First Zeebrugge Disaster

Reproduction of a Cog

I have vivid memories of 1987 when the MV Herald of Free Enterprise, a Ro-Ro ferry capsized just after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.  It lay in shallow waters, half out of the water, but still 193 passengers and crew were trapped and died in the ship.

Long before Zeebrugge was a port the coastline of Zeeland and Flanders was very different.  The modern landlocked Dutch town of Sluis was, back in 1340 AD the Flemish port of Sluys.

The English under Edward III decided to land an army in the Low Countries in an opening gambit of the 100 years war, on this day, June 24th.  The French moved to the estuary with their superior fleet of 220 vessels.  In an accepted tactic of the day they chained the vessels together to create a floating fortress.

The English entered the river mouth with their fleet of about 130 ships.   They had few warships and mostly used commandeered merchant cogs.  The deep keeled and high sided vessels gave the English longbow men good elevation over the French galleys.  They also had a good following wind and freedom to maneuver.  As the English rained down shot and arrows the hapless French began to cast off their chains to break out of their “fortress”.

As they broke off piecemeal the French ships were hunted down by the English, operating in packs of 3.  In this way they captured over 160 French vessels and sank another 30 or so.  For a loss of 500 men the English took up to 20,000 French lives.  It was an unqualified disaster for France.

But the English navy did not “Rule the Waves” quite yet, and they were unable to convert the victory into any significant long term advantage either on land or sea.  No surprise given that the war was to drag on for a century.  The Knight’s son, the Squire from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales might well have been at Sluys….

With hym ther was his sone, a yong Squiér,
a lovyere and a lusty bacheler,
with lokkes crulle as they were leyd in presse.
Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse.
Of his statúre he was of evene lengthe,
and wonderly delyvere and of greet strengthe.
And he hadde been somtyme in chyvachie
in Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie,
and born hym weel, as of so litel space,
in hope to stonden in his lady grace.
Embrouded was he, as it were a meede
al ful of fresshe floures whyte and reede.
Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day;
He was as fressh as is the month of May.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s