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William Edward Sanders

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William Edward Sanders
William Sanders c.1915–17
Nickname(s) "Gunner Billy"
Born (1883-02-07)7 February 1883
Auckland, New Zealand
Died 14 August 1917(1917-08-14) (aged 34)
at sea, near southern Ireland
Allegiance  British Empire
Service/branch Government Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Naval Reserve
Years of service 1916–1917
Rank Lieutenant Commander
Commands held HMS Prize

First World War

Awards Victoria Cross
Distinguished Service Order
Mentioned in Despatches

William Edward Sanders VC, DSO (7 February 1883 – 14 August 1917) was a New Zealand recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

Born in Auckland, Sanders took up a seafaring career in 1899. He initially worked aboard steamships before transferring to sailing ships working around New Zealand waters to enhance his career prospects. After the outbreak of the First World War, he earned a master's certificate in late 1914. He then served in the Merchant Navy working aboard troopships until April 1916, when he was commissioned in the Royal Naval Reserve. He completed his military training in the United Kingdom after which he served aboard Helgoland, a Q-ship which operated against German submarines. He performed well on his first two patrols and was given his own command, HMS Prize, in February 1917. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions while on his first patrol as captain, when Prize engaged and saw off a German U-boat that had earlier attacked and damaged his own ship. He was killed in action during Prize's fourth patrol when his ship was sunk by a U-boat. His Victoria Cross was presented to his father and is currently held by the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Several memorials exist to Sanders' memory, including the Sanders Cup, a sailing trophy for 14-foot (4.3 m) centerboard X-class yachts.

Early life[edit]

William Sanders was born in the Auckland suburb of Kingsland on 7 February 1883. His father, Edward Helman Cook Sanders, was a boot maker, who with his wife Emma Jane Sanders (née Wilson), would have three more children. His maternal grandfather was a sea captain and worked for the family's shipping company.[1]

Sanders attended Nelson Street School but in 1894, when his family moved to Takapuna, he shifted to Takapuna School. The school was close to Lake Pupuke, where he learned to sail.[2] He earned the nickname Gunner Billy for his exploits with a small cannon that a classmate brought to school.[3] He left school at the age of 15, and due to the influence of his parents was apprenticed to a mercer in Auckland's Queen Street.[4] He was not particularly interested in the profession and, desiring a career at sea, would go down to the wharfs to inspect the berthed ships and chat with their captains and crewmen.[3]

In 1899, Sanders joined Kapanui as a cabin boy. An officer on the ship, a coastal steamer which worked the coast north of Auckland, was an acquaintance and advised Sanders of the availability of a position on board as a cabin boy, which he promptly applied for.[5] He remained with the company that operated Kapanui for three years. In 1902 he joined Aparima, operated by the Union Steam Ship Company, which traded between New Zealand and India. He transferred to NZGSS Hinemoa in 1906 as an ordinary seaman. Hinemoa was a government steamer which serviced lighthouses along the New Zealand coast and depots on offshore islands.[6]

With his seafaring career to date spent working on steamships, Sanders decided to spend time under sail with the Craig Line. At the time, steam was looked down upon by seafarers with sailors being regarded as more skillful.[7] After taking his mate's certificates, he sailed aboard Joseph Craig. However, the ship foundered on the Hokianga bar on 7 August 1914.[8]

First World War[edit]

During the early part of the war, Sanders worked as second mate on Moeraki. He also sat for his Masters certificate, passing with honours on 7 November 1914. He was then discharged from Moeraki in December and applied for the Royal Naval Reserve. However, he was not called up and in the interim served as a Merchant Navy officer on the troopships Willochra and Tofua.[9]

After repeated pleas to authorities, Sanders traveled to London and on 19 April 1916 was finally appointed an acting sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve.[10] After a period of time at the HMS Excellent training facility on Whale Island, he was granted a position on Helgoland, a Q-ship operating against German submarines in the Western Approaches.[11]

Q-ships were merchant ships crewed by Navy personnel and bearing hidden weaponry. When attacked by U-boats, a portion of the ship's crew (referred to as a panic party) would appear to evacuate the vessel, sometimes setting smoke fires to simulate damage. This would encourage its attacker to approach and when the U-boat was close enough, the Q-ship's guns would become operational and open fire, hopefully destroying the submarine.[12]

Helgoland was a Dutch brigantine armed with 12-pounder guns and a machine gun.[13] Sanders, second in command to fellow New Zealander Lieutenant A.D. Blair,[14] helped oversee its conversion to a Q-ship. On its first patrol in September 1916 his ship participated in two actions against U-boats, and on its second the following month, it again engaged two U-boats. During the first engagement, the Helgoland was becalmed, without engines and extremely vulnerable. Surrounded by three submarines and with limited manoeuvrability it was forced to reveal its identity early in the engagement. On this occasion a screen concealing one of the guns jammed; Sanders and Blair exposed themselves to potential gun fire from the U-boat being attacked in order to cut away the screen with axes and crowbars.[13][15]

