World War 1 History: Germans Execute Captain Fryatt of the British Merchant Marine
Executed For Attempting to Ram U-Boat
In March of 1915, the SS Brussels, a passenger ferry captained by Charles Fryatt, was ordered to stop by the German submarine U-33. Instead of complying, Captain Fryatt tried to ram the U-Boat, which barely escaped by crash diving. In June 1916, the Germans captured Fryatt when the Brussels was near the Dutch coast. He was taken prisoner, tried as a non-combatant trying to sink a U-Boat and executed on July 27, 1916, setting off a firestorm of protest.
Captain Charles Fryatt (1872 – 1916) worked for the Great Eastern Railway, which, in addition to its railways in Britain, also operated a number of steamship ferries. In 1915, Fryatt captained steamships on the run between England's east coast and neutral Holland, ferrying passengers, refugees, mail, etc. This was a dangerous area as German U-Boats prowled the waters.
Blockades and Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
In February, Germany had announced that all merchant shipping around the British Isles could be attacked without warning in retaliation for the British Naval blockade of Germany. Since the German fleet was more or less bottled up by the Royal Navy, the new orders fell to the U-Boat captains. While the rules allowed them to torpedo targets while submerged, it was usually more efficient for them to surface and shell them with their deck guns, although this exposed them to being rammed, even by unarmed vessels.
Also in February, in response to the German announcement, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered that all British merchant vessels must not surrender to submarines, but do their utmost to escape. In the event escape from the U-Boat was not possible they must “steer straight for her at your utmost speed” and the sub “will probably then dive”. This latter order became known as the “ramming order”, although the Admiralty deliberately did not use the word “ramming” anywhere in its orders. In addition, crews of U-Boats were to be treated as felons and not prisoners of war and could be shot if it wasn't convenient to take them prisoner. Captains of merchant ships that surrendered could face prosecution in Britain.
Fryatt's Encounters With German U-Boats
Fryatt's first brush with a U-Boat happened on March 2, 1915, while he was master of the unarmed steamship SS Wrexham on its run from Harwich, England to Rotterdam, Holland. A U-Boat surfaced at some distance and Fryatt turned his ship away from the sub and pushed the Wrexham speed of 14 knots, managing 16 knots. They lost the sub after a chase of 40 miles and arrived at Rotterdam with burnt funnels. For this, he was presented with a gold watch from the Great Eastern Railway, inscribed:
Presented to Captain C. A. Fryatt by the Chairman and Directors of the G.E Railway Company as a mark of their appreciation of his courage and skilful seamanship on March 2nd, 1915.
Fryatt's second, and most significant, encounter with a German sub occurred on Sunday, March 28, 1915, as he steered the SS Brussels, also unarmed, toward Rotterdam. The U-Boat U-33 surfaced just four miles away and turned toward them, hoisting two flags ordering the Brussels to stop. Unable to outrun it at such a short distance, Fryatt turned his ship and steamed full-speed ahead directly at U-33. Seeing this, U-33 initiated a crash dive and just barely was able to avoid being rammed. The Brussels then escaped to Rotterdam. For this second action, the Admiralty itself presented Captain Fryatt with a second gold watch and a vellum certificate and he was praised in Parliament. This second watch was inscribed:
Presented by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to Chas. Algernon Fryatt Master of the S.S. 'Brussels' in recognition of the example set by that vessel when attacked by a German submarine on March 28th, 1915.
The Germans were outraged that a non-combatant had attempted to sink one of their U-Boats.
Captured, Tried and Shot
More than a year passed, while Captain Fryatt continued his runs between England and Holland. In late June, 1916, the Admiralty became aware of a German plan to capture Fryatt but the SS Brussels sailed from Rotterdam on the evening of June 25 before Fryatt could be warned. It is reported that light signals were exchanged between the shore and someone on board the Brussels. In short order the merchant steamer was surrounded by five German destroyers. Fryatt ordered the passengers into lifeboats and official papers and the radio were destroyed. The destroyers escorted the Brussels to Bruges, Belgium where the crew and Captain Fryatt were taken prisoner.
