In July 1916 Charles Fryatt, a 43 year old father of six girls and a boy, was employed by the Great Eastern Railway Company as a captain of steamers on the Harwich to Rotterdam route. When the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare on 18 February 1915 this route became very dangerous because it passed within 35 miles of the German U-boat base at Zeebrugge. War on commerce can be almost as successful by delaying or discouraging merchant ships from sailing as by sinking them. Many neutral vessels were reluctant to sail on this route, putting communications between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands at risk, but the GER steamers kept it open.
On 3 March 1915 Fryatt was captaining the SS Wrexham when she encountered a U-boat. By using deck hands as stokers the Wrexham managed to make 16 knots, 2 knots higher than her official top speed, during a 40 mile chase and evaded the submarine. Fryatt was presented with a watch by the GER as recognition of his efforts.
The British Admiralty issued orders to the masters of merchant ships that they should head straight towards surfaced U-boats. This would force the U-boat to dive, which would enable the merchantman to escape because of the slow speed of submerged submarines.
Fryatt was in command of the SS Brussels on 28 March when she encountered SM U33, captained by Kapitänleutnant Konrad Gansser. He went on to be a successful U-boat captain, sinking over 140,000 tons of shipping, but was yet to score his first kill.
U33 signalled the Brussels to stop. Fryatt, realising that he could not turn and escape, changed course in order to pass U33’s stern. U33 then manoeuvred so as to put herself in a position to torpedo the Brussels. As U33 crossed the Brussels‘ bow, Fryatt made a sharp turn and headed for the U-boat, which dived. Brussels passed 50 yards from U33’s stern with the U-boat 25 feet underwater.
Gansser’s version of events was that ‘the steamer put her helm over, and came at U33 with the manifest intention of ramming us…it was not possible for me to make sure of striking her with a torpedo…the steamer passed us at a distance of from twenty to thirty metres.’ There can be little difference between trying to force a submarine to dive and trying to ram her from the point of view of the submariners.
The Brussels escaped and Fryatt was presented with another commemorative watch, this time by the Admiralty. He continued to command her, escaping several other attacks.
On 22 June 1916 the Brussels left Rotterdam, with orders to collect mail, some of it diplomatic, at the Hook of Holland, before heading for Tilbury. It became obvious that her departure was watched and that she was followed by a steamer without lights. She was then surrounded by German destroyers, boarded and taken into Zeebrugge. Fryatt, who had had the diplomatic mail destroyed, and his first officer Mr Hartnell were held briefly in an internment camp for Allied civilians at Ruhleben in Germany before being sent to Bruges, where Fryatt was interrogated for three weeks. He was allowed occasionally to speak to Hartnell but was not allowed any legal advice.
On 24 July Fryatt was told that he would be tried by court martial. The US Ambassador at Berlin had on 20 July, at the request of the British Foreign Office, approached the German Foreign Office regarding the appointment of a defence counsel for Fryatt. No reply was received until 26 July, when the Ambassador was told that Fryatt would be tried the next day.
The trial consisted of a lawyer, Dr Zäpfel, as President, five officers and a secretary. Its sentence could be appealed against. Fryatt was defended Archibald Hurd’s official history of The Merchant Navy, otherwise very critical of the Germans in this case, says ‘that he strove conscientiously to do his duty.’
The German military strongly objected to resistance from irregular forces, which it termed franc-tireurs (the French for free shooters). These had fought the German in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and the Germans were keen to prevent a repetition. They therefore shot several thousand Belgian and French civilians during the period of mobile warfare. Very few of them had resisted the invader: incidents of friendly fire and resistance from isolated Allied soldiers caused panic amongst soldiers who expected to encounter franc-tireurs.
Fryatt declined to state in his defence that he was acting under Admiralty instructions. He probably would have been acquitted had he done so, since the German objection was to resistance by civilians not operating under military orders. He would not do so because the orders were given to him confidentially.
After a trial lasting an afternoon Fryatt was found guilty despite Naumann’s protests that the evidence of the two eye witnesses from U33 was contradictory. Gansser submitted a written statement but could not be cross examined because he was serving in the Mediterranean.
Fryatt was told that he would be shot the next day, but the execution was then brought forward to that evening. Hurd suggests that Admiral Ludwig von Schröder, who had ordered the trial, wanted Fryatt dead as quickly as possible in case the German Foreign Office succumbed to US pressure for ‘a fair trial.’
The execution of Fryatt was a propaganda disaster for the Germans: The New York Times called it ‘a deliberate murder’; the Dutch Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant said it would ‘disgust neutrals and arouse fresh hatred and bitterness in Britain’; and Danish and Norwegian reaction was similar.
In April 1919 a German Committee of Inquiry re-examined the case, concluding that only the speed with which Fryatt was executed could be criticised.
The German contention appears to be that they were entitled to sink merchant ships but that merchant ships were not entitled to defend themselves against attack. Even from their own point of view, it is difficult to understand the logic of launching a military operation to capture a man who had caused them some inconvenience over a year before so that they could arraign him before a show trial and execute him.
Fryatt’s family were well treated. His widow’s £250 p.a. pension from the GER was augmented by £100 by the government and a £300 insurance payment was made immediately, without the usual formalities. The Royal Merchant Seaman’s Orphanage offered to educate two of his children. Fryatt’s body was brought home after the war and reburied in All Saint’s Chuch, Upper Dovercourt near Harwich after a ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral. His body was transported in the same railway wagon that brought home the bodies of Edith Cavell, the British nurse executed by the Germans in Belgium, and the British Unknown Warrior. It has recently been restored.
The Germans went to some trouble to kill a brave man with little cause for no result other than a propaganda disaster.
 A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 307-8.
 R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 36.
 Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 308-9,
 Ibid. footnote 1, pp. 310-11.
 Ibid., pp. 310-14.
 Ibid., p. 314.
 Ibid., p. 315.
 See J. N. Horne, A. Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2001). for the full story.
 Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, p. 317.
 Ibid., pp. 316-19.
 Ibid., p. 319.
 Ibid., p. 322.
 Ibid., pp. 322-23.