Late recruits to the most daring naval operation of the First World War, two civilian passenger ferries survived triumph and tragedy to be fêted for their valiant service. A century on, Steve Snelling salutes Merseyside’s improbable heroes of the raid on Zeebrugge.

Improbable raiders: the Mersey ferry boats Daffodil (left) and Iris in Dover Harbour. The splinter mattresses and extra steel plating which had been fitted at Portsmouth are clearly visible.
HMS Daffodil IV under way. Her supporting role at Zeebrugge was crucial to the success of the mole diversionary operations spearheaded by HMS Vindictive.
Iris plying her trade as a passenger ferry on the River Mersey prior to being requisitioned by the Navy specifically for the raid on Zeebrugge.
Vindictive, smothered in protective splinter mattresses and with landing brows clearly visible, had the appearance of a lop-sided beetle as she led the way to Zeebrugge on 22 April 1918.

The night was overcast with a mistle of rain resembling a Scotch mist. From behind a low ceiling of clouds the moon cast a faint glimmer of light to reveal, dim in the darkness, the shadowy shapes that made up the strangest of all naval armadas. Viewed from the cramped decks of the venerable cruiser Vindictive, they reminded Lieutenant Commander Robert Rosoman of “a bobbery pack”; a weird, almost “comical” collection of ships ranging from sleek modern destroyers to slowmoving blockships and waspish motor launches to obsolete submarines. Most incredible and incongruous of them all were a pair of bulbous, stub-nosed river ferries that were his immediate responsibility.

Want to read more?

This is a premium article and requires an active subscription.

Existing subscriber? Sign in now

No subscription?

Pick one of our introductory offers