A Ballarat naval officer thrust into hand-to-hand combat in Belgium will be remembered this weekend.
Able seaman Leopold Thomas Newman was one of just twelve Australians involved in the Zeebrugge Raid on a German-held port during 1918.
His grandchildren Ray Newland and Rosemary Gay will travel to Europe for 100th anniversary commemorations of the Zeebrugge Raid on April 23.
An exceptional moment in World War I, the secret raid across the North Sea was touted as a suicide mission.
The Royal Navy would only take unattached men for the Zeebrugge raid, so there were no children and no wives to notify when certain death arrived.
Only 12 seamen were recruited from the Royal Australian Navy flagship HMAS Australia, including Newland who was aboard the HMS Vindictive.
Leaving from Dover alongside two assault ships, the Vindictive stopped right next to The Mole, a one mile long seawall protecting the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.
More than 200 Vindictive sailors trained in hand-to-hand combat – the Royal Navy’s first commandos – scrambled up the wall to engage with the enemy and destroy gun positions.
A viaduct connected to The Mole was blown up, stopping German marines from accessing the wall.
At the same time, three blockships filled with concrete were towed around the seawall and sunk in the entrance to the Bruges Canal, to try and stop the passage of German U-boats.
While the commandos were not expected to make it out alive, the entire manoeuvre was more disastrous than anticipated.
After one aborted attempt, the Vindictive withstood heavy shelling when a prepared smokescreen was blown offshore. Of the eight gangplanks on the ship, only two remained.
“The Germans have already seen them when they’re 300 yards off The Mole,” said Ray Newland.
They shoot up big flares into the sky and it lights up like daylight, and all hell breaks loose. Half the marines died before the Vindictive even got to the wall.Ray Newland, son of able seaman Leopold Newland
“One man got a broken jaw from the initial burst of shelling and was knocked unconscious. He recovers and leads his men up the bloody gangplank with a smashed up jaw and his revolver.”
Of the 1,700 men from the United Kingdom and colonies involved, 227 died and 356 were wounded. The German forces only lost eight men.
The ship HMS Vindictive was so torn apart after the raid that photos of its holed hull were splashed across the front of the New York Times.
Useless as a battleship, only a week later it was itself used as blockship and sunk in the port of Ostend.
Having moved to New Zealand at the age of 16 to work in the mines before joining the RAN in 1912, Newland and his brother Oliver had a reputation of being ‘lads about town’.
Armed service was also a family affair. Oliver Newland was stationed first in Gallipoli and then in Flanders, with his company filled with 200 other boys from Ballarat.
An explosion at Gallipoli had rendered him slightly deaf, but in a 1915 letter home said that he’d ultimately been “lucky in dodging the bullets, if there is any way of dodging.”
His time in the trenches around Flanders In a letter to his father published in The Courier on October 31 1916, Oliver said it would take another year to beat the Germans, but the Allies were fighting harder, sending “five shells to his one”.
I was talking to a French solider who had been at Verdun for eight months, and he reckoned it was a living hell, and the country there is nothing but a giant graveyard.Oliver Newland in a letter from Flanders
Leopold Newland returned to Ballarat lauded for his involvement in the raid.
A civic reception was held in his honour by Ballarat’s Mayor George Crocker, who told the Ballarat Star that the Zeebrugge Raid was one of the “most daring made by any navy”.
Already covered in tattoos from his time in service, Newland had a sprawling dragon across his torso, representing St George and his time on the Vindictive surround by British sailors.
Seafaring skills continued to dominate his later professions. Working in the train yards in Ballarat, Newland’s sewing and sailmaking expertise became invaluable in creating and maintaining the canvas canopies atop train carriages.
He died in 1973 at the age of 84, and has a tree in Ballarat’s Avenue of Honour.
After a decade of research on his grandfather, for Rosemary Gay and Ray Newland, part of the joy of the journey was finding out the truth in the tall tales their grandfather had shared.
“We didn’t know much, and he didn’t tell our father much, but he knew little bits of stories,” Mr Newland said.
“The stories he passed on to us, through researching over the last ten years, were just not true at all.
“We all believed that the ship put the men off on the wall, and then they had to swim back to the ship half a mile. But that never happened.”
“He was an extremely strong swimmer,” said Ms Gay. “And the story that we were told was that he swam out carrying a fellow injured seaman, and when he arrived at the ship it was a dead body.”
The opportunity to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the raid with foreign dignatories is an invaluable one for Leo’s grandchildren.
“I think we’ll be extremely proud, but I think it will be extremely moving and emotional,” Ms Gay said.