Daily Event for July 31, 2008

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. Heckschuß, G-Torpedo. Scheneidewinkel 80°, 600 m, Treffer Mitte.
Englischer bewaffneter Viermastendampfer, 4800ts, in Ballast auslaufend. Vor Bewacher getaucht."
(Attack submerged. stern tube, G-torpedo. Edge angle 80°, 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 Brigadeführer serving on Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler's personal staff. Never answering for his crimes, he died on May 14, 1945.
© 2008 Michael W. Pocock
MaritimeQuest.com




Roll of Honour
In memory of those who lost their lives in
SS Belgian Prince
"As long as we embrace them in our memory, their spirit will always be with us"

Name
Rate
Notes
Barnes, Theodore G.
Apprentice
Bell, Thomas
Able Seaman
Brown, Solomon
Fireman & Trimmer
Cain, Benjamin
2nd Steward
American
Calam, Frederick G.
2nd Officer
Christian, Nicholas
Fireman & Trimmer
Clarke, N.
Fireman & Trimmer
Cole, J.
Fireman & Trimmer
Cooper, Ernest
3rd Officer
Crissy, William
Signalman
American
De Sousa, Charles
Chief Steward
Duhig, Michael
Leading Seaman (RN)
Duval, Maurice
Ship's Cook & Baker
Elliott, Edwin A.
Wireless Operator
Evans, James F.
Wireless Operator
Fhelmann, Robert
Fireman & Trimmer
Gilmore, Thomas J.
Seaman
American
Griffiths, John
Fireman & Trimmer
Hassan, Harry
Master
Hand, Michael E.
Donkeyman
Hempenstall, Charles
Seaman
Hobson, Hugh G.
4th Engineer Officer
Hoey, Cyril J.
Apprentice
John, Alfred
Fireman & Trimmer
Judge, Thomas
2nd Officer
Linklater, David
Seaman (RNR)
Loft, Thomas
Carpenter
McGratten, Thomas H.
Able Seaman
Mifaries, Jo
Fireman & Trimmer
Chief Officer
Robinson, Ralph H.
Apprentice
Rode, G.
Fireman & Trimmer
Ryan, Thomas
Seaman
Salet, N.
Seaman
Sharp, Edward B.
Apprentice
Shea, James
Fireman & Trimmer
American
Skerritt, Charles
Mess Room Steward
Taylor, Henry N.
Able Seaman
Thornton, Richard
3rd Engineer
Williams, John
Fireman & Trimmer


The Roll of Honour at the Tower Hill Memorial. Note the name Haul, M. is in error and should be Hand, M.
(Photo courtesy of Robert Edmonds)
© 2011 Robert Edmonds all rights reserved



 
Additional information for this page was provided by Don Kindell, Mike Lowrey, Ingo Bauernfeind and
Robert Edmonds.

To submit a photo, biographical information or correction please email the webmaster.
Oct. 18, 2015

I am so pleased I found your research it means a lot to me as Thomas and my grandmother Margaret (nee Ryan) O'Brien (Geraldton, Western Australia) are brother and sister. My grandmother came to Australia when she was 25 years of age. All our family knew (this generation), was that he was on a ship that was struck by a torpedo in the war but nothing else.

When I googled this morning to find Patrick Ryan (my great grandfather) Thomas' father at 51 Clifton Street, Garston Liverpool and found Thomas Ryan ref Royal British Legion and Ref: London Remembers and then followed on to your website I received all this information about the brutal deaths on the SS Belgian Prince, I was astonished.

Thank you very much for your time and research on the account of  SS Belgian Prince tragedy it has filled in a big part of the puzzle of Thomas' final day.

Kind regards,
Maree Clune
Mount Lawley, Perth, Western Australia


Jan. 15, 2012

On Oct. 6, 2011 MaritimeQuest received the following email:

"My name is Leigh Hand, my Grandfather, Edward Michael Hand (who is now 97) always told us his father died on board the ship, the Belgian Prince. I notice there is a M. Haul as part of the crew, however I wonder if maybe the name may have been be confused? (typo??) My great-grandfathers name was Michael. Is it possible to find any further information? We currently live in Australia, however most of us originated in Liverpool, UK. If you could provide any further suggestions to look into this our family would be very indebted.

Kind regards,
Leigh Hand


I responded to her that I had double checked my information (to make sure I had not made an error or typo) and that the name appeared to be correct, all sources and databases available to me showed the name M. Haul. I also found that no M. Hand was listed as a casualty in any of my databases, in any service (RN or MN) dating back to 1900. Her response was:

"Thank you very much for taking the time, not just to respond to my email, but to check your databases for me! Unfortunately my grandfather, who as I mentioned is turning 97 this year, is no longer able to recall any further information, so the story that my Great-grandfather was torpedoed aboard the Belgian Prince when my grandfather was a baby will have to remain a 'story' alas."

This usually would have been the end of the story, but for some reason her email stuck with me and I mulled it over in my mind for several days. She seemed quite convinced that her great-grandfather had indeed perished in the Belgian Prince, and there was no reason to believe that her family had been embellishing his story for so many years (which is sometimes the case). It also occurred to me that the name Hand could have been mistaken for Haul depending on how difficult it was to read. The names are only two letters off, and if you write "nd" in penmanship bad enough it could appear like "ul". So I decided to investigate the claim further.

