On 9-10 May 1918 the Royal Navy attacked the German held port of Ostend for the second time in less than a month. In his previous blog post, Lives of the First World War Volunteer Trevor Torkington explained why the first attack on Ostend and Zeebrugge, on 23 April 1918, had been a failure. Here, he looks at the events of the second raid, and focuses on the role played by one of the craft taking part that day.
- A second attempt
The aim of both raids was to block the entrance to the port in order to prevent German U-Boats, destroyers and torpedo boats from entering the Channel. Within the Admiralty, the need for a second attack was questioned, but that wasn’t the case for the officers of the two British blockships, HM ships Brilliant and Sirius. These ships were grounded outside the harbour wall, yet they immediately volunteered to try again.
Poor weather delayed the second attack until 9 May when the attack force set sail. As it had been badly damaged in the earlier raid on Zeebrugge, the cruiser HMS Vindictive was chosen as a blockship along with the ageing cruiser HMS Sappho. However, disaster struck just before midnight when one of the boilers on the Sappho blew, and she was no longer able to make way. Vindictive would be on her own.
The second raid fared only slightly better than the first. Thick fog obscured the harbour and when Vindictive finally found the channel mouth it was the target for German guns which exacerbated the damage sustained from the earlier raid. In particular, the port propeller was unable to turn which limited the ship’s ability to manoeuvre. She hit the eastern pier of the harbour where she settled, but she hadn’t blocked the harbour.
- Gallantry awards
Although the raid failed to meet its objective it was still hailed as a success and three officers were awarded the Victoria Cross: Lieutenants Geoffrey Heneage Drummond and Rowland Richard Louis Bourke were in command of Motor Launches, and Lieutenant Victor Alexander Charles Crutchley took command of HMS Vindictive when her captain, Commander Alfred Godsal, was killed.
In remembering the events of that day, I’d like to take a look at one of the craft that played a vital role in evacuating the crew of the blockship.
- Geoffrey Drummond and ML 254
Geoffrey Drummond was born in London in 1886, the son of Algernon Heneage Drummond. He was somewhat a sickly child growing up as he fell down the stairs at a young age seriously damaging his neck. Nonetheless he was determined to ‘do his bit’ when war broke out and following treatment by a Swedish doctor was able to pass the fitness test for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) in 1915. In doing so he joined his younger brother Jocelyn who had joined the Royal Navy in 1905 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1917 for his services in minelaying operations. Two other brothers had followed in their father’s footsteps and joined the army where sadly, the eldest, Spencer, was killed in action in 1915.
Geoffrey volunteered to command Motor Launch 254 for the Ostend Raid. Its role was to act as a rescue craft and take off the crew of the Vindictive once they had reached their objective. As ML 254 entered the harbour it was hit by shellfire, killing Geoffrey’s second in command, a Canadian, Lieutenant Gordon Fraser Ross, and also an eighteen year old deck hand, John Owen Thomas. Geoffrey himself was severely injured, with his thigh shattered. Ignoring his wound, Geoffrey placed ML 254 next to the Vindictive so that the crew could be evacuated. Now an easy target for the enemy, ML 254 was raked with machine gun fire with Geoffrey being wounded twice more. He stayed at his post until the evacuation was complete and then withdrew. His Victoria Cross citation notes “when informed that there was no one alive left on board he backed his vessel out clear of the piers before sinking exhausted from his wounds”.
ML 254 had rescued 2 officers and 37 men from Vindictive but was on fire and slowly sinking. Lieutenant Victor Crutchley from the Vindictive took over command from the badly-wounded Geoffrey and they were eventually picked up by HMS Warwick before the Motor Launch sank.
- Life after the war
Despite his injuries sustained in the raid, Geoffrey was determined to ‘do his bit’ again in the Second World War. He was however, deemed too old and too unfit to join the RNVR and so entered service with the River Emergency Service on the River Thames and in 1940 transferred to the Royal Naval Patrol Service, with the equivalent rank of an Able Seaman.
He was a man of great charm and humour and he had a great many friends. He had a strong religious belief and a strict sense of honour and duty to his country and his family. He never hesitated to do what he felt was right.
Sadly, the injuries he received during the raid had taken its toll. While on duty with the Patrol Service his weakened leg gave way while he was carrying a heavy bag of coal, and as he fell he hit his head and suffered severe concussion. He died in St Olave’s Hospital, Rotherhithe on April 21 1941.
Geoffrey’s son, Mortimer, described him as “a man of great charm and humour and he had a great many friends. He had a strong religious belief and a strict sense of honour and duty to his country and his family. He never hesitated to do what he felt was right.”
100 years on, we pay tribute to Geoffrey and all those who took part in the second Ostend raid. Find out more about these individuals, on Lives of the First World War.