My grandfather Alec Gordon, was a Royal Marine and was seriously injured in the fateful Zeebrugge Raid on St Georges Day, 23rdApril 1918. Alexander Robert Gordon was born in London in 1896, the son of Frederick and Hannah Gordon. In 1910 the Gordon family moved to 1, Romney Road, Eastbourne and his parents worked at the Purity Hand Laundry at 62, Sidley Road.
The family must have had an Eastbourne connection as Alec’s older brother, (Frederick James) was born in the town in 1894. The 1911 census shows that Alec was employed as a drapers assistant.
A few years later the family moved to 84, Channel View Road, Eastbourne and this was the address given when Alec enlisted into the Royal Marines Light Infantry (RMLI) in 1916. After training in Deal, Kent, he served on board HMS King Alfred and later the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible based at Scapa Floe.
In 1917 the German navy was causing havoc among allied shipping. Many German U-boats were based at Zeebrugge in Belgium and a plan was devised to block a canal to stop the enemy submarines operating. A British cruiser, HMS Vindictive was selected to land 200 Royal Marines on the harbour mole (breakwater) to cause a diversion whilst three old warships, HMS Thetis, HMS Intrepid and HMS Iphigenia were deliberately sunk in the harbour entrance to block enemy shipping. A smokescreen was to be used to hide the operation from the powerful German guns protecting the port. This was clearly a dangerous mission and only volunteers were used. My grandad was one of those volunteers.
On St George’s Day, 23rd April 1918, Alec was a member of 2 Company of the 4th Battalion RMLI and took part in the raid. Most of the Royal Marines were on-board HMS Vindictive but my Grandad was on board HMS Iris II. This ship was actually a converted Mersey ferry and not built for service at sea let alone for Royal Navy duties. Men from the Iris II were to land on the harbour mole (breakwater) and attack the enemy.
On the day the wind was blowing in the wrong direction for the smokescreen to take effect and little Mersey ferry, protected only by mattresses strapped to the sides, soon was in the sites of the heavy German guns. As the ship attempted to dock under heavy fire, two shells smashed through the hull and exploded. Of the 50 men in his company, he was one of only five to survive the carnage. Both his legs were shattered and one was later amputated. It must have been hell.
227 British men were killed in the raid and my grandad was one of 356 to be injured. The Germans lost 8 men and 16 were wounded. The blockships did not stop U-boats leaving the canal at high tide and in any case were removed in just a few days.
The allied press hailed the Zeebrugge Raid as a great allied success and eight Victoria Crosses were awarded to boost British propaganda. One of the Victoria Crosses was awarded to the 4thBattalion of Royal Marines and the awards of others were decided by the unusual method of having a ballot amongst the men who took part. My Grandads service record, now held at the National Archives, is endorsed with the fact that he took part in the ballot for a Victoria Cross.
Mr grandfather returned to Eastbourne and spent two years recovering and had a metal artificial leg fitted at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton. He was one of 40,000 British men who lost a limb during the Great War and was a member of BLESMA (The British Limbless Ex-Serviceman’s Association). Back in Eastbourne, Alec met a young local girl, Bessie Roberts from Taddington Road (my grandmother) and they married in Holy Trinity Church in 1925.
My grandmother cared for my grandad well and would take to the streets to raise funds for BLESMA on their annual ‘flag-day’.
The commander of the Zeebrugge Raid (Admiral Sir Roger Keyes) managed to get Alec a job at the Howard Pneumatic Engineering Company in Fort Road, Eastbourne. He later worked as a picture framer for Stacy-Marks in Terminus Road. Despite having a metal artificial leg, he had a full life.
My grandparents returned to Zeebrugge to see the prow of HMS Vindictive which is used as one of several memorials of the raid. My father Roger is named after Sir Roger Keyes , the commander of the raid. In July 1964 my grandparents were invited to Buckingham Palace to witness a review of the Royal Marines on the tercentenary of their foundation in 1664.
I remember my grandad as always being cheerful and friendly. He would sometimes play the spoons on his metal leg but never spoke about the horrors he witnessed. I once tried to ask him but my grandma would not allow it. My grandmother once wrote in her diary “Although Alec is often in pain he has led a full life at work and at home and throughout his life people remarked ‘He never complains’ “
My Grandad, Alexander Gordon died in April 1978. Sadly it was me who found him and I had to break the news to my grandma and father. He was buried at Ocklynge Cemetery. Please remember a brave Sussex man on this St George’s Day.