ZEEBRUGGE 1918: THE GREATEST RAID OF ALL

Reviewed by: James Bosbotinis

Published to mark the centenary of the Zeebrugge Raid, this book seeks to tell the story of those involved in the planning and execution of Operation ZO. Moreover, the author, Christopher Sandford, has a family connection to the raid; his great uncle, Lieutenant Richard Sandford, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his role in the operation. Lieutenant Sandford commanded the submarine C3, which was packed with explosives and used with great effect against the railway viaduct connecting the Mole at Zeebrugge with the mainland. Christopher Sandford is a journalist and author of an eclectic range of books, including biographies of Sir Paul McCartney and Keith Richards, and The Final Over: The Cricketers of Summer 1914.
Zeebrugge 1918: The Greatest Raid of All is divided into eight chapters, forming a narrative of the background to, planning and execution of Operation ZO. The first two chapters, ‘The Sea Churned Red’, and ‘Total War’ respectively, are concerned with setting the background to the raid. The first chapter tells the story of Operation EC1, a fleet exercise held on the night of 31 January 1918 off Scapa Flow, which ended in disaster with two K-class submarines sinking amidst multiple collisions. The officer on watch in the submarine K6, which avoided a collision, was Lieutenant Richard Sandford. The second chapter, ‘Total War’, provides introductions to Room 40, Admiral Keyes, the U-Boat menace and the thinking that led to the raid on Zeebrugge.
The following chapters focus on the planning, training for and execution of the raid. Four chapters are dedicated to the raid itself. The author successfully delivers across those four chapters a narrative that is highly detailed, nuanced, and in places, poignant. Sandford ably conveys, without recourse to unnecessary gratuitous detail, the horrors involved in attempting to manoeuvre a ship alongside a mole at night and disembark an infantry force in the face of a well-prepared adversary. The author also captures some of the lighter moments of war. For example, the scientist Frank Brock, who, against better judgement, embarked on Vindictive for the operation, took with him a box labelled ‘Explosives – Handle with Care’, which when taken to the Wardroom was found to in fact contain several bottles of vintage port and was duly consumed. Conversely, Sandford analyses the execution of Operation ZO and considers questions such as whether the officer commanding the blockship Intrepid, Lieutenant Stuart Bonham Carter could, or should have pressed home his attack and rammed the lock gates, thus ensuring complete operational success.
Zeebrugge 1918: The Greatest Raid of All is well-written and well-researched. Sandford provides an appendix, ‘Sources and Chapter Notes’, detailing the published works and archival materials used in the writing of the book. This would be a valuable reference to those undertaking research on the raid, or relevant subjects. The book also includes a photographic section spanning 16 pages with photographs and illustrations, including key personalities linked to the raid, the ships involved and the aftermath of the operation. The author has produced a book that should appeal to all those with an interest in the First World War, or naval history. At £19.99, it is also excellent value for money. Zeebrugge 1918: The Greatest Raid of All provides an easily accessible narrative of a high-risk and high-casualty operation. It is a worthy addition to any bookshelf.