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The Execution of Captain Fryatt 27 July 1916

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.’[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.’[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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.’[11]

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.[12]

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.[13]

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.

 

 

[1] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 307-8.

[2] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 36.

[3] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 308-9,

[4] Ibid. footnote 1, pp. 310-11.

[5] Ibid., pp. 310-14.

[6] Ibid., p. 314.

[7] Ibid., p. 315.

[8] See J. N. Horne, A. Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2001). for the full story.

[9] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, p. 317.

[10] Ibid., pp. 316-19.

[11] Ibid., p. 319.

[12] Ibid., p. 322.

[13] Ibid., pp. 322-23.

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The Global Naval War

The Royal Navy’s most famous action of March 1915 was its unsuccessful attempt to force the Dardanelles. Its most successful one was the sinking of the German light cruiser SMS Dresden on 14 March. However, in March 1915, as with every month of the war, it was involved in many other activities across the world.

The Ottoman Empire’s largest Mediterranean port, Smyrna (now Izmir), was bombarded on 5 March in an operation similar to the attack on the Dardanelles. The intention was to prevent it being used as a submarine base. The attacking force consisted of the battleships HMS Swiftsure and Triumph, detached from the Dardanelles, the cruiser HMS Euryalus (Vice Admiral Sir Richard Peirse’s flagship),  the Russian cruiser Askold, the seaplane carrier Aenne Rickmers and minesweepers.

Smyrna was defended by a battery of seven 9.4 inch guns and another of four 6 inch guns, plus minefields that were protected by light guns and searchlights. The action began on 5 March and soon became a smaller version of the Dardanelles. The minefields prevented the big ships from getting close enough to destroy the guns which stopped the minesweepers from clearing the minefields.

An attempt was made to persuade the local ruler, the Vali of Smyrna, to come to terms. He appeared to agree, but it was unclear whether or not the military would obey him, especially after British ships flying flags of truce were fired on.[1]

The attack was called off on 15 March because the battleships were recalled to the Dardanelles. Ironically, Smyrna could not be used as a submarine base because the Ottomans blocked it by scuttling five ships in order to defend it against the attack.[2]

In Africa the RN was engaged on both coasts. The United Kingdom’s main interest in the Cameroons was in capturing the wireless station and port of Duala, which might have been used to support cruiser operations. The French were more interested in obtaining territory. Duala was taken by a river based operation on 27 September 1914, during which the gunboat HMS Dwarf sank the German cutter Nachtigal. However, the Germans had not retreated far, meaning that a further advance was needed in order to make it secure.[3]

In March 1915 the naval force operating off the Cameroons and along its rivers consisted of the cruiser HMS Challenger, HMS Dwarf, the French cruiser Pothau and about 20 smaller craft. In late April Challenger was relieved by the cruiser HMS Astraea and the force strengthened by the cruiser HMS Sirius and the sloop HMS Rinaldo.[4]

Until the British victory at the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914 RN forces in South Africa had to be kept concentrated. South African troops were convoyed by sea to the British enclave at Walvis Bay on 25 December.

By March the most important task for the RN’s South African station was the blockade of German East Africa (now Tanzania). The light cruiser SMS Königsberg was by then trapped in the Rufiji River.

The only German commerce raider at liberty in March was the armed merchant cruiser SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, which would intern herself in Newport News on 8 April. However, the British did not learn until around 19 March the light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe had been destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November 1914.[5]

By March 1915 the main German threat to Allied commerce was from U-boats. Germany had declared that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare from 18 February. In February German U-boats sank nine Allied merchant ships with a total tonnage of 22,784 tons, including two of 4,286 tons on 15 February. Two (11,228 tons) were damaged. In March 30 ships (79,369 tons) were sunk or captured by German U-boats, with six (22,300 tons) being damaged. One of the ships in March sunk was the 5,948 tom armed merchant cruiser HMS Bayano.

These losses, although higher than previously inflicted by U-boats, were not huge because of the relatively small number of U-boats that Germany then possessed. It had 23 operational on 22 February, plus seven newly completed boats that were under sea trials. The need to refit, repair and resupply boats meant that there was an average of 5.6 and a maximum of 12 boats at sea on any one day between March and May 1915.[6]

The RN, like all navies lacked effective anti-submarine countermeasures in March 1915. Three U-boats were lost that month: U8 was trapped in nets and scuttled whilst under gunfire from the destroyers HMS Gurkha and Maori on 4 March; U12 was rammed by the destroyer HMS Ariel on 10 March; and U29 was being rammed by the battleship HMS Dreadnought on 18 March.

U29 remains the only submarine to have ever been sunk by a battleship. She was lost with all hands, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen. He had previously captained U9 when she sank three British cruisers on 22 September 1914 and another on 15 October.

The Admiralty issued orders that merchant ships that sighted a surfaced U-boat should head towards it in order to force it to dive. On 28 March Captain Charles Fryatt of the Great Eastern Railway packet Brussels escaped from U33 by this tactic.

The Brussels was captured by German destroyers on the night of 22-23 June 1916 and taken into Zeebrugge. Fryatt was tried as a franc-tireur on the basis that he was a civilian who had attempted to attack the German armed forces. He was executed on 27 July 1916, yet another German action that handed the Allies a propaganda victory for little or no military advantage. It was heavily criticised by the neutral Press: The New York Times called it ‘a deliberate murder.’[7]

British naval operations continued throughout the world, including blockading Germany, supplying the Western Front, patrolling and minesweeping.

On 24 March aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service attempted to bomb the dockyards at Antwerp, where small U-boats of the UB coastal type were being assembled. Some aircraft had to abort because of technical problems and weather, but two, piloted by Squadron Commander I.T. Courtney and Flight-Lieutenant H. Rosher, bombed the target.[8]

This link names all British Empire sailors and marines who died in March 1915, whether from enemy action, illness or accident. The largest number were killed in the Dardanelles, followed by the crew of HMS Bayano. Most others died in the UK or home waters, but some died in Australia and Canada. Twelve were lost when the trawler Lord Airedale, taken into service as a minesweeper, foundered in a storm off the east coast of England on 18 March. The sea was dangerous, even when not undertaking dangerous war work such as minesweeping.

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 195-200.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 114.

[3] H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 519-23.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 281-84.

[5] Ibid. footnote 1, p. 240.

[6] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), p. 7.

[7] Halpern, Naval, p. 296.

[8] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. ii, pp. 343-44.

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