I contacted Leigh on Oct. 12 and told her what I had decided, I also gave an explanation of my reasoning:

"I have thought about the name Haul and how odd it is so I did a search and found that this M. Haul is the only man with that last name who is listed as KIA in any service of the Commonwealth since 1900. The problem was that no other info was available about him. I then remembered that I had a memorial book listing Merchant Navy KIA in WWI so I checked it, found the same thing, M. Haul with no other info. So far not too exciting.

Well I looked in the folder I have for the ship and found a document I had forgotten about, it shows the crew list, but again it shows M. Haul. Never a first name and the same odd last name, but it had one other piece of information, this M. Haul was 35 and from.....Liverpool!! Since I have no reason to believe that you or your grandfather are lying, and people do, I now believe that the name Haul is incorrect and that most likely this should be Hand.

I can not prove this yet, but I have deployed a contact I have in London to see what he can find. Misspellings are quite common and since they always use just an M. as the first name this might indicate that the legibility of the original document was in question. I intend to note this on the Roll of Honour and will keep you informed of any developments. If you can find any other information at all, no matter how insignificant it might seem please let me know.
"

Her response was:

"Wow, I can't thank you enough for putting so much work and thought into this! I have just got off the phone with my father, and he is pretty intrigued about your email! Its given him a bit of hope that maybe we will find out some further information after all. Of course he is regretting not asking more questions when my Grandad wasn't touched by dementia, but perhaps it was a bit of a sensitive story. Also, as my Grandfather was so young when his dad died (however that was) I guess he only knew what his mother told him, and as she went on to remarry and have other children (all passed away alas), I guess it might not have been spoken about too much.

I have to admit the age of 'M. Haul' would at least seem consistent with my grandad being very young.  And as you know he was definitely from Liverpool. He is going to call all his brothers and sister (there are 7 of them) and see if they know any further details. I will certainly let you know if any relevant details come up. At the moment I just know that my dad was apparently named after his Grandfather, Michael Edward Hand.  
I don't have any reason to think my grandfather would make up the story (although he is from Liverpool, and admittedly they do like to tell a good story).  

He always told me this was how his dad died, he was very certain about it. Even with his dementia, when I last spoke to him I asked to tell me again how his dad died, and he did say 'the Belgian Prince' - so one way or another he certainly believes that to be the case.

I can't tell you how fantastic it would be to get some further information to tell my family (particularly my Grandfather). He lives in the Blue Mountains, which is about 2 hours from me, however I will arrange to visit him as soon as possible to find out if there is any further information he may recall which may help.
Thank you again for everything Michael, I really do appreciate you going out of your way to help us!"


At this point I was not sure how to confirm the story, so I asked my dear friend Robert Edmonds if he could help. My first thought was to get a photo of the plaque at the Tower Hill Memorial to see if the name Hand appeared there. Robert, for reasons which will remain confidential, has extremely limited time to get involved in trodding around London at my behest, but he agreed to visit the memorial when he had a chance.

He visited the memorial on Oct. 23 and took the photos which appear above, the name on the memorial is Haul. This was a dead end, and very disappointing to the Hand family. But we had one more card to play. Mr. Edmonds agreed to contact Kew to see if he could obtain the original crew list. He learned that much of the archive concerning the Merchant Navy in the Great War had been shipped off to Canada and was very difficult to obtain. Undaunted, Robert pressed on and somehow located the box which contained the papers on the Belgian Prince, and they were still at Kew!

He arranged to have the documents scanned and has forwarded them to me, they show the name M. Haul on all documents, but the name Haul has been crossed off and the name Hands has been written in. This is the same on all documents that were located. Without the efforts of Robert Edmonds and his contact at Kew this story would have remained only speculation, but he has, without doubt, proven that the name listed on the Tower Hill Memorial and all other sources is in error and should be corrected. He has also provided some closure to the Hand family.



Extract from the original crew list, note the name Haul has been crossed out.



Close-up of the above document.



Extract from the General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seaman, Tower Hill dated Aug. 16, 1917. Again the name Haul has been crossed off. This list is titled "Members of the Crew Supposed Drowned".



Close-up of the above document.



Dear Mr. Edmonds,

Leigh Hand and her family would like me to convey their deepest thanks for your effort in locating the crew list for the Belgian Prince and confirming to the family that their great-grandfather was indeed lost in the ship. This is especially important to his son who is 97 and has never had any official confirmation of what happened to his father. You have given the family great satisfaction in knowing and you have given Michael E. Hand his proper place in history.

Michael W. Pocock




Feb. 5, 2014

Thank you for putting the story of SS Belgian Prince up. We only recently discovered that my husbands great uncle lost his life on her. His name was Thomas Ryan aged 19. He lived at 51 Clifton Street Garston Liverpool. Thanks again for all you do.

Kindest regards,
Margaret and Michael Moran
Liverpool, England




2005 Daily Event
2007 Daily Event