William Edward Sanders

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William Edward Sanders

William Edward Sanders VC DSO (7 February 1883 – 14 August 1917) was a distinguished New Zealand recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) during the First World War, the most esteemed honor for gallantry “in the face of the enemy” bestowed upon British and Commonwealth forces at that time.

Born in the Auckland suburb of Kingsland on 7 February 1883, William Edward Sanders came from a family with a history steeped in maritime traditions. His father, Edward Helman Cook Sanders, made a living as a bootmaker, while his mother, Emma Jane Sanders (née Wilson), gave birth to three more children. On his maternal side, William’s grandfather had been a sea captain who worked for the family’s shipping company.

Setting out on a seafaring career in 1899, Sanders commenced his journey by working on steamships and later transitioned to sailing ships to advance his professional prospects. After the outbreak of the First World War, he obtained a master’s certificate in late 1914. He subsequently served on troopships in the Merchant Navy until April 1916 when he received a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve. Following military training in the United Kingdom, Sanders joined the crew of Helgoland, a Q-ship engaged in operations against German submarines. His commendable performance during his initial two patrols led to his appointment as the captain of HMS Prize in February 1917.

William Sanders was posthumously awarded the VC for his extraordinary actions during his first patrol as captain, where HMS Prize encountered and repelled a German U-boat that had previously attacked and damaged his ship. Tragically, he met his end during Prize’s fourth patrol when a U-boat sank his vessel. The VC, the sole medal of its kind to be bestowed upon a New Zealander serving with a naval force, was presented to his father and is currently housed at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. William Sanders is commemorated through various tributes, one of which is the Sanders Memorial Cup, a sailing trophy awarded to 14-foot (4.3 m) yachts.

William Edward Sanders

William Edward Sanders


Date of Birth

Birth Place

Date of Died

Death Place


Years of Service


Orders were held.



Gunner Billy

7 February 1883

Auckland, New Zealand

14 August 1917

at sea, in the Atlantic Ocean

British Empire


Lieutenant Commander

HMS Prize

Atlantic U-boat campaign

  • Victoria Cross
  • Distinguished Service Order

Early life & Personal Life

William Edward Sanders came into the world in the Auckland suburb of Kingsland on 7 February 1883. His father, Edward Helman Cook Sanders, made his living as a bootmaker. Alongside his wife Emma Jane Sanders (née Wilson), they welcomed three more children into the family. William’s maternal grandfather was a sea captain who worked for the family’s shipping company.

During his early years, Sanders attended Nelson Street School until 1894. At that time, his family moved to Takapuna, where he then attended Takapuna School. This new location was in close proximity to Lake Pupuke, where he acquired sailing skills. Notably, he earned the nickname “Gunner Billy” due to his youthful exploits with a small cannon brought to school by a classmate. At the age of 15, he left school, and following his parents’ recommendations, he began an apprenticeship with a mercer in Auckland’s Queen Street. However, his true passion lay with a career at sea, leading him to visit the wharves to observe docked ships and engage in conversations with their captains and crew.

In 1899, a cabin boy position aboard the steamer Kapanui, which operated along the coast north of Auckland, became available. Sanders had received a tip about the vacancy from an officer on the ship, applied for the position, and secured it. He remained with the company operating Kapanui for three years. In 1902, he joined the crew of Aparima, operated by the Union Steam Ship Company, which conducted trade between New Zealand and India. As an ordinary seaman in 1906, he transferred to NZGSS Hinemoa, a government steamer that serviced lighthouses along the New Zealand coast and depots on offshore islands.

Although Sanders had spent the early part of his maritime career working on steamships, he decided to gain sailing experience with the Craig Line. During that period, steamships were somewhat looked down upon by seafarers, as sailors were often considered more skilled. Beginning in 1910, Sanders embarked on a journey across several vessels, and by 1914, after acquiring his mate’s certificates, he held the position of mate on the barque Joseph Craig. However, a fateful event unfolded when the ship foundered on the Hokianga bar on 7 August 1914. In response, Sanders took charge of a small boat to seek assistance. Subsequently, he appeared at the inquest held in Auckland regarding the ship’s sinking, with blame being attributed to the master. ” William Edward Sanders “

First World War

During the early stages of the First World War, Sanders held the position of second mate on the Moeraki. He also undertook the examination for his master’s certificate, successfully passing with honors on 7 November 1914. His service on the Moeraki concluded in December, and he proceeded to apply for entry into the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR). However, his initial application did not lead to his immediate enlistment. In the interim, Sanders continued to serve as a Merchant Navy officer on the troopships Willochra and Tofua.

