Christopher Sandford
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
St George's Day 2018 marks the centenary of the attempt by a British force under Rear Admiral Roger Keyes to block the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. Britain was on the verge of starvation due to the depredations of Germany's submarines; her desperate situation called for desperate measures. Keyes, a man of proven zeal, valour, initiative, leadership and ability, but somewhat lacking in the brain power needed to see things in deep ply, worked up a detailed plan to bottle the U-boats up in their harbours and sold it to the 1st Sea Lord, Admiral Sir 'Rosy' Wemyss.

The author is a journalist and has come to this task in homage to two of his great uncles who took part in these operations, one of whom was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the action (as were seven others). For naval readers an occasional rather chippy tabloid style, together with the odd inaccuracy, infelicity or solecism will be detected in the narrative. However this should not detract the general readership from enjoying of an often pacy, well-told, account of these raids. Sandford has a good eye for the details that matter and has researched a large number of individual reminiscences and experiences. He has drawn on and cites Barrie Pitt's 1958 work on the subject, and a number of accounts published between the wars when memories were fresh, and as a result many of the participants speak to us again today. The enthusiasm of the volunteers, all of whom were directly told that this might be a one-way trip, and their courage in action are well brought out, and a humbling example to us all in our softer age.

The background is well and economically presented, starting with Richard Sandford's part in the 'Battle of May Island' in which an injudicious set of manoeuvres ordered by Beatty resulted in numerous collisions including the loss of two K-class submarines. The tale goes on to explain the strategic situation and in particular the dire problems presented by the submarine threat, and the genesis of Keyes' plan which became known to the enemy in advance but without foreknowledge of the date. We move on to various false starts and eventual committal in foul weather so that tactical surprise was achieved, but the difficulties of getting the Royal Marines ashore were almost insurmountable and brought unsustainable losses. We were therefore unable to gain control of the German batteries on the Zeebrugge Mole in order to shield the blockships heading for the canal mouth. The problem with the plan was that there were just too many elements that might go wrong, and in the event too many of them did.

The use of first hand accounts is what brings the book vividly and grippingly to life as action is eventually joined and the cruelly depleted marines and seamen storm the Mole with a literal Brock's Benefit of smoke and flame throwers, against Germans using poison gas. Here we have a cracking read, very different from some more pedestrian analyses.

For years it was Gospel that after the event the Germans cleared a path for their boats relatively easily and that in spite of an enormous British butcher's bill the operation was a strategic failure. This view was challenged two years ago by EC Coleman, but Sandford quotes a German U-boat CO who got out of the harbour two days after the raid. The attempt (and a sequel) to block Ostend, for reasons explained in this book, failed completely.
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