Captain Charles Fryatt


[Further reading: "Martyr or Pirate? The Case of Captain Fryatt in the Great War" by Alan G. Jamieson, in The Mariner's Mirror, volume 85, number 2 (1999)].

This was posted on WW1-WWW in January, 1999, and appears with the permission of the author: Ian Jones (

Captain Charles Fryatt of the Great Eastern Railway Steamer Brussels was a regular on the Rotterdam/British East Coast route since the start of the war and this was the cause of much annoyance to the Germans. In March 1915 they made two determined efforts to sink the Brussels. On the 3rd March 1915 Capt. Fryatt successfully dodged an attack on his ship by a U-Boat and sailed home to a heroes reception and was presented with a gold watch by the ship's owners. On the 28th March 1915 a further attempt was made to sink his ship by a U-Boat. Capt. Fryatt saw it surface and as it was trying to line up a torpedo shot on the ship, he turned the helm over and bore down on the U-Boat which was forced to crash dive in order to avoid him. It appears that the U-Boat passed from starboard to port under the ship as it surfaced close enough to the ship so that, as Capt. Fryatt reported "you could have easily hung your hat on the periscope as she lay along side us". The U-Boat then disappeared never to be seen again. Capt. Fryatt was awarded another gold watch, this time by the Admiralty.

Captain Fryatt continued his voyages for another fifteen months until on the 23rd June, 1916, he was trapped by a flotilla of German torpedo boats and taken to Zeebrugge. He was tried by a Court Martial in Bruges on 27th July. By all accounts, he was convicted before the trial even took place. It condemned Capt. Fryatt to death as a franc-tireur. The sentence being confirmed by the Kaiser. He was executed that same evening. He was buried in a small cemetary just outside Bruges which the Germans used to bury Belgian "Traitors".

The outcry in Britain was enormous. Asquith, in Parliament, stated "The Government are determined that this country will not tolerate a resumption of diplomatic intercourse until reparation has been made for this murder.

It seems to me that the Germans tried to use Captain Fryatt as a warning to the British Merchant Navy which was largely ignoring German efforts to bottle them up in port.
Source: The Great War Volume 7 Published by the Amalgamated Press Ltd London in 1916

Further information was supplied by Hans Andriessen (

In May 1991 I wrote an article about Fryatt in the Dutch Navy Magazine "Marineblad" about Captain Fryatt. His name was Charles Fryatt and he was executed by the Germans July 27th 1916 at Brugge in Belgium as announced by Admiral von Schroder, the German base Commander, same date. (source: Historical Museum Brugge)

The reason was that he , as a mechant navy officer and, in the eyes of the Germans thus being not a military man but a civilian, tried to ram a German submarine march 28 1915.

A press article after the execution said: Fryatt, master of the British merchantship "Brussels" (Great Eastern Railway Comp) sailed from Rotterdam to Southampton when his ship was stopped on june 23 1916 by a German torpedoboat and interned in Zeebrugge Belgium. Fryatt was arrested when the Germans found an decoration (medaille) which he received from the British Admiralty for his courage in trying to sink / ram a German submarine in 1915.

The Germans held that Fryatt, being not a military man but a non combattant and thus subject to the rules of "The Hague Convention". He was tried and executed..

The British accused the Germans of murder and denied that Fryatt tried to ram the sumbarine. Instead, they made public that:"He saved his vessel and the lives of his passengers and crew by skillfully avoiding an attack, and in recognition of his coolness and judgement the Admiralty made him a presentation".

Unfortunately the House of Commons, at the time of the presentation, publicly applauded Fryatts attempts to ram the submarine and the inscription in Fryatts golden watch which he received from the admiralty at that date, also was very specific and clear. He did try to ram the sub. He did so ,on Churchill's orders for mechant-navy captains which said:

Churchill continued: "The first British countermove made on my responsibility was to deter the Germans from surface attack.. The submerged U-boat had to rely increasingly on underwater attack and thus ran the greater risk of mistaking neutral for British ships and of drowing neutral crews and thus embroiling Germany with other Great Powers." (source Churchill World crisis. p.724-725)

He then gave very specific orders to civilian merchantnavy captains, he ordered them: " to immediately engage the enemy, either with their armament if they possess it, or by ramming if they do not" and he continued then: "ANY MASTER WHO SURRENDERS HIS SHIP WILL BE PROSECUTED".(source: ibidem). With this order, civilian captains had but one choice, to become a franc tireur with the risk to be executed by the Germans, or to be executed by their own landsman for cowardy in the sight of the enemy.

Ironically, the captain of the German U-33 who stopped the Brussels that day in march, handled in accordance with the so called international cruiserrules. He surfaced, ordered the Brussels crew to leave their ship before firing his torpedo. Suddenly, Fryatt ordered full-ahead and tried to ram in which he was partly succesful..

The Germans were aware of Churchill's orders after they stopped in F ebruary 1915 the British freighter Ben Cruachan- (Ben-Lines) and found a copy of these orders.

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Last Updated: 24 April, 2002.