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Zeebrugge Raid Centenary Commemorations

The vast majority of the centenary commemorations marking the last year of the First World War relate to the land battles of the Somme. The centenary of the Zeebrugge Raid, however, has special significance to the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. Both were represented at events in April remembering the night of 22nd /23rd April 1918, St Georges Day. A party of fourteen members and wives from the Club were there to represent the RNVRYC in memory of the RNVR which provided many members of the crews that fought a battle resulting in the awards of eight Victoria Crosses.

It was quite clear from the initial calling notice in January that this was going to be a complicated logistic exercise involving cross-Channel travel, Hotels in and around Zeebrugge or Brugge and even a 100ft Sparkman& Stephens Sloop in the Harbour. It must have been a great comfort to the organiser, Mike Morgan, when the entire party assembled at the first event on the evening of Friday 20th for an excellent reception and supper in the relaxed, welcoming club house of the Royal Belgian Sailing Club in the Zeebrugge Marina.

The principal event occurred next morning at the main Memorial to the Raid on the seafront at the end of the mole that had been the scene of the naval landing, the subsequent bloody assault by the Royal Marines and behind which the block ships were placed in an attempt to prevent U-boats using their base inside the Brugge canal.

The scale of the ceremony was impressive. Across the wide open arena in front of the Memorial was a small covered grandstand for VIPs; next to it was a large set of open seating for “IPs”. The entire arena and the approaches were guarded by police with guns and smartly dressed civilians with clip-boards. We were placed with the public behind barriers just across the road from the arena which soon came to life with the marching on of bands from the Belgian and German Armies and the Royal Marines (who set a standard of dress and bearing that the other two seemed unable to match!) followed by standard bearers and ceremonial guards from all three nations’ armies and navies, including the guard from HMS Somerset, present in the harbour. A daylight TV screen gave us all a close-up view of the ceremony across a road which soon started to fill with police motorbike outriders, and black limousines followed by Range Rovers with darkened windows. 

The passengers who then crossed the arena to the VIP stand included very senior representatives of all three countries and several regional governments. The UK was represented by the Princess Royal, Vice-Admiral SirTim Lawrence and CGRM, Major General Stickland. There followed a long and, at times very moving ceremony, including a short address by a direct descendant of Lt Commander GN Bradford RN VC., of which more to tell later. The closure of the ceremony was marked by the playing of the three National Anthems. Rather touchingly “God Save The Queen” was played by a German Army band and “Das Deutschlandlied” by the Royal Marine Band.

The second event occurred later that afternoon, three miles down the coast, at Blankenberge, a large beach resort with a pier at the base of which stands a new monument to Lt Commander George Nicholson Bradford RN VC.

In the Raid he commanded the Naval Storming Parties embarked in HMS Iris II, a requisitioned Mersey ferry. The citation to his award makes harrowing reading but deserves an internet visit. He died “riddled with bullets” on the parapet of the mole in the act of securing HMS Iris II alongside when all other attempts had failed. His body fell into the sea, to be washed ashore a few days later on the beach at Blankenberge where he is buried.

Here again we met the Guards, the Bands and the VIPs, somewhat reduced in numbers perhaps but at a ceremony whose circumstances made a real impression on those who were there.

A little light relief after a rather sombre day was provided that evening by the RNSA, members of which were not only present but had come by boat! We were invited to join them for a pontoon party in the Zeebrugge Marina where we were treated to Pimms and nibbles while meeting not only their crew on the Jacqui B but also members of the Cambridge URNU, including a young lady hoping to join the RN and become a Warfare Officer having read History of Art. How refreshing it is to meet people like that!

The final ceremony in Belgium took place on Sunday morning, the 22nd, just outside the Port, in the cemetery of Sint Donaaskerk, a small church where some of the casualties of the battle, both British and German, are buried. Prominence here was given to the veterans’ associations and their standard bearers, including the Royal British Legion. Here the Last Post was sounded and it was here that our Commodore placed our wreath on behalf of the Club.

The rest of the day was free to make our returns to our homes, or, like the survivors and casualties of the Raid, to Dover, where the final ceremonies were to take place on St. George’s Day. Some did, however, make a brief diversion up to Brugge where an exhibition promised a display of all the Victoria Crosses awarded for the Raid. The museum was closed for security reasons as a result of an earlier visit by the Princess Royal!

Monday morning dawned bright but breezy as we boarded coaches laid on to take us up to St James Cemetery, high on the hill above the town of Dover.

A simple ceremony, conducted by service and civilian chaplains, was made special by the final act, when CGRM, Major General Stickland and the Constable of Dover Castle, Admiral of the Fleet Mike Boyce, placed memorial crosses in front of the graves of those servicemen who returned from Zeebrugge but died of their wounds in Dover.

The coaches returned us to the Town where we formed up in the Market Square with a mass of other commemorating groups and marched in a very loose formation to the Town Hall where there was another short service, the bands played, standards were lowered and, at noon, the Mayor of Dover struck eight bells on the great Zeebrugge Bell to mark the end of our commemorative long weekend.

Ann and I have been left with deep impressions; firstly of the willingness of the British, Belgian and German governments to invest resources in the commemoration of a brief naval action in a war of massive land battles ; secondly of the hospitality of the people of Zeebrugge and Dover and thirdly of how brilliantly Mike Morgan managed to bring us together in the right place, at the right time consistently over three days, in two countries and at seven very public events.

John Bass.