THE sense of outrage was almost beyond words.
“The cold-blooded murder of these men equals, if it does not transcend, the worst crimes which our enemies have committed against humanity,” wrote one commentator.
As enemy atrocities go, the First World War witnessed few worse than the sinking of the merchantman Belgian Prince.
Even now it engenders a sense of horror and disbelief.
Thirty-eight men died, washed to their deaths from the deck of a German U-boat as she submerged without warning.
The sense of callousness behind their loss still shocks.
But she also left a mystery.
“There’s also the not-inconsequential matter of what happened to the ship’s master, Captain Harry Hassan,” says Jarrow man Peter Hoy, who has explored the Belgian Prince’s story as part of the building of his massive database of South Tyneside men who served during the Great War.
Harry Hassan, though originally from Ireland, lived in Jarrow.
He survived the sinking as a prisoner-of-war, but afterwards ostensibly disappears from history.
The Belgian Prince was owned by Prince Line, founded by Tyneside ship owner (later Sir) James Knott.
She had come out of the yard of James Laing & Sons, Sunderland, in 1904, as the s.s. Mohawk for the North Atlantic Shipping Company.
She was acquired in 1912 by Prince Line, who changed her name to, firstly, Hungarian Prince and then Belgian Prince.
On July 31, 1917, she was 175 miles off Tory Island, off the Irish Atlantic coast, when she was torpedoed by U-55, under the command of Oberleutnant Wilhelm Werner.
As the vessel began to list, the crew abandoned ship in three lifeboats. During this time, U-55 surfaced and began to shell the ship.
It then altered direction, approaching the lifeboats, and ordering the 41 men in them to get out and board the casing of the submarine.
The Belgian Prince’s master, Harry Hassan, was taken below to be interrogated, while the men on deck were searched.
What happened next was the ultimate in cruelty.
The crew of the U-55 took the lifebelts from most of the survivors and threw them overboard. They then got into the lifeboats, removed the corks and then hacked them about with axes to ensure that they sank.
One small boat was kept intact and boarded by five of the Germans, who took her to the damaged drifting hulk of the ship.
The remainder of the U-55’s crew went below and closed the hatch. The boat got underway on the surface but after sailing two miles, Werner had the submarine submerge with the Belgian’s Prince’s officers and crew still on deck.
There were, however, witnesses. Three of the merchantman’s crew had managed to hang on to their lifebelts and one of them, the ship’s chief engineer, Tyneside man Thomas Bowman, would later testify: “About 10pm, the submarine dived and threw everybody into the water without any means of saving themselves, as the majority of them had had their lifebelts taken off them.”
Werner, it transpired, also had form where this kind of atrocity was concerned.
He had already done the same thing with the crews of the Torrington and the Toro earlier in the year.
The later testimony of the survivors was harrowing.
Able seaman George Silessi told how he had at first attempted to keep afloat the Belgian Prince’s third engineer, Richard Thornton, whose home was in St Vincent Street in South Shields. But after a time, the exhausted Thorton had said: “Oh, let me go now and look after yourself.”
Thornton, who was 23 and a well-known footballer in Shields, had earlier served his time at Middle Docks. In sailing on the Belgian Prince, he had taken the place of his brother who had to stay ashore to take a ticket.
He is commemorated today on the St Mary’s Church memorial cross in South Eldon Street.
George Silessi subsequently swam back to the Belgian Prince and boarded her.
Later, the U-boat came alongside and several Germans boarded the stricken ship and looted her while he hid from them.
A third man, the American second cook, William Snell, survived by hiding his lifebelt under his clothes. He also returned to the ship. Nine hours later, the three were picked up by a British patrol boat.
Among those who died was the Belgian Prince’s 18-year-old apprentice, Ralph Henderson, the only child of his widowed mother, who lived in Chester-le-Street.
He had already survived an earlier torpedoing.
Another apprentice, Cyril Joseph Hoey, aged just 17, also lost his life. His parents were master and mistress of Morpeth Workhouse and he is commemorated on the memorial at St Simon’s Church at Simonside.
Wilhelm Werner went on to be charged with war crimes but fled before he could stand trial. He lived in Brazil, later returning to Germany, where he ended up on the personal staff of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. He died in 1945.
Captain Harry Hassan, who lived in Clervaux Terrace, in Jarrow, was never heard of again. He is commemorated in his home town of Bangor, and on the recently unveiled Roll of Honour at St Aloysius Church, Hebburn.