William Harry Williams

William Harry Williams was a cadet in the Union Steam Ship Company’s training ship Aparima and lost his life aged 20 when the ship was torpedoed in the English Channel in November 1917. Sixteen other cadets, mainly New Zealand boys, lost their lives at the same time.

William Harry Williams was born on 16 June 1897, the son of Phyllis Hannah and William Harry Williams. His father died in 1900 and his mother became the postmistress at Clevedon, near Auckland. By 1916 young William had gained a cadetship in the Union Steam Ship Company and was serving in the Aparima. Cadets were not officers, nor seamen and were not paid, their families having to provide for all their expenses during the cadetship, which was usually four years.

The Second Officer shouted “torpedo sir! Aft, there the stern’s blown off sir!”

The Aparima displaced 5,704 gross tons and had been launched in 1902. In the early part of the war it was chartered by the New Zealand Government as a troopship, but by 1917 was considered too slow for this duty and when it arrived in England with the 22nd Reinforcements it was requisitioned by the Admiralty for general cargo carrying. The first voyage was to New Zealand for wool and it arrived back in England in late 1917.

Under the command of Captain Gerald F. Doorly, RNR who had previously commanded a number of the Company’s ships and still with the officers and crew that had left New Zealand, including 30 cadets, the Aparima departed London on 18 November bound for Cardiff. During the day a radio message was received that two ships had been sunk in the vicinity of the Isle of Wight and as they were only in 20 fathoms (36.5m) of water there was a danger that the ship might hit the submerged wreckage. Another message warned of the presence of an enemy submarine in the area. All this was compounded by the presence of a British minefield.

Today Cadet William Harry Williams is commemorated on the Merchant Navy Memorial on Tower Hill in London, albeit with only the single initial “W” and also in the Clevedon War Memorial.

At about 12.55am Captain Doorly was in the chartroom reckoning whether he had gone far enough to have cleared the sunken vessels and alter course to avoid the minefield, when a terrific crash hurled him against the chartroom door. The Second Officer shouted “torpedo sir! Aft, there the stern’s blown off sir!” which indeed it was, from a torpedo fired from UB 40. The Captain’s first reaction was “Oh Lord – the poor boys” as their sleeping compartment was in the stern of the ship.

Within a minute Doorly felt the stern sinking and the bow rising. He quickly appreciated the situation and ordered ‘abandon ship’. The radio operators tried to send and SOS signal but had only got the letters “SOS Ap” out when the sea washed the wireless room away, taking the second operator with it. Many of the crew got to the boats which then proceeded to look for other survivors. Thomas Bevan, one of the New Zealand cadets had a miraculous escape:

“I was asleep,” he said, “and something hurled me out of my bunk into the sea, I thought. But in a moment I knew I was still in what was left of our cabin, because as I swirled round and round in water I bumped against bunks and bulkhead. My head was under water all the time, but I didn’t become unconscious. Then I felt the deck overhead pressing me down, and the water dragging me up. All of a sudden I was sucked up that ten-foot ventilator in the centre of our cabin deck-head, and shot clean out of the cowl. I landed on something hard. It seems a wonderful thing, but it was on that raft; it must have slid off the boat deck and hit against the ventilator just as the stern began to sink. I lost my cloths coming up through the narrow shaft – they were stripped off me. After the ship went down under me I managed to unscrew the brass cap of the provision tank, grabbed a signal light, and set it off.”

Two of the boats were picked up by Navy patrol vessels and the third by a Norwegian steamer. Fifty-six out of a total complement of 110 were lost, including 17 cadets. The loss of the latter was particularly tragic as some claims to the New Zealand Seaman’s Compensation Fund highlight:

“Although not actually a dependent I was looking forward to the expiry of his three years’ cadetship when my son and only child would make such progress in life as to enable him to make some money spent on his education and later on help to keep me from poverty in old age” mother of Donavan Hoare (18 years old).

“As my boy was entirely dependent on me for the expenses during four years apprenticeship, although not receiving looked forward to his help in future years. This was the final trip as a cadet and I would have had return from 1st February 1918, I add that the four years expenses were quite £200 as the Union Company provide nothing. The steamer was entirely under military control and the boys were on active service” mother of Leon Massey (18 years old).

“I wish to state that I am a widow without any means. This boy whom I have lost was an only child and I was expecting his assistance to help me in my old age. I may also state that his death has quite unnerved me – the awfulness of it is too dreadful” mother of John Proudfoot (16 years old).

“It was my boy’s first trip. His kit cost £60 but that is nothing as the losing of my boy so young and bright” father of William Shaw (15 years 358 days old).

Today Cadet William Harry Williams is commemorated on the Merchant Navy Memorial on Tower Hill in London, albeit with only the single initial “W” and also in the Clevedon War Memorial.

Note: In 1917 the monthly wages of a labourer were about £8 per month and a deck hand in the Merchant Navy £11