Britons at War

Is there a distinctly British brand of heroism?  That is the implicit question running through Christopher Sandford’s Zeebrugge, a gripping new history of the British naval raid in April 1918 on the German-held Belgian port of that name.  The sheer audacity of the operation and its attendant tales of sacrifice and derring-do resulted in a resounding p.r. victory (if nothing else) that bolstered England’s resolve during the closing stretch of World War I.  Judging from the multitude of eyewitness accounts Sandford presents, it would appear that the tone of exaggerated nonchalance that permeates British action entertainments to this day—think of James Bond smartly snapping his cufflinks amidst the latest swirl of carnage and mayhem—has some precedent in actual events.

A swashbuckling spirit certainly animated the raid’s planning.  As developed by Admiral Roger Keyes (Commander-in-Chief, Dover)—a colorful, hard-charging type in the Horatio Nelson mold—the proposed course of action involved a diversionary attack on the Zeebrugge “Mole,” or breakwater, by an aging cruiser flanked by two repurposed Mersey ferries; the ramming of a viaduct by two obsolete, explosives-filled submarines; and the sinking of three cement-laden “blockships” at the entrance to the harbor, theoretically blocking further German submarine...

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