Fryatt was charged with being a franc-tireur, literally a “free shooter”, for the crime of a non-combatant attempting to sink a U-Boat. During the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, French civilian sharpshooters, referred to as franc-tireurs had killed many Prussian soldiers and the Germans had never forgotten that. It was about as serious a charge as could be brought and a war of words began between the British and German governments. But even the British didn't believe Fryatt would actually be sentenced to death. After all, he was simply defending his ship. Fryatt was court-martialed on July 27, 1916, found guilty, his sentence was confirmed by the Kaiser and he was executed by firing squad that evening at 7:00. The execution notice read:
NOTICE. The English captain of the Mercantile Marine, Charles Fryatt, of Southampton, though he did not belong to the armed forces of the enemy, attempted on March 28th, 1915, to destroy a German submarine by running it down. This is the reason why he has been condemned to death by judgment this day of the War Council of the Marine Corps and has been executed. A perverse action has thus received its punishment, tardy but just. Signed VON SCHRODER, Admiral Commandant of the Corps de Marine, Bruges, July 27th, 1916.
A Widow's Compensation and a Nation's Anger
Captain Fryatt's widow received £300, a pension of £350 per year (a tidy sum at that time), a letter from the king and an offer to educate two of their seven children. And the gratitude of a nation.
There was an international outcry and Fryatt's status was raised to that of a martyr. The British considered executing U-Boat captains, but worried that the Americans, who they were courting, might recoil. The U.S., still neutral, was not happy with the Germans torpedoing their merchant ships, but they also weren't all that pleased with the British naval blockade. On the other hand, unrestricted submarine warfare waged by the Germans was steadily pushing the Americans into the British camp-- U.S. newspapers were full of outrage about Fryatt's murder. The British decided to angrily denounce the execution and vow that anyone involved would be hunted down and charged with war crimes once the war was over. No such activities occurred after the Armistice.
Fryatt's body was exhumed in 1919 and he was given a funeral service at St Paul's Cathedral. Hundreds of merchant seamen or their widows attended as well as members of the government, including the Admiralty and the Cabinet. People lined the streets to watch his casket pass by. He was buried near the port of Harwich.
The Status of the Merchant Marine
Captain Fryatt was neither a martyr or a pirate. He was a merchant marine in the time of war, a time of legal anarchy, when there were many laws binding them-- rules that one side or the other ignored or didn't agree with. As mentioned above, if Fryatt had surrendered his ship, he could have been prosecuted by the British. On the other hand, the Germans felt they could attack him, but if he defended himself, he was guilty of being a non-combatant aggressor. They literally considered the bow of his ship a weapon of war. And, while the British had started to arm merchant ships in 1915, there was a shortage of weapons. The British declared that armed merchant ships were still not legitimate targets, a stance the U.S. agreed with, though, of course, Germany didn't. In any case, the run to Holland made this moot because the Dutch would not allow armed merchant steamers in their ports as they desperately held onto their neutrality.
Forgotten Casualties of War
So, Captain Fryatt, his crew and tens of thousands of other merchant seamen found themselves in limbo. Non-combatants officially outside the war, they nevertheless found themselves in the thick of it and died like all the rest. Theirs was an under-reported and often forgotten and unglamorous war and the next World War would see even more merchant seamen deaths. Even into modern times, merchant marine laws are still argued about. In 1995, the San Remo Manual of International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea was published. Among other things, it states:
As a general rule, merchant ships in wartime should be immune to attack unless they become a definite military objective. A merchant ship may carry small arms for anti-piracy defense, and a chaff protector to confuse missiles, but any other armament will make a merchant ship a military objective because it is said to be impossible to distinguish between offensive and defensive weapons.
The manual still has loopholes large enough to steer a ship through.
There is one thing the San Remo Manual states that might give comfort to future Captain Fryatts: the pronouncement that a merchant ship's bow, which could be used to ram a submarine, is “not considered to be a weapon”.