Remembrance: The centurion survivor who will never forget his fallen comrades

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The Independent Online
For those who lost friends and loved ones in battle, Remembrance Day will always have a special importance. One of them is 100-year-old Alfred Hutchinson, the last survivor of the navy's ill-fated attack on Zeebrugge in 1918. Max Arthur spoke to him.

Alf is a born survivor. Speaking at the residential home in Surrey where he now lives, he remembered how he joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry and saw action as a gun-sight setter against the German navy.

But it was the bloody assault on Zeebrugge in the final year of the war that sticks with him.

The port was used by the Germans as a base for U-boats and the Admiralty devised a plan to fill three disused minelayers with concrete and drop them across the port entrance to block the submarines.

The 4th Battalion RMI, led by its band playing "Goodbye Dolly Gray", embarked from Dover on two River Mersey ferries, Iris and Daffodil, to accompany the cruiser, Vindictive. These three ships were to come alongside at Zeebrugge and attack the port's heavily guarded installations.

Alf, who was on board the Iris, clearly remembers 22 April 1918. "It was a beautiful morning, but reality hit us when we were ordered to cover the top deck with sand to soak up the blood. Later that afternoon we watched the sun set. I think we were wondering if we would see it rise in the morning."

The Germans, anticipating the operation, had waited until the ships were close before firing star-shells which turned the night into day: they opened fire on to the sitting targets.

It was decided to come alongside the Vindictive and land over her decks. But before this could happen the Iris was hit. As Alf and the rest of the marines were ordered below, a shell came through the upper deck and killed 49 marines. "There was just one big heap of arms and legs. My friend, had his head blown off. He'd only got married on the weekend before we left. It was terrible," Alf says, still visibly moved nearly 80 years later.

After the block ships were scuttled across the harbour, the Iris limped back home. The battle had been ferocious and the ships' crews fought bravely to destroy several artillery positions. However, the cost was great with 635 men killed or wounded. Eight VCs were awarded.

In Britain the attack was seen as a success, yet within 48 hours U-boats were operating from the harbour. Alf recalls the return journey. "We saw the white cliffs and to be alive was quite something." As they came into Dover with only a young lieutenant steering by hand compass, the ships in the harbour sounded their horns. "We paid our last respects to our comrades," says Alf.

"From Deal we went to Chatham. As we marched in to town we were surprised to be greeted by crowds of people cheering. We didn't know why, until we saw the newspapers. My feelings were that I was lucky to be alive ... and sorrow for the friends I had lost."