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Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Gunner Billy," Naval VC

Book available from the NMRNZN
One century ago, New Zealand's only naval Victoria Cross was awarded to a lad who could have easily featured in a novel by Douglas Reeman.

As today's DomPost of Wellington reveals in a full-page feature today, his story was one of high seas adventure.

And, what's more, it was under sail.  William "Gunner Billy" Sanders was in command of a schooner, HMS Prize, which was sailing in disguise.

Born in Auckland, in 1883, Billy left school at the age of 15 to work as a mercer's clerk, but sneaked off in his lunch hours to explore the shipping in Auckland Harbour.  In 1899 he left the dusty confines of the store to become the cabin boy of the coastal steamer Kapanui, and then, three years later, shipped on a series of government steamers.  And from there he went into sail, in the busy trans-Tasman timber trade.

When the Great War broke out, he volunteered for the Royal Navy but for some unknown and incomprehensible reason was turned down.  Persistence paid off, culminating in his command of the schooner Prize -- which was a "Q ship," meaning that the vessel was disguised as an ordinary trader, with cloaked weapons, designed to draw unsuspecting Germans into the field of fire.

On April 30, 1917, off the coast of Ireland, the lookouts on Prize raised the German U-boat U-93, which was on the way back to Germany after completing its mission.  And the German commander fell into the trap -- opening fire on what he thought was a helpless sailing ship.

With marvelous cool-headedness, Billy instructed his crew to hold fire until the U-boat was in range of their guns -- a trial that they all withstood for twenty long minutes.  Then, when the submarine was just a football field length away, at last they returned fire.

The Prize limped away, badly damaged, with Billy convinced that he had put an end to the U-boat.  Unfortunately, he was wrong.  The submarine made it back, the commander reported the incident, and Billy now had the equivalent of a price upon his head.

On August 13, 1917, the Prize was back on patrol -- to be ambushed by U-48, which immediately fired a torpedo.  There were no survivors of the inferno.  Billy was just 34 years old.

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