1917: Operation Hush. A battle that never took place. Plans were made for an audacious British attack against the German-held coast of Belgium; a force was assembled and specialist training began. But necessary advance from Ypres (in ‘Third Ypres’, below) did not materialise and Hush was inevitably cancelled. A sharp German attack against British preparations in the Battle of the Dunes (Operation Strandfest) also disrupted matters.
Planned for July-August 1917
Control of the Belgian coast would allow Germany to “properly assert its world position”
Ludwig von Schroeder, commanding MarinesKorps Flandern
If the Germans are allowed to keep this coast after the war, Holland will gradually fall
like a ripe plum into their hands.
Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon RN, commanding the Dover Patrol
The Germans had withdrawn from the battlefields of the Somme to the Hindenburg Line. French Commander-in-Chief General Nivelle was about to launch a massive offensive on the Chemin des Dames. As their part of this, the British and Dominion forces would attack Vimy Ridge and either side of the River Scarpe in what became the Battle
of Arras. Meanwhile, British attention also quietly turned to the Belgian coast.
The need to capture the Belgian coast
The Germans occupied most of the Belgian coast after the ‘Race to the Sea’ in 1914. The MarinesKorps Flandern was created by the German navy to protect the coast and to create naval bases. Antwerp could not be used for German naval operations but Ostend, Zeebrugge and Bruges were all used for submarine and surface raiders. German U-boats sank British ships with torpedo attacks and by laying mines. German A-class torpedo boats, along with G- and S- Class destroyers also harrassed British ports and the critical supply routes across the English Channel.
The German threat to British naval supremacy resulted in several countermeasures. Attempts were made to bombard the German bases with monitors but the German coastal batteries, assisted by MarinesKorps Flandern spotter planes, proved too powerful. Anti-submarine barriers, comprising mines and nets that were constantly
patrolled at night, had a limited effect. Aircraft were used to spot submarines in the daytime, forcing them to submerge. Eventually, systematic bombing raids were carried out. However, early in 1917 Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon proposed that an amphibious landing should be made on the Belgian coast, supported by a breakout attack from Nieuport and the Yser bridgehead. It was called Operation Hush.
Planning for the landings began almost immediately. Three huge pontoons, each 700 feet long, were built to accommodate the landing forces, which included 13,750 men from the 1st Division, with supporting artillery, tanks, motor machine guns, cyclists and trench mortar batteries. Each pontoon was pushed along by two monitors,
which were also tasked with attacking shore positions during the landing. Aerial photographs and submarine sorties were used to map the profile of the beaches. This information was used to shape the hulls of the pontoons, so that they would slide easily up the beaches and get as close to the sea wall as possible. The whole landing was to be screened with smoke from eighty boats, each with three burners, and a total of fifty tons of phosphorus.
One of the Operation Hush landing pontoons
Training for the landings took place in great secrecy. Frank Mitchell, a tank driver who later won the MC in the first tank vs. tank battle in 1918, took part in training. “The [Belgian coast sea] wall had not been long built, and luckily the Belgian architect who had designed it was a refugee in France. When he was traced the military authorities found to their delight that he had his drawings with him, so a model was built in an isolated camp near Dunkirk, where the infantry patiently practised and re-practiced the assault. A similar concrete model was erected in the lonely sand dunes at Merlimont, and a detachment of tanks, manned by volunteers, set about the difficult task of
climbing the wall“; The tanks were fitted with “special shoes on the tracks. The difficulty of the overhanging coping
still remained. Many experiments were made by the engineers, and at last a solution was found. Each tank was fitted with a large steel ramp… When the tank reached the foot of the wall, the ramp was lowered by means of tackle until the wheels rested on the slope. The tank then trundled it up the incline and [then] after disengaging itself, was able to climb up over the ramp on to the esplanade“.
Tanks in training for scaling the coastal sea wall
The plan for Operation Hush became an integral part of the thinking that eventually took the form of the Third
Battle of Ypres. This attack, which was eventually launched on 31 July 1917, was aimed initially at capturing and clearing the Belgian coast. Once forces had broken through the German defences at Ypres, the landings would take place.
On 22 May 1917, Sir Douglas Haig gave Sir Henry Rawlinson command of the coastal sector of operations. He placed his HQ at Malo-les-Bains near Dunkirk. XV Corps moved up from the Somme, to become the operational formation that would undertake the army’s part of Operation Hush. On 20 June 1917, 32nd Division took over the Nieuport bridgehead from a French Corps. 1st and 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Divisions moved up before the end of June, and 49th (West Riding) and 33rd Divisions joined them by the end of July. These formations began intensive training in locations along the coast. In addition, 189 heavy guns moved up from Second and Third Army
areas, as did IV Corps of the Royal Flying Corps, and a similar sized force of the Royal Naval Air Service.
