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William Edward Sanders

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William Edward Sanders
WE Sanders.jpg
William Sanders c. 1916–17
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, in the Atlantic
Allegiance British Empire
Service/branch Royal Naval Reserve
Years of service 1916–17
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 to enhance his career prospects. Sanders earned a master's certificate in late 1914, following the outbreak of the First World War. He then served aboard troopships in the Merchant Navy 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 that operated against German submarines. His performance on his first two patrols earned him his own command, HMS Prize, in February 1917. Sanders was awarded the VC 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 VC 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 yachts.

Early life[edit]

William Edward 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. William's maternal grandfather was a sea captain and worked for the family's shipping company.[1]

Sanders attended Nelson Street School until 1894, when his family moved to Takapuna. He shifted to Takapuna School, which 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. He left school at the age of 15 and, at the urging of his parents, was apprenticed to a mercer in Auckland's Queen Street. He was not particularly interested in the trade 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, and he promptly applied.[4] 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 servicing lighthouses along the New Zealand coast and depots on offshore islands.[5]

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, sailors being regarded as more skillful.[6] From 1910, Sanders sailed on a series of vessels with the Craig Line. By 1914, after taking his mate's certificates, he was mate of the Joseph Craig. On 7 August 1914, the ship foundered on the Hokianga bar.[7] Sanders appeared at the inquest held at Auckland into her sinking, the blame for which was placed on the master.[8]

First World War[edit]

During the early part of the First World War, Sanders worked as second mate on the Moeraki. He also sat for his master's certificate, passing with honours on 7 November 1914. He was discharged from the Moeraki in December and applied for the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR). However, he was not called up and in the interim served as a Merchant Navy officer on the troopships Willochra and Tofua.[9] After Sander's repeated pleas to authorities, eventually in June 1915 the New Zealand High Commissioner wrote to the Admiralty in support of his efforts to join the RNR. This advocacy was presumably successful for in December 1915 he found passage on a steamer bound to Glasgow via the Atlantic. He reached the United Kingdom on 17 April 1916 and made his way to London where, two days after his arrival, he was appointed an acting sub-lieutenant in the RNR.[10]

The Brig 2, an example of a British Q-ship

After completing a three-month junior officer's course at the HMS Excellent training facility on Whale Island,[11] in mid-August 1916, Sanders was granted a position on Helgoland,[12] a Q-ship operating against German submarines in the Western Approaches.[13] 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.[14]

Helgoland was a Dutch brigantine armed with 12-pounder guns and a machine gun.[15] Sanders, second in command to fellow New Zealander Lieutenant A.D. Blair,[16] 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. With limited manoeuvrability and with the attacking U-boat content to fire on the ship from a distance, the Helgoland was forced to reveal its identity early in the engagement. The U-boat was able to get away but not without first firing two torpedoes which passed harmlessly under the Helgoland.[17] In the second engagement, the Helgoland came to the assistance of a steamer being attacked by a U-boat. During this engagement, Sanders had to expose himself to gunfire in order to removed a jammed screen obscuring the ship's gun.[18]

HMS Prize[edit]

Sanders' conduct on Helgoland resulted in a promotion to lieutenant, and he was also recommended for command of his own ship.[19] In early 1917, he was appointed captain of HMS Prize,[Note 1] a three-masted topsail schooner that was sailing under the German flag when it was seized in 1914, the first by the British in the war. Originally sold by the Admiralty to a shipping company, it was later offered to the Royal Navy for use as a decoy vessel and converted to a Q-ship in early 1917.[22]

The Prize was formally commissioned into the Royal Navy on 25 April 1917, with a crew of 27, including Sanders. It departed for its first patrol the next day.[23] In the evening of 30 April, near the Scillies in the Atlantic, Prize was attacked by a U-boat, the U-93 commanded by Edgar von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim. The Q-ship was badly damaged by shellfire from the U-boat's deck guns. Sanders, having dispatched the panic party to a small boat, remained under cover with his men. Despite several of them being wounded, the crew remained in place to maintain the facade of an abandoned ship.[22]

After 20 minutes of shelling, the Prize appeared to be sinking. The U-boat approached her port quarter, whereupon Sanders ordered the White Ensign hoisted and Prize opened fire.[24] Within a few minutes the submarine had received severe damage to her conning tower, with several crew members blown into the water.[25] After moving away, the U-boat disappeared from sight in mist, and was believed by the crew of the Prize to have been sunk. The panic party, still in its boat, collected three survivors, including the captain of the U-boat, and brought them back to the Prize. The damage to the ship was serious, and the German prisoners assisted in repairs as it made for the Irish coast and received a tow as it approached Kinsale. In the meantime, the U-93 managed to struggle back to the Sylt nine days later.[26]

While the Prize was being repaired, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, offered Sanders command of a destroyer of his choosing, which he declined. Preferring to remain in his current role, Sanders returned to sea in late May with the Prize conducting a second patrol for three weeks. Sanders was wounded slightly in the arm during an action on 12 June, in which the Prize encountered the UC-35 on the surface. It was fired at 30 times by the U-boat as it approached. Once Sanders, now wounded, gave the order to fire, the U-boat turned away. Only a few shots from the Prize were fired and the U-boat quickly submerged and got away.[27]

