VCs for the Merchant Navy


The Abandon Ship exhibition features the story of Captain Archibald Smith who won the Victoria Cross while commanding the SS Otaki in 1917. Two years earlier another captain, Frederick Parslow, had won the first VC ever awarded to a member of the merchant navy.

On the morning of 4 July 1915, HM Horse Transport Anglo-Californian was in the Atlantic about 90 miles south-west of the coast of Cork. On board were over 900 horses being taken from Montreal, via England, to the Western Front. Suddenly, the crew sighted a German submarine (U-boat) about a mile off. The Anglo-Californian put on speed to try and escape, and the U-boat opened fire. The ship sent out SOS messages and Captain Parslow decided to order ‘Abandon ship!’ to save his crew. He then received a message saying that two Royal Navy ships were on their way, and asking him to hold out so they could locate and destroy the U-boat. Parslow got the ship under way again and with the Second Mate, his son Frederick Junior, lay on the deck of the bridge to steer the ship as the U-boat continued to fire.

Drawing showing the body of Captain Parslow on the deck of the ship, his son lying nearby at the steering wheel, with bombs exploding overhead
Dramatic recreation of the mid Atlantic battle



Captain Parslow was severely wounded in the head but carried on trying to out-run the U-boat until he was killed. Frederick Junior took charge of the ship and continued to steer with his father’s body beside him. Shortly afterwards, the Royal Navy destroyers arrived, causing the U-boat to flee. The Anglo-Californian was saved and limped into Cobh harbour (formerly Queenstown) in Cork. As well as Parslow, 20 crew members had lost their lives.



Photo portrait of Captain Frederick Parslow
Captain Frederick Parslow


At 59, Parslow was the oldest VC winner of the First World War. Technically, he couldn’t receive the VC as he was not a member of the armed forces but, keen to recognise the sacrifices of the merchant navy, the British government found a way around this. Parslow was posthumously commissioned into the Royal Navy Reserve, as Smith was later. Frederick Parslow Junior was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery.



Captain Parslow’s widow, Frances, was presented with her husband’s Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace in July 1919. The Parslows had already lost a son, Frank, who was killed in May 1915 while serving on the Western Front. And the family tragedy was not over. In 1938 Frederick Junior was captain of the SS Anglo-Australian sailing across the Atlantic when the ship and its entire crew disappeared without trace.

Written by V Kingston

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