Memoirs & Diaries - Zeebrugge
The early days of February 1918 found me a minute cog in the machinery of the greatest Armada known, the Grand Fleet - a seaman on board the Superb, stationed in the melancholy regions of Scapa Flow.
One evening, in the midst of our usual festivities, namely, looking mournful at each other, Nemesis in the shape of a large overfed "crusher" (ship's police) overtook me, and I was informed that a large piece of "Gold Braid" living an exclusive life at the far end of the ship had become interested in me, and would I favour him with an interview?
I followed the pompous "body-snatcher", along brightly lit passages, feeling dismayed, but on reaching the Commander's cabin all fears were dispelled, as I was cordially invited to enter and found myself in a circle consisting of the Commander, Secretary, Master-at-Arms, and five able seamen, all wearing a vacant expression.
With my arrival a full quota appeared to be made up, as the Commander, rising to his feet and producing a paper, informed us that the Commander-in-Chief had sent him a signal for six seamen, for special service.
He went on to say that, not knowing himself what the stunt was, he could not give the least idea, except that it was dangerous work, and nine out of ten chances that we should "snuff it", and we should be under twenty-three, single, physically fit, and able to use a revolver and oar.
From these conditions it appeared to us as though the result of the War rested on us, and, needless to recount, oil was poured on troubled waters with phrases of honour and glory.
fter letting his words sink in he gazed at the condemned "six" and stated that if any did not want to volunteer nothing would be said, and the man could just carry on.
However, no one moved, and no doubt, thinking I looked the silliest pigeon there, the Commander asked if I would go. Having served a miserable six months in that ship, and my third year in that dismal theatre of war, I informed him promptly that I would be glad of it.
To get away from his tender care had been a cherished ambition of mine.
Needless to say, the remaining five jumped at the idea, and we were beamed on with pride, solemnly shaken by the hand, and called heroes, and bidden to depart to our habitation and say nothing, but by that time all the ship was seething with excitement as to what was going to happen, and we found ourselves the centre of an admiring crowd all agog with excitement.
I never knew I was so popular; even old sailors of twenty-one and abouts who had hitherto passed me by with disdain (I was only nineteen), gave me fatherly advice. I retired happy.
The glamour had not worn off the next morning, and vainly I tried to concentrate on the day's work, that bugbear of civilization known as "Saturday's routine", a mix-up of salt water, sand, and scrubbers, and I was wandering round in a state of oblivion when an autocratic personage in the shape of the Captain's Messenger came with the startling news that the "old man" had expressed a desire to see us immediately.
My scrubber was dropped and I was on my way to his cabin before he had finished his message.
Here, again, we were royally received with more handshakes and words of praise, and our tender young ears must have burnt, but by far the best news was that we would work no more in that ship, but confine our energy to physical training and revolver exercise.
Monday morning saw us step off in a fine style, in athletical garb, led by a high-stepping physical training instructor and watched by an admiring, envious and cynical crowd, and we were kept at it all the afternoon, our only respite being the ju-jitsu lesson, and later we landed for revolver practice, wandering round on a deserted island and practising drawing and shooting. I think it was a good job at first that the island was deserted.
As the days went on we grew into whalebone and whipcord, thanks to the slave-driver who had us in his care, and we understood the whys and wherefores of revolvers and the art of firing, the days passing all too quickly.
Again it was a Friday and we were beginning to think the affair was a fiasco, when the bombshell burst, and our instructions were to the effect that we were to leave the ship at 5 a.m. the following day and report on board H.M.S. Hindustan at Chatham the following Friday, thus giving us a few days' leave to say farewell to all relatives and any other affair before being killed.
That journey south appeared the longest I had ever done. In fact, it took thirty-six hours before I arrived at the home station, but all was forgotten in the reunions, which might have been for me, as they were for many, the last.
But, like all good things, they soon came to an end and I took my leave of all with an uneasy feeling, wondering if I should ever come back. But at nineteen cares are light, and I slept soundly in the train that was taking me to this new adventure.
Holborn Station presented a curious spectacle the following morning; groups of seamen could be seen talking with suppressed excitement and looking questioningly at any seaman wearing the ribbon of some ship in the Grand Fleet.
The Chatham train drew all these adventurers into its compartments, and here the question, "Are you in this stunt and what is it going to be?" was freely debated, but no one could throw any light on the subject, and whoever had organized the whole business had preserved its secrecy in no uncertain fashion.
A couple of hours later brought us to Chatham, and, knowing the dinner that would await us, we decided to join the ship with a good meal stowed away, so dined in town before attempting the miserable walk to the dockyard.
