Lieutenant Commander William Edward Sanders’ VC citation was brief. “In recognition of his conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness and skill in command of one of HM ships in action.”
The weird vagueness was deliberate, he was in command of a mystery ship - called a Q-ship.
Born in Auckland, February 7, 1883, to Edward Helman Cook Sanders, a bootmaker from London and wife Emma, he was called Billy. He went to Takapuna School and lived on the North Shore, developing a love of swimming and sailing.
He took up a seafaring life in 1899 as a cabin boy on the small coastal steamer Kapanui, then the Government steamer Hinemoa, before joining the Auckland-based Craig Line and was the first mate of the Joseph Craig. He was aboard when the ship wrecked in the Hokianga Harbour in 1914.
In 1916, he was commissioned a sub-lieutenant and his naval service began with mine-sweeping but he quickly volunteered for the submarine-decoy ships called Q-ships.
The German U-boats were wreaking havoc on shipping in the Atlantic and a way was needed to counter it.
Q-ships were heavily armed merchant ships, with hidden weaponry, designed to lure submarines into an attack to prevent them going after vulnerable merchant ships.
Sanders - a sub-lieutenant at the time - faced down three u-boats while becalmed and without engines or wireless. They managed to sink one and avoid torpedo attacks.
Sanders was promoted and given the command of the Prize. She had been captured once and then refitted as a mystery ship.
On April 25, 1917, Sanders set sail and five days later the alarms sounded and the men rushed to their stations. A nearby submarine opened fire on the ship.
The submarine was under the command of Count Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim. He was suspicious of the ship.
Decoy boats - made to look like they were fleeing - left the Prize and were picked up by the Germans. Among them was a Captain Burroughs who later provided a detailed account of the battle.
The Prize was badly damaged, her engine room on fire. Sanders was perfectly cool . As it became clear how badly off the Prize was, the submarine edged closer.
For 40 minutes everyone was still and silent on the Prize and as it came into range Sanders ordered them into action, opening fire with everything they had.
The submarine began to steam away but a shell hit her, apparently sinking her. German survivors were picked up and the Prize headed away.
However the sub managed to survive and limped back to Germany.
Meanwhile the Prize was repaired and put back to sea with now-Lieutenant Commander Sanders. But by then, the Prize was a prize indeed, being sought by German U-boats. And on August 14, 1917, the Prize was acting as a decoy for a submerged sub it was towing when it was sighted by U93.
Sanders attacked but the Uboat ran, returning to stalk the Prize through the night until it fired a torpedo that sank the Prize.
Sanders had received his VC shortly before he took the refitted Prize back out. The medal was later given to his father and is now in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
A memorial to Sanders is at O’Neill’s Point Cemetery in Belmont, Auckland.
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