Born in Cornwall on 30 March 1873, Arthur Gordon Smith joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1888. He was promoted to sub-lieutenant in 1892 and full lieutenant the following year. In June 1900, while serving as a lieutenant on Aurora, Smith landed with the Pekin Relief Force as part of the China Relief Expedition, launched in response to the Boxer Rebellion. He was Mentioned in Despatches for:
Services with advanced guard of the expedition; took part in the capture of the Hsiku Armoury and Pei Yang Arsenal; in defence of Teintsin settlement and the capture of the Teintsin native city. Also landed in charge of naval guns for defence of Teintsin during the final advance on Pekin, August, 1900.
He received the China Medal, with Relief of Pekin clasp.
By the end of 1909, Smith attained the rank of captain. He commanded HMS Endymion, Pembroke and Jupiter before being loaned to the Australian Government for service in the Royal Australian Navy. He came to Australia in 1913 and was appointed as the second Naval Member of the Naval Board. He gained the captaincy of HMAS Encounter just before the outbreak of war.
At the outbreak of war, Smith was given command of the First Convoy of Australian and New Zealand troopships that departed from Albany. As commander, he was charged with assembling the convoy and ensuring it reached Europe safely. This was not an easy task, as late in 1914, the threat posed by German cruisers in the Indian Ocean made a voyage on the scale of the First Convoy a dangerous prospect. Reflecting on his assignment, Smith wrote:
It must be remembered that it was not until the beginning of 1915 that the seas could be considered safe for the passage of transports. The German Pacific Fleet was still ‘in being’. It was, therefore, necessary that this division should proceed as one convoy, in order that it could be escorted by an adequate naval force. … I took for my flagship the Orient liner ‘Orvieto’, which was to sail from Melbourne with a battalion of infantry, the general in command and his divisional staff. There were to be twenty-eight ships in the Australian contingent ; practically every merchant vessel of any size that happened to be in Australian waters at the time had been commandeered, including a dozen or so of 10,000 tons and over.
Orvieto departed from Melbourne on 21 October 1914 and, after a five-day passage, arrived at King George Sound, Albany on a ‘cold and misty morning’. Over the next week, Smith worked tirelessly organising transports, commissioning ships, coaling, delivering letters and orders or landing troops for medical attention. He took on a great deal of the work himself. As he put it, ‘we worked like slaves’, ensuring all necessary arrangements had been made.’.
Listen to Smith describe the preparations in the days leading up to departure.
In calm waters at 6 am on Sunday 1 November 1915, the First Convoy set sail from King George Sound. The convoy was made up of 38 troopships: 28 Australian (two of which did not assemble at Albany, but departed from Fremantle and met the convoy at sea) and ten New Zealand. There were also four escort ships. The troopships carried a total of more than 28,000 men and women and over 7,000 horses.
Listen to Smith describe the departure.
Concern over the unknown location of German cruisers was realised when, eight days after the convoy departed, a radio alert from staff on Cocos Island reported “Strange warship off entrance”, and then, “SOS … Emden here”. Smith wrote:
At that time the ‘Emden’, the ‘Konigsberg’ and another smaller cruiser, the ‘Geier’ were unlocated, but were believed to be somewhere in the Indian Ocean. … The ‘Sydney’, being nearest, was dispatched to investigate and in a few minutes had disappeared over the horizon, leaving only a trail of smoke.
On 9 November, HMAS Sydney engaged and defeated Emden. Smith received word that Emden was ‘beached and done for’, a message greeted with cheers by the troops, but did not hear full details until they reached Colombo, where prisoners were transferred from the Sydney and divided among several ships of the convoy including the Orvieto.
After leaving Colombo, the convoy next stopped at Aden, where Smith learnt that the Commonwealth was at war with the Ottoman Empire and the troops would be disembarked in Egypt rather than continuing on to Europe. Navigating through the Red Sea was challenging, and they took an unusual route to avoid possible mines, which almost ended in disaster:
The Turks had put out all the lights in the Red Sea, and it was rumoured that they had brought a lot of mines on camels for distribution along this thoroughfare in some of the narrow channels. … The absence of lights in the southern part of the Red Sea caused us a little anxiety. There are a lot of rocks and small islands scattered about near the entrance, and the currents are strong and rather irregular. We took a very unusual route on account of the possibility of mines. Fortunately, the weather was clear, and the Captain of the ‘Orvieto’, having passed through it regularly six times a year, knew the Red Sea from end to end.
