Archibald Bisset Smith VC

b. 19/12/1878 Cults, Scotland. d. 10/03/1917 Atlantic Sea.

Archibald Bisset Smith (1878-1917) was born at Cosie Brae, Cults, Aberdeen, Scotland on 19th December 1878, the second youngest in a family of three sons and two daughters to William and Annie Smith (nee Nicoll). His father was an accountant and later a merchant. As a teenager, Archie spent two years at Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen, from 1893-1895, before embarking on a career in the Merchant Navy. In 1903, while serving with the New Zealand Shipping Company, he gained his master’s ticket and went on to serve aboard the Waikato, Rakaia, Waimate and Turakina before the outbreak of war.

Archibald B Smith VC

Archie married Edith Clulee Powell in 1914 which apparently took place on the ship back to England. It was her second marriage and her son Alfred took his stepfather’s surname. During the war, he served as Captain aboard the Rakaia, Hurunui and Otaki. The latter, built by Denny’s of Dumbarton in 1907-1908, was something of a trail-blazer. She was the first merchant steamer to be fitted with triple expansion and turbine machinery. Her main peacetime cargo was New Zealand meat. Archie’s first voyage in command was in June 1915, and, after a spell in command of Hurunui, he returned to Otaki for what would be her last assignment in February 1917. On board with him was his stepson Alfred, serving as a Merchant Navy cadet.

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 in., one 4.1 in. 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 1,900 – 2,000 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 heavily 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.”

Archie’s body was not recovered and is named on the Tower Hill Memorial, London. His stepson, Alfred, survived and spent the rest of the war in German hands. On 7th June 1919, Alfred accompanied his widowed mother to Buckingham Palace where she was presented with her husband’s VC from King George V. On her death in 1951, Alfred, sold the VC with the accompanying British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 and Mercantile Marine Medal, at Glendinnings. They were bought by the New Zealand Shipping Company for £125. They were displayed aboard the new Otaki, until its sale in 1975. The medal is now held in the P&O Heritage Collection, London.





P&O Heritage Collection – Images of Archibald Smith’s VC medal and the painting of the SS Otaki.