Mysterious life of Gunner Billy revealed

01:43, Jan 31 2009
BOOKWORM: Grant Howard with his new book, Gunner Billy.

Naval historian Grant Howard spent five years researching and writing about war hero Lieutenant Commander William Edward Sanders.

The resulting book, Gunner Billy, takes a comprehensive look at the life of Mr Sanders - the only New Zealand naval officer to ever win the Victoria Cross.

"It took five years to finish this book because for one, very little is known about this man and very little was written about what he had done," Mr Howard, 80, says.

Mr Howard, who lives in Titirangi, had a breakthrough when he tracked down Mr Sanders' great-grand-nephew Eric Welch who was able to fill in a few gaps in the story.

Mr Sanders was born on February 7, 1883, in Kingsland and originally worked for a well known Queen St firm from the age of 14.

The job was organised through his parents but the youngster had other plans.

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"Every lunch hour and every opportunity he got, young Sanders could be found down on the Auckland waterfront looking over the ships at port," Mr Howard says.

"There he would chat with the crews of the various coastal steamers and sailing ships, listening to their stories, and dreaming of going to sea himself."

Mr Sanders got his chance two years later when, while on a family holiday on Waiheke Island, he found the merchant ship Kapanui had a vacancy for a cabin boy.

He got the job and volunteered for the navy after the outbreak of World War One.

His application was not accepted and he instead signed up for troopship duties on HMNZT Willochra and later on HMNZT Tofua, taking New Zealand soldiers to the Middle East and bringing wounded men home.

He again volunteered and was made a Temporary Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserves. He then volunteered for special service and joined one of Britain's many attempts to combat the German U-boat assault on merchant shipping.

Navy public relations manager Lieutenant Commander Barbara Cassin says Mr Sanders holds a unique place in New Zealand's maritime history.

His ship, the HMS Prize, was attacked by a German U-boat in April 1917. Mr Sanders hoisted the navy ensign as the enemy craft approached and opened fire, severely crippling it. He died four months later in another attack.

"Our history books have largely overlooked Mr Sanders' contribution," Ms Cassin says.

"As such the navy is eager to publish the work of Grant Howard, who has spent considerable time and effort researching the remarkable history of this very worthy naval hero."

North Shore Times