It was a good thing he did. On the first night we sighted ahead the shadowy shapes of a group of islands that ought not to have been there according to our reckoning; the convoy was steering straight for them. The question was, On which side of them should we go? The captain, fortunately, recognized one of the lumps by its outline, and we had just time to signal an alteration of course, which took us clear of the whole group. It was a bit exciting. We barely cleared them. If we had tried to pass on the other side we should have put the whole convoy on a rocky shoal.
The Orvieto reached Suez on 1 December and led the convoy through the canal. It docked at Alexandria on the morning of 3 December to disembark troops. Smith wrote,
It was a fortnight or more before all of the ships were cleared of men and stores. It was a tedious job, and it rained continually – not the sort of weather one expected in Egypt.
He remained in Egypt for a short time, and recalled watching the troops as ‘khaki specks … swarming all over the Great Pyramid like mites on cheese, and the Arabs … doing a roaring trade photographing Australians mounted on camels with the Sphinx in the background’.
For his tireless work in the organisation of the convoys, Smith was awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, a British and Commonwealth honour, at Buckingham Palace on 13 June 1917.
The citation read:
He worked unsparingly and his counsel was on all occasions sound and inspired confidence, particularly when war broke out. His most marked achievement was the organisation of the huge transport fleet that carried troops and horses from Australia and New Zealand at the beginning of the war. Their safe arrival in Egypt is a tribute to … Smith’s ability, tact, and organising powers.
After returning to England, Smith continued a further period in Australia serving on the Commonwealth Naval Board. He was president of the Australian Munitions Committee in 1915–16 and on 1 April 1916 was promoted to commodore (second class) in recognition of the good work performed during the war. His appointment in Australia was officially terminated on 25 April 1917, after which he reverted to the Royal Navy.
He assumed the captaincy of the Commonwealth on 26 April 1917. This was an old pre-dreadnought, King Edward VII class battleship attached to the 3rd Battle Squadron, at Sheerness. They were charged with detering German raids on the British coast such as those on Yarmouth and Lowestoft by German ships in April 1916. In late 1917, Commonwealth ran aground in the Downs (in the southern North Sea, near the English Channel). Smith and the navigating officer were blamed for not ‘making greater use of sounding machine and leads’. Despite this, he was made captain of Dominion in December 1917, while Commonwealth was being refitted.
Smith resumed command of Commonwealth on 16 April 1918. A note in his service record at this time states that he was:
A good Capt., hardworking, with tact and judgement. Handles his ship well. Would make a good Capt for active work in a battleship of the Grand Fleet. A loyal Capt to be depended on, would have happy ship [and] able to get good work out of officers [sic] and men.
Armed with up-to-date weaponry and fire-control systems, Commonwealth joined the Northern Patrol in the North Sea. There, it conducted anti-submarine patrols, enforced the shipping blockade on Germany and escorted convoys between Scarpa Flow, Scotland and Norway. Apart from the daily routine, gunnery exercises and incidents such as mine scares, the ship’s log reveals the strong reliance of Commonwealth on aerial surveillance. The ship deployed a manned ‘kite balloon’, a Kestrel flying boat and liaised with airships to survey surrounding waters. At one point Commonwealth unsuccessfully sought to hunt down a U Boat sighted by its flying boat. On 21 August Commonwealth was transferred to the Grand Fleet as a gunnery training ship and Smith’s command of the ship ended on 15 November 1918.
Immediately after the war, Smith was appointed as a Commodore II to command HMS Victory, the Royal Navy barracks at Portsmouth. On 10 October 1920 his command at Portsmouth ended, when he was promoted to rear admiral and placed on the retirement list at his own request. On 1 March 1926 he was promoted to the rank of vice admiral on the retired list. In 1925, he wrote ‘The First Australian Convoy’, a vivid account of his greatest achievement, the raising and command of the First Convoy, in The Blue Peter magazine.
Little is known about his life after this. Before the war, on 7 June 1905, he had married Ethel Madeline Barr. They had four children: Mignon Myrtle; Russell Claude; John Michael; and Vivien. His son Russell also served in the Royal Navy and died in 1940, aged 31. Smith died from pancreatic cancer in Westbourne, West Sussex, England, on 10 October 1953.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Smith, A.G., C.M.G. 1925, ‘The First Australian Convoy’, The Blue Peter, vol. 5. No. 45.
Gordon-Smith, Arthur – Service Record, National Archives, UK. Catalogue Reference: ADM/196/43; ADM/196/89 and ADM/196/141
National Archives of Australia: Service Cards for Navy Officers, 1911-1970; A6769, Arthur Gordon Smith’s personnel dossier; SMITH A G