William Edward Sanders, the only New Zealander to win the Victoria Cross in a naval action, was born at Auckland, New Zealand, on 7 February 1883, the son of Edward Helman Cook Sanders, a bootmaker, and Emma Jane Wilson. Billy Sanders attended Nelson Street School but transferred to Takapuna School about 1894 after his family had shifted across the harbour to live on the North Shore. He gained a love of swimming and sailing during school excursions to nearby Lake Takapuna (Lake Pupuke). On leaving school he was briefly apprenticed to a mercer before beginning a seafaring career as a cabin boy in the small coastal steamer Kapanui.
Sanders obtained further experience in the government steamer Hinemoa servicing lighthouses. Around 1910 he joined the Auckland-based Craig line, which operated a fleet of sailing ships trading with Australia. As first mate of the Joseph Craig, he performed creditably when the vessel was wrecked in Hokianga Harbour in August 1914. Sanders then took his extra-master's certificate in Sydney and joined the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, becoming third officer of the Willochra and later the Tofua, both of which became troop-ships on the outbreak of war in August 1914.
Sanders had applied for the Royal Naval Reserve early in the war, but he was not required until early 1916 when, after several trooping voyages to Britain, he was commissioned a sub-lieutenant. His naval service began with mine-sweeping in the English Channel, but he soon volunteered for the submarine-decoy vessels known as Q-ships. A desperate and ultimately unsuccessful expedient to counter the devastating effect of German submarine warfare against British maritime commerce, the Q-ships lured German submarines within range of their guns by displaying false colours. Because many Q-ships were sailing vessels, officers such as Sanders, with experience in sail, were sought after.
Acting Lieutenant Sanders was second in command of the brigantine Helgoland on 7 September and 24 October 1916 when it survived attack by U-boats. In early 1917 he was given command of the Prize, a topsail schooner. On 30 April the Prize encountered a U-boat off south-west Ireland. U-93 opened fire, and during 25 minutes of intense shelling, the Prize waited for the submarine to close. Sanders remained calm throughout the bombardment, crawling along the ship to reassure the crew. The concealed crew then fired on the submarine, destroying its conning tower. U-93 was last seen on fire and sinking; only three of the complement were rescued. For this action Sanders was awarded the Victoria Cross and promoted to lieutenant commander. It was not realised that U-93 had been brought under control by the surviving crew and returned to Germany, giving warning of Prize's appearance and tactics.
During the afternoon of 13 August 1917 the Prize, flying the Swedish flag, was operating off the Irish coast when U-48 was sighted some distance away. Initially deceived by the ruse, U-48 approached and was fired on by the Prize. The U-boat submerged, stalked the slow-moving Prize and, in the early hours of 14 August, torpedoed the ship with the loss of Sanders and all his men. Sanders was appointed a DSO posthumously for bravery during an action against a submarine on 12 June 1917.
A plaque in the parish church at Milford Haven, Wales, commemorates William Sanders at the home port of the Prize. In New Zealand, the Sanders Cup yachting trophy and the Sanders Memorial Scholarship at the University of Auckland are his memorials. A portrait painted by M. E. R. Tripe is at the National Archives in Wellington and his Victoria Cross, a presentation sword and his uniform cap are held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
William Sanders had never married. From the testimony of those who served with him, he was a natural leader who exhibited iron nerve and courage and an absolute contempt for danger. Such were the qualities that fitted him for the hazardous enterprise of Q-ship command and that won him the Victoria Cross.