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|Geplaatst: 02 Aug 2017 6:21 Onderwerp: Cargo ship Belgian Prince Tragedy
|Another forgotten story of the Great War is that of the cargo ship Belgian Prince. The ship was built as
Mohawk in Sunderland by Sir James Laing & Sons Ltd. in 1901 for the Megnatic Steamship Company of Bristol, she was sold twice and finally ended up with the Furness Withy Company (she had been bought by the Prince Line Ltd. in 1912 but in 1916 the line was bought by Furness). In 1915 she was renamed Belgian Prince.
Her last voyage took her from Liverpool with a load of blue clay bound for Newport News, Virginia. However
on July 31, 1917 about at 19:50 when they were about 175 miles from Tory Island, Ireland, without warning, a torpedo hit the ship on the port side between the engine room and the #5 hold. The engines soon were disabled along with the dynamo, this kept the ship from sending a distress signal.
The ship took on a list and the crew abandoned her in three lifeboats. During this time the U-55 surfaced and
began to shell the ship with the intention of disabling the wireless, Oberleutnant zur See Wilhelm Werner,
the commanding officer of the U-55 of course had no way of knowing the wireless could not be used, so this
action is understandable. For an unknown reason the U-55 moved around to the starboard side and fired her
machine gun at the ship.
Werner then approached the three lifeboats which held the entire forty-two man crew. They were all ordered
to get out of the boats and taken on board the casing of the U-55. The Master, Harry Hassan was taken below
while the men on deck were searched. They were asked if they had any weapons and handled quite roughly by the German crew, according to the survivors.
What happened next can only be described as deliberate murder. The crew of the U-55, under orders from
Werner, took the lifebelts from most of the survivors and threw them overboard. They then got into the
lifeboats, took what they wanted and tossed the rest into the sea, removed the corks and further damaged them with axes to be sure they would sink. One small boat was kept intact and boarded by five of the
Germans who took her to the damaged drifting hulk.
According to Chief Engineer Thomas A. Bowman, one of the three survivors; "When they boarded her they signaled to the submarine with a flash lamp, and then the submarine cast the damaged lifeboats adrift and steamed away from the ship for about two miles, after which he stopped."
If the crew were taken aboard the U-55 to be returned to Germany as POW's getting the men on board and destroying the lifeboats would be understandable, a U-boat captain did not want to leave any evidence floating in the water that would indicate that a ship had been sunk lest his boat be discovered, and drifting lifeboats were the best evidence. However at this time the Belgian Prince had not sunk and Werner even had some of his own men on the ship.
The U-55 crew then went below and closed the hatch and the boat got underway on the surface. Werner
sailed about two miles then submerged the U-55 with the forty-one survivors still on the casing of the boat. Chief Engineer Bowman stated; "About 10 p.m. the submarine dived and threw everybody in the water without any means of saving themselves, as the majority of them had had their lifebelts taken off them."
Having taken their lifebelts and destroyed their lifeboats he now decided to just drown the entire crew, a
clear act of cruelty and outright wilful murder, and this was not the first time he had done this.
He did the same thing with the crews of the Torrington on Apr. 8, 1917 and four days later on Apr. 12 to the
crew of the Toro, despicable acts of murder on the high seas. The men in the water had little chance of
survival and all but three died, but the three who survived were able to tell the tale of what happened to their
fellow crewmen after they were picked up by a British patrol boat later in the day.
Able Seaman George Silessi swam back to the Belgium Prince and reboarded her, he was on board when a
U-boat came alongside of the ship the early the next morning. He said several Germans boarded the stricken
ship and looted her, lucky for him the Germans did not see him and he jumped off the ship and got into a
small boat which was nearby.
The third survivor was an American, 2nd Cook William Snell of Jacksonville Florida, he survived by hiding his
lifebelt under his clothes. After the U-55 went under he also headed for the only place he could, the Belgian
Prince. He got within a mile when he saw the Belgian Prince explode and sink. Silessi stated the U-boat fired
two shots from her deck gun and the Belgian Prince sank stern first at about 07:00 on Aug. 1, 1917.
Thirty-nine crewmen died in the North Atlantic, courtesy of Wilhelm Werner and the crew of the U-55, but what happened to the ship's master? It is unclear if Harry Hassan was brought back on deck or kept as a POW, but I have been told by a family member that he "was never seen or heard from again by his family". Bringing the total lives lost to forty.
The KTB (Kriegstagebuch, in English War Diary) of U-55 mentions little of the event;
"July 31: Unterwasserangriff. HeckschuŖ, G-Torpedo. Scheneidewinkel 80į, 600 m, Treffer Mitte.
Englischer bewaffneter Viermastendampfer, 4800ts, in Ballast auslaufend. Vor Bewacher getaucht."
(Attack submerged. stern tube, G-torpedo. Edge angle 80į, 600 m, hit at center. Armed British four masted steamer, 4,800 tons, leaking out of ballast tanks. Dove in front of escort ship.)
"Aug. 1: Dampfer mit Sprengpatrone versenkt; vor Foxglove bis 9 h vm getaucht.
(Steamer sunk with scuttling charges, dove at 9 a.m. in front of Foxglove)
Werner makes no mention of the name of the ship, or the fate of the crew. He also makes no mention
of taking the captain prisoner, a clearly evasive entry in the log of the boat to keep this crime a secret.
In Germany the public was told that what the British press had reported was "A low calumny" and that
"Nevertheless, it can be confidently asserted that the story of the German sailors taking the crew of the
sunk ship on deck and then submerging and washing them into the sea can only be a low lie and calumny.
If our U-boat men had wanted to let the foreign crew perish, they did not need laboriously to take them on
board. The idea that Germans out of sheer devilry pretended to save the men, only in order to let them
perish, could not possibly occur to German sailors."
In the Netherlands the press mocked the Germans by publishing a pastoral letter which was read at Protestant
churches in Germany, including the cathedral attended by the Kaiser. The letter was published next to the story about what happened to the men of the Belgium Prince. It read in part; "We will comport ourselves as Christians toward our enemies and conduct the war in the future as in the past with humility and chivalry."
Wilhelm Werner sank a considerable amount of shipping and in 1918 he torpedoed and sank HMHS Rewa,
a fully lit and marked hospital ship, fortunately only four people were killed. He tried to sink another Hospital
Ship, the Guildford Castle, but because of a dud torpedo and a misfire he failed in this endeavor. He was
charged with war crimes, but fled Germany and never faced trial. He lived in Brazil and later returned to Germany where he joined the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NAZI party), more specifically the SS and rose to the rank of SS BrigadefŁhrer serving on ReichsfŁhrer SS Heinrich Himmler's personal staff. Never answering for his crimes, he died on May 14, 1945.
© 2008 Michael W. Pocock
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied
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