Ferry Captain Shot by Germans for Attempting to Ram U-Boat
Capt. Charles Fryatt (1872 - 1916)
July 27 1916, Bruges–The Germans had continually violated prize rules when attacking merchant shipping, often sinking them with little or no warning. As a result, Churchill, when still head of the Admiralty, had notified merchant captains that they could also ignore prize rules when it came to submarines; submariners were essentially to be treated as criminals, rather than as enemy sailors subject to the usual rules of war.
On March 28, 1915 (the same day as the sinking of the Falaba), the SS Brussels, serving as a ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland (in the neutral Netherlands), was signalled to stop by U-33. Understandably fearful that U-33 would sink his vessel, quite possibly before giving his passengers a chance to evacuate, Captain Charles Fryatt ordered his ship to full speed in an attempt to ram the submarine. The submarine barely escaped after a crash dive, and the Brussels safely made it to her destination. Even if the Germans had been universally following prize rules to the letter, it would not have been clear that Fryatt had done anything wrong under international law. For his quick thinking, Fryatt was awarded a gold watch by the Admiralty with the inscription “Presented by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to Chas. Algernon Fryatt Master of the S.S. ‘Brussels’ in recognition of the example set by that vessel when attacked by a German submarine on March 28th, 1915.”
On June 25, when departing the Netherlands, the Brussels was intercepted by two German torpedo boats, with assistance from signals from the shore or perhaps even from the boat itself. The ship was taken to German-occupied Zeebrugge. The Germans found Fryatt’s watch on his person, and determined to make an example of him. In their view, as a non-combatant who took action against a German ship, he was essentially a franc-tireur, against whom the harshest action should be taken.
On July 27, he was given a summary trial in Bruges Town Hall and quickly found guilty. He was executed by firing squad at 7PM that day, and the following notice was printed:
NOTICE. The English captain of a merchant ship, Charles Fryatt, of Southampton, though he did not belong to the armed forces of the enemy, attempted on March 28th, 1915, to destroy a German submarine by running it down. For this he has been condemned to death by judgment this day of the Field Court Martial of the Naval Corps, and has been executed. A ruthless deed has thus been avenged, belatedly but just.
Signed VON SCHRÖDER, Admiral Commandant of the Naval Corps, Bruges, July 27th, 1916
Reaction in Britain was understandably outraged. Neutral countries, too, were incredibly alarmed; a Geneva paper wrote “It is monstrous to maintain that armed forces have a right to murder civilians but that civilians are guilty of a crime in defending themselves.”
Today in 1915: Austrians Attempt to Retake Pelagosa Islands
Today in 1914: “You’ve Cooked This Broth And Now You’re Going to Eat It.”
Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.