Sanders’ persistence in seeking entry into the RNR eventually bore fruit in June 1915 when the New Zealand High Commissioner wrote to the Admiralty in support of his application. This advocacy on his behalf appeared to be successful, and by December 1915, he secured passage on a steamer headed to Glasgow via the Atlantic. He reached the United Kingdom on 17 April 1916 and promptly made his way to London. Just two days after his arrival in London, he was appointed as an acting sub-lieutenant in the RNR.

Following the successful completion of a three-month junior officer’s course at the training facility HMS Excellent on Whale Island, Sanders was assigned to serve on the Helgoland, a Q-ship engaged in operations against German submarines in the Western Approaches. Q-ships were merchant vessels manned by Navy personnel and concealed armaments. In the event of an attack by U-boats, a portion of the ship’s crew, known as the panic party, would simulate evacuation, at times setting smoke fires to feign damage. These tactics aimed to lure the approaching U-boat closer, at which point the Q-ship’s concealed guns would be revealed to engage the submarine.

The Helgoland, a Dutch brigantine armed with 12-pounder guns and a machine gun, underwent conversion into a Q-ship. Sanders, as the second-in-command to fellow New Zealander Lieutenant A.D. Blair, played a key role in overseeing this transformation. During its first patrol in September 1916, Helgoland was involved in two encounters with U-boats, and on its second patrol in the following month, it faced U-boats on two occasions once more. In the initial encounter, Helgoland found itself becalmed due to a lack of wind, leaving the ship without engine power and in an extremely vulnerable position. The attacking U-boat chose to fire on the ship from a distance, forcing Helgoland to reveal its identity early in the engagement due to its limited maneuverability. Although the U-boat managed to escape, it did launch two torpedoes, both of which passed harmlessly under the Helgoland. In the second engagement, Helgoland came to the aid of a steamer under attack by a U-boat. In this act of bravery, Sanders had to expose himself to enemy gunfire to clear a jammed screen obstructing the ship’s gun. “William Edward Sanders “

HMS Prize

Sanders’ remarkable performance aboard the Helgoland led to a well-deserved promotion to the rank of lieutenant, coupled with a recommendation for his own ship command. In early 1917, he assumed the role of captain on the HMS Prize, a three-masted topsail schooner with an interesting history. This vessel had been operating under the German flag when it became the first enemy ship captured by the British following the outbreak of the First World War. Initially, the Admiralty sold it to a shipping company, but later offered it to the Royal Navy for utilization as a decoy vessel. As part of the conversion to a Q-ship in early 1917, the Prize was equipped with diesel engines, radio equipment, and armament, including two 12-pounder guns. One of these guns was housed within a collapsible deckhouse, while the other was situated on a platform that could be raised from the hold. Additionally, the ship was equipped with a pair of Lewis guns and a Maxim machine gun.

The conversion work on the Prize was carried out near Falmouth, and Sanders arrived there in mid-April 1917 to oversee the final stages of the conversion and the ship’s outfitting. The Prize was officially commissioned into the Royal Navy on 25 April, with a crew of 27, including Sanders. It embarked on its first patrol the following day. In the evening of 30 April, near the Isles of Scilly in the Atlantic, the Prize was targeted by the U-93, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Edgar von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim. The U-boat inflicted substantial damage to the Q-ship with gunfire from its deck gun. In response, Sanders ordered the panic party to abandon ship, while he and the rest of the crew remained concealed to maintain the illusion of an abandoned vessel.

After approximately 20 minutes of relentless shelling, the Prize appeared to be sinking, prompting the Germans to approach her port side. It was at this moment that Sanders ordered the hoisting of the White Ensign, and the Prize commenced firing on the U-boat. Within a few minutes, the U-boat’s conning tower sustained severe damage, leading to the ejection of several crew members into the water. The U-boat retreated and disappeared from sight into the mist, leaving the Prize’s crew to believe it had been sunk. The panic party, still aboard their small boat, rescued three survivors, including the U-boat’s captain, and brought them back to the Prize. The ship’s damage was significant, and the German prisoners provided assistance with the necessary repairs as the Prize headed toward the Irish coast. It eventually received a tow as it approached Kinsale. The U-93, meanwhile, managed to limp back to the island of Sylt near the German coast nine days later.

