The Zeebrugge Raid: Creating a Legend

In our latest blog Professor Mark Connelly talks about the British naval raid on Zeebrugge, which took place on 23rd April 1918, and its commemoration over time.

Having had my first fascinating experience of working on a research project in collaboration with a team of volunteers, exploring battlefield visiting in the 1920s and 1930s, I was delighted that it had gone so well. Many of my volunteers not only wanted to do something more, but to encourage others to get involved. Another great insight was that the team had found working with historical newspapers both rewarding and engaging. With this in mind, I was very happy to devise another project.

Moving on from our original theme, I turned to a specific incident in the Great War with a looming centenary – that of the 1918 Zeebrugge raid,. This time the intention is to explore its original representation as well as its development as a commemorative site. The Zeebrugge raid is a fascinating incident in the war. Nowadays it is perhaps something that resonates only with those with a deep interest in the war, but at the time it captivated the public imagination.

Deeply shaken by the disruptions caused to allied shipping by submarines, the Admiralty was desperate to curb the threat of these new, insidious weapons.  Wishing to stop the Germans having easy access to the Channel and the North Sea, an ambitious amphibious operation was planned with the intention of blocking the port and bottling up its submarines. Carried out on the night of 22-23 April 1918, at the height of huge German assaults on the Western Front, the raid showed the world that the British were capable of hitting back.

Suffering a bit of an image problem after the seemingly inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916, the assault on Zeebrugge was a delight for the Navy and its propagandists. Depicted as an example of British ingenuity, endeavour and pluck, it was easy to present the operation as something akin to a boy’s own adventure in which the enemy was given a jolly good thumping. The press was therefore given plenty of great stories and brilliant images allowing it to be trumpeted across the world. The fact that the operation didn’t actually achieve quite as much as hoped was almost entirely ignored in the rush to celebrate its sheer audacity.

Books and pamphlets followed, all adding lustre to the story creating an instant history and a commemorative legacy. But the raid did not escape critical comment entirely, as was shown in Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon’s memoirs, published in 1919, which implied that his successor, Sir Roger Keyes, resorted to high risk gambles for little gain. Such interpretations did little to topple the established narrative, and further reinforcement was provided by the central role the raid was given at the 1924 Wembley Empire Exhibition. Visitors were given the chance to watch a dramatic reconstruction of the operation using models and pyrotechnics, which was widely regarded as a highlight of a trip to Wembley. Even more glamour was added in the autumn of 1924 when a lavishly-staged film reconstruction was released in cinemas across the British Empire.

Front page of the 1928 Guide to the Zebrugge War Museum. From the personal collection of Professor Mark Connelly.

Visitors to Zeebrugge were also given the chance to understand the battle through the opening of a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of the raid. Crammed full of artefacts, the museum also included a full reconstruction of the German officers’ club. On the seafront it was possible to see an impressive memorial erected by the Anglo-Belgian Union. Dedicated to propagating Anglo-Belgian amity and trade, the decision to erect such a memorial said much about its mission to raise the profile of Zeebrugge as a port, and with its role as a major nodal point for British visitors to the former battlefields of the Western Front. Zeebrugge was therefore very much a gateway to the battlefields during the 1920s and 1930s.

Replica of German Officers’ Club in Zeebrugge War Museum. From the personal collection of Professor Mark Connelly

In our project we will find out much more about the way this particular military exploit of the war was turned into a propaganda triumph as a prelude to its transformation into a post-war pilgrimage site, and we will do this through the fascinating medium of national and local newspapers. Watch this space for an update on our findings….

About the author:

Mark Connelly is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Kent and Director of the AHRC funded Gateways to the First World War Engagement Centre.

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