A short ferry ride to the war
First World War Centenary, Collection, Collection Highlights, Personal Stories, Zeebrugge, Distinguished Service Cross, HMS Iris II, HMAS Australia
The raid on Zeebrugge to cripple the inland port of Bruges in occupied Belgium in April 1918 lasted a little more than an hour. It cost the lives of over 200 British sailors and marines with hundreds more wounded. Artificer Engineer William Henry Vaughan Edgar, late of HMAS Australia, joined the raid on a Mersey ferry steamer and in the process became the Royal Australian Navy’s only Distinguished Service Cross winner of the First World War.
Edgar was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on 20 April 1884. His family migrated to Australia soon after. He first joined the Commonwealth Naval Forces in 1906 and as a fitter and turner transferred to the fledgling Royal Australian Navy on 1 January 1913. From July 1914 he was posted to HMAS Australia as Artificer Engineer and stayed with the ship throughout most of the First World War, with one notable exception.
On 23 February 1918, Edgar answered the call for volunteers for special service, along with ten ratings from the Australia, to take part in the raid on Zeebrugge. For the crew of the Australia the call was a godsend. Tired of the monotony of patrolling and convoy escort duties in the North Sea where nary an enemy was sighted, dozens of seamen volunteered for the mission, most were disappointed.
The Zeebrugge plan was simple if not audacious in the extreme. Cloaked in nothing more than smoke, three old cement filled block ships - the retired warships, HM ships Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia - were to sail up the heavily defended Zeebrugge canal, under point blank fire from shore batteries, and scuttle themselves in the main channel thereby blocking access to and from the German submarine base at Bruges.
To divert German fire away from the block ships, an assault was planned on the Zeebrugge Mole, a heavily defended breakwater that curved almost two and a half kilometres to form an artificial harbour. Storming parties were to be landed on the Mole and do as much damage as possible, particularly to the heavy guns on the Mole extension.
To the fore of the attacking flotilla were the ‘ugly, time expired’ cruiser HMS Vindictive, and two Mersey ferry boats with the highly improbable names of Iris and Daffodil. It was the role of the Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil to land the parties on the Mole, and aid their rapid withdrawal at the completion of the mission. Iris carried a company of Royal Marines with Edgar as the officer in charge of her engine room.
The vessels’ voyage to Zeebrugge on the night of 22 April was described in Bartimeus’ The Navy Eternal as ‘the old Vindictive in the van of the centre column with the Iris and Daffodil in tow, for all the world like veteran hound on the trail with her two puppies on her flanks’.
Just before midnight, to cloak their arrival, high speed Coastal Motor Boats began laying down a smoke screen between Zeebrugge harbour and the incoming vessels. All was going perfectly to plan until a sudden wind shift lifted the smoke, exposing the Vindictive to the full maelstrom of the Mole batteries. Despite suffering severe damage and dozens of casualties, Vindictive managed to reach the Mole, with the ferries arriving minutes later.
While Daffodil busied herself acting as a tug pushing Vindictive up against the Mole, Iris moved forward to land the marines. Frustration followed the ferry for the next hour as she was unable to make fast to the Mole due to heavy seas. Eventually Iris moved to Vindictive to offload her troops. Just as the marines prepared to disembark from the ferry the retirement sounded and Iris was ordered to cast off and head for home.
Then things went terribly wrong.
As she steamed away an enemy shell tore away the port side of the bridge, mortally wounding Commander Valentine Gibbs and the marine’s commander, Major Charles Eagles. The momentary loss of control sent the Iris careering into the range of the Mole extension batteries. What occurred next is best described by Edgar himself:
‘The German batteries commenced firing, and we had five shells into us in quick succession…killing about 75 men outright, and wounding many …For eighteen hours [the men] watched and worked like Trojans without food, and then the shells. One killed around 40 men outright, another about 20, 10 died on the trip back and 102 wounded. The upper deck electrical wires were shot away, so we were in darkness trying to get out the dead and wounded all night. There was only one doctor till 5am when we met a ship and another one with an assistant came on board’. Shells had gone clean through the deck to explode among the marines and the makeshift sickbay.
Edgar was later awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the raid, though the citation for the award, through its formality, does not contain the context or detail that Edgar provides. The award recognised his ‘valuable work in the engine room and boiler room throughout the operation for a period of seventeen hours without rest’ and his heroic actions in coming up onto the deck and assisting, under heavy fire, in turning on the smoke apparatus to conceal the vessel’s escape. It was also noted that despite the damage to the vessel, Edgar was instrumental in the Iris returning to England under her own steam.
The citation sets out Edgar’s actions but not the carnage that would haunt him. Edgar again fills in the gaps: ‘I managed to get the ship back to Dover under her own steam the next afternoon then I was finished- the strain and the horror of the night broke me up…Men were dying all night and it was just something awful. If anything happened, the reaction of that awful night absolutely did for me. I was finished-my nerves went to pieces for three days.’ The total casualties on the Iris were 77 killed and 105 wounded.
Miraculously all 11 Australia volunteers escaped physical harm. Apart from Edgar, six other sailors from the Australia were recognised for their gallantry at Zeebrugge:
Leading Seaman Dalmorton J. O. Rudd, Leading Seaman George J. Bush and Able Seaman George E. Staples all serving on board Invincible, were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Able Seaman Henry J. Gillard, and Able Seaman Leonard T. Newlands of Invincible were both Mentioned in Despatches as was Stoker Herbert J. McCrory on Thetis.
Another Australian, Lieutenant John Howell-Price serving with the Royal Navy was awarded a Distinguished Service Order serving on board Submarine C3 during the raid.
The battle damaged and aged Vindictive survived the raid only to be sunk as a block ship in the secondary channel into Bruges at Ostend the following month.
The Iris and Daffodil returned to their duties on the Mersey River in July, now resplendent with a ‘Royal’ prefix for their part in the raid.
Edgar was posted back to the Australia almost immediately after the raid with a promotion to Engineer Lieutenant as further recognition of his part in the mission and continued to serve with the RAN until 1928. He died in 1962.