Once the Prize was fully repaired, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, offered Sanders the command of a destroyer of his choice. However, Sanders declined this offer, as he preferred to continue his role. He returned to sea with the Prize in late May, embarking on a second three-week patrol. On 12 June, during an engagement with another German submarine, UC-35, while on the surface, Sanders suffered a minor arm injury. The U-boat fired at the Prize about 30 times, but as soon as Sanders gave the order to return fire, the U-boat submerged and made its escape. Only a few shots were fired by the Prize, and the U-boat quickly vanished beneath the surface.

Subsequently, the Prize underwent repairs and embarked on another patrol in late June and early July. On 22 June, while Sanders was at sea, it was announced that he would be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for his actions on 30 April. The VC, established in 1856, represented the highest recognition of valor within the British Empire’s military. Every crew member present on 30 April also received commendations, with Sanders’ lieutenant earning the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), two other officers receiving the Distinguished Service Cross, and the remaining crew members being honored with the Distinguished Service Medal. Sanders himself was promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander. Given the continued secrecy surrounding the use of Q-ships such as the Prize, the specific details of the actions leading to the awards conferred on Sanders and his crew were not publicly disclosed. When Sanders’ VC was gazetted, the published account simply stated:

“In recognition of his conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness, and skill in command of one of H.M. Ships in action.”

Final Patrol

Growing increasingly weary from the mounting stress of his responsibilities, Sanders set out on another patrol aboard the Prize in early August 1917. However, before his departure, he formally requested to be relieved of his command, citing “overstrain.” The Admiralty granted their approval just a few days later, though Sanders had already embarked on his patrol. Sailing under a Swedish flag into the Atlantic, the Prize was accompanied by the British submarine HMS D6. The plan was for D6 to submerge and maintain surveillance over the Prize throughout the day. When an enemy vessel was spotted, discreet signals would be placed in the Prize’s rigging by its crew to indicate the ship’s position to the observing D6. Subsequently, the submarine would attempt to maneuver into a position where it could launch torpedoes against the approaching enemy vessel.

On 13 August 1917, a lookout on the Prize spotted the presence of the UB-48, a German U-boat. Sanders decided to employ the Prize’s guns to shell the U-boat, but the UB-48 remained unharmed and quickly submerged to evade the attack. Both the Prize and the D6 held their positions.

Oberleutnant Wolfgang Steinbauer, the commander of the UB-48, remained steadfast in his determination to sink the Prize and persisted in pursuing the vessel. As the night descended, he surfaced his submarine and observed a distant light. He suspected it was likely someone aboard the Prize opening a porthole or lighting a pipe or cigarette. Steinbauer proceeded to launch two torpedoes, one of which struck the Prize, resulting in an explosion. Upon investigating the remnants of the Prize, he found only wreckage and the body of a British sailor. Meanwhile, the D6, which was still in proximity, heard the sound of the torpedo’s explosion. At dawn on 14 August, the D6 surfaced, but no signs of the Prize or her crew were discovered, leading to the presumption that the ship had been sunk.

Medals and legacy

Sanders, who never married, passed away without knowledge of his Distinguished Service Order (DSO) award for his gallant actions during the encounter with UC-35 on 12 June 1917. He was also eligible for the British War Medal, the Mercantile Marine War Medal, and the Victory Medal. In June 1918, Sanders’ father was presented with his son’s Victoria Cross (VC) and DSO by the Earl of Liverpool, New Zealand’s Governor-General, during a ceremony held at the Auckland Town Hall. Sanders’ VC, the first and only one ever awarded to a New Zealander serving with a naval force, along with his DSO, are now on public display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The museum additionally showcases a framed exhibit featuring photographs of Sanders and his commendations, which was initially gifted to Takapuna Primary School, his alma mater, by Earl Jellicoe in September 1919.

Sanders is commemorated in various forms, including a bronze tablet within the church at Milford Haven, the home port of the Prize. His memory is also honored with a plaque in the Auckland Town Hall and the establishment of The Sanders Memorial Scholarship at the University of Auckland, which is intended for the children of Royal Navy or Mercantile Marine members. His name is inscribed on one of the gravestones within the family plot at Purewa Cemetery in Meadowbank. In 1921, the Sanders Memorial Cup was established in his honor for competition among 14-foot (4.3 m) yachts. Sanders Avenue in Takapuna bears his name, and an annual memorial parade is held by cadets from the Training Ship Leander in remembrance of Sanders. ” William Edward Sanders “

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