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The heroism of the hundreds of victims in our port of Bruges is commemorated every year on April, 23th, Saint George’s Day. Saint George, the Knight-Dragon Slayer, is the patron saint of England. The Raid on Zeebrugge is described as a great military success in British history books. In reality, this victory was not an undivided success as our guide will tell during the tour.
1918: Safe shelter for the occupier
The German naval forces had taken over the brand-new port of Zeebrugge (1907) as one of its strategic bases for U-boats from where they destroyed shipping on the Channel and the North Sea. In the docks, the submarines were defended by loads of anti-aircraft guns. The British felt threatened and were looking for a way to eliminate the enemy ships. By air, it seemed not possible. So confinement into their own nest seemed to be the best plan for the British Royal Navy in 1918.
April, 11th: no British fog on “la môle” yet
The semi-circular pier of Zeebrugge – called La Môle - and the dunes along the coast were littered with German guns. A curtain of fog and a diversionary attack of 840 marines on the pier was to help the British plan to sink three old block ships crammed with construction waste in the access to port of Zeebrugge. The campaign started on April 11th. A rising wind ended the action prematurely. One fast boat fell into the hands of the Germans in Ostend. Unfortunately, the exact plan of attack - Top Secret – was on board. The Germans were forewarned.
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April, 23th – By Saint George! The second attempt
Admiral Keyes was able to motivate the British troops to a second attempt on the eve of the national celebration of Saint George’s Day, exactly at midnight. The smoke screen was raised again and three British ships sailed in great secrecy to Zeebrugge right up to la Môle. Again, a few minutes before the landing, the smoke screen was dissipated by the wind. The two war parties suddenly were face to face within a few meters of each other. The German guns - already two weeks in full readiness – erupted and created havoc.
A heroic defeat
Everything that could go wrong went wrong. The British ships had been moored incorrectly due to the hastiness of the attackers, so that the troops could reach the quay only with great difficulty. A small British submarine blew up part of the pier, but without any consequences for the German defenders. The three large block ships were sunk in the harbour mouth, but not in the intended places, resulting in only a limited nuisance for German ships. The German machine guns killed hundreds of Royal Marines. No, this operation was not an undivided success, but British propaganda used its outcome to the fullest. It was indeed not the result that counted, but the courage of the attackers! And that courage was unseen!
A British and a German success?
After the operation, it ‘rained’ decorations on both sides. In Britain, 200 decorations were awarded, about 1 for every 10 seconds at la Môle. The German emperor came to Zeebrugge to decorate his marines for their resilience. A British monument commemorating the 1918 Saint George's Day’s operation has been erected in Zeebrugge. In the cemetery 200 victims of both war parties found their last resting place. Since the operation, the Dover Town Hall bell has rung every year as a tribute to the fallen soldiers, marines, and seamen. There is a remembrance ceremony at the Zeebrugge Military Cemetery, each year around April, 23th, Saint George’s Day.
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