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The story of Percy Saunders - the only former Sunderland player to lose his life in World War II

Sgt Percy Saunders - an inside forward who also played for Brentford - tragically lost his life at sea in 1942, and is the only ex-Sunderland player who died during World War II. Here is his story.

Born on 9 July 1916 in Newhaven, Percy Kitchener Saunders was one of three brothers - Richard (Dick) and Charlie, and two sisters, Betty and Kate. The family came from Denton Island, Newhaven, in East Sussex. All three of the brothers played for the local team, Newhaven, as did Dick’s son – Bruce – until he broke his leg in a match during the early 1950s.

In 1936 he was signed by Sunderland AFC.

Following his move to the North East, Percy married Vera Brown in the summer of 1937 and the couple had a daughter, Pamela. Percy made 26 appearances in the red and white of Sunderland, scoring 6 league goals – one of which was a penalty. Of his 26 appearances, 7 of them were wins, 4 finished as draws and 15 ended in defeat. Nonetheless, it was a relatively enjoyable three years in the north east and, as a naturally gifted sketch artist, Percy would occasionally create illustrations of the shipyards on Wearside.

The Sunderland 1936-37 League winning team. Percy Saunders is the second in from the right on the middle row.

During the summer of 1939, Percy was transferred to Brentford at the request of Bees manager, Harry Curtis. At the time, the Brentford manager was overseeing a large turnover in playing staff as part of an overhaul aimed at bringing success to Griffin Park.

The club released defenders; Joe Wilson, Sam Briddon and Tally Sneddon, as well as forwards; Maurice Edelson and Jackie Gibbons, both of which who were still amateurs at the time. As part of the overhaul, the club had a financial outlay of £12,000 (approximately £730,000 by today’s standards) a sizeable level of expenditure for the era, to bring in Tom Mansley, a wing-half from Manchester United, along with Percy to play as inside-forward. Harry Curtis name Tom Manley the club’s captain and the club began their season with a 5-1 defeat to Chelsea, in a Football League Jubilee Fund game.

Following the defeat to Chelsea, the club played three League fixtures as part of the ‘proper’ season, with Percy featuring in two of the three games. The Bees’ fixtures were; a 1-1 away to Everton, a 1-0 victory over Huddersfield Town at home, and a 2-1 defeat away to Blackpool. The game at Everton on the opening day of the season was also Percy’s debut, and it was perfect start to his career for The Bees, as he came up with the goal that secured an impressive away draw.

Sunderland 0 v Chelsea 1 Old League Division Two match Photo by Palmer/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

On Sunday 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany and as such, the Football League season was abandoned. Over two thirds of Brentford’s registered players either joined the armed forces, were called into the Police Reserve Constabulary or drafted to work in the munitions industry, during the Second World War.

Percy Saunders was one of the first to enlist and he joined the 18th Divisional Workshops, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, with the Service Number 7624351. The war took Percy’s unit to the Far East, Malaysia and Singapore to be precise.

In the midst of the surrender to the Japanese in what was British Malaysia and Singapore in February 1942, great swathes of the British Forces (and a large mix of civilians) evacuated on a number of ships, heading towards British India in the hope of escaping imprisonment.

One of the vessels taking part in the evacuation was the Dutch steam ship, the SS Rooseboom. The craft had been constructed in 1926 by Rijkee & Co. of Rotterdam, and it was owned by the KPM (Royal Packet Navigation Co.) shipping line.

Normally, in peacetime that is, the ship would have been running the coast route between Sumatra and Java for commercial purposes, but at the time the evacuation of troops was taking place in February 1942, the ship had been travelling from Batavia (now named Jakarta) the capital city of Java, to Colombo the capital of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

The SS Rooseboom

According to archives, the SS Rooseboom was instructed to divert to the port town of Emmahaven also known as Padang, in Western Sumatra to pick up evacuees, and it reportedly arrived in the port on either 25th or 26th February before departing no later than 27th February. Having picked up a large number of evacuees which included soldiers – one of which was Sgt. Percy Saunders – and a number of civilians, the ship was ordered to head to Bombay (now Mumbai) on the Western coast of India, rather than Colombo which at the southern tip of the subcontinent was a significantly shorter time at sea.

During the night of 1 March 1942 at approximately 11:35pm the SS Rooseboom was steaming west of Sumatra when it was spotted by the Japanese submarine I-59 (which was later re-designated I-159) under the command of Lieutenant Yoshimatsu.

The submarine pursued the steam ship for a short distance before firing its torpedoes. The SS Rooseboom reportedly capsized and sank rapidly leaving one life boat (designed to hold 28) which was said to be filled with as much as 80 people, and 135 people in the water many of whom were clinging to flotsam. However, very few survived with some accounts stating no more than eight were known to or said to have survived. Sergeant Percy Kitchener Saunders was one of the many who tragically didn’t survive the sinking.

The Imperial Japanese Navy’s submarine which sank the SS Rooseboom, designated “I-59” (later re-designated I-159) pictured on 25 November 1926 whilst on sea trials in Tokyo Bay.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists him as having died, drowned at sea, between 2 March and 3 March 1942. For perspective to the length of the journey it was taking and where it was spotted, the SS Rooseboom was still about six days sailing away from Colombo.

Sergeant Percy Kitchener Saunders is the only former member of Brentford and Sunderland to have lost his life during World War Two. His name is listed on the Kranji War Memorial and at noon on 13 December 2014, just before a home match Premier League fixture against West Ham United, Sunderland unveiled a memorial opposite the West Stand at the Stadium of Light to the former players who’d fallen during war-time - and Percy’s name features on it.

Percy Saunders left behind a wife Vera and their daughter, Pamela, who sadly passed away whilst still in her twenties.

The Stadium Of Light Players War Memorial Plaque – Percy’s name is the only one listed for the Second World War and can be made out upon closer inspection of this image.

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