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Archibald Smith VC and the SS Otaki’s fight with SMS Möwe

At 2:30 pm on 10 March 1917 the 9,575 ton British merchant ship SS Otaki encountered the German raider SMS Möwe about 350 miles east of St Miguel in the Azores. Otaki was heading from London to New York in ballast. She carried a crew of 71 and was armed with a single 4.7 inch gun on her stern.[1]

Möwe was a 4,790 ton merchant ship, designed to carry bananas from the Cameroons to Germany and originally called Pungo. She was converted into an armed raider and captained by Korvettenkapitän Graf Nikolaus zu Dohna-Schloden.[2]

Early in the war the Germans used large passenger liners such as the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Cap Trafalgar, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Prinz Eitel Friedrich. They were hampered by their heavy coal consumption, which made it difficult for them to operate effectively in distant waters. Leutnant Theodor Wolff therefore came up with the idea of using a cargo steamer that had a low coal consumption and a large cargo capacity as an armed raider. The Möwe displaced about 5,000 tons, had a top speed of 14 knots and was armed with four 5.9 inch gins, one 4.1 inch and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes. She also carried 500 mines, the laying of which was to be her first and main task.[3]

During her first cruise, which lasted from 29 December 1915 to 5 March 1916, she captured 57,776 tons of shipping. She also laid a mine that sank the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS King Edward VII in early January 1916. Her second cruise began on 22 November 1916.[4]

The two ships had similar top speeds and there was a heavy swell, but great exertions by her stokers enabled the Möwe to close the range to a mile and a half two hours after first sighting the Otaki. When she raised her naval ensign and fired a warning shot the British captain, 38 year old Aberdonian Archibald Bisset Smith, ordered his gun, which was manned by Royal Navy seamen, to fire back. His ship was heavily outgunned, although only two of the German’s four 5.9 inch guns could bear.[5]

The Möwe fired 35 5.9 inch and 34 4.1 inch shells plus three torpedoes, quickly wrecking the Otaki and forcing Smith to order his crew to abandon ship. The British ship, however, managed to score three hits, flooding a compartment and starting a fire in the coal bunkers. These were divided from the ammunition magazine by a wooden partition and it took great efforts by the Germans to put the fire out. Other German raiders had attacked armed merchant ships, but only the Otaki managed to damage her opponent. This action was fought at very close range: armed merchant ships lacked the rangefinders to score hits at more usual gunnery ranges.[6]

Four men were killed and nine wounded aboard the Otaki and another man drowned when abandoning ship. Chief Officer Ronald McNish, the carpenter and Captain Smith remained on board for half an hour after the rest of the crew abandoned ship. McNish and the carpenter were then forced to abandon the sinking ship. They assumed that Smith would follow them, but he went down with his ship. The Möwe, which had five men killed and 10 wounded in the action, picked up the British survivors.

The Möwe was on her way home at the time of this action, although she made two more captures on the way home.[7] She reached Germany on 22 March 1917, having sunk or captured 124,713 tons of shipping during her second cruise. Her total of 182,489 tons of shipping captured was easily the highest of any German surface raider of the First World War. The most successful warship, SMS Emden, accounted for 82,938 tons and the highest score by any of the passenger liners used as raiders was 60,522 tons by SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm.[8]

Captain Smith was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. As with Captain Frederick Parslow of the Anglo-Californian he had to first be given a posthumous commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve as members of the merchant navy were civilians, so ineligible for the VC. McNish was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and two of the naval gunners, Leading Seaman Alfred Fulwood Worth and Able Seaman Ellis Jackson the Distinguished Service Medal. The carpenter and two apprentices, W. E. Martin and Basil Kilner, who were both killed, were mentioned in despatches.

Smith’s VC citation, from Naval-History.net, is copied below.

Lieutenant Archibald Bisset Smith, R.N.R.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the S.S. “Otaki,” on the 10th March, 1917.

At about 2 30 p m on 10th March, 1917 the S.S. “Otaki,” whose armament consisted of one 4.7 in gun for defensive purposes, sighted the disguised German raider “Moewe,” which was armed with four 5.9 inch, one 4.1 inch and two 22 pdr guns, and two torpedo tubes. The “Moewe” kept the “Otaki” under observation for some time and finally called upon her to stop. This Lieutenant Smith refused to do, and a duel ensued at ranges of 1900-2000 yards, and lasted for about 20 minutes.

During this action, the “Otaki” scored several hits on the “Moewe,” causing considerable damage, and starting a fire, which lasted for three days. She sustained several casualties and received much damage herself, and was heavilv on fire. Lieutenant Smith, therefore, gave orders for the boats to be lowered to allow the crew to be rescued. He remained on the ship himself and went down with her when she sank with the British colours still flying, after what was described in an enemy account as “a duel as gallant as naval history can relate.”

[1] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 412-13

[2] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 152.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’, pp. 13-14.

[4] Ibid., p. 14.

[5] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 198.

[6] Naval Staff vol. xxv, p. 16.

[7] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 414-15

[8] Naval Staff vol. xxv, p. 1.

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