Today marks the 96th anniversary of the Zeebrugge raid, a daring but near-suicidal attempt by the British to block the canal entrance at the German-held port of Zeebrugge, to stop German U-Boats entering and exiting the canal into the north sea. One of the key players in the raid was Wing Commander Frank Brock.
Frank Arthur Brock was born on 29th June 1884 in Norwood. His father was the owner of Brocks fireworks, a long-established company (founded in 1725) that until 1932 had a 280-acre headquarters and factory in Sutton. During the First World War the factory was naturally utilised for the production of munitions.
Frank attended Dulwich College until 1901, after which he joined his father’s firm. He was a prolific inventor and naturally focused on pyrotechnics. When war broke out he applied for a commission initially in the Royal Artillery, but on 1st January 1915 he was appointed Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service. His scientific expertise was obviously noted as in December 1916 he was given the rank of Flight Commander, and was promoted to Wing Commander in April 1917 ‘in consideration of very valuable services performed for naval and military air services.’ Brock served on the ‘Board of Inventions and Research’ and worked at the Royal Naval Experimental Station at Stratford. His service record notes he had an extensive knowledge of chemistry and physics and an ‘exceptional talent for devising and perfecting new devices for use during war. Very capable, hard-working and zealous officer.’ He was specially mentioned by the War Office ‘for valuable assistance rendered to RFC in connection with destruction of Zepps’; this was for the invention of the Brock incendiary bullet, designed to ignite the gases contained within the envelope of the zeppelin airships. He also invented the ‘Colour Filter’, ‘Dover Flare’ (used by anti-submarine patrols), and stars that were used in Verey pistol cartridges. He was awarded an OBE in January 1918.
Brock’s smokescreen being tested.
The plan for the Zeebrugge raid necessitated the use of submarines filled with explosives, two ferries requisitioned from Liverpool, and several old cruisers including HMS Vindictive. Zeebrugge harbour and the canal entrance were shielded by a long mole that arced across the canal entrance. This had naturally been utilised by the Germans as a defensive position, with gun batteries, machine guns, and garrisons of men stationed along it. Vindictive would land troops on the mole who would take out the shore batteries. The submarines would be blown up under the viaduct that connected the mole to the harbour, and blockships, filled with concrete, would then be manoeuvred into position and scuttled, blocking the harbour entrances. Brock’s role in the raid was in designing the apparatus that produced the smokescreen used by the ships to mask their approach.
The British force left from Dover and Harwich on the afternoon of April 22nd, some accounts stating that Brock had taken several bottles of vintage port on board Vindictive that were consumed during the crossing. The artificial fog smokescreen was deployed and was at first extremely successful in masking the arrival of the raiding force. However, a sudden change in the direction of the wind blew the cover away and the full weight of the German fire was opened on the approaching vessels. Despite suffering heavily, Vindictive managed to manoeuvre alongside the mole and put her remaining troops ashore. One submarine was exploded under the viaduct, and two blockships scuttled at the canal entrance.
The attacking troops paid a heavy price, and of the 1,700 who took part nearly 600 hundred were killed or wounded. German casualties were much lower, figures of eight killed and 16 wounded often being cited. One graphic account of the Vindictive’s return to Dover records ‘And there was blood. There were smears of blood high on the funnels. Half-congealed blood lay heel deep in the wrecked foretop, a mushroom-like box stuck up in front of the forward funnel. In that foretop pieces of skull and hair and skin were wedged into battered gun-sights, and it looked as though someone had sloshed buckets of blood on to the walls and ceiling. Below decks, and tucked in odd corners, there were torn clothes, boots, bandages and blankets, all dark and soggy with blood. The salt sea air had not been able to cleanse out the smells of gas, lyddite, cordite and blood.’
Brock’s fate during the raid is unclear. It seems he went ashore to try and locate German sound range-finding apparatus; a Warrant Officer who also took part in the raid stated Brock was ‘going singlehanded for a gun’s crew’. He was last seen with pistol and cutlass in hand on the mole, where he was ‘knocked out’.
The effectiveness of the raid was negligible, and the U-Boats were using the canal again within a few days of the raid. However, Zeebrugge was presented by British propaganda as a success, and eight Victoria Crosses were subsequently awarded.
Frank was mentioned in despatches for the part he played. He has no known grave, although it is possible that he is one of the unknown officers buried in Zeebrugge churchyard, and is also named on the memorial there. In addition he is commemorated on Cheam war memorial, Dulwich College war memorial, a memorial in Brookwood Cemetery, and has a stained glass window dedicated to him at St. Saviour’s church, Raynes Park. He was a member of Malden golf club and each Armistice Sunday the club plays for the Brock Cup in commemoration. There is also a Brocks Drive in Cheam although I am unsure if this is named after Frank or his family.
Captain Alfred Carpenter, who was awarded the VC for his command of Vindictive during the raid, said ‘It would be difficult for anybody to speak too highly of Wing-Commander Frank A. Brock. He was a rare personality. An inventive genius, than whom the country had no better.’
Henry Major Tomlinson, the writer and journalist who worked as an official correspondent for the army during the war, wrote of Brock: ‘A first-rate pilot and excellent shot, Commander Brock was a typical English sportsman; and his subsequent death during the operations, for whose success he had been so largely responsible, was a loss of the gravest description to both the Navy and the empire.’
Aero Club 14-18 Journal
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Dulwich College Register
Fourteen Eighteen – John Masters
Pyrotechnics: The History and Art of Firework Making – A. Brock
The National Archives ADM service records
The War Illustrated