Our knowledge stood us in good stead, as, once aboard the Hindustan, the usual emergency dinner was served, bully beef, bread and pickles, but, for once, "sailors didn't care", and the natural excitement and high spirits took the edge off everybody's appetite.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent in recovering our belongings, which had been dispatched from Thurso the week previous, and getting to know the lay of the ship and making acquaintances.
In the evening a strong contingent made their way to the barrack canteen in such a jovial mood that the clash that came with the men of the barracks later was inevitable (it's a curious trait with a seaman, but he'd fight his own brother just for the sake of being antagonistic if the brother belonged to a different depot or fleet), and it was only after the guard had been turned out and the dockyard police reinforced that peace was obtained.
During the next few days we were formed into companies, platoons, and sections, introduced to our leaders and put through our paces on St. Mary's Island both day and night, and then handed over to the instructors of the 5th and 6th Middlesex Regt. to be polished off and to be instructed in the fine arts of land warfare.
The weeks that passed then were one mass of bayonet drill, pointing and parrying, blob sticks, bombs, trench mortars, gas, night attacks, final assaults, and musketry, and we were gradually becoming excellent soldiers.
A slight change in the run of things found our section transferred into a 3-inch Stokes trench-mortar battery, and we were armed with a combination of nautical weapons, the pistol and cutlass (the latter article is only useful for deck cricket, when three of them make good wickets), and our training regarding the wielding of this barbarous weapon began again.
The whole of this period spent in training was glorious, the new surroundings and atmosphere, the unfamiliar work and the keenness to become proficient at it, and the high spirits between officers and men combined to make the work a most pleasing task, and, although our leave was stopped, we found ways and means of having a run ashore, a proceeding which was given the blind eye by our officers.
The worst punishment a man could be threatened with was expulsion from the party. "The Mecca" of our pilgrimage was gradually growing nearer, but we were still in the dark regarding the actual intention of all this strenuous training.
Our training was now nearing completion, and our massed attacks were taking on a sameness which pointed at some concerted item we were rehearsing for, and many inventions were tried, with a view to saving as many lives as possible, and we had practically reached the acme of perfection and were in danger of going stale.
One morning, about this period, our usual route was changed, and we found ourselves inside the Royal Marine Barracks, and, after being thumped, patted and pushed round by a rotund sergeant-major, we emerged into fresh air, in a dazed state, and a suit of khaki.
There was another trial and tribulation put upon us, the difference between our nautical garb and this warrior's suit being as wide as the Poles, and the weather being warm for the time of the year, there was a distinct, subdued and muffled up feeling amongst our detachment, but in a day or so all strangeness wore away, and the mess-deck mirrors did a roaring trade.
It had now reached the beginning of April and we had finally finished our training with the Army, when we got the order to get "under way" and proceed to a certain rendezvous, and accordingly the same evening found us in a desolate waste of water known as the Swim just off Sheerness.
A couple more days aboard the Hindustan and orders were issued that we should embark in that curious stranger that had just arrived, an obsolete cruiser with a strange Noah's Ark look about her, the Vindictive, and we were conveyed to her by the Liverpool ferry-boats Iris and Daffodil.
Our going aboard of her synchronized with the arrival of three detachments of Marines, and the living accommodation was taxed to its utmost.
The ship itself was an exceedingly unique specimen of warship, there being no comparison to her former days when she had been a pride to all who sailed in her. She had been stripped bare of everything bar the essential parts, her mainmast having gone and her foremast cut short above the fighting top.
Along her portside ran an immense wooden chafing band reinforced with huge hazelwood fenders and on the port quarter a part of the main-mast had been cemented to the deck to enable her to lay alongside any wall without swinging out, head on stern.
Covering her port battery ran a false deck lined with sandbags, and towering above this deck was an array of improvised gangways, sixteen in all, flanked by two huge metal huts housing the foremost and aftermost flame throwers.
At the break of the fo'c'sle and the quarter-deck were two grapnels fitted to wire pennants and leading respectively to the foremost and after-capstans. Here fore and after guns had been replaced by 7.5 howitzers and midships abaft the after funnel was an 11-inch howitzer, the port battery had been replaced with 2-pound pom-poms, with the exception of the foremost and after 6-inch gun, whilst two pom-poms adorned the fighting-top.
There is no denying it she was ugly, as she lay there, a veritable floating fortress, a death-trap fitted with all the ingenious contrivances of war that human brain could think of, but we took unholy pride and a fiendish delight in her, and if it were possible for men to love a ship, we loved her.
