The SS Otaki belonged to the New Zealand Shipping Company and in March 1917 fought a nearly successful action with the German raider SMS Möwe. Its captain, Archibald Bisset-Smith was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for the action and several other officers and crew were also decorated.
The SS Otaki was built by Denny Brothers of Dumbarton, Scotland, for the New Zealand Shipping Company and was launched on 15 August 1908. The ship was fitted with steam turbines, the first merchant ship to have this type of machinery. Mrs Warrington Laing, wife of one of the company directors named the ship, which had a crew of seventy-one. Another first for the Otaki was its transit of the newly opened Panama Canal on 30 May 1916, by a steamer of the company.
On Saturday 10 March 1917 the Otaki was about 350 miles east of St, Miguel, in the Azores, proceeding at about 15 knots in heavy seas with rain squalls, travelling in ballast to New York from London. At 2.30 pm coming out of a squall she sighted a ship which proved to be the German Auxiliary Cruiser SMS Möwe. Möwe was previously the SS Pungo, launched in 1914, but was requisitioned by the German Navy in mid-1915 and converted into an Auxiliary Cruiser. Armed with four 150mm and one 105mm gun, two torpedo tubes and loaded with 500 mines, Möwe sailed on its first cruise on 29 December 1915. Most of the mines were laid off Pentland Firth, the entrance to the British Fleet’s main base at Scapa Flow. A few days later the battleship HMS King Edward VII struck one of these mines and sank. In the next three months Möwe captured and sank 13 ships and sent two others back to Germany as prizes, before successfully returning to Germany herself on 4 April 1916.
Having undertaken another short but lack-lustre cruise in the meantime, Möwe sailed again on 23 November 1916. This was a successful cruise, claiming 25 ships and on 10 March 1917 the raider was returning to Germany. When the Otaki appeared out of the rain squall Möwe altered course to intercept. This was seen in the Otaki and Captain Bisset-Smith altered course away, increased speed and had the 4.7inch (119mm) gun mounted on the stern manned. At this stage the range was about 2,000 yards. Möwe signalled the Otaki to stop, but this was ignored and at 4.10pm Möwe opened fire, Otaki responding in kind.
With the crew safely away and the ship sinking, the Chief Officer and Carpenter jumped over the side, expecting the Captain to do likewise.
Being a stern chase, Möwe could not bring all its guns to bear, nevertheless the Otaki was severely out-gunned. In the exchange of fire the Otaki was hit 22 times and fired nine rounds in return, but three of these hit Möwe causing serious damage. At 4.30pm, with the range down to 1,000 yards the Otaki on fire and sinking, ceased firing. Möwe also ceased firing. The Otaki’s wounded were put into the boats, followed by the rest of the crew except the Chief Officer, the Carpenter and Captain Bisset-Smith. With the crew safely away and the ship sinking, the Chief Officer and Carpenter jumped over the side, expecting the Captain to do likewise. It is believed that he went to his cabin instead and went down with the ship.
Möwe was also in danger of sinking. The hits had caused water to enter the ship, resulting in a 15o list, which had to be rectified by counter-flooding, causing more water to enter. The holes were eventually plugged, but more serious was a fire in the engine room bunker from another hit. This burned for three days before it was put out. Despite the heavy sea and the imminent danger to his ship Korvetten-Kapitan Burggraf Graf Nikolaus zu Dohna-Schlodien rescued the Otaki survivors. Evading the British blockade at about the same time that another raider SMS Leopard was sunk by the blockading forces, Möwe arrived in Germany on 22 March.
After the war and the story of this little battle became known it was determined that the gallantry of those involved should be recognised. There was no problem in awarding the Distinguished Service Cross to the officer in command of the gun and medals to others who were in the Royal Naval Reserve, but most of the crew were Merchant Navy i.e. civilians. In true British fashion this difficulty was overcome by posthumously granting a commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve to Captain Bisset-Smith and he was then awarded the Victoria Cross. This medal was for many years carried on board subsequent ships named Otaki.
In recognition of this action the New Zealand Shipping Company established ‘The Otaki Scholarship’ whereby each year a pupil from Robert Gordon’s College, Captain Bisset-Smith’s old school, receives a trip to New Zealand. While this was continued by the P & O Line that later took over the New Zealand Shipping Company for many years, today the pupil’s air fare and most other expenses are met by the New Zealand Government. The head pupil of the school receives the ‘Otaki Shield’, presented by Captain Bisset-Smith’s family and the school also has the ‘William E. Martin’ prize, established by the family of Cadet Martin who lost his life on the Otaki – he was not quite 15 at the time.