By all yardsticks, Brigadier Sir John Smyth, Victoria Cross, Military Cross, (25.10.1893 – 26.4.1983) was an extraordinary soldier. I first read about him in the library of the Sikh Regimental Centre Officer’s Mess as an army kid. He was the first recipient of the Victoria Cross from the Sikh Regiment. What intrigued me was that as a Major General, he was sacked from the Command of 17 Infantry Division in February 1941, reduced to his substantive rank of Colonel and prematurely retired or “forced to retire” from the service. He was to cut a niche for himself as a public figure, but the question that goes a begging is what led to the ignominious sacking of one of the most decorated soldiers?
Very often I am asked on social media as to why gallantry award winners do not get promoted to higher ranks? My answer, that gallantry in action is certainly a major factor for promotion but there are a host of other intellectual, character and demonstrated performance factors essential for higher command, does not convince most and leads to more questions. The saga of Brigadier John Smyth does answer some of the questions but also raises a few more for which there are no clear-cut answers.
John Smyth belonged to an illustrious family of modest country esquires, a number of who had illustrious military careers including his grandfather who rose to be a Lieutenant General. His father, William John Smythe, a brilliant scholar, entered the coveted ICS, but on secondment was to spend his whole life in the jungles of Burma. Therein lies an irony of fate, Burma would extinguish the brilliant army career of John Smyth on February 23, 1942 and two years plus two months later, Captain John Junior Smyth, his first born was killed in action at Kohima – an extension of the Burma front.
John Smyth entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst in 1911. One had to pass high in the order of merit to be considered fit for the Indian Army. He ended the final term in Aug 1912, with the coveted Military History prize, four Blues in sports and was ninth in the overall merit! He was attached to the Green Howard’s (19th Foot, the First Yorkshire Regiment), at Sialkot for one year preparatory training before joining the Indian Army. John Smyth joined the 15 Ludhiana Sikhs, now 2 Sikh, at Loralai in Baluchistan.
Due to his sterling qualities, John Smyth was quickly enmeshed in his new martial family. This bond of martial brotherhood was put to the ultimate test on 18 May 1915 (WW I) in France, when a detachment of the 15 Sikh holding a segment of the trenches named “Glory Hole”, faced imminent disaster as they had run out of ammunition. When one officer and 20 men of the Highland Infantry on the flank attempted replenishment, they were shot down to the last man. Two further attempts by the 15 Sikh fared no better. This was the stage when Lieutenant John Smyth was ordered to pick up 10 volunteers and make a final attempt. When he asked 10 men to come forward, every Sikh present stepped out, including the fresh draft which had that day arrived from India! John Smyth confessed that “This is what cured me of blue funk (a state of great fear or panic) ”. Using six spare turbans they crawled, dragging three boxes of mortar bombs and three of machine gun bullets, under withering German shelling and automatic fire, in the mid-day sun for about 25 minutes.
Nine soldiers perished as they crawled, dragged and pushed the munitions boxes tied to turbans. The tenth, Lal Singh, was struck dead on reaching the beleaguered bunker. The shell-shocked eleventh stood up but a Sikh from inside the bunker reflexively reached out and pulled Lieutenant John Smyth down. He emerged the sole survivor of the heroic mission, delivering just one box of mortar bombs. Two months later, John Smyth was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) and the Indian Distinguished Service Medal (IDSM) (posthumous) was awarded to the gallant 10 volunteers. When Sir Winston Churchill narrated the action, the House of Commons stood up in salute. He was also decorated by Russia with the Order of St George.
Soon after World War I ended, 15 Sikh was in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) battling the Mehsuds whom John Smyth considered the second best soldiers in the world. His Sikhs, of course, were the best. John Smyth was part of the column whose task was to clear the Shinki Pass of the Mehsud snipers. Just when it appeared that the Pass had been cleared, the last Mehsud sniper picked him up, but from 900 yards it was not an easy shot. Nevertheless, Smyth had a bullet through one hand but without serious damage. His men pinned the Mehsud down till Smyth closed up and picked him clean! Though recommended for a Bar to his VC, he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) in January 1919, just a few months after the fourth anniversary of his getting the VC.
