The Robert Gordon Story JOHN MARSHALL
- Epilogue: The Otaki Shield
The question might well be an item from a television quiz game: What is the connecting link between a memorial tablet on the wall of the disused and unroofed parish Kirk of Auchendoir and the most prestigious annual prize-award at Robert Gordon's College?
The answer is-a combat, which took, places in the Atlantic in March 1917, when a British merchant ship, the S.S. Otaki, named after a New Zealand town, was sunk by a German raider after a fierce sea-fight. The incident is commemorated annually in a unique manner: a senior schoolboy prize-winner at Robert Gordon's College receives a return trip to New Zealand as guest of a shipping company and a tour of several weeks there as guest of the New Zealand Government and many private hosts there.
This splendid prize is a memorial to a fonder pupil of the College, Captain Archibald Bisset Smith, V .C., who went down with his ship, S.S. Otaki. On lOth. March 1917. The Otaki was about 300 miles west of the Azores on her way from London to New York when-in squally weather and heavy seas-she sighted another vessel which in fact turned out to be a heavily armed German raider, the auxiliary cruiser Moewe, on her return journey home after an extensive raiding foray. (She carried below her decks some 442 prisoners, taken off Allied vessels she had sunk.) Moewe was proposing to run the North Sea blockade-and could not afford to let the Otaki get away to report her presence near the blockade zone.
So Moewe turned towards Otaki, stepped up speed and began to overhaul very slowly. At a distance of 2000 yards the Moewe signalled to the Otaki to stop. Firing a warning shot over her bow. Captain Bisset Smith disregarded the signal, and replied with the single 4.7 in. gun, which his cargo ship carried on her poop for defence. The action, which ensued, was one of the shortest and fiercest of its kind. It was logged by the Moewe's gunnery officer as lasting from 4.10 p.m. to 4.30 p.m., the distance reducing in that time from 2000 to 1000 yards.
These details emerge from an account of the action, which, some years ago, I obtained from German official sources through the good offices of the then Consul general. The source was nothing less than the diary of the Gunnery Officer of the German vessel, one Kapitaenleutnant Hermann A. K. Jung.
The ship came out of a squall so that it was not possible for us to shadow him inconspicuously. When we changed course to overhaul him gradually on a converging course he turned north and made off at high speed. He must have become suspicious from our change of course. He had wireless equipment and a 12-cm. gun on the poop. Seeing we had given ourselves away, he simply had to be brought to bay if we did not wish to give up our plans to run the blockade Into the North Sea. So, we turned about after him. We were steaming into a wind force 8. Our ship was pitching badly; and we were taking heavy seas over us.
The German Gunnery Officer records a log of the action, shot by shot. He recorded 22 hits on the Otaki. The number of hits recorded on the Moewe is much less, but these were very damaging, as is clearly admitted in the logbook extracts I quote (in translation): -
Hit on the Moewe. Waterline. Penetrates hull forward on the weather side. The shell explodes in the ship and kills two men. Splinters penetrate the hull on the lee side under water and tear two irregularly shaped holes, in the hull; there is a fierce Inrush of water; the Moewe begins to settle by the head and develops a 15° list to port.
Hit on the Moewe. Two yards above the waterline, in the engine room bunkers. A violent explosion, in the bunker; the flash penetrates the neighbouring boiler room and severely burns six stokers (four of them died later) and simultaneously strikes up through a ventilator on to the bridge, without doing any harm there.
An entry recording one of the enemy's hits on Otaki carries a revealing comment: - Hit With the 10.5 cm. on the pedestal of the steamer's stem gun. The British gun crew are lost from sight; but immediately after, four men appear at the gun and recommence fire. With such an obstinate defence It Will now all depend on which of the two ships first manages to disable the others capably to carry on the fight. So the order is given for our torpedo tubes to be got ready and permission to fire is given. The German officer describes how the Otaki's gun team continued to show great courage and determination. But the superior firepower of the auxiliary cruiser finally prevailed.
At first, black smoke, later thick white smoke pours out from the after part of the English ship and completely veils the gun. The enemy fire ceases. The crew of the steamer take to the boats. Fire ceases at 4.30 p.m. Thirty-five 1.5 cm. and twenty-three 10.5 cm. shells had been fired. The steamer is now lying very heavily down by the stem. The stem is submerged up to the upper deck-the bows of the ship standing high out of the water. At .5.17p.m. She sinks. It must be admitted that he defended himself bravely and went down with the flag flying.
