Local hero took command of ship during fierce raid when commander was killed

HMS Vindictive at Zeebrugge. 23 April 1918. Painting by Charles John De Lacy
HMS Vindictive at Zeebrugge. 23 April 1918. Painting by Charles John De Lacy

“A shell carried away the bridge of his ship and caused a serious fire amongst the ammunition and bombs – he led a volunteer fire party with a hose onto the upper deck to quench the fire.”

Following the historic St George’s Day raid on the Belgian port of Zeebrugge a century ago, Commander Oscar Henderson’s DSO citation for his action on the night of 22nd/23rd April 1918 continued “he took over command of the ship after Commander Gibbs had been mortally wounded”.

Commander Oscar Henderson DSO

Commander Oscar Henderson DSO

He then brought the ship, HMS Iris II – a former Mersey ferry steamer – back to Dover from Zeebrugge.

The opening paragraph in one of the many chapters of a new website called Remembrance NI introduces a night of fierce naval action during First World War involving 1,700 British and Commonwealth servicemen.

Over 200 died and more than 300 were wounded.

Overseen by the former Dean of Belfast and army and navy chaplain, the Very Reverend Dr Houston McKelvey OBE, the website recalls the heroics of Commander Henderson, and details the local men who served at Zeebrugge, including Lieutenant Kenneth Clarke Kirkpatrick who was mentioned in despatches.

HMS Iris II returns to Liverpool after the Zeebrugge Raid

HMS Iris II returns to Liverpool after the Zeebrugge Raid

Thomas McShane from Lambeg was killed and at least ten more local naval and Royal Marine personnel took part.

Dr McKelvey’s Remembrance NI website contains information about people from Northern Ireland who served in two World Wars and in other more recent conflicts “to safeguard democracy and obtain peace”.

Commander Henderson’s is just one of many heroic biographies and the Battle of Zeebrugge is just one of the numerous battles, on land, sea and in the air, included on the ever-growing website.

The commander was the son of Belfast’s first High Sherriff Sir James Henderson (1848-1914), Lord Mayor of the city in 1898 and knighted in 1899.

Lough Erne Innis Rath ferry 24th October 1897

Lough Erne Innis Rath ferry 24th October 1897

With a historic family name that became prominent in cultural and media circles here, James was called to the Irish Bar in 1872, became editor of the Newry Telegraph in 1873 and in 1884 he became managing proprietor of the Belfast News Letter and Belfast Weekly News, which his family owned until 1991.

The Remembrance NI website outlines son Oscar’s schooling, naval career, his First World War heroics and his distinguished post-war career as Comptroller and Private Secretary to the 3rd Duke of Abercorn, the 1st Governor of Northern Ireland.

Oscar, educated at the Methodist College, Belfast, went to sea with the Royal Navy after graduating from the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, in 1909.

He was a Midshipman until 1911 before serving with the Mediterranean Fleet and the China Fleet.

Boating on Lough Erne, c1900. Annie King Collection, © Fermanagh County Museum

Boating on Lough Erne, c1900. Annie King Collection, © Fermanagh County Museum

The first occasion for which his actions were recognised was during a landing at Gallipoli Peninsula on 25th to 26th April 1915.

His citation stated: “Commended for service in action. Took part in the landing at Morto Bay, and with commendable initiative pushed on in support of the Marines, after he had assisted in the disembarkation.”

He joined the Grand Fleet in 1917, and its daring St George’s Day raid on Zeebrugge in 1918 was staged when Allied fortunes were at their lowest ebb as the German Army drove the British and French Armies to the edge of breaking point.

Flanders-based U-boats were a major thorn in the side of the Royal Navy and a specialist force of blockships, gunboats, submarines and assault parties attempted to ‘cork the bottle’ (stop the U-boats!) by wrecking the mole (harbour wall, warehouses and quay) at Zeebrugge harbour and scuttling the blockships in the narrow main channel.

The Remembrance NI website describes the storming of the mole by HMS Vindictive accompanied by the two Mersey ferries modified as assault vessels – HMS Daffodil and Oscar Henderson’s HMS Iris II.

Go to www.remembranceni.org for the full account, where the latest website updates include the Battle of Narvik and the Russian convoys, and the men from Cookstown, Moira and Randalstown, dropped behind lines after Normandy and executed by order of Hitler.

As a born, bred and buttered Fermanagh-man, Roamer was brought up believing (rather too conveniently!) that Lough Erne has 365 islands, one for each day of the year.

Doreen McBride’s Little Book of Fermanagh, mentioned here recently, has sunk that myth, along with 211 islands!

There are only 154 islands, 57 on the Upper Lough and 97 on the Lower Lough.

Casting aside the statistics and focusing on history and geography, the path of the Erne covers Counties Longford, Cavan, Fermanagh and Donegal and the Lough Erne Heritage organisation is holding an exhibition about all the boats that used to ply those spectacularly panoramic waterways.

Opening tomorrow in the Fermanagh County Museum, Enniskillen Castle, and running until 24th June, the exhibition recounts the vital importance of boats for people surrounded by so much water.

Since ancient times Lough Erne was a major transport hub, used by farmers, pilgrims, travellers, armies, and those living on the islands and on the shore.

For industry, goods were brought into the port of Ballyshannon, overland to Belleek, and then on to Enniskillen by boat.

Two major drainage schemes are illustrated in the exhibition, the first one in the 1870s to ease flooding and make the lough more navigable for steamboats.

The first steamboat arrived in 1842, and along with clinker-built boats, Lough Erne cots, log boats, and other intriguing artefacts full details of the exhibition are at www.facebook.com/lougherneheritage.