The Zeebrugge Raids

Zeebrugge-Ostend was the most heavily defended of all German U-boat bases. In April 1918 raids were planned with the intention of sailing ships into the harbour entrance and scuttling them to effect a blockade. Motor launches would then be sent in to rescue the crews of the ships that were being sunk. Bourke, a Lieutenant at the time, immediately volunteered his vessel for the rescue of crews from the ships that were sunk in the blockade effort. He was again rejected due to his poor eyesight. Despite being told that most of the men would not make it back, Bourke persisted in offering his motor launch as a standby in case one of the chosen rescue motor launches was disabled.

On the night of 23 April 1918 Bourke’s launch was called into service and picked up 38 sailors from the sinking Blockship HMS Brilliant. His motor launch also towed the crippled motor launch 532 out of the harbour. For this, Bourke was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

What Bourke could not have known was that Victor Crutchley who had been born just 8 years after him and about 8 streets away from him in Chelsea was on board Brilliant and for his part in that action Crutchley was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

The action on 9 May 1918

A further raid to blockade the harbour at Ostend was planned for 9 May, 1918. Crutchley volunteered to take part.

Shortly before this second raid was to begin Bourke’s motor launch was found to be too damaged to take part. Bourke was so eager that he offered to give up his command in order to participate on another vessel, motor launch 254. Eventually, however, his own motor launch, 532, had to be pressed into action and Bourke was given just 24 hours to completely refit his vessel and find a volunteer crew.

Crutchley was posted to the cruiser, Vindictive, which was to be scuttled in this second attempt to block the canal entrance. As they came into contact with the enemy, Vindictive’s Captain was killed and the navigating officer incapacitated. Crutchley took command. A propeller was damaged on the quay, preventing the vessel fully closing the canal and Crutchley ordered that it be scuttled. He then personally oversaw the evacuation under enemy fire.

Crutchley transferred to the damaged motor launch, ML254 which would have been the vessel Bourke was on, had Bourke’s own motor launch 532 not been pressed into service. When 254’s Captain collapsed from the wounds he had sustained, Crutchley took command. He oversaw bailing operations, standing in water up to his waist, until the destroyer Warwick came to its aid.

Nevertheless, throughout the action, Bourke’s motor launch was close at hand. As Crutchley’s ship, HMS Vindictive, sailed into the harbour entrance it was followed by Bourke’s motor launch. 

While backing out after the raid Bourke heard cries from the water. He ordered a prolonged search of the area amidst very heavy gunfire at close range. He found a Lieutenant and two ratings from the ship badly wounded in the water. Bourke’s own launch was hit 55 times and two of the crew were killed. Nevertheless he managed to bring out his vessel in one piece.

Although the second raid also failed to fully close the Bruges canal to submarine traffic, Crutchley and Bourke were both awarded Victoria Crosses for the action. Lieutenant Geoffrey Drummond who had commanded motor launch 254 until he collapsed from injuries, was also awarded a Victoria Cross in this action.

Article from the London Gazette, 28 August 1918

The King [George V] has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers in recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty as described in the foregoing despatch.

  • Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Heneage Drummond, R.N.V.R.
  • Lieutenant Commander Roland Richard Bourke, D.S.O., R.N.V.R.
  • Lieutenant Victor Alexander Charles Crutchley, D.S.C., R.N.

Ostend, Belgium, 9 - 10 May 1918

Lieutenant Commander Roland Richard Bourke D.S.O., R.N.V.R.

Volunteered for rescue work in command of ML-276 and followed HMS

'Vindictive' into Ostend, engaging the enemy’s machine guns on both piers with Lewis guns. 

After ML-254 had backed out Lieutenant Bourke laid his vessel alongside 'Vindictive' to make further search. Hearing no one he withdrew, but hearing cries in the water he again entered the harbour, and after a prolonged search eventually found Lieutenant Sir John Alleyne and two ratings all badly wounded, in the water, clinging to an upended skiff, and rescued them.

During all this time the motor launch was under a very heavy fire at close range, being hit in fifty-five places, once by a 5in shell, two of her small crew being killed, and others wounded. The vessel was seriously damaged and speed greatly reduced. Lieutenant Bourke, however, managed to bring her out and carry on until he fell in with a Monitor, which took him in tow.

This episode displayed daring and skill of a very high order, and Lieutenant Bourke’s bravery and perseverance undoubtedly saved the lives of Lieutenant Alleyne and two of the 'Vindictive's crew.

Visit our Rowland Bourke VC webpage to find out more.

Lieutenant Victor Alexander Charles Crutchley, D.S.C., R.N.

This officer was in 'Brilliant' in the unsuccessful attempt to block Ostend on the night of 22 / 23 April 1918, and at once volunteered for a further effort. Crutchley acted as 1st Lieutenant of HMS 'Vindictive' and worked with untiring energy fitting out that ship for further service.

On the night of 9 / 10 May 1918, after his commanding officer had been killed and the second in command severely wounded, Lieutenant Crutchley took command of 'Vindictive' and did his utmost by manoeuvring the engines to place that ship in an effective position. He displayed great bravery both in the 'Vindictive' and in 'ML254', which rescued the crew after the charges had been blown and the former vessel sunk between the piers of Ostend harbour, and did not himself leave the 'Vindictive' until he had made a thorough search with an electric torch for survivors under a very heavy fire.

Lieutenant Crutchley took command of 'ML254' when the commanding officer sank exhausted from his wounds, the second in command having been killed. The vessel was full of wounded and very seriously damaged by shell fire, the fore part being flooded. With indomitable energy and by dint of bailing with buckets and shifting weight aft, Lieutenant Crutchley and the unwounded kept her afloat, but the leaks could not be kept under, and she was in a sinking condition, with her forecastle nearly awash when picked up by HMS 'Warwick'.

The bearing of this very gallant officer and fine seaman throughout these operations off the Belgian coast was altogether admirable and an inspiring example to all thrown in contact with him.

Visit our Victor Crutchley VC webpage to find out more.

Victoria Crosses awarded to Victor Crutchley, Rowland Bourke and Geoffrey Drummond

Victor Crutchley, Rowland Bourke and Geoffrey Drummond were invested with their Victoria Crosses by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 11 September 1918.