Today is the birthday (1764) of Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith, GCB, GCTE, KmstkSO, FRS a British naval officer who served in the American and French revolutionary wars, as well as the Swedish Navy, who later rose to the rank of admiral. Chances are that you have never heard of Sidney Smith (as he called himself), but have heard of the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson. Yet . . . Napoleon Bonaparte, reminiscing later in his life, said of Sidney Smith: “That man made me miss my destiny.” Why is this?
Sidney Smith was born into a military and naval family with connections to the Pitt family. He was born at Westminster, the second son of Captain John Smith of the Guards and his wife Mary Wilkinson, daughter of wealthy merchant Pinckney Wilkinson. Sidney Smith attended Tonbridge School until 1772. He joined the Royal Navy in 1777 and fought in the American Revolutionary War, where he saw action in 1778 against the American frigate Raleigh. For his bravery under Rodney in the action near Cape St Vincent in January 1780, Sidney Smith was, on 25th September, appointed lieutenant of the 74-gun third-rate Alcide, despite being under the required age of 19.
He distinguished himself under Admiral Thomas Graves at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781 and under Admiral George Rodney at the Battle of the Saintes and in consequence was given his first command, the sloop Fury. He was soon promoted to captain a larger frigate, but following the peace of Versailles in 1783, he was put ashore on half pay. During the peace, Smith chose to travel to France and first became involved with intelligence matters while observing the construction of the new naval port at Cherbourg. He also traveled in Spain and Morocco which were also potential enemies. In 1790, he applied for permission to serve in the Royal Swedish Navy in the war between Sweden and Russia. King Gustav III appointed him to command a light squadron and to be his principal naval adviser. Smith led his forces in clearing the Bay of Viborg of the Russian fleet, known as the Battle of Svensksund. The Russians lost 64 ships and over 1,000 men. The Swedes lost 4 ships and had few casualties. For this, Smith was knighted by the king and made a Commander Grand Cross of the Swedish Svärdsorden (Order of the Sword). Smith used this title, with King George III’s permission, but was mocked by fellow British officers as “the Swedish knight.” There were a number of British officers, on half pay like Smith, who had enlisted and fought with the Russian fleet and six had been killed in this action. As a result, Smith earned the enmity of many British naval officers for his Swedish service.
In 1792, Smith’s younger brother, John Spencer Smith, was appointed to the British embassy to the Ottoman court in Constantinople. Smith obtained permission to travel to Turkey. While there, war broke out with Revolutionary France in January 1793. Smith recruited some British seamen and sailed to join the British fleet under Admiral Lord Hood which had occupied the French Navy’s principal Mediterranean port of