Captain Fryatt and other belligerent merchantmen

In today’s blog, Simon Batchelor continues to explore railway’s involvement in World War One – read his previous posts.

Perhaps the most infamous incident affecting the railway marine service during World War One was the execution in 1916 of Captain Charles Fryatt of the Great Eastern Railway. Fryatt was the captain of the SS Brussels, one of the vessels maintaining the GER services to Holland, and on 28th March 1915 encountered a U-Boat. Instead of stopping, and being unable to run away due to his position, Fryatt ordered full ahead. Firing off his rockets to simulate gunfire, he steered directly for the enemy with the intention of either ramming the submarine or forcing it to submerge. The Admiralty presented Fryatt with an inscribed gold watch commending his actions and he was praised in Parliament. Whether Fryatt actually sank the submarine is unclear, but it was this event that would prove to be decisive in later German actions.

The attention of the German Imperial Navy was already focussed on Fryatt due to an earlier incident. On 2nd March 1915, Fryatt, in command of SS Wrexham, encountered a U-boat outside Rotterdam. Ordered to stop, Fryatt, took the decision to run. He sent all hands to assist the engineers and firemen and undertook a forty mile run, through shallows and minefields, at full power, before reaching safety in Rotterdam. For this action the Great Eastern Railway had presented him with a gold watch. Despite warnings that the German’s had their eye on him, Fryatt continued to serve on the Holland run and on June 22nd 1916 his good fortune ran out, when SS Brussels was intercepted by German surface vessels, the ship was boarded and taken under escort to Zeebrugge where both it and her crew were impounded, the latter being transferred to Ruhleben Camp.

Image Crew of the SS. Brussels in prison camp. Great Eastern Railway Magazine.

Fryatt and his chief officer, Mr. Hartnell, were tried before a naval court martial on the 27th July and Fryatt was found guilty of trying to run down a German submarine. The justification for his execution was that his actions were those of a franc-tireur, in that he was not a member of a belligerent armed force yet undertook a military action in contravention of the rules of war (merchant ships when challenged by warships were supposed to stop and surrender thus becoming a prize vessel). Fryatt was executed by firing squad the same evening, and Hartnell was transferred to Ruhleben. A more telling reason for Fryatt’s execution can be found in the official German press statement following the execution;

…The sentence was confirmed yesterday (Thursday) afternoon and carried out by shooting. One of the many franc-tireur proceedings of the British merchant marine against our war vessels has thus found a belated but merited example.[1]

In other words the Germans saw the execution of Fryatt as a necessary warning to other British merchant seaman concerning their actions. This is hardly surprising when one considers that the Great Eastern Railway issued gold watches to at least five other captains for actions against U-boats, GER Captain Beeching received a military award (DSC) and his chief officer and chief engineer were both mentioned in Admiralty Dispatches for the ramming and sinking of a U-boat. The GER were not alone in rewarding their staff for such actions, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway issued two gold watches for actions involving the avoidance or sinking of U-boats and cheques to crewmen who spotted submarines or mines. The Paris Chamber of Commerce presented cheques to the Officers and men of the London & South Western Railway for keeping open the Southampton – Le Havre route, and the same captains each received an illuminated address from the Base Staff of the BEF (Le Havre was the main supply port for the BEF). The South Eastern and Chatham received a letter of thanks from Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. The actions of the ship owners, along with the open support of the naval and military authorities, in encouraging civilian merchant seamen to take such risks and ignore the conventions of war was probably a contributing factor to the German Government issuing a communiqué on February 5th 1915 stating that every merchant vessel found in British and Irish waters including the whole of the English Channel would be destroyed without it always being possible to warn passengers and crew of the impending danger; whilst not an actual declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare this statement did pave the way towards such a declaration in 1917.


[1] Pratt. E.A. 1921. British Railways and The Great War: Organisation, Efforts, Difficulties and Achievements. Volume 2, p.911. Selwyn Blount Ltd. London.

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One Response to Captain Fryatt and other belligerent merchantmen

  1. paul sheldrake says:

    my great-grandfather was on that ship,

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