Highgate war hero met his fate in famous Zeebrugge raid
This month marks the 90th anniversary of one of the most daring and costly military operations of the First World War. Ham&High reporter Tan Parsons finds out about a soldier who lost his life in the struggle THE Zeebrugge Raid was a secret attack tha
This month marks the 90th anniversary of one of the most daring and costly military operations of the First World War. Ham&High reporter Tan Parsons finds out about a soldier who lost his life in the struggle
THE Zeebrugge Raid was a secret attack that took place on St George's Day, April 23, in 1918.
The mission aimed to disarm a German submarine base, allowing merchant ships to reach British shores and relieve a nation low on food supplies.
One of the men who perished in the raid was Able Seaman Eduardo Tolra, who lived in Highgate Avenue. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at the outbreak of World War One in 1914 when he was just 17 and fought at Antwerp in 1914 and in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915.
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"The Royal Marines were told to apply for the Zeebrugge mission, but we think men in the Navy who took part were volunteers. I would say that as far as Tolra is concerned he must have been a very brave man," said historian Paul Kendall, who has written a book about the raid.
"He was underage when he joined the Navy, but by the time of the Zeebrugge Raid he already had considerable war experience. Whether he volunteered willingly for the Zeebrugge Raid we will never know for sure, but this is clearly a courageous individual we are talking about."
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Mr Kendall's book, Zeebrugge Raid 1918: The Finest Feat of Arms, was published this month. It is the fruit of six years' research into the history of the mission.
He has not been able to trace any of Mr Tolra's living relatives yet, but he has discovered some of details of his background.
"There are quite a few unanswered questions about Tolra," he said.
"We know his father was an academic, and so he probably joined the Navy from leftfield. It seems strange that he would have come up through the ranks when men from similar backgrounds would have been more likely to join as officers. I would love to hear from his relatives."
The raid, which claimed Tolra's life three weeks before his 21st birthday, was horrific. More than 200 of the men that tried to storm the Zeebrugge Mole were killed.
The attack would form part of a diversion to enable the blocking ships HM Ships Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia to enter Zeebrugge Harbour and be scuttled across the entrance of the Bruges Canal. It was hoped this would prevent the Germans from using Bruges as a submarine base.
These submarines were responsible for sinking a third of all Allied merchant shipping during the war.
Unfortunately, the raid was only a partial success and German U-boats were able to use the port just a few days later.
Accommodated on HMS Hindustan, Mr Tolra was chosen to be part of the Royal Naval storming party. He was killed during the landing on the Mole.
"The raid was a suicide mission with a remote chance of surviving or returning home. With this knowledge the men who took part demonstrated great courage and fortitude in trying to accomplish a difficult objective in the dark of night, challenged by the tide and the German gun batteries that they faced," said Mr Kendall.
"It would have been very tough - the fleet set sail on April 11, but they had to wait almost a fortnight for the right weather conditions so they could attack under a smoke screen.
"They had already had two aborted raids, and there would have been nowhere for them to train physically on the confines of the boat. They wouldn't have been able to contact their families or loved ones either. How they coped in those conditions I don't know."
After his death, Mr Tolra's body was brought home and schoolchildren followed his coffin as he was brought to Highgate Cemetery to be buried.
Mr Kendall's book, available from the History Press, can be ordered by calling 01453 883 300.