Archibald Smith's memorial stone, unveiled in his home city of Aberdeen on the 2017 centenary of his death in a clash with a German raider. Captain Smith was one of two mercantile marine masters retrospectively commissioned into the British Navy's reserve in order to qualify for the award of the Victoria Cross (Photo courtesy of Aberdeen City Council)

Centenary tributes to Captain Archibald Bisset Smith VC

Posted on on 14 March 2017
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A commemorative stone has been unveiled in Aberdeen to honour Archibald Bisset Smith, a First World War merchant ship's captain posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross after being sunk in the Atlantic.

The Lord Provost of Aberdeen, George Adam, was joined by relatives of Captain Smith, for the ceremony at the gates of his former school, Robert Gordon's College, on the centenary of his death, 10 March 2017. 

Paying tribute, Mr Adam said: "We cannot possibly begin to imagine the fear going through the minds of all those aboard the SS Otaki one hundred years ago – but the bravery of Captain Smith and his crew is a matter of record, and that bravery is what we commemorate today."

“It is my hope that generations of Aberdonians to come will see this stone and take the time to find out more about the bravery of Archibald Bisset Smith and the story of his life."

New Zealand

The loss of the New Zealand-owned Otaki was also commemorated at an event attended by New Zealand's Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, as well as British and German representatives in the North Island town of Otaki. 

Captain Smith was one of only two merchant sailors to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military award for gallantry, during the Great War - the other being Captain Frederick Parslow.

He was the master of the SS Otaki, a refrigerated cargo liner of the New Zealand Shipping Company, when it was attacked in the Atlantic Ocean on 10 March 1917.

The unescorted Otaki, armed with a single 4.7" gun, fought a 20-minute battle, despite being heavily outgunned by the Möwe, a German Navy surface raider disguised as a merchant ship.

With five crewmen dead and the Otaki on fire, Captain Smith gave the order to abandon ship but he went down with his vessel as it sank.

Among the survivors was his stepson, Alfred, who was serving as a cadet. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Germany after being picked up by the Möwe. The German raider itself was left burning for three days.

Captain Archibald Smith and five crewmen from the Otaki are among thousands of merchant seafarers and fishermen remembered on the Merchant Navy Memorial in London to those who have no grave but the sea (Photo: Centenary News)

Together with Captain Frederick Parslow, killed off Ireland in 1915, Archibald Bisset Smith was retrospectively made a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve after WW1 so that he could qualify for the Victoria Cross.

They were the only civilians so decorated in the First World War and the VC has not since been awarded within the merchant service.

Descendant Anne Bisset Smith said: "Archibald Bisset Smith was my grandfather’s cousin. I feel honoured to be related to a person who, with his crew, demonstrated so much selfless bravery in the face of such terrible odds. I understand the Möwe was disabled by this action and so countless lives were saved."

Every year the courage of the former Robert Gordon’s College pupil is commemorated through the Otaki Shield, a school scholarship for travel to New Zealand.

New Zealand's Honorary Consul in Scotland, Sir Neil McIntosh, attended the Aberdeen event.


Simon Mills, Head of Robert Gordon's College said: "The commemoration of the Otaki 100 event to remember the sinking of the SS Otaki and the heroism of Captain Archibald Bissett Smith has drawn the two nations of Scotland and New Zealand closer together as we jointly hold acts of Remembrance together. The example of the men involved during this sea battle in 1917 continues to inspire young people today a century later."

The laying of paving stones remembering the 628 Victoria Crosses awarded in 1914-18 is a UK-wide government initiative marking the First World War Centenary in local communities.

The anniversary was marked in Otaki, New Zealand, where the country's Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy unveiled the Otaki Centennial Monument. Representatives of the New Zealand, British and German governments, the Merchant Navy and the Royal New Zealand Navy joined in laying wreaths at Otaki College.

Information & images: Aberdeen City Council

Merchant Navy Memorial photo: Centenary News

Posted by: CN Editorial Team