlantic, the North Sea and the English Channel were sinking up to 400 ships a month, threatening the supplies of food and war materials vital to the war effort.

The U-boats were based in heavily fortified pens at Bruges and accessed the Channel via an eight-mile canal to the port of Zeebrugge, and an older, narrower canal to Ostend. At the time, Zeebrugge was the world’s largest man-made harbour, extending a mile and a half out to sea.

Attempts to block submarine access to the port with bombing, shelling, minefields and net barrages had failed, so the Royal Navy hatched a plan to scuttle three old cruisers, filled with concrete, in the entrance of the canal at Zeebrugge to prevent the U-boats accessing their home base to refit, resupply, rearm and refuel.

The 75-strong British armada, commanded by Vice Admiral Roger Keyes, was led by HMS Vindictive, an Arrogant-class cruiser, supported by two submarines and a flotilla of smaller craft, including two former Mersey ferries, which made ideal landing craft. The force of volunteers who took part in the raid consisted of 82 officers, 1,000 sailors and 700 marines.

Things soon started to go wrong. The diversionary attack on the harbour was supposed to be covered by a smokescreen, but thanks to an unexpected change of wind direction the smoke blew away and German gunners on the mole were able to continue to fire at the invaders at close range, inflicting many casualties as the marines sought to seize and destroy the gun emplacements, engaging them at close quarters.

The strong current made it difficult for HMS Vindictive to discharge men on the breakwater and the landing craft were severely damaged, suffering many casualties as they tried to get the raiders ashore. In total, 277 men were killed and 356 wounded.

The crews of two of the blockships did manage to get to the entrance of the inner harbour and sink them but did not fully block it. The Germans were able to dredge a new channel round the obstacles and the port was back in operation within days. German casualties were just eight dead and 16 wounded.

A simultaneous raid on Ostend failed but the Royal Navy returned in May to try again, when the HMS Vindictive was sunk in an attempt to block the port.

Both sides claimed success, the Germans maintaining that U-boats were able to pass the scuttled wreck within two days. However, Winston Churchill insisted that the action had severely curtailed submarine operations against Allied shipping and described the raid as “the finest feat of arms of the Great War”.

Eleven Victoria Crosses and hundreds of other decorations were awarded to those who took part in the attacks. Most of the Zeebrugge casualties were buried in England either because they died of their wounds en route or because the survivors recovered their bodies to repatriate them. HMS Vindictive returned the majority to Dover, where 156 bodies were kept in a makeshift morgue in the town’s Market Hall. A mass funeral took place at St James’s Cemetery, Dover, on 27 April, 1918 with sailors and marines buried in one mass grave under the spur that overlooks the cemetery from the south-west. The Zeebrugge plot of St James’s Cemetery, Dover, has nine unidentified men and 50 named men who died on 23 April 1918 but most fatalities were returned to their families for local burials. On his request, Keyes was buried here beside his men following his death on 26 December 1945. Four Royal Navy personnel who died in the raid are buried in the cemetery at Zeebrugge where there is also a memorial to the raid.

Shortly after Zeebrugge was liberated by advancing Allied troops in October 1918, The ‘Zeebrugge Bell’ was given to Dover’s Mayor, Edwin Farley by Vice Admiral Keyes. It had served as an alarm bell on the mole and was given to Keyes to pass to Dover by Albert I, The King of the Belgians, as a souvenir of the raid and a tribute to the heroism of the attackers. The bell was first placed at St Mary’s Church but in 1921 it was moved to the Grade I listed Maison Dieu. In 1933, the bell briefly returned to St Mary’s Church for a special service broadcast on BBC radio.

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