Now came the awakening: the platoons were gathered together under their commanders, who, fortified with models and aerial photos, explained to us our objective - we were to block the entrance of the Bruges canal at Zeebrugge and Ostend and our objective was to land and obtain possession of the Mole, to enable the blockships (Iphegenia, Intrepid, and Thetis) to get into position for sinking, and to cause a diversion to facilitate that project.
The magnitude of the scheme overwhelmed us, the sheer audacity of tackling a place like Zeebrugge under the muzzles of the world-famed Blankenberghe Battery , where a change in the wind or tide at the critical moment would undoubtedly result in the total loss of the expedition.
Viewing the whole outlook in cold daylight the large element of luck that must accompany us for the scheme to be successful was evident, also the knowledge that such an undertaking was impossible without a huge loss of life, but the last thought lay the lightest, our chief worry being that the stunt might end in hot air and all of us be sent back to the Fleet.
However, no time was wasted, for on April 11th we weighed anchor and proceeded out to sea in company with other ships of the expedition.
Our send-off lacked nothing in heartiness as the crew of the Hindustan cheered us on our way, and what with our responding cheers, the huge harbour sounded for all the world like some cup-tie arena; the momentary sadness that inevitably follows these partings (for your bluejacket is not totally callous) soon gave way to the thoughts that we were at last on the way for our objective.
The land left behind, our fleet took up some semblance of order, but proper order among such a strange assortment of craft was impossible. In the centre steamed the Vindictive with the Iris and Daffodil in tow, astern of these came the Thetis, Intrepid, Iphegenia, Sirius, and Brilliant, whilst surrounding these disreputable looking ships were destroyers, motor-launches, C.M.B.'s, and a sturdy little picket boat could be seen towing a submarine, whilst far away monitors were taking up position to cover the attack.
As the final hour approached, the finishing touches were put to a well-organized ship, ammunition was fused and placed in readiness, hoses run out and all preparations made prior to going into action.
The night was dark, and far away could be seen the British aircraft making a bombing attack on Zeebrugge, and further still the dull red flashes of the artillery in Flanders.
The ship slowed down and stopped whilst the heads of departments conferred, until slowly the whole significance dawned on the troops; the wind had changed and we could not carry out our plans, and it was a disappointed ship that sailed for England that night.
The following day another attempt was made, but this again was unsuccessful, as the wind, this time in the right direction, was too fresh and made it impossible for the smaller craft to proceed, and these were needed to ensure the success of the operation.
Another shift was our portion, for on account of the congestion of the living accommodation, the battleship Dominion was sent out to act as an overflow ship, and we duly found ourselves aboard her. The days were spent now in keeping fit, but I think most of the time was spent in sleep and, on the whole, we had a fairly easy time.
The time was approaching when, if the next attempt failed, the whole stunt was likely to be postponed, as after this period the necessary flood tides would not occur at the times required. April was nearing its end when we embarked on the Vindictive again.
This was on the morning of Monday, April 22nd, and once all the troops were assembled we lost no time in breaking our moorings, taking the Iris and Daffodil in tow and proceeding to sea in the exact formation of the previous attempts.
The trip across the Channel was uneventful and most of the time was passed with impromptu concerts and dances and I doubt if any there thought of the serious mission of this strangely assorted fleet. After supper had been served, practically everybody snatched an hour or two's sleep before the fateful zero hour; how anyone could sleep with an adventure like the one before us speaks volumes for the mental and physical fitness of the party.
Our slumbers were disturbed by a bugle call, and a ration of hot chicken-broth was served out, supplemented by a ration of grog, the latter ration being left practically untouched, it being thought that a clear head and steady eye were more beneficial.
Word was passed round then, and the men assembled at their stations for the attack as leisurely as if going to a football-match.
A cheerless scene greeted one's arrival on the upper deck. It was a black night, everything was wrapped in fog, while behind, the ships were unnaturally quiet, the only sounds being those of the engine going slow, the lap of the water against the ship's sides and the subdued murmur from the bridge, with now and again the rattle of the helm; nothing could be seen.
Suddenly the quietness of the night was shattered by a single rifle-shot; this was followed almost immediately by a dull red flash over the fo'c'sle and the angry crack of a bursting shell, a few yells and an isolated call of "Mother". The game was on, and Jerry had drawn first blood.
The wind had now changed and was blowing the smoke screen and artificial fog back over us, leaving us the target for the shore batteries, but ahead of us loomed the Mole, 200 yards away, and for this we raced.
Following the burst of the first shell the night had turned into day by searchlights and star-shells, and all the venom and hatred of the shore batteries seemed concentrated on us, salvo after salvo struck the ship, doing indescribable damage in the packed starboard battery where all the storming party were awaiting to land; the foremost howitzer's crew were wiped out with the exception of the voice pipeman, who was a couple of yards away.