In 1920, with 8 years of service, he was posted as GSO 3 (Intelligence), Army Headquarters. John Smyth had proven himself on the battlefield. He was probably the most decorated officer in the British Empire. But he knew that the second oldest profession also required intellectual military education if one has to rise to the top. So, he now deliberately applied his mind to the military academia and qualified for the Staff College, Quetta. Being high in merit, he was nominated to Staff College, Camberley for the 1923-24 course. He returned to Army Headquarters as GSO 2 (Training). For the first time since school and Sandhurst, he had time for sports and became Master of the Delhi Foxhounds besides playing polo, tennis, first-class cricket and hockey for the Army and narrowly missing playing for India and England.
He returned to 15 Sikh in the NWFP as company commander after two years as an instructor at Camberley. But it broke his heart, when on July 17, 1936, he was given command of 45 Rattray’s Sikhs (now 3 Sikh) even though this too was to become an umbilical affair.
John Smyth was on leave in the UK when World War II commenced and he volunteered to fight in France where he commanded 127 Brigade. The British and French armies suffered a crushing defeat. However, from all accounts, it emerges that 127 Brigade was among the very few who put up a gallant resistance; “beaten but not defeated”, Major Jones the BM and Wright, the Batman of John Smyth, winning the Military Cross and the Distinguished Conduct Medal respectively. They had learnt to handle the Bazooka and knocked out at least two tanks when a Panzer detachment threatened the Brigade Headquarters.
On returning to India in April 1941, he had a minor surgery which unfortunately went awry. When he assumed command of the 18 Indian Division on October 2, 1941 (under raising at Secunderabad) he was still on sick leave. On December 2, 1941, the designation of the 18th was changed to 19th. Its famous Dagger sign was designed by Frances, wife of John Smyth. However, he was not destined to take the division to battle. On December 4, 1941, Smyth was shifted to command 17 Infantry Division, also under raising, but at Pune.
17 Infantry Division were equipped and trained for the War in Middle East and one of its brigades was on the high seas, when on December 20, 1941, they were assigned to Burma in view of the impending Japanese invasion. The division was given the task of defending the approaches to Rangoon, the only port for reinforcements and supplies. The Japanese did not have the resources for an amphibious attack and decided to employ their 15 Army (33 and 55 Divisions) to attack through the Tenasserim District of lower Burma from Thailand, move north to capture the bridge on the Sittang River, and then advance southwards to capture Rangoon. 17 Infantry Division with 2 Burma Brigade under Command was given the task to defend this area basing the defences on the river barriers in the Tenasserim District and finally falling back to Sittang River.
There was a difference of opinion between Lieutenant Gen Thomas Hutton, General Officer Commanding, Burma Army – 17 Infantry Division and 1 Burma Division – and Major General John Smyth. Hutton, supported by his superior General Wavell, wanted to fight well forward along successive river lines to impose delay and gain time for reinforcements landing at Rangoon, before falling back to defend the Sittang River. John Smyth was of the view that his ill-trained troops were no match for the seasoned Japanese Army and stretch over 200 kilometres would be easily outflanked and defeated. He was in favour of ab initio holding strong compact defences on the Sittang River. He was overruled.
The Japanese offensive commenced on January 15, 1942. Isolated battles were fought at Kawkaeik Pass, Moulmein and Martban. 2 Burma Brigade was completely destroyed at Moulmein and the Japanese quickly captured these positions and pushed 17 Infantry Division back to Bilin River about 60 km south-east of Sittang Bridge by end January. Bilin River was not a major obstacle but the division fought a hard battle from February 15 to 18, 1942. The Japanese wore down the defenders and their outflanking columns were getting behind the defences. On February 19, Hutton authorised the withdrawal to Sittang River. The message of withdrawal was intercepted by the Japanese and Lieutenant General Seizo Sakurai, Commander of 33 Division, showed great enterprise in pushing his 215 Infantry Regiment from the eastern flank to cut off the defenders and capture the Sittang bridge while he along with other two regiments moved along the railway track from the un-held western flank.
