Today We Remember: Able Seaman Albert Edward McKenzie V.C.
Before the war
Born in Bermondsey in 1898, the youngest of seven children, Albert joined the training ship Arethusa when he was just 11 years old. At 15, he signed up for the Royal Navy and joined HMS Ganges, where he won several boxing medals. The following year the First World War broke out; and just three years later, Albert was part of a storming party during the Zeebrugge Raid in April 1918.
The Zeebrugge Raid
The Belgian port of Zeebrugge was used as a U-boat base. From here, the Imperial German Navy could attack British maritime targets and light shipping. As these attacks increased, it became imperative to close the port.
The plan was to sink three old warships to block the canal entrance and detonate two old submarines to damage the port itself.
Originally planned for 2nd April 1918, the wind changed direction, meaning it would be impossible for a smokescreen to cover the ships. The raid was moved to 23rd April and Albert sailed over on HMS Vindictive.
Unfortunately, the wind changed again and the Vindictive’s smokescreen was blown away, allowing the German gunners to force it off course and inflict heavy casualties.
Albert was part of a storming party, landing with his machine-gun and 400 rounds of ammunition. He advanced down the Mole with his commanding officer Arthur Leyland Harrison. Harrison was killed, along with most of the rest of the party. Despite his exposed position, Albert was able to force some of the enemy to abandon their posts before his gun was blown out of his hands.
Thanks to his boxing skills, Albert was able to fight his way back to his ship with just his pistol and bayonet. Wounded in the back and foot, he was unable to climb the ladder to board the ship and had to be carried up by Leading Shipman William Childs, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his part in the raid.
The Victoria Cross
Albert was the first London sailor ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross and was also the first sailor to be awarded the VC by the votes of his comrades. While still recovering from his wounds, he went to Buckingham Palace on 31st July to receive his Victoria Cross from King George V.
Sadly, a few weeks later Albert caught Spanish flu during the global pandemic. This led to pneumonia and he died on 3rd November 1918, at the age of 20, only days before the war ended.
He is buried at Camberwell Old Cemetery. The King and Queen sent a letter to be read at his funeral to express ‘the sympathy of their Majesties with the widowed mother and family’.
On 23rd October 2015, on Albert’s 117th birthday, a statue of Albert was unveiled to commemorate his heroism. The memorial sits on a concrete plinth made from a piece of Zeebrugge harbour which was donated by the people of Flanders. Albert’s VC is still owned by the family and is currently on loan to the Imperial War Museum in London.