The strangest part of this was that the trench mortar battery, not more than 4 feet away, did not receive injury at that time.
Within the space of a few seconds the leading seaman in charge of our battery had been hit in the back of the head, whilst half a dozen of our battery had received superficial scratches.
We were now alongside the Mole and sheltered a little from the murderous hail of shell from the forts, which continued to keep up a burst of shrapnel around our funnels, which showed up and made excellent targets.
Every gun in the Vindictive that could bear had now given tongue and the night was made hideous by the nerve-racking shatter of the pom-poms, the deep bell-like boom of the howitzers and trench mortars, and all-pervading rattle of musketry and machine-gun fire; it was hell with a vengeance and it seemed well-nigh miraculous that human beings could live in such an inferno.
Meanwhile, down on the quarter-deck the ship was being secured by means of the large grappling irons fitted on wire pennants, which had continually been thrown back from the wall by a few Germans whose bravery was eclipsed by none, until they were driven off by rifle-fire.
After what seemed an eternity, the anchor rattled down and the all-fast signal was given. Of our sixteen specially constructed gangways only two remained, but these were already in position and up into the night went one huge yell, all the pent-up feeling of the years of war and hatred and the lust for killing, and the seamen's storming party landed, followed by the Royal Marines.
To many, that yell was their last earthly sound, as the Germans kept up a concentrated machine-gun fire on the gangways, and the dead and wounded were piled up three or four deep, but the remnants of the platoon staggered through, reorganized, and carried on as though still in the peaceful heart of Kent.
To see these men, the cream of the youth of England, laughing, cheering, and swearing, rushing into what seemed certain death, was not inspiring; it was heart-breaking to think that in these enlightened days the youth of the country was being butchered in the cause of civilization, and St. Peter must have wiped his eye as he greeted most of them home.
Once on the top of the Mole one was assailed by the overwhelming feeling of nakedness and maddening desire to go forward at all costs and stop the hail of death that swept the upper Mole; sense and reason were replaced by insane fury and the events that followed cannot be remembered coherently; it was a horrible nightmare of sweating and cursing men thirsty for blood, the sickening "sog" of bayonets and of shots at close quarters.
Of the individual deeds of heroism that were enacted that night there are hundreds that never will be told, they are kept a jealously guarded secret in the hearts of the survivors.
At last, through the din and uproar, rose the wailing of a siren, the signal that the job had been done, telling the storming parties to retire and the remnants of the platoons, by now sadly depleted, to fall back to the ship, bringing wherever possible their wounded.
But what of the Vindictive? Whilst the landing-party was on the Mole, she had been subjected to a galling bombardment of shrapnel, and her upper-deck was a veritable shambles, while the superstructure presented a sorry appearance.
Willing hands had ventured forth under heavy machine-gun fire and cleared the wounded below and given help to the returning parties from the Mole.
After the safety limit of time had been reached in allowing the parties to return orders were given to slip the cable, while the guns that were still serviceable put up a barrage to prevent a counter-attack, and the wind, now favourable, again carried down the artificial fog and blotted out the ship from the shore batteries whilst we steamed all out for England and home.
W. Wainwright joined the Royal Navy in 1915, at the age of 16, and served in H.M.S. Monarch (Grand Fleet) in the North Sea, taking part in the Battle of Jutland. Was drafted to H.M.S. Superb in 1917, and served in her until volunteering to take part in raid against Zeebrugge (April 23rd, 1918).
Returning to depot was sent to H.M.S. Gardenia, engaged on anti-submarine warfare and convoying duties in the Irish Sea and North Atlantic, and later in the Mediterranean. Was in Tripoli (Syria) when Armistice was signed and proceeded to Constantinople with the occupying Fleet.
Engaged in 1919 in operations against Russia, around the Crimea and Black Sea ports, and on repatriation duties in Turkey-in-Asia.
In April 1920 left H.M.S. Gardenia with the Engeli Expedition (a party of 31 men) in an attempt to reach Engeli (North Persia) via Batoum and Baku, to reorganize the volunteer Fleet on the Caspian Sea. The party arrived in Baku (Azerberzium) the day that state turned Bolshevik, was surrounded by the 11th Red Army and forced to surrender.
The whole party, along with a few other Britishers, being confined first at the Checka and then in cells in the Bieloff Prison, on the outskirts of Baku. Exchanged, in November 1920, reaching England December 1920.
Served later in H.M.S.s Bruce, Malaya, and Serapis, and was finally discharged in June 1928.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
"Bully Beef" comprised cans of boiled or pickled beef used by the British Army.
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