Skip to content

By Simon Batchelor on

Captain Fryatt and other belligerent merchantmen

Simon Batchelor continues his series of posts about the importance of the railways during the First World War.

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.

You can also read Simon’s previous posts about the role of railways in the First World War.

3 comments on “Captain Fryatt and other belligerent merchantmen

  1. This is an understandably brief summary of the Fryatt story which is let down only by the lack of references for some of the assertions made, for example:

    “Whether Fryatt actually sank the submarine is unclear”

    There is plenty of evidence confirming that the submarine was not sunk, so the suggestion in the blog that this may now be doubt needs supporting.

    “The attention of the German Imperial Navy was already focussed on Fryatt due to an earlier incident”

    Given that the commander and crew of the U-boat concerned may not even have been able to identify as the Wexham the ship they were pursuing, let alone identify who was commanding her at the time of the pursuit, it seems unlikely that they would have any reason at the time, as being suggested in the blog, to focus their attention on Fryatt. This can be clarified, however, by inspection of the log book of the U-boat concerned, so the necessary reference is required.

    “Despite warnings that the German’s had their eye on him”

    Did the Germans really have their eye on Fryatt, or was just sheer luck that they captured him? Given that the Germans weren’t able to identify Fryatt as the captain responsible for attempting to ram one of their U-boats until after he had been captured and transported all the way from Brugge to Ruhleben, it seems highly unlikely that Fryatt had been specifically targeted. Again, the necessary reference is required.

    “where both it and her crew were impounded, the latter being transferred to Ruhleben Camp”

    There is plenty of evidence confirming that the crew were split up and interned in three separate concentration camps in Germany. Some were interned in Brandenburg whilst the five stewardesses were interned at Holzminden, so the suggestion in the blog that they were all interned in Ruhleben needs supporting.

    “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”

    There is clear evidence that Beeching received the DSC, but what is not clear is for what he received it, given that there are no records of any submarine ever having been sunk on the alleged occasion nor are there any records of the subsequent dry-docking and repairs to Beeches ship following the alleged incident, so the suggestion in the blog that the DSC was indeed awarded for the sinking needs supporting.

  2. I’ve only just found this reference to Captain Fryatt though it was posted over 18 months ago. What is disappointing is that there is no reference to Captain Fryatt in the NRM’s more recent work on railwayman lost in the First World War. Although Fryatt was not killed whilst on military service, he was an employee of a railway company and his execution by the Germans caused a massive outcry at the time, with much propaganda being made out of the event though also with genuine outrage. He was thus probably the most famous railway employee killed in the Great War. The repatriation of his remains in 1919, in the ‘Cavell Van’ for the journey from Dover to London, was also an event of national significance. The Cavell Van itself has since been preserved and is now on the Kent & East Sussex Railway, so there is an enduring link to Captain Fryatt. I believe the NRM are missing a wonderful opportunity to remember this sadly forgotten hero in their current project on railwayman killed in the Great War- especially as the centenary of his execution is in 2016.

  3. Hi Nicholas, on 18th July myself and staff at London Liverpool Station will be holding a small service of remembrance for Captain Fryatt at our Station memorial.
    Thought you would like to know.

Reply to Nicolas Wheatley, Cheltenham Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *