Every year on 23rd April Dover remembers with thanks and honours the men who fought and died during the raid on the mole at Zeebrugge on that day in 1918. The current Covid-19 restrictions mean that the traditional commemorations cannot take place. This year we are protecting the vulnerable in our community including our veterans and the young people of our cadet forces who would normally have joined the service and parade at St James’s Cemetery and outside the Dover Town Hall for the ringing of the Zeebrugge Bell by the Mayor.
This year please honour the fallen in your hearts at home.
The Zeebrugge citation, the Kohima Prayer and the Ode are read each year during the Acts of Remembrance in Dover.
Our photograph shows the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, The Admiral of the Fleet the Lord Boyce KG GCB OBE DL paying tribute to each of the fallen at rest in St James’s Cemetery during the centenary commemorations in 2018.
At midnight on St. George’s Day 1918, exactly
102 years ago, today, the British Royal Navy and
Royal Marines carried out the most
audacious raid of War.
To deny the enemy the use of the submarine pens,
the Royal Marines and ‘Bluejackets’ stormed The
Mole at Zeebrugge.
Facing fierce fire at point blank range from a well
fortified enemy, they fought their way ashore,
showing great courage, extreme bravery and a true
Those brave men continued to engage the enemy
whilst their colleagues rammed ships into the entrance
of the canals, effectively blocking them for the
remainder of the War.
Against all odds, their action was a success but at
the cost of many lives. It covered the Royal Navy
with a renewed glory and eight Victoria Crosses were
awarded in an action which lasted little over one hour.
That night, the British showed to the world how they
could fight and die for the freedom of Belgium and of Europe.
We remember before God and commend to His keeping,
the memories of all the Sailors and Marines
who gave their lives for their country
on the 23rd April 1918.
THE KOHIMA PRAYER
When you go home,
tell them of us and say,
for your tomorrow,
we gave our today.
THE ODE (EXHORTATION)
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
Historical background to the raid on the mole at Zeebrugge 23rd April 1918
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.