Monday, July 31, 2017

Death of a Freighter and Her Crew Remembered One Hundred Years On

Heinous Murders in Wartime at the Birth of the Sailors' Society
Shipping News Feature
NORTHERN IRELAND – The great fear of going to sea is the ever present risk of drowning, but when this fate is avoidable yet perpetuated as an act of war on a helpless merchant ship such an act sends shivers through history, and today (July 31) marked a particularly inauspicious centenary, the mass murder of the crew of the freighter SS Belgian Prince,a heinous act which would have been lost to history was in not for the indefatigable nature of three of the crew who survived against all odds.

The SS Belgian Prince was crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a run from Liverpool to Newport News in America when it was torpedoed by a German submarine, the U-55 That night, 38 men drowned; the Captain, Harry Hassan, was taken below deck on the U-boat, according to reports never to be seen again*. The full story was explained by the three survivors who were cared for by the maritime charity the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society (now called the Sailors’ Society) which had opened a Sailors’ Rest in the city in February 1917. Chief Engineer Thomas Bowman’s account of the night’s events tells of the horror that unfolded:

“About 7.50pm on July 31 I was on the after deck of the ship off watch. I was taking a stroll and having a smoke. Suddenly I heard a shout, ‘Here’s a torpedo coming,’ and I looked and saw the wake of what I took to be a torpedo coming towards the ship on the port side. I shouted a warning, but had hardly got the words out of my mouth when the torpedo struck us.”

Bowman was thrown on the deck. When he got up, he found his ship was taking on water; they were about 175 miles from Irish soil and like many of the crew, he took to a lifeboat. As the men clambered on board the lifeboats, the submarine fired at the Belgian Prince disabling its communication equipment. The Germans ordered the lifeboats over, taking Captain Hassan below deck. The crew was ordered to line up on the deck of the submarine.

On the command of the U Boat commander Oberleutnant Wilhelm Werner the German crew then destroyed the lifeboats with axes and the men’s lifebelts were kicked overboard and the men searched. Bowman continued:

“The small boat was left intact, and five German sailors got into her and went towards the ship. When they reached the Belgian Prince, they signaled with a flash lamp to the submarine. The submarine moved ahead about two and a half miles, then stopped, and after a moment or two I heard a rushing sound, like water rushing into the sinking tanks of the submarine.”

Bowman tried to jump into the sea but was carried down with the submarine, shouting to his comrades ‘Look out – she is sinking!’

“When I came to the surface I could only see about a dozen of the crew left, including one boy who was shouting for help. I swam towards him. He had a lifebelt on, but was about paralysed, and I held him up during the night. He became unconscious, and eventually died while I was holding him up. When day broke I saw the Belgian Prince still afloat. I began to swim towards her, and when I had gone a short distance I saw her blow up.”

After the ship sank, Bowman managed to stay afloat long enough to be saved by a British patrol boat. Able seaman George Silessi also survived the night, having swum towards his stricken vessel before eventually also being rescued by a British patrol boat. He said:

“I got on board, and about half an hour afterwards a German submarine came alongside. I got into the water. Two shells were fired at the Belgian Prince, which sank in two or three minutes. I saw a small boat, which I swam to and got into – the same boat the Germans took away the previous evening – and about half an hour afterwards I was picked up by a British patrol boat.”

The third survivor, American Willie Snell, the ship’s 2nd cook, donned a lifejacket he had managed to hide and swam towards the doomed cargo ship. He said in his statement:

“I concealed a lifebelt which I had picked up, which the German commander failed to notice when he was kicking the lifebelts overboard. When the submarine disappeared I swam towards the Belgian Prince. At about 5am I was about one mile off the vessel when she broke in two. Immediately afterwards I saw a submarine come up. I turned and swam away as quickly as I could.”

Snell was also rescued by a British patrol boat and taken to Londonderry to be cared for at the newly opened Sailors’ Rest facility. Sailors’ Society, current chief executive officer, Stuart Rivers, commented on the horrors of that night, saying:

“This horrific event is one of the many examples of merchant seafarers paying the ultimate sacrifice to keep supply chains open during times of conflict. A century on, Sailors’ Society is still supporting the world’s merchant seafarers through crises such as piracy, kidnapping and abandonment.”

After the war ended, the Allies demanded Werner’s extradition as a war criminal. The German commander had committed similar atrocities and was accused of murdering the crews of the SS Torrington and SS Toro in alarmingly similar circumstances to the ill-fated Belgian Prince crew but, before reaching trial, Werner fled to Brazil under a false name.

He returned to Germany in 1924 and proceedings against him were dropped two years later, enabling him to climb the ranks of the Nazi party where at one point he belonged to Heinrich Himmler’s personal staff. Werner died in May 1945, having never faced justice for his crimes.

Captain Harry Hassan was declared legally dead in a court in June 1919.

The body of the Belgian Prince’s chief officer, Neil McDougall Morton, washed ashore at Cuan Ferry on 23 September 1917. His mother erected a gravestone at Kilbrandon Old Churchyard, which reads, ‘He gave his life that we might not starve.’

Photo: Two of the Belgian Prince survivors flanked by (inset left) Wilhelm Werner taken circa 1933 and Captain Hassan.

* Although it has been popularised that Captain Hassan disappeared this link shows an extract from POW records which indicate he may well have arrived in Germany.