The Greatest Raid!
Cedric Arnold Wilkinson was born in Leeds in 1897. His father was a travelling salesman and the family lived in Abyssinia Terrace which was situated just off Belle Vue Road in Burley.
On the 13th of March 1917 he was attached to the shore-based service station at HMS President II which was based at Crystal Palace where he was RN Air Craft Mechanic 2nd Class (F26703).
In April of the same year he was transferred to HMS President V which was an experimental station based at Stratford.
Ever since the outbreak of hostilities the German Admiralty had been targeting the British Mercantile fleet in an attempt to starve the nation into submission. Their main submarine base was situated in Bruges which is serviced by two main canals that come out into the North Sea at Ostend and Zeebrugge. After the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, the German Admiralty had reduced their targeting of ships, but this policy was changed in 1917 and the amount of mercantile ships being sunk had increased to a point where over 6m tonnes of shipping was being sunk, having significant impact on goods arriving in the United Kingdom.
The Royal Navy had realised for some time they had to do something about the impact U-Boats were having and previous attempts to target both Ostend and Zeebrugge had little impact.
In 1917, Admiral Roger Keyes came up with a plan for a raid on Zeebrugge. The plan was to block the entrance point of the canal with decommissioned ships. This required a diversion operation whereby troops would be disembarked at the entrance of the Bruges canal, where they would attack German gun positions, and two old submarines packed with explosives would then be rammed into the viaduct that attached to the mole.
The Admiralty put out a call for volunteers for a special operation. Cedric A Wilkinson volunteered and found himself stationed on HMS Iris II.
The key element in the success of this raid would be the weather. All ships involved in the operation were anchored at Chatham. In the middle of April, two attempts were aborted because of poor weather conditions. It was not until the evening of the 23rd April that conditions became good enough for the operation to go ahead. Smoke screens were laid down and the diversion involved HMS Vindictive and two Merseyside Ferries, HMS Daffodil and HMS Iris II. These vessels contained the 4th Battalion Royal Marines and two hundred sailors.
Whilst HMS Vindictive and the two smaller ferries were approaching under the smoke screen, the wind changed direction. Unknown to the three vessels there was a German destroyer which had the previous evening moored on the other side of the mole and when all three vessels became visible they immediately came under tremendous fire. Because of the heavy gun fire HMS Vindictive found itself in the wrong location, and struggled to get alongside the mole. HMS Daffodil had to act like a tugboat and push HMS Vindictive alongside the mole so that her troops could disembark at quite a steep angle. As you can imagine the casualties were extremely high.
It was during this operation that Cedric was killed aboard HMS Iris II.
In the meantime the three blocking vessels HMS Thetis, Intrepid and Phigenia approached the canal entrance. One of them was severely damaged by shell fire and was scuttled some distance from the canal entrance whilst the other two managed to reach the entrance and were successfully scuttled.
Only one of the old submarines was available for the operation. It successfully targeted the viaduct that led to the mole and destroyed it before further German troops could support those defending the mole.
It was at this point the order was given to HMS Vindictive for the two ferries to withdraw.
The 4th Battalion Royal Marines lost 227 dead and 356 wounded and to this day the Royal Marines do not have a 4th Battalion out of respect for these brave men. The Germans only lost 8 dead and 16 wounded.
Many of the Royal Marines and sailors were buried in the cemeteries of Zeebrugge and Dover. Others were repatriated and returned to their families. Cedric’s father identified his son’s body. Cedric was cremated at Lawnswood Cemetery.
The Zeebrugge Raid was promoted by Allied propaganda as a British victory and ultimately resulted in the awarding of eight Victoria Crosses. The 4th Battalion Royal Marines was awarded the Victoria Cross for the action. Under Rule 13 of the Victoria Cross warrant a ballot was stipulated to select the recipients. Victoria Cross rules specify that four Victoria Crosses should be awarded this way (one to an officer, one to an NCO and two to other ranks) they were not observed and only two Victoria Crosses were awarded. This was the last time that Victoria Crosses were awarded by ballot, although the rule remained within the Victoria Cross warrant. A ballot was similarly held for the crews of the assault vessels for the Zeebrugge Mole (Vindictive, Royal Daffodil and Iris II) and the embarked raiding parties. Following the ballot, Victoria Crosses were awarded to Albert Edward McKenzie and Alfred Carpenter.
Whilst this raid was not a complete success in that the scuttled boats were placed in an area where the Germans could quickly dredge around them, and their U-Boat operations were only delayed by a few days, it did lay down the blueprint for future raids that were to follow in the Second World War, such as the famous raid on St Nazaire.
Cedric was posthumously made Royal Navy Air Mechanic 1st Class.
Author: Alan Mann