by Ernest Coleman
Stroud, Eng.: The History Press / Chicago: Independent Publishers Group, 2014. Pp. 320.
Illus., maps, biblio, index. $29.95 paper. ISBN: 0750958499
A Revisionist Look at the Greatest Raids of the Great War
No Pyrrhic Victory takes a fresh look at the series of raids by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines in 1918 to sink block ships at Zeebrugge (April 23rd) and Ostend (April 23rd and May 9th), and finds them more successful than the long held perception of gallant failures. Coleman, author of several works on British naval insignia, the Royal Navy in Arctic exploration, and more, covers every aspect of the raids. He opens, of course, with the origins of the idea of conducting the raids, in part inspired by a desire to block German U-boot access to the North Sea, but also to show the world that the Royal Navy was doing its part in the war. Coleman is particularly thorough in discussing the planning for the operation, showing how carefully it was developed, even to including some clever cover stories. He goes into the organization and training of the personnel for the mission, which ultimately involved some 10,000 men and more than 75 vessels of various sorts, including covering forces and diversionary operations. He even spends some time in discussion the role of aircraft.
Coleman also gives us a look at a number of interesting people, most notably Roger Keyes, and, of course, Winston Churchill, who makes a cameo appearance for his actions in Belgium early in the War, but also some officers who would attain considerable fame in a later war, including Dudley Pound and Andrew Cunningham.
The accounts of the actual operations are detailed, graphic, and often grim, as several hundred men were killed in the three operations, which, Coleman notes, provoked far more outcry than the many times heavier casualties which were a daily occurrence on the Western Front. Coleman writes well, and tells a rattling good tale.
But what really sets Coleman’s work apart is his presentation of evidence demonstrating that, contrary to German claims, the mission successfully prevented submarines from reaching the sea. Drawing upon a variety of materials, including photographic analysis, testimony of local citizens, records of the comings and goings of U-boats, and even reports of post-war salvage and repair efforts on the harbor facilities, Coleman refutes claims of the mission’s failure, which were oddly echoed by some in Britain due to inter-service and personal rivalries, or even political expedience.
Despite a lack of notes, Coleman makes a convincing case, and No Pyrrhic Victory will be rewarding reading for those interested in the naval side of the Great War, the Royal Navy, or special operations.