Beneath a night sky that was too bright for anyone’s liking, the ageing warship sped across the Channel at the head of a ragtag armada of destroyers, launches, old submarines and Mersey ferry-boats. The men on board knew that their chances of making it home again were not high. By common consent, their mission was one of the most audacious and suicidal ever undertaken by the Royal Navy.
For all the tension, one man on board showed little outward sign of concern. As HMS Vindictive steamed towards the Belgian coast on the evening of 22 April 1918, Commander Frank Brock remained his usual unflappable self. He was by nature a supreme optimist. No one was more confident than he of returning home safely.
Frank Arthur Brock was already a legend among the men on the ship.
Had Ian Fleming conjured up James Bond thirty-five years before he did, he might have used him as the template for 007. At thirty-three years old, he was a large, powerful, broad-shouldered man of dark good looks. He could fly an aeroplane and was a superb all-round sportsmen, excelling at football, rugby, golf, swimming and boxing. On top of this he was a first-class shot, as proficient with a revolver as with a rifle. During a remarkable career he had helped catch terrorists in India and risked his life on an intelligence-gathering mission behind enemy lines. The word ‘derring-do’ summed up his raw courage and his love of adventure. His initials - FAB - seemed entirely appropriate.
But this daring young naval officer could have been more than the basis of 007. He might equally well have been the model for Q, the Secret Service quartermaster who supplied Bond’s gadgets. For on top of his other attributes, Frank was an inventor of outstanding talent. One of his ideas had played a crucial role in protecting the nation from Zeppelins, the giant German airships which Kaiser Bill had hoped would bring Britain to its knees. Another had been used with devastating effect to counter the threat from U-boats. His most recent brainchild, deemed essential to the success of the raid in which he was now taking part, was an artificial fog or smoke screen, vastly more efficient than any that had come before, which would cover the approach of the British flotilla as it neared the enemy-occupied Belgian coast.
That he had such a creative mind was not surprising. Invention, innovation and a flair for the theatrical ran in his blood, for he had been born into Britain’s most famous fireworks family. The Brock clan had practised the art of pyrotechnical wizardry for eight generations. More than two centuries earlier Frank’s five times great-grandfather, John Brock, a self-proclaimed ‘artist in fireworks’, had painted London’s night skies with his dazzling displays of sky rockets, spinners, serpents, vertical wheels and firecrackers. By the time of Frank’s birth, Brock’s were the most successful makers of fireworks in Britain, enthralling hundreds of thousands of people a year with their world-famous exhibitions at London’s Crystal Palace.
Frank himself had joined the company as soon as he left school, immersing himself in the science of fireworks and the art of showmanship. For thirteen years he travelled the world putting on elaborate shows in front of vast crowds. One of his specialities was staging pyrotechnical depictions of great naval battles such as the Battle of Trafalgar and the destruction of the Spanish Armada. Now, as he busied himself in the darkness on the deck of Vindictive, it may have occurred to him that tonight’s raid would make an excellent subject for a Crystal Palace spectacular.
But in the meantime there was the rather more pressing matter of winning the war against Germany. After nearly four years the conflict remained as fierce and as costly in lives as ever. This was not the war as portrayed in the adventure stories he had read as a boy; this was carnage on an industrial scale, falling like a scythe on his generation. Tonight’s top secret ‘stunt’ was the most dangerous mission he had undertaken and was born out of desperation and necessity. It was nothing less than an attempt to keep Britain in the war.
German submarines remained a severe threat to British shipping, and were based in large numbers at Bruges. This ancient Belgian port, eight miles inland from the North Sea, was an invaluable outpost for the Germans, being some three hundred miles closer to Dover than their naval ports in the Heligoland Bight. By making use of it, the German Navy was able to threaten Britain’s Atlantic sea traffic and her lines of communication with the continent to deadly effect. By one estimate, Bruges-based submarines were responsible for the destruction of more than 2,500 Allied vessels during the war, amounting to some 4,400,000 tons. Unless Bruges could be neutralised, warned the First Sea Lord, John Jellicoe, Britain would be forced into submission.
Then as now, Bruges was connected to the sea by canals leading to the coastal towns of Zeebrugge and Ostend, and these were the key to tonight’s operation. The plan was to scuttle blockships in the harbours of both towns, so sealing the canals and rendering Bruges inoperative as a naval base. If successful, the raid would box in numerous German torpedo boats and destroyers as well as up to thirty submarines.
But could it be done? Sailing into an enemy-occupied port would be difficult enough under any circumstances, even under the cover of Frank Brock’s smoke, but the problem was made infinitely more difficult at Zeebrugge because the harbour there was screened by a vast sea wall known as The Mole. Around one and a half miles long, it was the longest such structure in the world and bristled with batteries of German guns. The essence of the British plan was for storming parties from Vindictive to attack the Mole at midnight, knock out the German guns and create a noisy diversion. Amid the chaos, the blockships, laden with concrete, would be sailed into the canal entrance and scuttled. With their job done, the survivors - and it was not anticipated that there would be many - would make a dash for home, again using Frank’s artificial fog for cover.
Frank should not have been part of the mission at all. His superiors thought him too valuable to the war effort to risk his life at Zeebrugge, and pleaded with him to stay away. But he was adamant he was going to play his part. He had heard about a system of metal tubes mounted on the Mole which he believed to be the latest in enemy sound-ranging equipment used for locating hostile artillery. If circumstances permitted, he would snaffle some of the equipment and bring it back to Dover, using it to create an improved British version. To achieve this, he argued successfully, he would have to join a storming party on the Mole, regardless of the danger.