HMS Prize[edit]

His conduct on Helgoland resulted in a promotion to lieutenant for Sanders, and he was also recommended for command of his own ship.[16] In February 1917, he was appointed captain of HMS Prize, a three-masted topsail schooner that was sailing under the German flag when it was seized in 1914 and converted to a Q-ship in early 1917. At midnight on 30 April 1917 about 180 miles south of Ireland, in the Atlantic, Prize was attacked by a U-boat, U-93 commanded by Edgar von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim. The Q-ship was genuinely badly damaged by shellfire from the U-boat's deck guns. Sanders, remaining under cover, moved about the vessel reassuring his men.[17]

After the 'panic party' had taken to the boats and the ship appeared to be sinking, the U-boat approached to within 80 yards of her port quarter, whereupon Sanders ordered the White Ensign hoisted and Prize opened fire. Within a few minutes the submarine was on fire and her bows rose in the air, whilst Prize was further damaged. The U-boat disappeared from sight, and was believed to have been sunk by the crew of Prize and by several of the German crew (including her captain) who had been blown or jumped into the sea. However, neither of the crippled ships had sunk, with Prize being towed in flames back to Kinsale. U-93 struggled back to the Sylt nine days later.[17]

Badly damaged, Prize had to spend several weeks being repaired. During this time the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Jellicoe offered Sanders command of a destroyer of his choosing, which he declined. He returned to sea in May with Prize conducting a second patrol for three weeks. Sanders was wounded slightly in an action on 12 June, in which the Prize was fired at 30 times by the U-boat being attacked.[18] His award of the Victoria Cross (VC) for his actions on 30 April was gazetted in June, while he was at sea on a third patrol.[19] Because the use of Q-ships such as Prize were still secret, the published details of his award when it was gazetted simply read

In recognition of his conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness, and skill in command of one of H.M. Ships in action.[20]

Prize was lost on its fourth patrol, Sanders having been promoted to lieutenant commander. On 14 August 1917, UB-48 spotted Prize.[21] The Q-ship was recognised by the captain of the U-boat, who had been warned by the survivors of U-93 and did not approach Prize too closely. Instead, it remained submerged and fired two torpedoes into the sailing ship, blowing her to pieces. Rescue craft were unable to find a trace of her crew when they arrived in the area, long after the U-boat had escaped.[8]

Medals and legacy[edit]

Sanders, a bachelor,[2] died without knowledge of the award of a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his actions on 12 June 1917.[22] The emergence of correspondence with his first Q-ship commander, A.D Blair, makes it clear that he at least knew of his VC prior to his death, even if he had not received it.[15] In June 1918, Sanders' father received his son's VC and DSO from the Governor-General of New Zealand. Sander's VC, the only one awarded to a New Zealander serving in the navy, and DSO are on display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.[22][23]

There are many memorials to Sanders, including an exhibit of photographs and his citations at Takapuna Primary School, which he attended, a bronze tablet in the church at Milford Haven, the home port of Prize, and The Sanders Memorial Scholarship at the University of Auckland for children of members of the Royal Navy or the Mercantile Marine. The best-known memorial is the Sanders Cup for interprovincial competition between 14-foot (4.3 m) centerboard X-class yachts, still contested to this day.[2]


  1. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 1–2.
  2. ^ a b c Fairfax 1996, pp. 458–459.
  3. ^ a b Howard 2007, p. 10.
  4. ^ Stewart, Matt (29 April 2017). "Flashback: Boy's Own high-seas adventure". The Press. p. A12. Retrieved 30 April 2017. 
  5. ^ Howard 2007, p. 11.
  6. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 13–14.
  7. ^ Howard 2007, p. 16.
  8. ^ a b Stagg 1966, p. 80.
  9. ^ Howard 2007, p. 22.
  10. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 24–15.
  11. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 27–28.
  12. ^ Harper & Richardson 2007, p. 188.
  13. ^ a b Howard 2007, pp. 46–48.
  14. ^ "Shipping News". Press. 29 October 1920. Retrieved April 11, 2013. 
  15. ^ a b "Captain Andrew Dougall Blair (1872–1955)". Tauranga Memories: Remembering War. Tauranga City Libraries. Archived from the original on October 9, 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  16. ^ Howard 2007, p. 50.
  17. ^ a b Harper & Richardson 2007, pp. 190–191.
  18. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 90–91.
  19. ^ Howard 2007, p. 94.
  20. ^ "No. 30147". The London Gazette (Supplement). 22 June 1917. p. 6253. 
  21. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "Ships hit during WWI: Prize". German and Austrian U-boats of World War I - Kaiserliche Marine - 
  22. ^ a b Harper & Richardson 2007, pp. 192–193.
  23. ^ "medal, decoration". Auckland War Memorial Museum. Retrieved 2015-11-22. 


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