Reginald Bult and Operation ZO
Nunhead is one of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries. It may not have the famous residents of Highgate or Kensal Green, but in among the graves and tombs of local worthies lies that of a sailor who took part in one of the most daring naval raids of World War One.
Reginald Bult was born in Bermondsey in 1896 and grew up in Peckham, the seventh of nine children of Henry, a railway weighbridge clerk, and Jane. He worked as a Post Office telegraph messenger and a lift attendant before joining the Royal Navy on his eighteenth birthday, just two months before the start of hostilities. Within a year he had advanced to Able Seaman and in April 1918 he took part in Operation ZO. The brainchild of Vice Admiral (later Admiral of the Fleet) Roger Keyes, the plan was to sink obsolete cruisers simultaneously in the harbours at Zeebrugge and Ostend thus preventing German U-boats entering the North Sea from their pens at Bruges.
The operation began on the eve of St George’s Day with Keyes’s signal ‘St George for England’ (to which Capt. Carpenter, commanding HMS Vindictive, replied, ‘May we give the dragon’s tail a damn good twist’). Reginald was onboard HMS Iris II (a requisitioned Mersey ferry) whose task was to create a diversion by landing Royal Marines and sailors on the mole at Zeebrugge to destroy German guns and cause as much damage as possible. Iris came under intense fire and most of the raiding party was killed before they even got off the ship.
The operation was only a partial success. Neither blockship at Ostend obstructed the harbour , and while all three were sunk at Zeebrugge, they were not in the right positions. The harbour was only out of action for a couple of days. The Germans simply dredged new channels, allowing naval movements at high tide.
The cost was huge. Of the 1780 men who took part something like 227 died and 400 were wounded. Exact figures are difficult to determine as there is no consistency of approach in whether to include the missing among the dead and whether to combine casualties from both sites. Whichever source one uses, the ratio of casualties to participants was around 1:3.
Sadly, Reginald is numbered among the dead, dying of his wounds in Dover Military Hospital, his Royal Navy service record marked, poignantly, ‘DD’ – discharged dead. He was mentioned in dispatches and he was included in the ballot for a Victoria Cross to be awarded to the non-officer ranks in action at the mole – the warrant for the VC allows recipients to be chosen in this way where a body of men is deemed equally brave.
Reginald Bult’s service record, The National Archives ADM 188/691/22432, © Crown copyright, 1908, licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
Reginald Bult’s mention in dispatches, London Gazette, 19 July 1918, Add MS 82503, © Crown copyright, 1918, licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
Reginald was not chosen. Instead it was fellow Bermondsian Albert McKenzie who was selected, one of eight VCs awarded for the operation. McKenzie, only nineteen at the time of Operation ZO, was severely wounded in the action. He recovered but did not live to see peace, succumbing to the 1918 flu pandemic just eight days before the armistice. He is commemorated with a statue on Tower Bridge Road, a stone’s throw from where he was born, and is buried just a mile from Reginald, in Camberwell Old Cemetery.
Michael St John-Mcalister
Manuscripts Catalogue and Process Manager
The Keyes Papers, Add MS 82499-82507
E. C. Coleman, No Pyrrhic Victories: The 1918 Raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend, A Radical Reappraisal (Stroud, 2014)
Christopher Sandford, Zeebrugge: The Greatest Raid of All (Oxford, 2018)
Philip Warner, The Zeebrugge Raid (Barnsley, 2008)