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A new look on a unique attack, first of it’s kind in World War I.
This was to become the first operation in which artillery, aviation and infantry were working together, an operation coordinated from the air ! Today the Operation Strandfest is still known but it’s historic importance has been completely forgotten. This is the story of a small scale operation, with major results in new warfare and aerial warfare.
On the east side of the Yser river, still a small part of land was in hands of the Belgian army on the location where the river flew into the North Sea at a city called Nieuwpoort.
Since 1914 it had been a strategic place, the town of Nieuwpoort as this was where the Belgian army stopped the German one by flooding the area of the Yser river from the sluices of Nieuwpoort and some other locations.
So, starting half October 1914, the biggest part of the coastline of the Belgian province of West-Flanders became occupied by the German Marinedivision, the future Marinekorps Flandern. From the Dutch border till Lombardsijde was now in German naval hands, including the important harbours of Zeebrugge, Oostende and Brugge. The Germans originally had hoped to come also into the possession of Dunkirk and Calais, but this finally had been nothing more than some serious wishful thinking.
The importance of the Belgian harbors was very quickly discovered by a number of personalities of the German admiralty who were looking at the possibilities of using the ports. The harbours of Zeebrugge and Oostende each had a canal leading to the port of Brugge in the hinterland of the province, making Brugge an ideal base for submarines, torpedo boats, destroyers, motorboats, etc.
On the 15th November a second Marine Division was added to the first one and the Marinekorps Flandern became a fact, under the command of Admiral Ludwig von Schröder, also called the ‘Löwe von Flandern’ or the Lion of Flanders, who was exactly 60 years old.
On the 3rd of June 1917 a third Division was added to these. Most of the coastal area was in hands of the I Division, while the II and III were more in charge of the area’s near the front. The Lombardsijde area was next to the III Division sector.
Brugge, Zeebrugge and Oostende soon were to become U-boat bases from where the feared U-Flottille Flandern I and II were to operate. The UB and UC coastal U-boat types did sink no less than 2554 ships, excluding the military vessels, while operating from Flanders, something which was not halted by the ‘blockade’ of Zeebrugge and Oostende during April and May 1918.
Not only the U-boats were dangerous, but from time to time there were raids by German torpedo boats and destroyers, operating from the same harbors on all Allied shipping in the Channel, a few times with serious successes !
The strategically importance was known to both sides and soon after the Marinekorps had the coastal area, the British started shelling the harbors with monitors and other vessels. This resulted in a fist Atlantikwall, a network of trenches, bunkers and batteries along the Belgian coastline to defend the harbors and prevent the Allied troops of landing on the coast and weaken the Western Front this way.
About 42 batteries can be named, to be added are a number of Flakbatteries etc, calibers from 5, 8.8 and 10.5 cm to the average 15, 17, 21 and 28 cm, to the enormous 30.52 and 38 cm guns. Some of these batteries were railway guns.
The coast was secured but also the air had to be secured. This was done with a large number of naval air units such as the Marine Feldflieger Abteilungen, the Marine Jagdgeschwader, the Kustenflieger Abteilungen, the Seeflugstatione, Seefrontstaffel(s), Marine Schusta’s,…
Soon the coastline had become a hard to visit area for Allied visitors.
Allied visitor’s which had been playing with the idea to land on the Belgian coastline and get hands on the strategic important harbors, and perhaps even end the war this way by attacking the German Army in the back. It has to be said that the German High Command also seriously feared a landing on the mouth of the Schelde at Zeeuws Vlaanderen, Dutch territory, from where they could easily attack and occupy Brugge and Zeebrugge.
During the night of the 6th on the 7th of June 1917 Haig started another of his campaigns, another bloody one, for which he was known, as were most of the other commanders on either side. It resulted in the capture of Mesen and Wijtschate. On the 12th of July mustard gas was used, not resulting in much at all. On the 15th the shelling of the front started again…
Third Ypres it’s real target is most of the time forgotten, and even has been removed from it’s historic goals and context. The idea was to force an opening in the German frontlines and fight a way to the Belgian coast in order to capture the harbors of Zeebrugge and Oostende ! The big offensive really started on the 31st July 1917 and would result in not even 10 kilometers of terrain taken on the opponent side… Passendale was captured finally on the 6th of November. Capturing Oostende and Zeebrugge was already completely forgotten by that time.
On the 20th of June 1917 the Belgian Army handed over the Nieuwpoort sector to the British, something Admiral von Schröder already was aware of the next day. He suspected now that a Allied, read British, landing was very near. Indeed such plans existed on the Allied side for a landing at Westende.
Immediately von Schröder started planning the Operation Strandfest, which was to take the last Allied strongholds on the eastern side of the Yser near Nieuwpoort. This was an area of a depth of 1200 m on 3 km.
On the 6th of July the final preparations started as the coastal and other batteries started shelling this part of the front. It would go on like this till the operation itself had started.