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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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The Burning of the White House and the Star Spangled Banner

On 2 June 1814, 2,500 men from Wellington’s army under the command of Major General Robert Ross, like many of his men a Peninsular War veteran, left Bordeaux, arriving at Bermuda on 25 July. Another battalion of 900 men was then added to Ross’s force.

Ross’s force and its naval escort then proceeded to Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay where it joined a British fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, who had been appointed to command of the Royal Navy’s North American Station in March. The combined fleet included more than 20 warships, four of them ships of the line, and a large number of transports. Ross’s force was increased to over 4,000 men by the addition of 700 marines.[1]

Cochrane sent frigates up the Potomac and towards Baltimore in order to confuse the Americans before entering the Patuxent. On 19 August Ross’s force made an unopposed landing at Benedict, 50 miles from Washington.. However, the difficulty of including horses in an amphibious operation meant his force lacked cavalry and had only one 6 pounder and two 3 pounder guns, which had to be man-handled.

Jeremy Black notes that:

‘the British could not only take Washington without fatal effects to the American war effort…but…the Americans had the opportunity to withdraw from Washington without losing their capacity to maintain their forces.’[2]

At Bladensburg on 24 August, Ross attacked a larger American force commanded by Brigadier-General William Winder, a lawyer before the war. He had been captured at the Battle of Stoney’s Creek in July 1813, and had only recently been released as part of a prisoner exchange.

Alfred Mahan quotes the subsequent US Court of Enquiry as saying that Winder had 5-6,000 men, all but 400 of them militia. The Navy had provided 120 marines under Captain Miller and the 500 sailors of Commodore Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla, but Barney had to leave some of his men behind to burn their vessels.[3]

Theodore Roosevelt says that the militia fled so quickly that only 1,500 British troops got into action, to be faced by 78 marines under Miller and 370 sailors under Barney with two 18 pounder guns and three 12 pounders.[4]

Mahan gives British casualties as being 64 killed and 184 wounded. He says that only 10 or 12 Americans were killed and 40 wounded ‘by the estimate of their superintending surgeon.’[5] Wikipedia quotes sources giving a range of 10-26 Americans killed, 40-51 wounded and 100-20 captured.  The small number of losses suffered by the losing side indicates how few Americans stood and fought. This should be blamed on politicians who did not make proper provision for the defence of their capital, rather than on poorly equipped, inexperienced and badly led citizen soldiers.

The British entered Washington the same night without further fighting. Rear Admiral George Cockburn ordered the destruction of the public buildings and military facilities, including the White House. Black comments that this was done:

‘in retaliation for American destructiveness at York in 1813, an attempt at equivalence not generally mentioned in American public history where the emphasis, instead, is in damage by the British.’[6]

It is often claimed that the White House is so called because it was painted white to hide the scorch marks from the burning. In fact it is built of white-grey sandstone;  the name was used unofficially from about 1810, when it was officially named the Executive Mansion, but it did not become the official name until 1902: see the Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s website.

Ross ordered that private property should not be destroyed. This was obeyed, with the exception of a small number of buildings whose occupants resisted the invaders. British looters were flogged.

The Americans themselves burnt the Navy Yard, its stores and supplies and two warships that were almost complete: the 44 gun frigate USS Columbia and the 18 gun USS Argus. The damage from this destruction alone was estimated to have cost $500,000.[7]

The invaders re-embarked on 30 August and landed at North Point, 10 miles from Baltimore. A force of Maryland militia confronted Ross and his advance guard. The British attacked and the Americans, assuming that they were heavily outnumbered, retreated, but Ross was killed.

The British, now under Colonel Arthur Brooke, another veteran, continued to advance, but met more Americans. The British defeated them, but Brooke halted his force a mile and a half from Baltimore as the British believed that the army could not advance further until the navy had overcome Fort McHenry. Baltimore’s defences had been greatly improved by Major General Samuel Smith, a rich merchant who commanded the Baltimore militia and was a Republican Senator.

The naval bombardment was carried out by the rocket ship HMS Erebus and the bomb ketches Devastation, Aetna, Meteor, Terror and Volcano, each carrying a 13 inch mortar with a range of two and a half miles. The bombardment lasted from dawn on 13 September to 7:30 am on 14 September. From 1,500 to 2,000 rockets and bombs were fired, but relatively little damage was done. Only four Americans were killed and 24 wounded.

The British ships stayed out of range of Fort McHenry’s guns, with the exception of a short period on the afternoon of 13 September, when they closed the range, before withdrawing again after being damaged by American fire. Ships of that period were vulnerable to forts, so the British were forced to stay at a range where they could do little damage. A night time amphibious assault also failed.

Brooke’s men re-embarked at North Point on 15 September and were taken to Jamaica. From there, they could threaten the Gulf Coast of the USA. The British defeat at Baltimore did not end their blockade of the USA.

The American victory was celebrated by Francis Scott Key in a poem called the Defence of Fort McHenry. It was then set to the tune of a British song called The Anacreontic Song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a London social club for amateur musicians. It was renamed The Star Spangled Banner and became the US national anthem in 1931.

HMS Terror was used as a polar exploration ship from 1836; bomb vessels had to be strongly built, so were particularly suited to operating in ice. She was fitted with a steam engine before being sent on the expedition led by Sir John Franklin that set off in 1845 to try and find the Northwest Passage.

The HMS Erebus that accompanied her was not the ship of the same name that had taken part in the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The entire expedition was lost, but in September 2014 the underwater wreck of Erebus was found.

 

 

[1] Troop and ship numbers are from A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol, ii, p. 184

[2] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 167.

[3] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, pp. 185-87

[4] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, p. 44.

[5] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 189.

[6] Black, War of 1812, p. 174.

[7] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, location 6238.

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