William Henry Swift – Merchant Seaman and Prisoner of War

William Henry Swift – Merchant Seaman and Prisoner of War

submitted by Bernard Gerard Swift, nephew of William Henry

William, known as Willy joined the Merchant Navy. It is not known when he joined.

Willy was an Assistant Steward on the TSS Voltaire. He would have worked in the catering department, with duties such as cleaning and looking after stores.

The Voltaire was a British Steamship built by Lamport and Holt in 1907. The vessel was a cargo passenger liner sailing from Liverpool to South America, North America and Canada. On 28th November 1916 the Voltaire left Liverpool for Boston, via Halifax. There were 92 crew on-board including the Commander Captain R. A. Knight.

On 2nd December 1916 the Voltaire was captured and sunk 650 miles west of Fasnet, Ireland by a German Raider the SMS Moewe (Seagull in English). The Commander of the Moewe was Count Dohna. They left Kiel on 23rd November 1916; Voltaire was one of nine ships sunk by the Moewe between 2nd – 18th December and the first of 25 ships to be sunk on this second raiding voyage.

Each of the crews from these ships were initially transferred to the Moewe, until 12th December when all crew were put on-board a captured British ship, Yarrrowdale. The ship sailed to Swinemuende in North West Germany (now part of Poland) where the crews were put ashore and detained as prisoners of war. Merchant Navy and fishing vessels suffered heavy losses from German raiders and U-boat attacks during WWI with many civilian crew finding themselves interned.

There were a number of camps for civilian prisoners. The largest was Ruhleben Internment Camp, west of Berlin. It is not known if Willy was initially sent here and then later moved. Willy was a prisoner of war for almost two years. Records show he was sent to Brandenburg Camp, but not all of his crew members were sent here, some were sent to other camps in the region.

Willy was returned home towards the end of 1918. Willy was in poor health and never fully recovered, he died in 1922. Willy was 25 years old.


Nephew Bernard writes: “It is only recently that I have realised the gravity of what Willy went through. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean during the winter your ship is captured and destroyed. You are then put on a strange vessel with many other crew members from other ships and transferred to a Prisoner of War Camp where you spend the next 2 years. How frightening and then to return home in poor health.”


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