At this stage, John Smyth despite having advocated a rapid withdrawal to the Sittang River, made the most serious error of judgement of his life. He planned a carefully-staged withdrawal based on the seemingly sluggish follow-up by the Japanese which he appreciated was due to fatigue, casualties and shortage of supplies. He failed to appreciate the outflanking movement of 215 Infantry Regiment which by a great feat of human endeavour force-marched through the jungles for 56 hours to reach the vicinity of the bridge on the night of February 21. He also took a decision to move the entire division along the un-metalled poorly maintained road rather than sending his Infantry on foot along multiple routes.
Unaware of the daring Japanese move, Smyth gave his orders for withdrawal on the morning of February 21. The east bank of Sittang River was to be secured by 48 Infantry Brigade. The division would then withdraw on February 22 with 16 and 46 Infantry Brigades leap-frogging through each other. Two days had been wasted, enabling the Japanese infiltration columns to reach the vicinity of the bridge. To compound the problem, on February 21, apart from Japanese air raids, the division suffered heavy casualties due to mistaken air raids by the Royal Air Force that continued for hours
The Japanese 215 Infantry Regiment attacked the troops holding the eastern bank at 0800 hours on February 22 while the rest of 33 Division attacked the stretched out division at a number of places. For the next 24 hours, a grim battle ensued. As per officers who participated in the battle, John Smyth was not in communication with his brigades as his headquarters had moved 8 km to the west of the river. He did not come forward to influence the battle. Smyth later described the Sittang battle as “a dog-fight in the jungle. Nobody above the rank of company commander could exercise any control”. Observers also said that he was a sick man due to the complications of his earlier operation for fissures. In course of these 24 hours, 17 Infantry Division was decimated. Under pressure and to prevent the bridge from falling into enemy hands, Major General John Smyth gave orders for the bridge to be blown up at 0400 hours on February 23 with two-thirds of the division still east of the river.
17 Infantry Division was reduced to one-third of its strength with the rest having been killed or taken prisoners. Field Marshal Wavell held John Smyth responsible for the disaster. Both Hutton and Smyth were removed from Command. Wavell summed up the events succinctly: “The battle of the Sittang bridgehead on February 22nd and 23rd really sealed the fate of Rangoon and lower Burma. From reports of this operation which I have studied I have no doubt that the withdrawal from the Bilin River to the west of the Sittang was badly mismanaged by the headquarters of the 17th Indian Division, and that the disaster which resulted in the loss of almost two complete brigades ought never to have occurred.”
The contra view is that Hutton and Wavell, and above all Sir Winston Churchill, blundered by collectively disregarding the better tactical judgment of John Smyth, “to hold the line of River Sittang as the first defensive position in Burma” rather than stretch 200 km to fight forward. There is merit in the argument at the strategic level, but John Smyth was sacked for poor tactical handling of the withdrawal from the Bilin River, an action for which he alone was responsible. Ten years after World War II, a charitable view was taken, which critics said had more to do with the rise of Smyth as a public figure and the fact that he was a VC awardee. Military veterans, politicians and the public represented to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to restore the rank and pension of a Major General to Smyth but to no avail. For, the day he was ‘sacked’ and later resigned or “forced to resign” he was a substantive Colonel, temporary Brigadier and an acting Major General! Repent as they may, but all they could do was to give John Smyth the honorary rank of a Brigadier!
John Smyth was neither given to self-pity, nor resentment nor indeed recrimination against his superiors. He went on to become war correspondent/ eminent journalist; broadcaster with BBC; an umpire at Wimbledon; Conservative Member of Parliament for two terms; Minister of War for Pensions 1951-55; author of a number of books; conferred the knighthood and baronetcy; founder member of Victoria Cross committee; and a Privy Councillor. A man who had done it all! An exceptional soldier and a public figure who took victory and defeat in his stride. Yet despite all his achievements “the Sittang disaster” as he himself called it, hung like a millstone around his neck.