On 23 April 1918 British forces attacked Zeebrugge and Ostend, the two German-held ports which provided them with crucial access to the sea from the inland docks at Bruges. Once through the Channel and out into the Atlantic German vessels could prove deadly to Allied merchant shipping, which this operation aimed to stop. To mark 100 years since these actions, Trevor Torkington shares the story of the raids and highlights the bravery of those who won a Victoria Cross for their contributions.
- The raids
The aim of the attacks was to sink old, obsolete Royal Navy vessels as blockships thereby denying German destroyers, torpedo boats and U-boats access to the English Channel. The strategic success of the operation is disputed, because smaller German craft could still get through the blockade at Zeebrugge and for a variety of reasons the raid on Ostend was not successful – a second attempt was made in May 1918. Nevertheless, the bravery of all those who took part was celebrated then as it is now. The British troops were all volunteers and had been told to expect heavy casualties before the raid, with some being told it was virtually a suicide mission. As expected, the fighting was ferocious with over 600 Allied casualties compared to just 24 reported by the Germans.
- Victoria Crosses
As a result of the raid eight Victoria Crosses were awarded, four of which were made for individual acts of heroism: Lieutenant Richard Douglas Sandford, Lieutenant Percy Thompson Dean, Lieutenant-Commander George Nicholson Bradford and Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison (the awards for the latter two individuals were made posthumously).
The other four awards were all made under a special provision in the warrant which established the creation of the Victoria Cross: Clause 13. This clause allowed, in circumstances where ‘a gallant and daring act’ was performed by a large body of troops, for officers and men to select by ballot who they thought deserved the award. It was in these circumstances that Commander Alfred Francis Blakeney Carpenter; Captain Edward Bamford DSO; Sergeant Norman Augustus Finch; and Able Seaman Albert Edward McKenzie were awarded their VCs.
More information on these eight individuals is available on this Lives of the First World War Community. All the stories of the eight VCs deserve telling but one that particularly stands out for me is that of George Nicholson Bradford, who died on his 31st birthday.
- George Nicholson Bradford
George Nicholson Bradford was born on 23 April 1887 in County Durham. The son of a colliery manager, he joined the Navy as a cadet around 1900 and was promoted to Sub Lieutenant in 1907. He was a keen boxer and was at one time the Navy’s welter-weight champion, his boxing prowess being noted on his service record in May 1916. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1909 as a result of his bravery in rescuing a boy from the trawler ‘Halcyon’ which had been rammed in the dark by HMS Doon. In charge of a rescue boat from HMS Chelmer he jumped aboard the trawler when it was discovered that someone was still missing. The trawler was close to sinking but he emerged from the hold carrying the unconscious boy with only minutes to spare.
By the time of the Zeebrugge raid he was a Lieutenant Commander in charge of naval storming party ‘D’ on HMS Iris II (a converted Mersey ferry). They were to storm gun emplacements on the Zeebrugge Mole, a massive breakwater protecting the harbour. The crew of the Iris had trouble placing parapet anchors to secure the ship so that scaling ladders could be used to disembark. Despite not being his job, George climbed up on a derrick which carried one of the anchors and jumped onto the Mole with it. He hooked it into position but almost immediately was hit by machine gun fire and fell into the sea.
Without a moment’s hesitation he went to certain death
The end of his Victoria Cross citation states that his “action was one of absolute self-sacrifice; without a moment’s hesitation he went to certain death, recognising that in such an action lay the only possible chance of securing Iris II and enabling her storming parties to land”.
George’s body was eventually recovered and buried at the Blankenberge Town Cemetery in Belgium. His mother went to collect the Victoria Cross from King George V in April 1919 – a trip she had made on more than one occasion, to collect medals for her other deceased sons. Four Bradford Brothers had fought in the war – only one survived – and the youngest, Roland, was also a recipient of the Victoria Cross.
- Remembering Zeebrugge and Ostend
Today we pay tribute to all those involved in actions which, in the words of VC recipient Alfred Carpenter, gave “the dragon’s tail a damned good twist”. To commemorate the centenary of the raid, all eight Victoria Crosses from Zeebrugge, plus three VCs from the second Ostend operation, have been brought together for an exhibition at Bruges’ historic Provincial Hall.