Chief Motor Mechanic James Attwood

Chief Motor Mechanic James Attwood was one of the New Zealand motor mechanics who joined the Royal Naval Motor Boat Reserve in 1916.  He participated in the Zeebrugge/Ostend raids of 1918 and was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and the French Croix de Guerre.

Attwood medal set including Conspicuous Gallantry Medal
Attwood medal set including Conspicuous Gallantry Medal

James Attwood was born in Hokianga in 18 February 1888 and after leaving school qualified as a motor mechanic.  In late 1916 he was working in Wellington and at the age of 29 was one of those who joined the Royal Naval Motor Boat Reserve.  Along with six of the officers and 21 other motor mechanics James left New Zealand in the SS Willochra, HMNZT 66 on 16 October 1916.  Among the other motor mechanics were Roy Alexander, Sydney Fox and Edgar Chivers.  Willochra arrived at Plymouth on 28 December 1916 and the motor mechanics made their way to London for the night before catching the afternoon train to Southampton the next day, to join HMS Hermione.  Over the next few weeks they were introduced to the petrol engines of motor launches and underwent instruction in gunnery, shooting, signalling and drill.

On 27 February 1917 James was posted to HMS Halcyon II, the depot ship for the Anti-Submarine Patrol and the Auxiliary Patrol at Lowestoft, where he served until 8 December.  Then, having been posted to Hermione for transit joined HMS Kosmos, the depot ship for the Auxiliary Patrol at Le Harve on 14 December 1917.  Le Harve was a major transit port for ships carrying personnel for the British Expeditionary Force between Britain and France. Although James’ exact employment is not noted on his Service Record for these two postings, it is most likely that he was serving in one of the motor launches of the Auxiliary Patrol at each base (18 at Lowestoft and 33 in the Portsmouth/Le Harve area).

On 27 February 1917 James was posted to HMS Halcyon II, the depot ship for the Anti-Submarine Patrol and the Auxiliary Patrol at Lowestoft, where he served until 8 December.

In February 1918, after again being posted to Hermione for transit, James joined HMS Actaeon, the depot ship at Portsmouth, one of the functions of which was parent ship for the Auxiliary Patrol on 27 February. At this time a plan to prevent submarines using the Bruges ship canal by blocking the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend was being planned and Operation Z.O. was promulgated on 7 April 1918.  Very broadly the concept was for block ships (old cruisers filled with cement) to sink themselves in the harbours, thereby precluding their use.  Three block ships plus two submarines were to block Zeebrugge and two block ships at Ostend.  In the case of Zeebrugge an additional attack was to be made by an old cruiser, HMS Vindictive, which was to go alongside the mole, land a detachment of marines and seamen who would destroy the guns defending the harbour and then blow up as many installations as possible before withdrawal.  Briefly the naval force comprised 1 cruiser, 28 destroyers, 8 monitors, 61 MLs, 24 CMBs and 1 minesweeper.

The operation was mounted on the night of 11 April, but had to be cancelled and was mounted again on the night of 22/23 April.  The Ostend force duly arrived off the port and the two block ships, Brilliant and Sirrius headed into the narrow harbour entrance, followed by ML 283.  During the approach the block ships were illuminated by searchlights and came under intense fire from the shore batteries and ML 532 with another New Zealander, Lieutenant Malcolm Kirkwood on board, increased speed and went ahead of the two ships, making smoke.  As they came clear of the smoke the block ships saw they were not heading directly into the harbour, but towards a beach and Brilliant ran aground.  Both ships then fired their scuttling charges and the remaining rescue MLs (ML 532 having been badly damaged) went alongside to take off the ships’ crews, ML 283 going alongside Sirrius.  Despite being under constant fire from heavy guns and machine guns, most of the crew were embarked.  The ML then moved away while the wounded on board were prepared for transfer. Ten minutes later it went back alongside and took of the wounded and the remaining crew.  Having also recovered 16 men from Brilliant from a whaler, the seriously overloaded ML 283 proceeded to Dunkirk.  ML 283 also took part in a follow-up raid on Ostend on 9/10 May, but had an off-shore role, although still coming under fire.

Motor Launch
Motor Launch ML123

When the honours for Zeebrugge and Ostend were announced the Commanding Officer of ML 282 was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order and Chief Motor Mechanic James Attwood was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.[8]  Sydney Fox in ML 282 also received this decoration for the attack on Zeebrugge.  Some of the others who were in Willochra with Attwood were also decorated, this included Roy Alexander who received the Distinguished Service Medal for the first raid, but subsequently died of wounds suffered in it and Edgar Chivers who also received the Distinguished Service Medal for the second Ostend raid.

From 17 May until 22 October Attwood was in ML 3 based at Dover, the parent ship being HMS Arrogant.  The employment of the MLs at Dover was varied, from anti-submarine patrols, to convoy escort and to providing smoke screens for monitors bombarding targets ashore in support of the Army.

The employment of the MLs at Dover was varied, from anti-submarine patrols, to convoy escort and to providing smoke screens for monitors bombarding targets ashore in support of the Army.

King George V presented awards to those who had been recognized for the Zeebrugge and Ostend raids, at Buckingham Palace on 31 July 1918.  At the end of August James was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre, as was Sydney Fox.

James finished the war in HMS Hermione and departed England on the SS Tunisian on 12 March 1919, as part of a large draft of officers and men from the Motor Boat Patrol.  They landed at St John’s Nova Scotia and travelled across Canada to embark in the SS Makura at Vancouver, arriving in Auckland on 6 May. After some leave he was de-mobilised on 20 June 1919.  James served in the Home Guard in WWII and passed away on 22 July 1957.