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Remembering the role of Mersey ferries in the First World War

23 April 2015 by Ben

ferry decorated with colourful geometric patterns

The dazzled Mersey ferry Snowdrop

Today, Thursday 23 April, is St George’s Day, and on this day 98 years ago the Mersey ferries Iris and Daffodil took part in the daring First World War raid on Zeebrugge Harbour. 

The ferries’ role in this famous event will be marked this Sunday with a special service at Seacombe Ferry terminal. On Sunday there is also a special event Maritime Memories from the Mersey on board the dazzled Mersey ferry Snowdrop, which I will be taking part in.

Do you have memories or objects connected to Mersey Ferries history or Liverpool’s war at sea 1914-1918? Join us on the Dazzle Ferry for a special day of sharing and talking about Mersey Ferries and First World War memorabilia. There will be activities for the whole family to enjoy and you can meet me and Pat Poland, deckhand on the Mersey Ferry and First World War memorabilia collector.

man holding old books about the First World War

Pat with his First World War memorabilia © Pete Carr

Visitors can also view the special on board exhibition about Zeebrugge, dazzle paint and Liverpool’s War at Sea 1914-1918. There will be special Zeebrugge related material added to the displays just for Sunday.

All is included as part of the River Explorer Cruise ticket price on the 11am, 12pm, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm cruises from the Pier Head terminal on Sunday 26 April 2015. Visit the Mersey Ferries website for more information.

Zeebrugge Harbour on the North Belgium coast was an outlet for German U-boats based up the canal at Bruges, and these submarines were a threat to England’s south east coastline. A daring raid was planned to sink old ships at the mouth of the canal at Zeebrugge – the sunk ships would block the canal and prevent German vessels getting through.

In order to complete the plan, these old ‘blockships’ would have to pass a protective pier which projected out from the coast, manned by the German army. The pier would be attacked by troops carried on a ship called Vindictive, and two Mersey ferries, Iris and Daffodil.

The ferries were chosen because of their double hulls and low draught in the water, meaning they could sail over the top of minefields. Iris and Daffodil were painted grey, and armour plating was added to their hulls. The raiding party came under attack as they approached the pier, and the Iris suffered heavy loss of life. Iris and Daffodil then came under heavy fire as they tried to disembark troops onto the pier, with the Vindictive.

Two blockships reached the canal entrance and were sunk. Both ferries made it back.

The effectiveness of the raid has been disputed, but at the time was hailed as a triumph, and the dramatic nature of the raid caught the imagination of the British Public. The cost to British troops was high: 170 people were killed (79 of these on the Iris), 400 wounded, and 45 missing. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded. Eight German troops were killed and 16 wounded.

Both ferries were awarded the ‘Royal’ prefix in recognition of their contribution to the raid. Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil were both reconditioned and returned to normal duties. A succession of Mersey ferries have gone on to bear the names Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil.

  1. lindsay evans says:

    We have a watercolour of the Iris and the Daffodil by Gerald M Burn.

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