After being repaired, the Prize undertook another patrol in late June and early July. On 22 June, while Sanders was at sea, his award of the Victoria Cross (VC) for his actions on 30 April was gazetted.[28] The VC, instituted in 1856, was the highest award for valour that could be bestowed on a soldier of the British Empire.[29] All of the crew present on 30 April received awards; Sanders' lieutenant received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), two other officers the Distinguished Service Cross, and the rest of the crew was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.[28] Sanders was also promoted to lieutenant commander.[2] Because the use of Q-ships such as Prize were still secret, the published details of his VC 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.[30]

Final patrol[edit]

Sanders, becoming increasingly fatigued from the stress of his duties,[31] embarked on the Prize for another patrol in early August 1917. Before he left, he made a request to be relieved of his command citing "overstrain". The Admiralty approved a few days later but Sanders had already departed on patrol.[32] Sailing into the Atlantic under a Swedish flag, the ship was accompanied by a British submarine, the HMS D-6. It was intended that the D-6 would submerge and observe the Prize throughout the day. When an enemy ship was sighted, the crew of the Prize would place discrete signals in the rigging to indicate the ship's position to the watching D-6. The submarine would then attempt to move into a position where it could torpedo the approaching enemy. On 13 August 1917, a lookout spotted the UB-48. Sanders opted to use the guns of the Prize to shell the U-boat; the UB-48 was undamaged and it submerged to evade the attack. The Prize and D-6 remained on station. Later that evening, the D-6 heard an explosion. At dawn it surfaced but no trace was found of the Prize or her crew. It was presumed that the UB-48 had torpedoed the sailing ship, sinking her and the crew.[33]

Medals and legacy[edit]

Sanders, a bachelor,[2] died without knowledge of the award of a DSO for his actions during the engagement with UC-35 on 12 June 1917.[34] He was also entitled to the British War Medal, the Mercantile Marine War Medal and the Victory Medal.[35] In June 1918, Sanders' father received his son's VC and DSO from the Earl of Liverpool, the Governor-General of New Zealand, in a ceremony at the Auckland Town Hall.[36] Sander's VC, the only one awarded to a New Zealander serving in the RNR, and DSO are on display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.[34][37][38]

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 yachts,[2] first sailed for in 1921.[39] Sanders Avenue, in Takapuna is named after him.[40] Each year, cadets from the Training Ship Leander hold a memorial parade in commemoration of Sanders.[41]



  1. ^ The ship was originally commissioned as HMS First Prize;[20] the Admiralty dropped the First from her name on 1 May 1917.[21]


  1. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 1–2.
  2. ^ a b c d Fairfax 1996, pp. 458–459.
  3. ^ Howard 2007, p. 10.
  4. ^ Howard 2007, p. 11.
  5. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 13–14.
  6. ^ Howard 2007, p. 16.
  7. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 18–19.
  8. ^ Howard 2007, p. 21.
  9. ^ Howard 2007, p. 22.
  10. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 24–25.
  11. ^ Howard 2007, p. 26.
  12. ^ Howard 2007, p. 37.
  13. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 27–28.
  14. ^ Harper & Richardson 2007, p. 188.
  15. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 46–48.
  16. ^ "Shipping News". Press. 29 October 1920. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  17. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 46–47.
  18. ^ Howard 2007, p. 48.
  19. ^ Howard 2007, p. 50.
  20. ^ Howard 2007, p. 57.
  21. ^ Howard 2007, p. 76.
  22. ^ a b Bridgland 1999, pp. 83–84.
  23. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 57–59.
  24. ^ Bridgland 1999, p. 84.
  25. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 73–74.
  26. ^ Bridgland 1999, p. 85.
  27. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 90–93.
  28. ^ a b Howard 2007, p. 94.
  29. ^ O'Shea 2000, pp. 558–559.
  30. ^ "No. 30147". The London Gazette (Supplement). 22 June 1917. p. 6253.
  31. ^ Howard 2007, p. 96.
  32. ^ Howard 2007, pp. 98–99.
  33. ^ Bridgland 1999, pp. 117–118.
  34. ^ a b Harper & Richardson 2007, pp. 192–193.
  35. ^ Howard 2007, p. 102.
  36. ^ "Awards for Bravery". New Zealand Herald (16881). 20 June 1918. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  37. ^ "medal, decoration". Auckland War Memorial Museum. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  38. ^ "medal, order". Auckland War Memorial Museum. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  39. ^ "Sanders Memorial Challenge Cup". Bay of Plenty Times (7622). 16 February 1921. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  40. ^ Auckland Council Heritage Unit (2014). Auckland's First World War Heritage Trail (PDF). Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland Council. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-927216-09-5. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  41. ^ "Honouring a Hero" (PDF). Navy Today (204): 34. October 2016. Retrieved 11 April 2018.


  • Bridgland, Tony (1999). Sea Killers In Disguise: Q Ships and Decoy Raiders. Barnsley, United Kingdom: Leo Cooper. ISBN 978-0-85052-675-2.
  • Fairfax, Denis (1996). "Sanders, William Edward 1883–1917". In Orange, Claudia. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. 3. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. pp. 458–459. ISBN 978-1-86940-200-6.
  • Harper, Glyn; Richardson, Colin (2007). In the Face of the Enemy: The Complete History of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-1-86950-650-6.
  • Howard, Grant (2007). "Gunner Billy": Lieutenant-Commander W. E. Sanders, VC, DSO, RNR. Auckland, New Zealand: Navy Museum. ISBN 978-0-477-10058-8.
  • O'Shea, Phillip (2000). "Victoria Cross". In McGibbon, Ian. The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press. pp. 558–561. ISBN 978-0-19-558376-2.

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