William Sanders


William Edward Sanders, the only New Zealander to win the Victoria Cross in a naval action, was born at Auckland in 1883, and gained a love of swimming and sailing during school excursions to Lake Pupuke.

On leaving school he worked on coastal steamers before joining an Auckland-based shipping line which operated a fleet of sailing ships trading with Australia. Sanders later took his extra-master's certificate and become third officer of two ships which transported New Zealand troops during the First World War.

Sanders had applied for the Royal Naval Reserve early in the war, but he was not required until early 1916. He volunteered to command a Q-ship, a decoy vessel which lured German submarines within range of its concealed guns by displaying false colours. Because many Q-ships were sailing vessels, officers such as Sanders, with experience in sail, were sought after.

In early 1917 Sanders 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 draw near. 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 before it submerged. For this action Sanders was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In the early hours of 14 August 1917, another U-boat torpedoed the ship with the loss of Sanders and all his men.

From the testimony of those who served with him, Sanders was a natural leader who exhibited iron nerve and courage and an absolute contempt for danger. Such qualities fitted him for the hazardous enterprise of Q-ship command and won him the Victoria Cross.

Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Denis Fairfax

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