Blocking The Channel

: Winning A Cause World War Stories

Bruges is an important city of Belgium made familiar to American boys

and girls by Longfellow's beautiful poem, The Belfry of Bruges. He

describes what the belfry old and brown has seen.

Till the bell of Ghent responded o'er lagoon and dike of sand,

'I am Roland! I am Roland! there is victory in the land.'

What a terrible story the historian or poet will have to tell who

narrates what
he belfry of Bruges has seen during the fifty-two months

of the World War, a year, we may call it, in which each week had become

a month.

The port of Bruges, called Zeebrugge or Bruges on the Sea, lies not far

from the city, at the mouth of a maritime canal. The entrance to this

canal was protected by a great crescent-shaped mole thirty feet high

inclosing the harbor.

The Germans in the shipbuilding yards at Antwerp built small warships

and submarines and sent them over the canals across Belgium to Ostend

and Zeebrugge, from where they went out to destroy Allied shipping.

The English determined to put an end to this and on the night of April

22, 1918, an expedition was sent to block the channel and to destroy as

far as possible the mole which protected it. It has been said that it

was one of the most thrilling and picturesque of the naval operations

of the war. To Americans it recalled Hobson's exploit with the

Merrimack, at Santiago, while to Englishmen it brought back memories of

Sir Francis Drake and his fire ships in the harbor of Cadiz. The

fight lasted only an hour but the British lost 588 men, for the channel

and the mole were so fully guarded with searchlights, machine guns, and

artillery that such an attempt was looked upon by the Germans as

foolhardy and doomed to absolute failure.

A British cruiser, the Vindictive, in charge of Commander Alfred F.

B. Carpenter, with two ferryboats, the Daffodil and the Iris, were

to escort six obsolete British cruisers filled with concrete and sand

to the harbor mouths at Ostend and Zeebrugge and to sink them there in

the channels. The ferryboats carried sailors and marines who were to

attack and destroy the mole. It was thought that this attack would

divert the attention of the defenders and make it easier to sink the

concrete laden cruisers in the channel. Two old and useless

submarines, filled with explosives, were to be blown up against the

viaduct joining the mole and the shore.

A heavy protective curtain of smoke was essential to the success of the

plan. Commander Brock, who was killed during the action, planned the

smoke screen and carried it out so successfully that the Vindictive

was able to get almost to the mole before being discovered. At Ostend

the wind blew from such a direction that the smoke screen did not hide

the boats and the attack there on that night was for that reason a

failure. It succeeded better later, on May 9, when the battered

Vindictive was sunk in the channel.

The following is the story of the action at Zeebrugge taken from the

official report of the British Admiralty:--

The night was overcast and there was a drifting haze. Down the coast

a great searchlight swung its beam to and fro in the small wind and

short sea. From the Vindictive's bridge, as she headed in toward the

mole, with the faithful ferryboats at her heels, there was scarcely a

glimmer of light to be seen shoreward. Ahead, as she drove through the

water, rolled the smoke screen, her cloak of invisibility, wrapped

about her by small craft. This was the device of Wing Commander Brock,

without which, acknowledges the Admiral in command, the operation could

not have been conducted.

A northeast wind moved the volume of it shoreward ahead of the ships.

Beyond it, was the distant town, its defenders unsuspicious. It was

not until the Vindictive, with blue-jackets and marines standing

ready for landing, was close upon the mole that the wind lulled and

came away again from the southeast, sweeping back the smoke screen and

laying her bare to eyes that looked seaward.

There was a moment immediately afterward when it seemed to those on

the ships as if the dim, coast-hidden harbor exploded into light. A

star shell soared aloft, then a score of star shells. The wavering

beams of the searchlights swung around and settled into a glare. A

wild fire of gun flashes leaped against the sky, strings of luminous

green beads shot aloft, hung and sank. The darkness of the night was

supplemented by a nightmare daylight of battle-fired guns and machine

guns along the mole. The batteries ashore awoke to life.

