SANDERS, Lieutenant-Commander William Edward, V.C., D.S.O., R.N.R.
Famous New Zealand naval officer of the First World War.
A new biography of Sanders, William Edward appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
The son of Edward Helman Cook Sanders, bootmaker, and Emma Jane Sanders, nèe Wilson, William Sanders was born at Alexander Street, Auckland, on 7 February 1883. After he had received his education at Nelson Street and Takapuna Primary Schools, his parents placed him with a Queen Street mercer at the age of 15, in spite of his expressed desire to go to sea. In 1899 he went to sea as a cabin boy in the steamer Kotiti and came up the hard way through steam and sail to command a ship in time of war. In 1906 he joined the Government steamer Hinemoa and then the Aparima before transferring to the Craig Line and sail, in which he took his second and then his first mate's certificates. He served in the Marjorie Craig, the Louise Craig, and was mate of the Joseph Craig when she went aground and was wrecked on the Hokianga bar, on 7 August 1914. Gaining his extra master's certificate on 7 November 1914 and his compass adjuster's certificate three days later, he applied to join the Navy, but was not called up till the end of 1915. In the meantime he served as third officer of the troopships Willochra and Tofua, leaving to join the Navy in January 1916 as second mate of the Hebbern Jan.
Commissioned a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve on 19 April 1916, he attended a gunnery course before being appointed to HMS Sabrina on 11 June 1916. Later he served in HMS Idaho before transferring to HMS Helgoland Morley as second in command on 6 September 1916. Recognised by the Navy for distinction, he received rapid promotion to Lieutenant in command of HMS Prize on 5 February 1917, and was made Lieutenant-Commander on 25 April 1917.
Sanders was awarded the Victoria Cross on 30 April 1917, while in command of HMS Prize, a three-masted topsail schooner. Originally called HMS First Prize, because she was the first vessel captured from the Germans, Prize was one of the famous mystery or “Q” ships of the First World War. As the operation of these ships was highly secret, the official announcement of the Victoria Cross award in the London Gazette contained only 19 words: “In recognition of his conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness, and skill in command of one of H.M. Ships in action”.
HMS Prize was on patrol south of the Irish coast at lat. 49.44 N, long. 11.42 W, when she was sighted and engaged by a German submarine, U-93, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Freiherr von Spiegel. The “panic party” launched a boat and pulled clear of the Prize, which was shelled for half an hour at a range of 3,000 yards. The ship was hit many times, being holed at the waterline in three places and the engine room set on fire, but Sanders held his fire till the submarine moved in for the kill. When the enemy had closed to 80 yards, Sanders gave the order to fire and ran up the White Ensign. At that range every shell was a hit and the submarine commander altered course to escape, but shortly afterwards was knocked overboard by the body of one of his men who had been hit by a shell. When the submarine was 200 yards from Prize, a shell took effect on her propulsion; she lost way, stopped, settled down by the stern till the bow pointed straight up, and then sank. The “panic-party” picked up the submarine commander and two others of his crew and returned to the Prize, where all hands were quickly engaged in ensuring the safety of the ship. Sanders, who had been cool and resourceful in action and had moved around his ship out of sight to encourage his gun crews, proved equally capable and resourceful in directing the emergency repairs to Prize, which reached port in two days' steaming on one auxiliary engine, the other having been damaged beyond repair in the action with the submarine.
The U-93 was claimed as sunk, as everyone believed was the case, but her second in command managed to regain control of the stricken submarine and brought it safely home to Germany, where no doubt he gave an accurate description of Prize and her tactics against submarines.
Sanders was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order for another action against a German submarine on 12 June 1917, but he was lost at sea before it was gazetted.
On 13 August 1917 Prize was again on patrol, this time with an escorting British submarine, D-8, which remained submerged and only made contact with Prize at night under cover of darkness. During the day Prize twice sighted a German periscope, but the submarine did not surface. The commander of the submarine, U-48, having checked the Prize's course and speed, waited till the moon rose that night and stalked her for a torpedo attack. At 1.30 a.m. on the following morning, the escorting British submarine saw Prize blow up and was unable to find any survivors.
There are many memorials to Sanders, a collection of photographs and his citations at Takapuna School, and an art bronze tablet in the church at Milford Haven, Prize's home port while patrolling. The Sanders Memorial Scholarship at the University of Auckland is tenable by sons or daughters of members of the Royal Navy or the Mercantile Marine. The best-known memorial is the Sanders Cup for interprovincial competition between 14–ft centreboard X-class yachts.
by Capt. Geoffrey Troughear Stagg, F.R.N.S.N.Z., R.N.Z.A. (retired), formerly President of the Royal Numismatic Society of New Zealand, Wellington.
- London Gazette, 22 Jun 1917
- Auckland Star, 30 Sep 1957.