On 4 July 1915 the 7,333 ton merchant ship Anglo-Californian was 70 miles south of the Fastnet Rock, close to the end of a journey from Montreal. She normally carried nitrate, but on this voyage her cargo was 927 horses, intended for the Western Front. This was the fifth time that she had brought horses across the Atlantic. She was captained by 59 year old Frederick Parslow, whose son, also called Frederick, was her second officer. As well as her crew of 44 men, there were 50 American and Canadian cattlemen on board to look after the horses.
At 8:00 am the Anglo-Californian, which was then 24 hours from its destination, Avonmouth, was spotted by SMS U39, captained by Kapitänleutnant Walther Forstmann. In order to conserve his torpedoes, Forstmann decided to surface and call on the merchantman to surrender. U39, capable of 16.5 knots on the surface, was three miles away from the Anglo-Californian, which was designed to sail at 12 knots. Parslow, however, believed that his ship, being lightly loaded, could make two knots more than this, so decided to flee.
The Anglo-Californian made radio contact with the Q-ship Princess Ena, a former cross-Channel ferry that had been armed with three concealed 12 pounder guns in order to act as a trap for U-boats. She was capable of only 15 knots, so would struggle to arrive in time, but she called up the destroyers HMS Mentor and Miranda.
Forstmann opened fire at 9:00 am from a range of one and a half miles. Captain Parslow remained on the open bridge with his son, ordering his crew to take cover below. The Parslows had no protection from the German gunfire. They had to lie down, with the son steering from a prone position and the father occasionally lifting his head to command the ship on a zig-zag pattern At 10:30 am Forstmann called on the Anglo-Californian to surrender. Captain Parslow realised that his ship could not escape, so ordered her to stop and the crew to abandon ship.
At this point, Princess Ena opened fire from 9,000 yards. Her shots fell short, but Parslow then received a radio message urging him to ‘hold on’ as the destroyers were on their way. He therefore ordered his crew to return below decks, and to get the ship underway again. The Germans resumed firing, this time with rifles as well as U39’s deck gun. They targeted the bridge, which was soon wrecked, with the steering wheel and compass being damaged.
With several holes in the hull, a fire in the hold and no sign of the Royal Navy, Captain Parslow decided that he had no choice but to surrender. He ordered the engines stopped and the crew to abandon ship. The lifeboats were swung out under the direction of Chief Officer Harold Read. Forstmann, however, was unwilling to risk being tricked a second time, so continued to fire from a range of only 1,500 yards. One lifeboat was upended as it was being lowered into the sea after one of the davits was hit, and another lifeboat capsized.
Captain Parslow was then killed, just as the two British destroyers appeared. Forstmann dived his boat and escaped. Twenty of the men and twenty of the horses on board the Anglo-Californian were killed. She was escorted into Queenstown (now Cobh) early the next day.
Captain Parslow’s son and Chief Engineer James Crawford were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 10 September. The citations below are from Naval-History.net:
29292 -10 SEPTEMBER 1915
….. award of the Distinguished Service Cross to the following Officers:
Sub-Lieutenant Frederick Parslow, R.N.R. For his services in the horse-transport “Anglo-Californian,” which was attacked by a German submarine on the 4th July, and subjected to heavy gun-fire for an hour and a half. Sub-Lieutenant Parslow steered the ship throughout the action, and maintained his post after his father, the Captain of the ship, had been killed by a shell, until some of our patrol boats arrived and drove the submarine off.
Engineer James Crawford, R.N.R. For his services as Chief Engineer of the same transport, in the escape of which he was largely instrumental by maintaining the vessel’s maximum speed in spite of a shortage of firemen.
Captain Parslow was not given any official award until 23 May 1919, when he was posthumously commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and awarded a Victoria Cross. The Admiralty may have feared that awarding a gallantry medal to a member of the Merchant Marine during the war could have allowed the Germans to claim that its members were combatants.
Parslow’s citation below is from Naval-History.net:
31354 – 23 MAY 1919
Admiralty, S.W., 24th May, 1919.
The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers:
Lieutenant Frederick Parslow, R.N.R.
For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the Horse Transport “Anglo-Californian” on the 4th July, 1915.
At 8 a.m. on 4th July, 1915, a large submarine was sighted on the port beam at a distance of about one mile. The ship, which was entirely unarmed, was immediately manoeuvred to bring the submarine astern; every effort was made to increase speed, and an S.O.S. call was sent out by wireless, an answer being received from a man-of-war. At 9 a.m. the submarine opened fire, and maintained a steady fire, making occasional hits, until 10.30 a.m., meanwhile Lieutenant Parslow constantly altered course and kept the submarine astern.
At 10 30 am the enemy hoisted the signal to “abandon the vessel as fast as possible,” and in order to save life Lieutenant Parslow decided to obey, and stopped engines to give as many of the crew as wished an opportunity to get away in the boats On receiving a wireless message from a destroyer, however, urging him to hold on as long as possible, he decided to get way on the ship again The submarine then opened a heavy fire on the bridge and boats with guns and rifles, wrecking the upper bridge, killing Lieutenant Parslow, and carrying away one of the port davits, causing the boat to drop into the sea and throwing its occupants into the water.
At about 11am two destroyers arrived on the scene, and the submarine dived
Throughout the attack Lieutenant Parslow remained on the bridge, on which the enemy fire was concentrated, entirely without protection, and by his magnificent heroism succeeded, at the cost of his own life, in saving a valuable ship and cargo for the country He set a splendid example to the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine.
This website includes a painting of the Parslows under fire by Thomas M. M. Hemy, titled Unconquerable, and other pictures of the action, the Parslows and the Anglo-Californian.
 B. Edwards, War under the Red Ensign 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2010), pp. 61-62.
 The last 3 paragraphs are based on Ibid., pp. 65-67.
 A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 18-19.
 The last two paragraphs are based on Edwards, War, pp. 68-69.
2 responses to “Frederick Parslow VC and the Merchantman Anglo Californian’s Battle with U39”
Fascinating story. All the so-called “little things” that made up the war to end all wars. Brave merchantmen!
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