Anniversary of World War One St Albans sailor in torpedo tragedy

A memorial at Tower Hill, London

A memorial at Tower Hill, London - Credit: Archant

Tributes will be paid to a World War One St Albans sailor and his colleagues who were torpedoed and deliberately drowned 100 years ago this month.

Two of the Belgian Prince survivors who were helped by Sailors' Society

Two of the Belgian Prince survivors who were helped by Sailors' Society - Credit: Archant

At about 7.50pm on July 31 1917 a ship called the SS Belgian Prince was travelling from Liverpool to America when it was attacked by a German submarine.

Chief engineer Thomas Bowman was smoking on deck when the alarm was raised: “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.”

The ship started flooding and the communication equipment was destroyed, 175 miles from land.

Wilhelm Werner taken in about 1933

Wilhelm Werner taken in about 1933 - Credit: Archant

Under the command of Nazi-to-be Wilhelm Werner, the British crew were taken onto the top of the German submarine and their lifebelts were kicked overboard.

The Captain, Harry Hassan, was taken inside the submarine, never to be seen again.

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The Germans exited, leaving the sailors on top of the submarine, and rowed over to the abandoned Belgian Prince. While they watched from afar, the submarine went underwater in order to drown the British crew.

A 16-year-old St Albans-born apprentice, Edward Baden Sharp, died along with 37 other men.

Bowman was dragged down with the submarine, but survived: “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.”

Bowman was later saved by a British patrol boat, along with George Silessi and the ship’s 2nd cook American Willie Snell - who had hidden his lifebelt from the Germans.

On land in Londonderry the only three survivors were supported by the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society, which is now called Sailors’ Society.

Chief executive officer of the society, Stuart Rivers, said, “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.”