William Edward Sanders VC DSO

b. 07/02/1883 Auckland, New Zealand. d. 14/08/1917 at sea off Southern Ireland.

William Edward Sanders (1883-1917) was a first generation New Zealander, born in Auckland on 7th February 1883, the eldest son of Edward Helman Cook Sanders, a bootmaker, and Emma Jane nee Wilson, who had both emigrated from England. He first went to sea aboard the small steamer “Kapanui” in 1897 at the age of 14. Such was his talents, within 12 years he had gained his Extra Master’s Ticket, and was serving as First Mate on the barque “Joseph Craig”, of JJ Craig Ltd, when war broke out. Three days later, on 7th August 1914, the ship was wrecked inside the Hokianga Bar and Sanders showed great bravery and presence of mind in single-handedly steering a boat to shore through dangerous surf to bring help to the crew.

William E Sanders

Afterwards he joined the Union Steamship Company, serving first as executive officer on the “Moeraki” and then, from December 1914, as extra Third Officer aboard HMNZT “Willochtra”, engaged in transportation of troops overseas. Such work didn’t satisfy him. In June 1915, during one such trip, Sanders passed a letter to an officer of the NZ Army Staff Corps. Addressed to the Admiralty, the note made clear his desire to join the Royal Naval Reserve. His wish granted, he was offered the rank of temporary sub-lieutenant on his arrival in Britain. Following a spell on another troop ship “Tofua”, he quit his job and worked his passage to Britain aboard the “Hebburn Jan”. Discharged at Glasgow on 7th April 1916, he was ready to open a new and extremely hazardous chapter in his naval career.

In response to increasing attacks by enemy submarines on sailing ships, the Admiralty had begun to requisition a number of these vessels as “trap” ships, with volunteer crews recruited mainly from the Auxiliary Patrol and Trawler Reserve. He was commissioned Sub-Lieutenant on 19th April 1916, and due to previous experience, was appointed mate and gunnery officer of the “Helgoland”, a two masted Dutch brigantine, refitted with four 12-pounders and a Maxim. During two patrols in September and October she fought two inconclusive actions south-west of the Lizard. He impressed his senior officers and on 5th February 1917 he was promoted Acting Lieutenant and given command of “Prize”, then being fitted out in Falmouth. After special gunnery training, he and his second in command, Lieutenant William Beaton, joined their new ship a week before commissioning.

On 30th April 1917 about 180 miles south of Ireland, in the Atlantic, Lieutenant Sanders was in command of HMS Prize, a three-masted topsail schooner (one of the Q ships) when she was attacked by German U-boat U-93 and badly damaged by shellfire. 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 the White Ensign was hoisted and the Prize opened fire. Within a few minutes the submarine was on fire and her bows rose in the air, whilst the Prize was further damaged. The U-boat disappeared from sight, and was believed to have been sunk by the crew of the Prize and by several of the German crew (including her captain) who had been blown or jumped into the sea.

Amazingly, neither of the crippled ships had sunk, with the Prize being towed in flames back to Kinsale, while the U-93 struggled back to the Sylt nine days later after a dramatic escape effort through the British mine and destroyer barrages off Dover. Four months later the Prize was lost on 14th August 1917, when patrolling with the British submarine D-9 in the same area. In this instance, the U-43 spotted the ships and was attacked in a very similar manner to her compatriot. Her captain had been warned by the survivors of U-93, and so did not engage too closely, instead, firing two torpeodes into the fragile Prize, 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.

Sanders’ body was lost at sea. On 19th June 1918, in a ceremony at Auckland Town Hall, the Governor General, the Earl of Liverpool, presented the VC and DSO to William Sanders’s father. His medals are now held by the Auckland War Museum, Auckland.





Auckland War Museum – Image of the Sanders VC Medal.

Richard Thompson – Image of Sanders VC name on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.