A naval monitor ship (right) pushing a Hush pontoon
The Germans were well prepared for a landing. The MarinesKorps Flandern, initially comprised two MarineDivisions, but a third MarineDivision was created on 1 July 1917. The MarinesKorps also included aSturmabteilung of highly trained stormtroopers. It had built 24 coastal batteries, including eight large calibre naval gun batteries capable of engaging ships up to 30 kilometres off the coast. A line of trenches and wire extended along the coast, supported by 33 concete machine gun nests spaced every 1,000 metres. Mobile infantry and artillery reserves were available from 4th Army. War games were held to simulate invasions and the Germans felt confident they could contain any attempt.
The British chose Middelkerke as the site for the landings. This was the area that was least well defended and it was within easy reach of Nieuport. Despite the thorough preparations, the amphibious assault never went ahead. The expected gains from the Third Battle of Ypres never materialised. The MarinesKorps Flandern detected the British take-over of the Yser bridgehead and launched a pre-emptive attack (Operation Strandfest), depriving the British of their platform for a supporting attack along the coast. Hush was cancelled and no landing ever took place.
Operation Strandfest (“Beach party”)
On the 20 June, the British XV Corps took over the French sector on the Belgian coast. The MarinesKorps Flandern patrols detected the changeover on the 21st. Korps commander von Schroeder correctly interpreted this report as the prelude to a British attack along the coast. He began planning Operation Strandfest, a pre-emptive strike to eliminate the Yser bridgehead. Meanwhile, the British set about improving the defences in the bridgehead. Tunnellers were used, including the 257th and the 2nd Australian Tunnelling Companies, but their work was not complete when Operation Strandfest began. Nor was all the British artillery in place; only 176 of the planned 583 guns and howitzers were available to defend the bridgehead.
Nieuport (today Nieuwpoort) was already largely in ruins
On the 6 July 1917, the MarinesKorps Flandern began a desultory artillery bombardment, which continued for the next three days. Fog and low cloud prevented detection of the German build-up. Then, at 5.30am on the the 10
July the massed German artillery, including three 24cm naval guns in shore batteries and 58 artillery batteries
(planned naval gunfire support from destroyers and torpedo-boats was cancelled), opened up on the British positions in the bridgehead. Mustard gas (Yellow Cross) was used for the first time in the barrage. All but one of the bridges over the Yser River were demolished, isolating the 1/Northamptonshire and 2/KRRC of 2nd Brigade, 1st Division on the extreme left flank. Telephone communication was also cut. The German bombardment continued throughout
the day. The British artillery attempted a counter-barrage but several guns were knocked out and the German infantry were well protected. At 8pm, the MarinesKorps launched the infantry assault, by which time the two British battalions had suffered 70-80% casualties. The German stormtroopers attacked down the coast, outflanking the British. Their attack was then followed by waves of German Marines, supported by flamethrower teams to mop up dugouts. After a gallant defence, the British battalions were overwhelmed. Only 4 officers and 64 other ranks managed to reach the west bank of the Yser.
A contemporary trench map of the Yser brideghead prior to the Strandfest attack. The River Yser can be seen with Nieuport-Bains on the (left) bank. The North Sea coast is at the top of the map. The British front line is sketched in blue on the opposite bank, with the German front in red facing it. It was here that the 1st Northamptons and 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps suffered such heavy casualties on 10 July 1917.
The German attack on the 32nd Division, further to the east, was less successful. Only the 97th Brigade was
attacked and although there was some penetration into the line, a counterattack that night by the 11/Border
Regiment, supported by two companies of the 17/Highland Light Infantry, restored all but 500 yards of the front
line. A general counterattack was ordered for the 11 July by General Rawlinson. Wisely, he later rescinded his decision at the request of XV Corps Commander, Lt. General John Du Cane.
The total British casualties amounted to approximately 3,126 of all ranks, killed, wounded and missing. Of these, fifty officers and 1,253 other ranks belonged to the two battalions of 1st Division. Lieutenant Colonel
Richard Abadie DSO, Officer Commanding 2/KRRC, has no known grave and is commemorated on the Nieuport Memorial to the Missing.
This article was kindly submitted by Robert Dunlop.