But is had been a very close shave for the German, as Jung's narrative goes on to show: -
Now the reports come chasing in from our battle stations. Violent inrush of water, forward.
An extensive fire in the engine room bunker.
The prisoners are trying to break out. A revolt on the part of the prisoners-we had 338 white prisoners in the after hold that had been fitted out as prison quarters, and 104 Indian lascars in the engine room bunkers-had been already suppressed during the engagement. But our position down by the head and our strong list were a source of anxiety; and thick smoke and glowing flames were bursting out from the engine room.
After trying the collision mats-which were as good as useless-we managed to force heavy wedges of wood Into the holes and stuff the gaps with sailcloth, so making her watertight in rough and ready fashion. By flooding other compartments we corrected the list and brought her to an even keel. Midships the situation was more serious. The bunkers of coal on fire could not be extinguished just like that! The bulkhead towards the forepart of the ship was already heating and the planking began to smoulder. The Midships section was sealed off and kept under live steam. Ammunition, explosives and warheads of torpedoes were manhandled on to deck, so as to be ready to heave overboard if need be. All night we had to lie stopped there waiting to see what would happen with our smouldering volcano.
During the night the deck under my feet became hotter and hotter. By dawn part of the bulkheads were glowing and the hull began to peel with the heat. As the caulking on the boat deck opened up flames came through. The situation was desperate. Seawater was our only hope. Oxy-acetylene cutters bored holed in the hull at 11 appropriate points. All available fire hydrants poured a flood of water into the mass of burning coals; it proved effective, but slowly. But because of the quantity of water we took into the ship she lay even deeper. To crown everything, the valves of the pumps became choked with floating coal-dust, so that we wallowed helplessly in the heavy seas.
This lamentable state of affairs went on for two days till we got the better of the danger of fire and flood. Then, once again fit for action and in good heart, Moewe turned north to face the risks of running the blockade on her passage home to Germany.
So ends Kapitaenleutnant Jung's account. Coming as it does from an opponent it conveys a very high tribute to the courage and determination of the Captain and crew of the Otaki- and a very clear indication of how close they came to knocking out the German raider -
And now to hear the conclusion of the action as our own survivors saw it.
When the Otaki was heavily on fire from stem to stem with four of the crew dead and nine seriously wounded and with darkness coming on, Captain Smith had ordered the boats to be lowered and the ship to be abandoned.
Just before she sank the Chief Officer and the Carpenter were the last to jump from the sinking ship. They assumed that the Captain was following them but he remained with his ship and was never seen again. Shortly afterwards the Otaki, pointing her bows almost vertically skywards, slid quietly under with her colours still flying.
The Chief Officer and Carpenter were later picked up by one of the boats and they along with the other survivors were taken aboard the raider. The raider managed to make her way through the British blockade without being detected. Ten days later she reached Kiel. Her prisoners-from eight different allied ships all sunk-were sent to internment camps
For this action Captain Smith was! Awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.
To commemorate the Otaki action a Shield was presented by Captain Smith's family to the Governors of Robert Gordon's College where he was educated. This Shield-the Otaki Shield-is awarded annually to the senior boy who is judged to be 'pre-eminent in character, in leadership, and in athletics'.
Then the New Zealand Shipping Company, in recognition of the ship's crew, made their splendid contribution to the prize-the scholar's trip to New Zealand. (And even since the New Zealand Shipping Company became absorbed by the giant p & O Group, this arrangement has continued to be honoured.) The New Zealand Government, in its turn, decided to arrange for the annual scholar to receive a comprehensive tour of New Zealand. Each year since 1937 -with the intermission of the Second World War years-a senior boy has benefited from the enriching educational experience of this award. And the corporate experience of all these schoolboy ambassadors has formed a continuing, living memorial to a very gallant 'Old boy'.
Where does the memorial tablet at Auchendoir come into the story? One of the other lives lost in the Otaki action was that of the ship's boy, Midshipman William E. Martin, a native of Edinbanchory in Auchendoir parish. At the time of his death he was not quite 15 years old.
It is a moving postscript to the Otaki Story that -William Martin's parents too, in memory of their son, endowed a prize award in his name at the same school in which the Otaki award had been set up in memorial of the Captain whose fate he shared.