A WREATH will be laid on Monday to mark the centenary of the death of the crew of the SS. Belgian Prince, victims of one of the “most heinous war crimes” of the First World War, the Sailors’ Society says.
The maritime charity, which provides spiritual and practical support to seafarers, cared for the three crew members who survived the attack on the cargo ship on 31 July 1917. It was sailing to the United States from Liverpool on a trade mission.
The ship was torpedoed north-west of Donegal on the orders of the German U-boat commander William Werner. The crew were ordered on board the submarine’s deck and told to take off their lifebelts, which were then kicked overboard or destroyed. The ship’s captain, Harry Hassan, was taken below deck and never seen again.
The submarine then dived underwater — leaving 38 men on deck to drown. Three others managed to survive, one having managed to conceal a lifejacket from the German officers.
The Sailors’ Society’s chief executive, Stuart Rivers, said: “This horrific event is one of the many examples of merchant seafarers’ paying the ultimate sacrifice to keep supply chains open during times of conflict.
“A century on, Sailors’ Society is still supporting the world’s merchant seafarers through crises such as piracy, kidnapping, and abandonment.”
After the war ended, the Allies demanded Werner’s extradition as a war criminal. He had committed additional, similar atrocities, and was accused of murdering the crew of the SS Torrington in similar circumstances to those of the Belgian Prince.
Werner fled to Brazil under a false name, and returned to Germany in 1924, where he rose rapidly through the ranks of the Nazi party. He died in 1945.
The body of the Belgian Prince’s chief officer, Neil McDougall Morton, was washed ashore six weeks after the 1917 attack. His mother erected a gravestone at Kilbrandon Old Churchyard, which reads: “He gave his life that we might not starve.”
The deliberate killing of the crew caused outrage in the newspapers of the time, on both sides of the Atlantic. Several of the dead were from the United States.
Mr Rivers will lay a wreath on a memorial at the Portsmouth Naval Memorial to mark the centenary.
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