Ostend Raid, Francis O’Connor and the Battle of Britain Almshouses

Vindictive on her return to Dover following Zeebrugge Raid courtesy of the Doyle collection

Vindictive on her return to Dover following Zeebrugge Raid courtesy of the Doyle collection

Following the outbreak World War I (1914-1918) in August 1914, Germany swept through Belgium routing the country’s army and capturing the Belgium coast. There they commandeered the ship canal at Bruges as a base for submarines (U-boats), as it provided outlets to the North Sea at Zeebrugge and Ostend. The German intention was to force Britain to surrender by the destruction of shipping on which the country depended for food and other supplies. It was in order to protect supply lines that the Dover Patrol was formed.

Although the German blockade was reduced in April 1917 about 875,000 tons of British and Allied was destroyed that month and the subsequent food shortages had led to the introduction of rationing. The Admiralty therefore proposed a daring raid on the Zeebrugge and Ostend outlets of the Bruges U-boat base. Vice-Admiral Roger John Brownlow Keyes was appointed to formulate a plan.

As described in the story Zeebrugge Raid, on this website, Vice Admiral Keynes proposed to sink blockships in the canals leading to Bruges in order to prevent the German submarines getting out. Daring raids on both Zeebrugge and Ostend harbours took place in 1918 and although the mission to Ostend was not so successful, the Zeebrugge Raid was. Albeit, out of the 1,700 men who went on the Zeebrugge Raid, 200 were killed and 400 wounded. Of those killed, 156 were brought back to the then Dover’s Market Hall (now the Museum), of which sixty-six were buried in St James Cemetery. On the exterior wall of the Museum is a Dover Society plaque commemorating those who died during the raid.

Zeebrugge Bell, Maison Dieu the former Town Hall

Zeebrugge Bell, Maison Dieu the former Town Hall

In recognition of the Zeebrugge Raid, King Albert I of Belgium (1909-1934) presented Dover with the bell that had hung at the end of the Zeebrugge Mole. This is hung in a dedicated alcove outside the Maison Dieu, Dover’s former Town Hall. Every year, on the morning of 23 April, the mayor, as part of an impressive ceremony, rings it.

For the Zeebrugge Bell to be rung at 23.15hours on the night of Friday 31 October 1925 took everyone by surprise. Soon a crowd gathered and there, by the Bell, was the diminutive Dovorian Francis O’Connor of 5 Caroline Place – now the site of Stembrook car park. He told the assembled throng that he was one of the crew of the Vindictive when it was placed at the mouth of Ostend harbour 8 years previously. As a result, he suffered serious injuries. For these he received the scanty pension of 12s (60p) a week on which he had to keep his wife and family. Before he could say any more the police arrived and Francis was arrested for disturbing the peace.

In custody, a medical practitioner declared that Francis was sane and the following morning he appeared in front of the magistrates headed by the Mayor, Captain Thomas Bodley Scott RN. Without any legal council, Francis told the Mayor that he had served on the destroyer Faulkner during the Zeebrugge Raid and had volunteered to go on the Vindictive for the Ostend raid three weeks later. When the ship ran aground, he was in the engine room and was one of the last ones to leave.

What happened next he could not recall other than he was rescued from the sea by a French vessel and taken to a hospital in France. There, Francis was nursed and after several weeks returned to England. As he had been reported missing believed drowned, his family, he said, ‘greeted me with great joy’.

Emigration to Canada advert, Dover Express 13 July 1923

Emigration to Canada advert, Dover Express 13 July 1923

Unfortunately, the injuries Francis had sustained left him with disabilities that still required intermittent hospital treatment. Through a government scheme, he had been undertaking retraining as a cabinet-maker. Two and a half months prior to completion, due to time off for hospital visits, the pension authorities had terminated both his training and allowances. He had seen an advert advertising emigration to Canada in the local papers, but they too had turned him down and now he and his family were almost destitute as he had no prospects of employment.

Mayor, Captain Bodley Scott, along with the other magistrates, listened but showed no emotion. They left the Court for deliberation and on return, their attitude still appeared to be cold. Head bowed Francis expected the worse when the Mayor announced that under the circumstances all charges would be dropped. Further, the Mayor would personally write to the pension authorities and demand the Francis should receive ‘better treatment!’

