William Smith was one of four men on a midget submarine that parked on the enemy seabed underneath a moored Japanese warship to blow it up.

Smith, who was appointed to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), died at his Wellington home earlier this month, aged 96.

After his wartime exploits, Smith's later career in the Royal New Zealand Navy gave him an important part in the Trans-Antarctic Expedition of the 1950s that added so much to the fame of fellow Kiwi and Mt Everest conqueror Sir Ed Hillary.

William ("Bill", "Kiwi") James Lanyon Smith
Born: December 1, 1922
Died: December 2, 2018


During World War II Smith, who was educated at Christchurch's Cathedral Grammar School, served on Royal Navy vessels. On July 31, 1945, just weeks before Japan surrendered, XE3, the midget submarine on which he was sub-lieutenant, entered Singapore's harbour in the Straits of Johor.

Commanded by Ian Fraser, its target was the Japanese cruiser Takao. Another British midget sub, XE1, was to target the cruiser Myoko.

New Zealander William Smith was in the midget submarine that sank a Japanese cruiser at Johor Strait, Singapore in 1945.
New Zealander William Smith was in the midget submarine that sank a Japanese cruiser at Johor Strait, Singapore in 1945.

XE3 sailed through a minefield on the surface to avoid underwater listening devices. It dived on the final approach to Takao, colliding with its target as the sub's crew navigated by guessing.

While the sub was settled on the seafloor in shallow water, its diver moved around the cruiser's hull to place mines.

As the tide flowed out, the cruiser settled onto the sub and it took XE3's crew more than 30 minutes to free themselves and flee. XE1 failed to find its target and instead laid charges under Takao and got away.

The time-delayed explosives tore a hole nearly 20m long in Takao's hull and the ship settled on the seabed, never to sail again.

William Smith in 2006. Photo / NZPA
William Smith in 2006. Photo / NZPA

In 2005, when he was interviewed by a New Zealand navy historian, Smith described how on their return from sinking the Takao, a senior officer told him the Myoko hadn't been destroyed and said, "Will you go back and have another go?"

"So Fraser looked at me," Smith said, "and by mutual agreement we said yes, we would go back. We were on the threshold of going back on the day the atom bomb was dropped and that put paid to going back."


Fraser and the diver, James Magennis, received the Victoria Cross and the fourth crew member the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

"They both got the VC but the colonial got the DSO," said Smith's daughter, Victoria Daniel. "I don't know why because they were all in it together."

"He was one of our heroes."

In Antarctica, Smith was involved in finding a suitable location for what would become New Zealand's Scott Base. Later he was first lieutenant on the ship Endeavour, which took the New Zealand trans-Antarctic team to Scott Base.

Daniel said of her father's involvement with the New Zealand team, "Dad and Hillary didn't hit it off.

"One of the first questions he asked Dad was, 'Are you a mountaineer'. Dad said no. Sir Edmund Hillary scoffed at that and Dad said, 'I don't think [Antarctic explorer] Robert Falcon Scott was either."

Smith went on to a successful navy career in hydrography, making maps of the seafloor around New Zealand.

The NZ navy in 2006 named a building at its Devonport base in Auckland the Commander William Smith Building. Smith officially opened it.