Zeebrugge: Eleven VCs Before Breakfast (Cassell Military Paperbacks)Zeebrugge: Eleven VC’s Before Breakfast

Authors: Barrie Pitt
Cassell Military Paperbacks
Year: 1958
Reviewer: TarJak

Zeebrugge: Eleven VC’s Before Breakfast tells a quite slanted view of what was actually a daring series of raids attempting to block the Belgian harbour entrance in 1918. The story itself is fascinating with many characters and heroes with the subtitle of the book proclaiming the amazing statistic of eleven VC’s being won before breakfast, not to mention the 21 DSO’s and 29 DSC’s awarded for the action.

What I found it lacked was some balance and more detailed examination of the German side of the raids. Whilst there is some mention of cursory research by the author, this lack means the story is really only half told.

The half that is told though is riveting. How the initial raid was conceived, attempted and aborted and finally carried out and the subsequent follow up, that was found necessary is an amazing story of human endurance, bravery and support of the participants for their comrades in arms.

In 1917, the U-Boat menace was beginning to take its toll on the Allied war effort. Operating out of occupied ports in Holland and Belgium, the U-boats rising tally of sinkings was forcing Allied commanders to consider drastic action to destroy or otherwise hamper their efforts.

Adm. Sir John Jellicoe was looking for an answer and conceived of some form of raid as a way of doing just that. After little in the way of positive action over the following 8 months, Vice Admiral Sir Roger Keyes struck upon the idea of taking a flotilla of obsolete cruisers into the mouth of the main channel into the harbour and sinking them thereby blocking the mouth and rendering the harbour ineffective.

The bulk of the first 3/5 of the book is taken up with descriptions of the conception planning and preparations for the raid and the remainder is almost all action with a brief summing up of the results and a great set of tables outlining the decorations handed out after this amazing action.

The initiation of the plan is covered in good depth, outlining most of the key players in making the decisions and also in their political or other motivations for support or otherwise of the plan. there are some period photos and diagrams of the harbour and the plan of the raid which give a pretty clear indication of area in which the battle was engaged.

The narrative takes the reader through the key decisions and decision makers in some detail, making some comment on their failings or foibles, with the exception of Keyes and Capt. Alfred Carpenter VC, whose reputations were unsullied in Pitt’s analysis.

The extraordinary preparations for the raid and some amazing stories of the fervour displayed by the all volunteer crews and Royal Marine detachment in their recruitment for the venture is laid out in chapters dealing with the lead up to the raid.

As the story unfolds and the preparations reach fever pitch, there is the predictable set back as it is realised that the success of the raid is wholly dependant on the weather. The ingenious smoke screening technology, developed by Wing Commander Frank Arthur Brock, whose invention of the incendiary bullet spelled the end of the Zeppelin menace, was fitted on a number of the small fast boats that accompanied the raiders across the channel. These smoke generators were crucial in creating an artificial fog which was to shroud the raiding ships as they approached the mile long mole which extended out from the harbour entrance.

An attempt to launch the raid on 2 April 1918 failed because the weather conditions changed during the Channel crossing, meaning the ships would have been exposed to German guns long before they would have the opportunity to get close to effect the raid.

This set back in timing whilst frustrating enabled more time to train and complete preparations. There where however some minor hiccups as training injuries and even a death or two required reshuffling and reorganisation around the fringes of the raid.

The plan itself remained unchanged and eventually the raid went ahead 21 days later. Pitts depiction of the events and tension in the approach of the 77 ships is well written and gives a real sense of the strain that the crews must have been under. As the raid proper got underway the description of the various parts of the action are like a well scripted movie shifting from HMS Vindictive’s hellish approach to the furious fighting on the mole, to the heroic actions of the small fast boats and submarines sacrificed to blow up the bridge between the mole and the mainland and finally to the block ships themselves.

In my opinion, it is here that Pitt’s story is let down a little by the lack of exploration of the German side of the battle. Some cursory mention is made of the reports that were sent during and after the action, which according to whether this was due to a lack of records or Pitts ability to find German survivors of the raid in the mid 1950’s when most of his research must have been done is not explained. As a narrative of the British side of the engagement however, the book stands up and will certainly be for me, the benchmark work on the action.

Pitt then recounts of the raid to block Ostend harbour in May of the same year where HMS Vindictive, scarred and damaged from the Zeebrugge raid, was finally sunk as a block ship herself. This action is only summarily accounted for but again Pitt’s description is detailed enough to give a sense of the bravery and courage the again all volunteer crews possessed.

Overall the military effectiveness of both raids in the scheme of things was not what the Admiralty could have wished. Channels around the sunken block ships were dredged meaning that smaller patrol boats and U-boats would use the harbour egress within weeks of the raids.

Interestingly, Pitts recount fails to mention that whilst the raids failed in their aim of stopping or slowing the u-boats from operating out of Brugges, larger warships were certainly trapped there until that port was captured in October 1918. He also doesn’t mention that the blockages were not completely cleared until 1921!

The propaganda effect on the other hand was actually quite great. The huge publicity in England proclaiming the success of the raids, largely driven by the fact that so many decorations were handed out after the raids, meant many of the senior crew members minor celebrities prior to the Wars end. The book covers this in a bit of detail, but probably stretches the morale effect a little more than it may have actually been.

Pitt’s book stands as a solid monument to the valour of the men involved in the planning and execution of the raids. It gives the reader a sense of the political and military situation of the time and provides, at least from the British side, a strong historical record of the action. If you have an interest in military history and in particular less well know naval actions of WWI, then I’d recommend this as a good starting point.

There are other books on the subject, some of which touch more on the German side of the story than this does but overall this is a great resource for research and provides a rivetting if a little skewed depiction of the action. Zeebrugge: Eleven VC’s Before Breakfast has certainly given me a desire to investigate some of the others in search of more information on the amazing events of April 1918.