On 15 March 1974, a small notice appeared in the local papers. It stated that Francis O’Connor, the last survivor of the cruiser Vindictive, which was sunk at Ostend, had died the previous Sunday. He was 77 and lived at the Battle of Britain Homes.

Battle of Britain Almshouses. Municipal Charities of Dover

Battle of Britain Almshouses. Municipal Charities of Dover

The Battle of Britain Homes are one of three Dover almshouses off York Street and administered by the Municipal Charities of Dover. Like many other towns, Dover has had almshouses since Tudor period that provides shelter for the poorer members of the community in their old age. However, during World War II some of the town’s almshouses were destroyed or badly damaged and had to be demolished while others, that had survived, were demolished to build the York Street by-pass in 1970.

Although Dover’s Royal Victoria Hospital, in the High Street, did survive the war, on 17 April 1945 a national appeal was launched to provide a Battle of Britain Memorial Hospital in Dover. H.R.H Princess Elizabeth – later Queen Elizabeth II, consented to be the patron. The hospital was to be a memorial to the heroes of the Battle of Britain and every airman who died in the battle was to be listed on a commemorative plaque within its vestibule.

The former Royal Victoria Hospital, High Street

The former Royal Victoria Hospital, High Street

The Chairman of the fund committee was local coal merchant, philanthropist Henry Hawksfield and the committee envisaged that the new hospital would be a ‘Temple of Healing, with a beacon of light as a re-creation of the Royal Victoria Hospital’. It was proposed that the new hospital would have 100 beds and a 24-bedded maternity unit. A target of £250,000 was set but more than £40,000 was raised. The trustees of the fund were Henry Hawksfield, John Husk and George Youden. £16,000 was used to purchase land for the site of the new hospital but due to the birth of the National Health Service in 1948, the Royal Victoria Hospital was nationalised along with the former Buckland workhouse. The latter had been designated a County Hospital in 1943. Contributions stopped coming in, the land was sold but what to do with the funds became a problem.

Dover’s Member of Parliament (1922 -1945), Major the Hon. John Jacob Astor, asked for his money back as did others, leaving a residue of £38,396. In April 1955, the two remaining trustees of the fund – John Husk had died in 1953 – asked Mr Justice Upjohn, in the Chancery Division of the High Court, to decide what should be done with the residue:

  • Should they be vested in the Minister of Health?
  • Partly in the Minister and the South-East Kent Hospital Committee?
  • Held for a specific or general trust?
  • Returned to the donors.

A statement from the Minister of Health, Iain Macleod (1913-1970), said that the department did not contend that the money was an endowment for the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Mr Justice Upjohn ruled that the money could be used for a charitable purpose.

In January 1960 plans were passed to build 42 new almshouses to replace those demolished to make way for York Street. In March that year an official Notice was published saying that the Battle of Britain Memorial Fund was to be used for ‘improving the amenities and endowments of the local almshouses.’ Objections were heard but the Attorney General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller (1905– 1980), upheld Mr Justice Upjohn’s ruling and the fund was used towards the building of the almshouses.

Battle of Britain bungalows part of the Almshouse complex. Municipal Charities of Dover

Battle of Britain bungalows part of the Almshouse complex. Municipal Charities of Dover

A second set of plans were drawn up in 1961 for 33 flats and three bungalows part of the cost coming from the money raised by the 1945 Battle of Britain Hospital appeal. The building of the almshouses was started in 1962 and two years later, the first residents moved in. Named the battle of Britain Homes, they were re-modelled and extended in the late 1990s to provide 17 flats and 9 maisonettes as well as the terrace of 3 bedsit bungalows. The refurbished flats were opened on 20th June 1998 by Brigadier D H Godsal MBE, Deputy Constable of Dover Castle. The first floor flats have a wonderful view of Dover Castle on the opposite Heights.

One of the first residents who moved in the Battle of Britain Almshouses in January 1965, was Francis O’Connor – the last survivor of the cruiser Vindictive, which was sunk at Ostend in 1918.

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 15 and 22 April 2010
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About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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