New Zealand Naval Hero Remembered

Lieutenant-Commander William Sanders, is the only New Zealander to win the Victoria Cross in naval action.
Lieutenant-Commander William Sanders, is the only New Zealander to win the Victoria Cross in naval action.

14 August 2017

One hundred years ago this month, a New Zealand sailor died while on a mission so secret his heroism wouldn’t be recognised until after the First World war had ended.

Lieutenant Commander William Sanders is the only New Zealander to win the Victoria Cross in naval action and on Sunday, 13 August, the TS Leander Sea Cadet Unit, along with members of the HMNZS Ngapona Naval Reserve Unit, held a ceremony to mark his death in action on the 14th August 1917.

Lieutenant Commander Sanders commanded a Q-Ship, part of a secret campaign using decoy vessels to lure German submarines into range before uncloaking concealed guns to fire on them.

The ploy required extreme courage, because to entice the submarine to surface the crew had to endure enemy bombardment to give the impression they were on a helpless merchant vessel.

On 30 April, 1917, the strategy worked and Lieutenant Commander Sanders and his crew of the Q-ship, Prize, all but sank a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland.

For this action he was awarded the Victoria Cross and a month later he won the Distinguished Service Order, for another action against a U-boat.

However, in August 1917 Prize was torpedoed by a German submarine, with the loss of Lieutenant Commander Sanders and all his men. 

Lieutenant Commander Sanders was born in Takapuna and along with a street bearing his name there are a few small memorials to his heroism, including a cairn and plaque on the corner of Sanders Avenue and Lake Road and a memorial walk at Takapuna Primary School.

For more than 15 years the Sea Cadets of TS Leander have commemorated his memory with a ceremony in Sanders Ave. This year Chaplain Reverend Bruce Thompson of the New Zealand Cadet Forces officiated, while Lieutenant Commander James Burt, of the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve, read the biography. The citation was read by Lieutenant Commander W D Dryden, of the New Zealand Cadet Forces. 

Unit Support Committee chairwoman Raewyn Rasch said it was an opportunity for young people to learn about a hero.

“So few people know the story of Lieutenant Commander Sanders and what he did for his country, so it’s very appropriate for our Sea Cadets to uphold this tradition and keep his memory alive.”

Eric Welch, a great nephew of Lieutenant Commander Sanders, said the service was an honour to attend. 

“I wish my grandmother could see this,” Mr Welch said. “She was a great supporter and kept a record of her brother’s career. She’d be very proud.”

This 100th commemoration is also being marked by the Navy Museum’s Courage Project, which includes the Kids Create – Bravery exhibition.

Students from Takapuna Primary School, Lieutenant Commander Sanders’ former school, have collaborated with the museum team to produce colourful, interactive mixed media displays.

Kids Create – Bravery will open at the Navy Museum at the beginning of September, with free admission.

This page was last reviewed on 14 August 2017.