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PWSTS Forum Member

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Memorial Article

Hello Andy,

Hope you don't mind me posting this.

As 2008 sees the 90th Anniversary of the end of WWI, I have been writing a number of related Merchant Navy articles hopeully to be used in a commemorative brochure later this year. I though your members maybe interested in the following one.

Charles Fryatt, born at Southampton in 1872 first went to sea in the North Sea ferries of the Great Eastern Railway Co. as a young Ordinary Seaman. By the age of forty he was Master of the 1,380grt SS Brussels. At the outbreak of WWI the SS Brussels continued mostly undisturbed on he usual run between Harwich and the Hook of Holland, because of the Dutch neutrality and a fact that these ferries were to fast for the German U-boats operating in the area, and who at the time had to follow the rules of engagement and stop a vessel before sinking a ship. This situation took a dramatic turn in February 1915, when Germany declared unrestricted war fare around Britain, which enabled the German's to attack and sink any merchant vessel without prior warning. On the 3rd March 1915 Captain Fryatt successfully dodged an attack on his ship by a U-Boat simply by out running his adversary. On the 28th March 1915 a further attempt was made to sink his ship by U-33 commanded by Korvetten-Kapitan Gausser. The SS Brussels Chief Officer saw the U-boat surface and as the U-boat ordered the ship to heave to, Captain Fryatt following Admiralty orders then ordered the helm hard over and bore down on the U-Boat, which was forced to crash dive in order to avoid  a collision. By the time the U-boat re-surfaced the SS Brussels was inside Dutch waters and away from danger. The ship returned home to a heros reception and was used as part of the propaganda war. As well as receiving praise in the House of Commons, Captain Fryatt, his Chief Officer & Chief Engineer were presented with an inscribed gold watch recording the event in appreciation from a grateful nation. Captain Fryatt maintained he had never intended to ram the U-boat, but took instinctive action intent on saving his own ship. However the humiliated German's condemned him as a pirate and potential murderer. The gold watch presented to Captain Fryatt would eventually lead to his death.
The German High Command still raging from the humiliation that the SS Brussels, an unarmed merchant ship had out manoeuvred and almost sunk one of its latest and most powerful U-boats, must be brought to book, whatever the cost. Over the next twelve months the German's tried numerous attempts to capture or sink the SS Brussels to no avail, as Captain Fryatt escaped each time by out manoeuvring and out running his enemy. This would all change on the night of 22nd June 1916.
After sailing from the Hook of Holland for Harwich with her usual cargo and compliment of passengers, those on the bridge of the SS Brussels were surprised to see a signal rocket curving skywards from the beach beyond the Hook. Without giving it to much thought Captain Fryatt returned his attention to navigating his ship down river. Just before midnight the ship passed the Maas Lightship and out into the North Sea, setting a South, South-Westerly course. Even at this stage of the war and the previous events of 1915, the SS Brussels sailed showing all her navigation lights. An hour into the watch a dark silhouette was observed from the bridge, believed to be a small fishing boat showing no lights. As the SS Brussels drew abeam at a close distance, the unidentified boat flashed a partially covered lamp seawards and was observed from the bridge of the merchant man. Alarm bells rang in Captain Fryatt's head, the signal rocket sighted after leaving port and the unexpected signal lamp flashing from a blacked out fishing boat was to much of a coincidence and he ordered his ship to extinguish all lights and ordered all his passengers below. Now steaming full ahead in complete darkness, the bridge lookouts scanned the black night for any noise or object in their path. Not long after blacking out his ship, a dark silhouette was seen on a collision course. Conscious of his passengers and safety of his ship, Captain Fryatt ordered his navigation lights switched back on. This was to prove fateful and would lead to what can only be described as the eventual murder of Captain Charles A. Fryatt.
Some fifteen minutes after switching the ships navigation lights back on, the SS Brussels was approached and surrounded by a flotilla of German destroyers, which had been lying in wait. Their guns trained at the defenceless merchant man, Captain Fryatt ordered his ship to heave too. As the dawn broke, SS Brussels now flying the German Ensign was escorted by her captures into Zeebrugge and then taken up river to Bruges. Here the passengers, many of them neutrals were released while Captain Fryatt and his crew were taken to a local gaol. The following day the ships crew were rounded up and transferred to Germany for internment. Captain Fryatt and his Chief Officer were to be  held for questioning and held in solitary confinement. During the interrogation, the watch belonging to Captain Fryatt with its incriminating inscription recalling his previous exploits was produced. Captain Fryatt again explained his intention was never to ram U-33, but merely to force the U-boat to crash dive while trying to ensure the safety of his ship. The German's would have none of this and were determined to make an example of him and he was to be sent for trial by Court Martial at Bruges. On the 27th July 1916 he was convicted and condemned to death by firing squad, the sentence being confirmed by the Kaiser. His crime that of a franc-tireur, a term generally used to describe guerrilla fighters who fight outside the laws of war. Sentence was to be carried out the same day.
On the 28th July 1916 Reuters in Amsterdam received and official telegram from Berlin stating:
"On July 27, at Bruges, before the court martial of the marine corps, the trial took place of Captain Charles Fryatt of the British steamer "Brussels", which was brought in as a prize. The accused was condemned to death because although he was not a member of a combat force, he made an attempt on the afternoon of the 28th March 1915 to ram the German submarine U-33 near the Maas Lightship. The accused as well as the First Officer and Chief Engineer of the steamer received at the time from the British Admiralty a gold watch as a reward for his brave conduct that occasion, and his action was mentioned with praise in the House of Commons. On the Occasion in question, disregarding the U-boat signal to stop and show his national flag, he turned at the critical moment at speed on the submarine, which escaped the steamer by a few metres only by immediately diving. He confessed that in doing so he acted in accordance with the instructions of the Admiralty. The sentence was confirmed yesterday afternoon and carried out by shooting one of the many nefarious "ranc tireur" proceedings of the British Merchant marine against our war vessels has thus found a belated but merited expiation."
The news that Captain Fryatt had been taken to a piece of waste ground in the Bruges docklands and shot sent shock waves through the civilized world and condemnation from far and wide. The British accused the German's of murder as Captain Fryatt was a civilian non-combatant and thus subject to rules of "The Hague Convention". Unfortunately the House of Commons at the time of the watch presentation, publicly applauded Captain Fryatt's attempt to ram U-33.
Captain Fryatt left a wife and seven children.
After the war Captain Fryatt's body was exhumed and returned home for burial and laid to rest at Dovercourt (All Saints) Churchyard on the 19th July 1919. With the passage of time Charles Fryatt has become another forgotten victim in the mass slaughter of the Great War. A small memorial was dedicated by "The Netherlands Section of the League of Neutral States" and erected at London's Liverpool St. Station in July 1917, one year after his execution and is passed by millions of people every year who are more than likely oblivious to its existence.
Lest we forget. Captain Charles A. Fryatt (1872-1916)


PWSTS Forum Member

Status: Offline
Posts: 360

A good story and a prime example of the twisted logic of decision making in times of war.



PWSTS UK Director

Status: Offline
Posts: 2133

A true hero indeed. Its always a pleasure to receive material from you Billy

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