HC Deb 23 April 1918 vol 105 cc860-3

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has any further information to give the House regarding the naval attack on Ostend early this morning?

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Sir Eric Geddes)

I respond with great pleasure to the request of the right hon. Gentleman to supplement the first communiqué which was issued to-day, and to give the House such further information as has come to hand of the extremely gallant and hazardous raid carried out last night. I would ask the House to appreciate that most of the officers and men from whom we had to get information have been fighting the greater part of the night, and some of them are not yet in. The raid was undertaken under the command of Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes, Dover, French destroyers, cooperating with the British forces. There were six obsolete cruisers taking part in the attack—"Brilliant," "Sirius," "Intrepid," "Iphigenia," "Thetis," and "Vindictive." The first five were filled with concrete, and were to be sunk in the channels and to the entrances to the ports if possible. "Vindictive," working with two auxiliary craft ferry boats well known on the Mersey, namely, "Daffodil" and "Iris," carried storming and demolition parties to the head of the Mole at Zeebrugge. "Vindictive" was specially fitted with prows for landing the storming parties, and was armed specially for the purpose with batteries of Stokes' mortars, flame throwers, etc. The men employed on the block ships and in the storming and demolition parties were Blue jackets and Royal Marines picked from a very large number of volunteers from the Grand Fleet, and from all the naval and marine depots. There was great competition for the undertaking, and we could only use a very small proportion of the men who volunteered. There were light covering forces belonging to the Dover Command, and Harwich forces, under Admiral Tyrwhitt, covered the operations in the north. A force of monitors, together with a large number of motor launches, coastal motor boats— which, as the House knows, are small fast craft carrying a minimum crew of six— and other small craft took part in the operation. It was a particularly intricate operation, which had to be worked strictly to time table, and involved very delicate navigation on a hostile coast without lights and largely under unknown navigational conditions which have developed since the War, with the added danger of unknown minefields.

One of the essentials of success, which I would particularly like to mention because I learned just as I came into the House that the officer who developed it was killed, was a high development of the scientific use of fog or smoke—it is more fog than smoke—for which certain conditions of force and direction of wind were necessary, so as to protect the operation from batteries which could have flanked it. The general plan of operation was as follows: After an hour of intense bombardment of Zeebrugge by the monitors, "Vindictive" with the auxiliaries "Iris" and "Daffodil," to run alongside the head of the mole, attacking with gunfire as they approached; storming and demolition parties were to be landed. Meantime three block ships, the old cruisers I have mentioned, assisted by coastal motor boats and motor launches, were to make for the entrance of the canal, to be run aground and blown up. Two old and valueless submarines were to run against the pile-work connecting the masonry portion of the mole with the shore, and, being filled with explosives, were to be blown up, destroying the pile work connection. At Ostend the operation was simpler, and two of the block ships were to be run aground and blown up at the entrance of the port. The difficulties of this part of the undertaking were considerably increased by mist and rain, with corresponding low visibility and consequent absence of effective aerial co-operation. The results, so far as is known, are as follows:

At Ostend the two block ships were run ashore, and abandoned after being blown up. It is too early yet to say definitely whether they have accomplished their object or not. It was too misty for aerial observation, but reports from officers concerned are to the effect that, as far as they could see in the dark, they were slightly off their course.

At Zeebrugge, of the three block ships two have attained their objective and have been sunk and blown up in the entrance of the canal. The third one grounded on the passage in. A certain amount of damage, at present not known, was done by gunfire and by torpedo attack on enemy destroyers and other craft lying alongside the Mole. A coastal motor-boat reports having torpedoed an enemy destroyer which tried to escape to sea. One of the old submarines succeeded in attaining its objective and was blown up, to the destruction of the piling of the approach to the Mole. Storming parties from the "Vindictive," "Iris," and "Daffodil" attacked under extremely heavy fire and fought with the greatest possible gallantry, maintaining their position alongside the Mole for an hour, causing, it is believed, much damage to the enemy, and inflicting considerable losses upon him. The objectives for the storming and demolition parties on the Mole were (1) the enemy forces holding, it, (2) the battery upon it, (3) the destroyer and submarine depots upon it, (4) the large seaplane base on it. The three vessels, "Vindictive," "Iris," and "Daffodil," after re-embarking their landing parties, withdrew. This attack was primarily intended to engage the attention of the garrison on the Mole, thereby allowing the block ships to enter the harbour. As the attack on the Mole accomplished its main object, it was successful. The casualties to personnel, as might be expected in a hazardous nature of this kind, are, I regret to say, heavy in proportion to the numbers engaged. All three ships withdrew successfully. "Vindictive" is reported to have returned to her base, and "Iris" and "Daffodil" are also reported to be returning. Up to date the only British losses reported in craft are one destroyer sunk by gunfire off the Mole, and two coastal motor-boats and two motor launches missing.

In the opinion of the Board of Admiralty, the greatest possible credit is due to the Vice-Admiral at Dover and all officers and men for this very gallant undertaking. The whole operation had to be worked out in most careful detail, and it appears to have been carried out with signal success.

The co-operation between all units engaged and the synchronisation of the various phases of the operations have been most remarkable. As the forces engaged have not yet all returned to their bases, it is impossible to give fuller information; but we have sufficient to show that the entrance to the Bruges Canal is probably blocked effectively, and that considerable material damage was done; and the greatest credit is due to the gallantry and devotion to duty of all ranks and ratings engaged. A further communiqué will be issued if more material facts come to light.