Belgium U-boats

Block The Subs: The 1918 Raid On Zeebrugge

Belgium U-boats

Most of us think of daring commando raids as being a staple of World War 2 high military drama – and they were.

But the First World War had a notable forerunner to these, the centenary of which is today.

The Zeebrugge Raid was part of a two-pronged attack on German U-boat access to the sea via Belgium (the other portion of the attack was at Ostend) – an operation involving the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.

Writer Christopher Sandford has given the Forces Network an exciting glimpse into this daring mission, the details of which can be found in his recently published book (see below).

Furthermore, Sandford himself has a unique and fascinating connection to the operation…

The Zeebrugge Raid conducted on this day 100 years ago was in many ways a suicide mission. 

The basic plan for the raid was to sink block ships at the entrance to Zeebrugge’s harbour to prevent the U-boats stationed nearby from patrolling the English Channel. 

In order to get the block ships into the correct position, marines were to storm the ‘Mole’, or seawall, and neutralise the German defenders stationed there to prevent them attacking the arriving British ships. 

This was a dangerous enough mission as it was, but the soldiers who stormed the Mole were very poorly equipped: the lucky ones had the spectacularly heavy Lewis Gun, but many of the attackers who charged at the enemy machine guns were armed with nothing but a cutlass. 

There was a certain amount of what was essentially just street brawling in the subsequent skirmishes on the Mole – there are plenty of documented instances of men punching and kicking one another, and at least one marine favoured a sort of martial-arts approach to the raid!

First World War U-boats
Despite the cover image depiction, the raid actually took place at night, as can be seen here in ‘Vindictive alongside the Mole’ by Charles Dixon (image: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)
Belgium navy world war 1
A 3D map of the operation, with the attack on the Mole visible in the bottom half of the picture (image from ‘The Blocking of Zeebrugge’ by Stephen Prince © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

One of the incredible things about the operation was the lack of any real specific training or preparation focused on the actual objectives: no one ever thought to rehearse landing men from a badly-moored, rocking ship onto a high - and defended - stone wall in the dead of night, and some of the subsequent conditions they encountered came as a rude shock as a result. 

The available technology, too, was pretty basic: the Zeebrugge raiders had a few rather murky aerial-reconnaissance photos, but of course nothing in the way of computer or satellite images, nor any form of GPS with which to position Vindictive (the ship they stormed from) at the correct spot on the Mole. 

In all, it seems fair to say it was a triumph of individual initiative and collective fighting spirit, rather than one of meticulous groundwork and advance planning.

Shortly before the Mole was stormed, my great-uncle Richard Sandford destroyed a viaduct leading to the harbour in order to deny reinforcements from coming to the defender’s aid. He did this by manually steering a submarine full of explosives into it, before lighting a three-minute fuse and then rowing away as fast as possible with his crew. 

Remarkably, he was successful and almost came away unscathed but for what he called a ‘few minor scrapes’, or more accurately two bullet wounds to the leg. He was awarded the Victoria Cross shortly after.

Belgium Royal Navy First World War
Lieutenant Richard Sandford visible on the conning tower of the sub C3 (left) and the portion of the Mole that was blown up with a makeshift bridge constructed later (right; image: Charles Keyes)

The submarine component of the raid was a novel and obviously supremely dangerous idea.

I've spoken in the book about various previous historical attempts to physically block an enemy's harbour, but as far as I'm aware there was no precedent for using a submarine as a sort of floating time bomb in the way they did.

We don't have a definite letter or order signifying whose idea it originally was, but it seems reasonable to assume that the Zeebrugge Raid’s principal planner Admiral Roger Keyes - an old submariner - and his staff officer and explosives expert Frank Sandford - Richard Sandford's older brother - probably pushed it through.

You can see the obvious wider drama both of Frank delegating, or offering, this apparent suicide mission to his kid brother! 

(In a sense, the explosives-laden submarine must have acted much like a giant Bangalore torpedo, which was a device used to blow channels through barbed wire on the Western Front).

This whole segment of the raid was made significantly more dangerous by Richard's decision to physically steer the sub into the viaduct pilings, as opposed to employing the autopilot.

That probably cut down his and his crew's escape time from ten minutes to something like three minutes - a significant difference under the circumstances. 

Helpfully for Sandford and his crew, the Germans standing overhead appear to have regarded the whole thing as a sort of glorious joke - the crazy Britishers had gotten lost in the dark, and now their submarine could be easily boarded and taken as a spoil of war - rather than as a seaborne bomb ticking under their feet.

If they had kept firing at Sandford, the whole plan could have failed.

First World War Royal Navy U-boats
U-boat threat
British blockships in the mouth of Zeebrugge harbour (top), and an abandoned ship in the narrow mouth of the canal at the time of the armistice (bottom)

Zeebrugge’s legacy can be seen in the Second World War during the altogether more successful St. Nazaire raid of 1942.

Among the lessons the latter put to good effect were the need to have adequate and rapid means of actually disembarking the raiders onto dry land; the need for specific and clearly defined targets for individual raiding parties, as opposed to the more general and collective orders at Zeebrugge; and not least, the need for proper air cover. 

This last detail was another of Zeebrugge's components to go wrong, or at least to be left incomplete, on the day, whereas at St. Nazaire as many as five RAF squadrons circled overhead, both to 'soften up' the designated targets for the ground troops and to act as a decoy for German artillery fire. 

The naval-air axis was never really coordinated at either Zeebrugge or Ostend, and indeed there's a letter from Keyes quoted towards the end of my book in which he fumes about the RAF's (to him) inefficiency and ineptitude in general.

First World War
President Woodrow Wilson (left image, in the cap) shown the Mole in 1919 and Kaiser Wilhelm on a visit to his U-boat commanders after the raid (right)

While Zeebrugge was ultimately a failure in that it didn’t prevent the U-boats from reaching the Channel for very long, considering the odds stacked against them, the marines did remarkably well.

The casualty rates for the raid were almost half (of all those who had gone in), and they were very close to achieving their objective but for a misplaced blockship. 

The operation shows just how far sheer courage, guts and bravery can get you in the most desperate of circumstances. 

To learn more about the incredible raid at Zeebrugge, read Christopher Sandford’s book, which you can pick up here. For a 20% discount on the hardback version, just enter the code ZEEBRUGGE100 during check out. And visit Casemate Publishing for more great military history titles.

Should you experience any problems, please contact Casemate Publishing’s customer support line on 01226 734350.

For an illustrated account of the raid, read ‘The Blocking of Zeebrugge’ by Stephen Prince and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Cover picture: HMS ‘Vindictive’ at Zeebrugge, 23 April 1918 by Charles John de Lacy (picture: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

First World War Naval history

Related topics

Join Our Newsletter


Army v RAF LIVE! | Inter Services women’s rugby league 2023

Red Arrows arrive in Malta in STYLE with thrilling loop

British Army versus Nato war games on Russia's doorstep