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Injury and pain did not deflect rugby ace in Zeebrugge assault

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 19, 2013

  • Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison from Torquay is remembered in a stone plinth at Roundham Head

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Commemorative paving stones are to be laid in the home towns of servicemen from Cornwall and Devon who were awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War. In the sixth of his series, Simon Parker relates the exploits of Arthur Leyland Harrison from Torquay.

Facing a pack of burly props, fly-halves and hookers proved to be good training for one of the most daring assaults of the First World War.

As the only England international ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Arthur Leyland Harrison's experiences on the playing fields of Devon undoubtedly came into play when he led a company of men in the Zeebrugge Raid of spring 1918.

Born in Torquay in 1886, Arthur was educated at Brockhurst Preparatory School, where he is still remembered every Armistice Day. It was there that he developed a love of all sports, but particularly rugby, at which he excelled, and while serving in the Royal Navy he was capped several times for England.

In early 1918, British politicians and military advisers were becoming increasingly frustrated by the number of casualties being inflicted on shipping by Germany's infamous U-boat fleet. In a bid to prevent even more losses to British merchant ships a plan was devised to block the Zeebrugge-Bruges Canal and land-lock more than 30 U-boats and dozens of destroyers.

On April 22, the Admiralty's plan was to sail three old coal-burning cruisers, filled with concrete, across the Channel and scuttle them across the entrance of the canal. However, for the operation to be successful British forces had to create a diversionary attack to draw enemy fire away from Zeebrugge harbour.

Several naval raiding parties were to land on a stone breakwater – or "mole" – and attack the enemy's guns. HMS Vindictive, along with two River Mersey passenger ferries, Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil, were used to carry in the landing parties.

In a huge and carefully- coordinated attack, more than 1,700 men on some 70 vessels, including submarines, rescue launches and smoke-laying motor boats, took part in Operation ZO.

Just ahead of the point of embarkation, a thick smokescreen was laid across the mole. It was designed to hide the Allied fleet but at the critical moment the smoke was blown away by a stiff breeze, exposing troops to heavy enemy fire.

HMS Vindictive was less than 100 yards from the mole when she was hit several times. On board and waiting to go ashore was 32-year-old Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Harrison. As shells rained down, a number men were killed and Arthur was knocked unconscious, suffering broken jaw.

Regaining consciousness, he saw that among the dead were several officers, whose loss resulted in him taking command of a raiding party. Despite his injuries and the heavy machinegun fire, he charged the enemy lines at the head of his men. Sadly, all but two were cut down, Arthur being among them.

His VC citation read: "Though already severely wounded and undoubtedly in great pain, he displayed indomitable resolution and courage of the highest order in pressing his attack, knowing as he did that any delay in silencing the guns might jeopardise the main object of the expedition."

Arthur's Victoria Cross was presented to his mother Adelaide Harrison by King George V at Buckingham Palace on May 17, 1919. In 1967 relatives donated it to the Britannia Royal Naval College. Exactly 82 years after the St George's Day raid on the German-occupied port of Zeebrugge, a limestone and granite tribute to Arthur was unveiled at Roundham Head in Paignton. The monument was paid for by the Torbay branch of the Royal Naval Association.

More than 240 British seamen and marines were killed in the Zeebrugge raid, but it was hailed a success by the Admiralty as it prevented Bruges from being used as a submarine base for the remainder of the war and trapped German warships and submarines up river. Eight VCs were awarded to men who served in the action.

Lt-Cdr Arthur Leyland Harrison's Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces, is displayed at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

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