b. 06/08/1916 Nottingham Road, South Africa. d. 10/1997 Durban, South Africa.
Quentin George Murray Smythe (1916-1997) was born in Nottingham Road, Natal, South Africa on 6th August 1916 as son of Edric Smythe. He was the grandson of the First Administrator of Natal, Charles Smythe. Quentin Smythe attended the Estcourt High School in Estcourt. After his education he started farming in Richmond.
During the Second World War, Quentin Smythe served with the 1st Battalion Royal Natal Carabineers, 1st SA Infantry Division, South African Forces in the East Africa Campaign against the Italians before moving to the Western Desert against the German and Italian Axis Forces.
On May 26th, 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Korps attacked the British Army (which had just been weakened by losing two divisions, an Armoured Brigade and some squadrons of the Desert Air Force to the Far East) in order to pre-empt a new British offensive. The Germans hoped to capture Tobruk and, ultimately, to drive the British back to Alexandria, although this attempt was finally checked at El Alamein by Auchinleck the next month.
The initial attack caught the British off-balance, but they recovered and fought back, forcing the Germans to take up a defensive position, which became known as ‘The Cauldron’. Unfortunately, the British were at this stage equipped with tanks and guns which were inferior to the Germans’, and after a number of desperate battles they had to fall back.
On June 5th, 1942, the South African forces were holding a position in the north of the line (which consisted of defensive “boxes” separated by minefields), and when Rommel launched a heavy attack in the northern sector he encountered strong and determined resistance. The cost in casualties on both sides was high. Smythe, who was then a sergeant, realised that there was no officer to command his platoon and took charge himself, leading his men in an attack on the enemy’s strong point at Alem Hamza, 20 miles south of Gazala. Sergeant Smythe took command of the platoon although suffering from a shrapnel wound in the forehead. The strong point having been overrun, our troops came under enfilade fire from an enemy machine-gun nest.
Realising the threat to his position, Sergeant Smythe himself stalked and destroyed the nest with hand grenades, capturing, the crew. Though weak from loss of blood, he continued to lead the advance, and on encountering an anti-tank gun position again attacked it single-handed and captured the crew. He was directly responsible for killing several of the enemy, shooting some and bayonetting another as they withdrew. After consolidation he received orders for a withdrawal, which he successfully executed, defeating skilfully an enemy attempt at encirclement. Throughout the engagement Sergeant Smythe displayed remarkable disregard for danger, and his leadership and courage were an inspiration to his men.
His VC was gazetted on 11th September 1942, and he received his medal from Major General Dan Pienaar. When Sgt. Smythe VC returned to South Africa, he returned a national hero, he was awarded the country’s first Victoria Cross in the Second World War. In all five South African’s received the Victoria Cross during World War 2. Sgt Smythe is well known because he enjoyed great media attention and was presented to the Premier Jan Smuts.
On leaving the Department of Defence he returned to farming in the Richmond area of Natal. He was an outstanding marksman, a passionate conservationist and animal lover. He died from cancer in Durban, aged 81 in October 1997 and was buried with military honours by his Regiment after cremation at Durban Crematorium– The Natal Carabineers. He left three sons, a daughter and 11 grandchildren. His medal group was purchased privately by Michael Ashcroft in 1999 and are now displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: DURBAN CREMATORIUM, DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA.
Quentin Smythe's medals including VC on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (August 2014).
Constitution Hill, London
(Picture - Thomas Stewart).