SMYTH John George
Brigadier Sir John George Smyth, 1st Baronet, VC, MC, PC (25 October 1893 – 26 April 1983), often known as Jackie Smyth, was a British Indian Army officer and a Conservative Member of Parliament. Although a recipient of the Victoria Cross, his army career ended in controversy.
Early life and army career
Smyth was educated at Dragon School, Repton and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. After passing out from Sandhurst, he was commissioned a second lieutenant on the unattached list for the British Indian Army on 24 August 1912, and was commissioned into the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs on 5 November 1913. He was promoted to lieutenant on 24 November 1914.
He was 21 years old, and a lieutenant in the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, 3rd (Lahore) Division, Indian Army during the First World War, when his actions earned him the Victoria Cross. In June 1915 Smyth was awarded the Victoria Cross, the United Kingdom's highest award for bravery in combat. The citation for this award, published in the London Gazette read:
For most conspicuous bravery near Richebourg L'Avoue on 18 May 1915. With a bombing party of 10 men, who voluntarily undertook this duty, he conveyed a supply of 96 bombs to within 20 yards of the enemy's position over exceptionally dangerous ground, after the attempts of two other parties had failed. Lieutenant Smyth succeeded in taking the bombs to the desired position with the aid of two of his men (the other eight having been killed or wounded), and to effect his purpose he had to swim a stream, being exposed the whole time to howitzer, shrapnel, machine-gun and rifle fire.
He was also awarded the Russian Order of St. George, Fourth Class, in 1915, and was promoted to captain on 24 August 1916.
In September 1920, when brigade major in the 43rd Indian Brigade, Smyth was awarded the MC for distinguished service in the field in Waziristan. The citation for this award, published in the London Gazette, read:
For gallantry and initiative at Khajuri, Tochi Valley, on the 22nd October, 1919, when, having been sent forward from Idak to clear up the situation, his quick appreciation, dispositions and leadership averted a serious disaster and contributed largely towards the saving of a valuable convoy attacked by the enemy. He showed great gallantry under heavy fire, inspired his command, and brought the convoy safely to Idak.
In 1923, while serving in India, Smyth played two first-class cricket matches for the Europeans team.
Smyth received a brevet promotion to major on 1 January 1928, receiving the substantive promotion to major on 24 August 1929. By this time, he was a GSO 2nd grade with the 3/11th Sikhs, an appointment he vacated on 22 November 1929. An early appointment as an instructor at the Staff College in Camberley in 1930 further indicated that Smyth's career was on the fast track, borne out by his appointment as a GSO 2nd grade at the Staff College on 16 January 1931, with the local rank of lieutenant-colonel. He received a brevet promotion to lieutenant-colonel on 1 July 1933, and relinquished his appointment at the Staff College on 16 January 1934.
On 16 July 1936, Smyth was promoted to the substantive rank of lieutenant-colonel, an illustration of how rapidly his career had thus far progressed. He managed to persuade the Chief of the Imperial General Staff to give him an undertaking that he would be given a brigade to command in the United Kingdom should hostilities break out. Having managed to engineer leave from India to the United Kingdom in summer 1939, he called in his debt but was disappointed to be seconded to a United Kingdom-based staff job.
Second World War
In February 1940, after further lobbying, Smyth was appointed to command the 127th Infantry Brigade, part of 42nd (East Lancashire) Infantry Division, which from April he led in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. After the evacuation from Dunkirk in late May, he continued to command the brigade in Britain until he was summoned to return to India in March 1941. He was promoted to colonel on 23 December 1940.
After briefly commanding 36th Indian Infantry Brigade in Quetta and a period of sick leave, Smyth took command of 19th Indian Infantry Division as an acting major-general in October, but was reassigned to command 17th Indian Infantry Division in December. Controversy surrounds his handling of 17th Indian Division in February 1942, during its retreat across the Sittang River in Burma. It was said that he failed to expedite a strong bridgehead on the enemy's side of the river and was forced, when it came under threat from the Japanese, to order the blowing of the bridge while two-thirds of his division were still on the far side with no other means of crossing the river and therefore dooming them. Seventeen Division were the only formation standing between the Japanese and Rangoon, and this loss therefore led directly to the loss of Rangoon and Lower Burma. The Commander-in-Chief, India, General Sir Archibald Wavell was furious and sacked Smyth on the spot. Smyth received no further posts and returned to the United Kingdom to retire with a substantive rank of colonel and honorary rank of brigadier. It took 16 years and revision of the official history before his version of the affair versus that of General Hutton, his corps commander, was clarified. Smyth's book, Milestones, 1979, gives his version in which he relates that he had made representations to General Hutton 10 days previously recommending a withdrawal to the west bank of the Sittang River, thus permitting a strong defence line to be established. His recommendation was refused.
Post war career
Smyth went into politics and stood unsuccessfully against Ernest Bevin in Wandsworth Central at the 1945 general election. At the 1950 election, he defeated the sitting Labour MP for Norwood. He was made a baronet 23 January 1956 with the style Sir John George Smyth, VC, MC, 1st Baronet Smyth of Teignmouth in the County of Devon and a privy counsellor in 1962. He retired from Parliament at the 1966 general election; as at 2015 he was the last VC recipient to sit in the Commons.
Smyth was also an author, a playwright, a journalist and a broadcaster. His two brothers were distinguished soldiers, one of whom also became a brigadier. He married twice: firstly Margaret Dundas on 22 July 1920, later dissolved, with whom he had three sons and a daughter; and then Frances Chambers on 12 April 1940. One of his sons, Captain John Lawrence Smyth of the 1st Battalion, Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey), was killed on 7 May 1944, during the first attack on Jail Hill at the Battle of Kohima.
Smyth was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Imperial War Museum.
One of Brigadier Smyth's uniforms is on display at the armory of the Artillery Company of Newport in Newport, Rhode Island, USA.
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