Leading Stoker Charles Williams from Christchurch had a very adventurous seafaring career. He was part of the Scott expedition to the South Pole, fought in the Battle of Jutland, was in a ship that was sunk by a mine, fought hand to hand with the crew of a German destroyer that his ship had rammed and took part in the raid on Ostend. Having survived the war he returned to New Zealand in mid-1919 and was lost in September of that year when the coastal steamer in which he was serving was wrecked off the South Island.
Born in Lyttelton in 1881, to a master mariner and his wife, Charles Williams left school in 1895 and went to sea. In the early 1900s he joined the Navy under the terms of the Australasian Naval Agreement in which he served until 1909. At that time he was in HMS Tauranga and saved the life of another seaman during a gale. He joined the Scott polar expedition in 1910 and was instrumental in saving the Terra Nova from foundering. In a terrific storm the pumps of the ship became choked, and Charles went down, between the boilers in the blistering heat and chopped a hole in a bulkhead allowing an officer to clear the pump. For his efforts and conduct during this expedition Charles received the Antarctic Medal and the Royal Geographical Society Medal.
In early 1915 Charles went into camp with the 4th Reinforcements, but on receiving a letter from Commander E.R.G.R. Evans RN, who had captained the Terra Nova, he left the Army and proceeded to England in March. He joined the Royal Navy on 1 May and the next month was at sea in the destroyer HMS Viking, under Commander Evans and was on board when the ship struck a mine, after which he joined the light cruiser HMS Conquest in early 1916. This ship formed part of what was known as the ‘Dover Patrol’, keeping German forces out of the English Channel. During his time the ship was involved in several skirmishes off the German coast and also the German raid on Lowestoft, before taking part in the Battle of Jutland, in which Conquest sustained several hits from the battlecruiser SMS Lützow. On 25 March 1917 Charles was posted to the destroyer leader, HMS Broke the captain of which was now Commander Evans.
Broke also formed part of the Dover Patrol and was frequently in action against German ships. On the night of 20/21 April 1917 Brokeand the destroyer HMS Swift were on patrol off Dover when they encountered six German destroyers. It was early in the morning and Charles was asleep in his hammock when the action began and he went on deck and assisted in carrying the wounded below decks. Swift torpedoed SMS G85 and Brokerammed SMS G42. The two ships became locked together and when the Germans boarded Broke hand to hand fighting ensued, with cutlasses and bayonets before the ships cleared each other.
Charles was prominent in this and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, while Commander Evans was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order and was promoted.
Charles received his medal from his Majesty the King at Buckingham Palace. When his Majesty was pinning the D.S.M. on he remarked, “This is not the first medal I have pinned on you”, referring to the Royal Geographical Society’s medal, which he had presented to him previously.
Most clung to the boat until Charles struck out from the lifeboat and called out to the others: “Come on, boys; follow me” and all except two followed.
More months of arduous activity followed and just over a year later Charles was one of the volunteers who steamed HMS Vindictive into Ostend under heavy German fire and sank the ship to block the harbour. With the ship sunk the steaming crew were taken off by vessels of the Motor Boat Patrol, which included a number of New Zealanders, still under heavy fire.
Later in the year Charles joined HMS Active, a new light cruiser, again under Captain Evans. He was in the ship when the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 and was finally demobilised on 21 June 1919. He then returned to New Zealand and was quickly back at sea.
When his Majesty was pinning the D.S.M. on he remarked, “This is not the first medal I have pinned on you”.
In September he signed on as Able Seaman in the small coaster Tainui, carrying petrol from Lyttelton to Wanganui. The Tainui departed on 15 September and at about 2.00am there was a loud explosion and the ship caught fire. Two of the nine man crew were killed and the remainder were able to get to the ships boat, but it capsized in the heavy seas. Most clung to the boat until Charles struck out from the lifeboat and called out to the others: “Come on, boys; follow me” and all except two followed. One of these was later washed off the boat and the sole survivor was eventually washed ashore some hours later.
Being a single man and immediately back at sea, Charles did not even have time to claim his difference of pay between the Imperial rates and the New Zealand rates or his War Gratuity, before his untimely death. Considering that at the time of his demobilisation he was being paid £2.3.0 per week and together these came to £605.1.6, it represents a sizeable sum.