It was in a gale of shelling that the Vindictive laid her nose

against the thirty-foot high concrete side of the mole, let go her

anchor and signaled to the Daffodil to shove her stern in.

The Iris went ahead and endeavored to get alongside likewise. The

fire was intense, while the ships plunged and rolled beside the mole in

the seas, the Vindictive with her greater draught jarring against the

foundations of the mole with every lunge. They were swept diagonally

by machine-gun fire from both ends of the mole and by the heavy

batteries on shore.

Commander (now Captain) Carpenter commanded the Vindictive from the

open bridge until her stern was laid in, when he took up his position

in the flame thrower hut on the port side. It is marvelous that any

occupant should have survived a minute in this hut, so riddled and

shattered is it.

The officers of the Iris, which was in trouble ahead of the

Vindictive, describe Captain Carpenter as handling her like a picket

boat. The Vindictive was fitted along her port side with a high

false deck, from which ran eighteen brows or gangways by which the

storming and demolition parties were to land.

The men gathered in readiness on the main lower decks, while Colonel

Elliott, who was to lead the marines waited on the false deck just

abaft of the bridge. Captain Halahan, who commanded the blue-jackets,

was amidships. The gangways were lowered, and they scraped and

rebounded upon the high parapet of the mole as the Vindictive rolled

in the seaway.

The word for the assault had not yet been given when both leaders were

killed, Colonel Elliott by a shell and Captain Halahan by machine-gun

fire which swept the decks. The same shell that killed Colonel Elliott

also did fearful execution in the forward Stokes mortar battery. The

men were magnificent; every officer bears the same testimony.

The mere landing on the mole was a perilous business. It involved a

passage across the crashing and splintering gangways, a drop over the

parapet into the field of fire of the German machine guns which swept

its length, and a further drop of some sixteen feet to the surface of

the mole itself. Many were killed and more wounded as they crowded up

the gangways, but nothing hindered the orderly and speedy landing by

every gangway.

Lieutenant H. T. C. Walker had his arm shot away by shell on the upper

deck, and lay in darkness while the storming parties trod him under.

He was recognized and dragged aside by the commander. He raised his

remaining arm in greetings. 'Good luck to you,' he called as the rest

of the stormers hastened by. 'Good luck.'

The lower deck was a shambles as the commander made the rounds of the

ship, yet those wounded and dying raised themselves to cheer as he made

his tour. . . .

The Iris had troubles of her own. Her first attempts to make fast

to the mole ahead of the Vindictive failed, as her grapnels were not

large enough to span the parapet. Two officers, Lieutenant Commander

Bradford and Lieutenant Hawkins, climbed ashore and sat astride the

parapet trying to make the grapnels fast till each was killed and fell

down between the ship and the wall. Commander Valentine Gibbs had both

legs shot away and died next morning. Lieutenant Spencer though

wounded, took command and refused to be relieved.

The Iris was obliged at last to change her position and fall in

astern of the Vindictive, and suffered very heavily from fire. A

single big shell plunged through the upper deck and burst below at a

point where fifty-six marines were waiting for the order to go to the

gangways. Forty-nine were killed. The remaining seven were wounded.

Another shell in the wardroom, which was serving as a sick bay, killed

four officers and twenty-six men. Her total casualties were eight

officers and sixty-nine men killed, and three officers and 103 men


Storming and demolition parties upon the mole met with no resistance

from the Germans other than intense and unremitting fire. One after

another buildings burst into flame or split and crumbled as dynamite

went off. A bombing party working up toward the mole extension in

search of the enemy destroyed several machine-gun emplacements, but not

a single prisoner rewarded them. It appears that upon the approach of

the ships and with the opening of fire the enemy simply retired and

contented themselves with bringing machine guns to the short end of the


[Illustration: One of the camouflaged guns of the German shore

batteries which raked with fire the Vindictive, the Daffodil, and

the Iris when they grappled with the mole, during the night raid.

The outer end of this mole, where a viaduct joins the mole to the

shore, was destroyed for a distance of sixty to one hundred feet by an

old British submarine, loaded with high explosives, running into the

channel and blowing itself up at the entrance.]

The story of the three block ships that were to be sunk in the channel

at Zeebrugge, also from the report of the British Admiralty, is as


The Thetis came first, steaming into a tornado of shells from great

batteries ashore. All her crew, save a remnant who remained to steam

her in and sink her, already had been taken off her by a ubiquitous

motor launch, but the remnant spared hands enough to keep her four guns

going. It was hers to show the road to the Intrepid and the

Iphigenia, which followed. She cleared a string of armed barges

which defends the channel from the tip of the mole, but had the ill

fortune to foul one of her propellers upon a net defense which flanks

it on the shore side.

The propeller gathered in the net, and it rendered her practically

unmanageable. Shore batteries found her and pounded her unremittingly.

She bumped into the bank, edged off, and found herself in the channel

again still some hundreds of yards from the mouth of the canal in

practically a sinking condition. As she lay she signaled invaluable

directions to others, and her commander, R. S. Sneyed, also accordingly

blew charges and sank her. Motor launches under Lieutenant Littleton

raced alongside and took off her crew. Her losses were five killed and

five wounded.

The Intrepid, smoking like a volcano and with all her guns blazing,

followed. Her motor launch failed to get alongside outside the harbor,

and she had men enough for anything. Straight into the canal she

steered, her smoke blowing back from her into the Iphigenia's eyes,

so that the latter was blinded, and, going a little wild, rammed a

dredger, with her barge moored beside it, which lay at the western arm

of the canal. She was not clear, though, and entered the canal pushing

the barge before her. It was then that a shell hit the steam

connections of her whistle, and the escape of the steam which followed

drove off some of the smoke and let her see what she was doing.

Lieutenant Stuart Bonham Carter, commanding the Intrepid, placed the

nose of his ship neatly on the mud of the western bank, ordered his

crew away, and blew up his ship by switches in the chart room. Four

dull bumps were all that could be heard, and immediately afterward

there arrived on deck the engineer, who had been in the engine room

during the explosion, and reported that all was as it should be.

Lieutenant E. W. Bullyard Leake, commanding the Iphigenia, beached

her according to arrangements on the eastern side, blew her up, saw her

drop nicely across the canal, and left her with her engines still

going, to hold her in position till she should have bedded well down on

the bottom. According to the latest reports from air observation, two

old ships, with their holds full of concrete, are lying across the

canal in a V position, and it is probable that the work they set out to

do has been accomplished and that the canal is effectively blocked. A

motor launch, under Lieutenant P. T. Deane, had followed them in to

bring away the crews and waited further up the canal toward the mouth

against the western bank.

Lieutenant Bonham Carter, having sent away his boats, was reduced to a

Carley float, an apparatus like an exaggerated life-buoy, with the

floor of a grating. Upon contact with the water it ignited a calcium

flare and he was adrift in the uncanny illumination with a German

machine gun a few hundred yards away giving him its undivided

attention. What saved him was possibly the fact that the defunct

Intrepid still was emitting huge clouds of smoke which it had been

worth nobody's while to turn. He managed to catch a rope, as the motor

launch started, and was towed for a while till he was observed and

taken on board.

A short time after the attack, the Kaiser visited Zeebrugge and gave

out the statement that practically no damage had been done and that the

channel was still clear. But then an Allied airplane flew over the

channel and the mole and secured photographs showing two cruisers sunk

in the channel just as had been planned, and effectively blocking it,

and also a break in the viaduct sixty to one hundred feet in length.

Only another German lie, this time indorsed by the Kaiser, declared

the British papers. A leading German daily said, however, It would be

only foolishness to deny that the British naval forces scored a great

success. By a stroke, crazy in its audacity, they penetrated one of

the most important strongholds over which the German flag floats.