Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth B I Smyth OBE

31 Jan 1907 - 26 Oct 1944

Kenneth Bowes Inman Smyth was born on 31 January 1907, in Wolverhampton. He was commissioned, as a Second Lieutenant, in The South Wales Borderers on 30 August 1926 and promoted to full Lieutenant on 30 August 1929. By August 1937 he had been promoted to Captain and was serving as a Staff Officer First Class, a post he held until just before the outbreak of war in 1939.

From August to October 1940 he was ‘specially employed’ and soon after this he was posted to the Headquarters Aldershot Area as a General Staff Officer Class II, and on 4 December 1940, he was promoted to Temporary Major. He remained in this post through 1941, and then in 1942 he was posted to the Middle East Headquarters on another Staff Appointment. His task, along with Major Peter Warr, was to evaluate and ‘foster the appreciation’ of Airborne Forces in that theatre at that time, no mean feat considering that things were not going well for the British and Commonwealth Armies.

By now promoted to Temporary Lieutenant Colonel, Kenneth Smyth was appointed to raise and command what became known as the 10th Parachute Battalion on the 1st January 1943 at Kabrit in the Suez Canal Zone.

1st January 1943. Lt. Col. K.B.I. Smyth relinquishes command of 2 Bn Royal Sussex and assumes command of this Bn. All volunteers of R. Sussex, numbering 7 officers, 5 WO’s, 4 C/Sgts, 24 Cpls and 104 other ranks are transferred to this Bn. The Bn will then form on these figures. All stores and equipment are taken over from 2 R. Sussex. 65 men have already qualified as parachutists and a further 80 are on a course. Courses are organised by 4 Middle East Training School, Kabrit.” [1]

The time between January and August was spent in bringing the battalion up to strength, parachute and infantry training, etc. By August they had moved up to Tunisia, with the rest of the 4th Parachute Brigade, to join the 1st Airborne Division. On 5 September the battalion was warned off for an operation, which turned out to be the invasion of Italy, and they would be sailing from the North African port of Bizerta.

Lieutenant-General Sir John Hackett recalls: “The evening before 4 Parachute Brigade moved up to Bizerta, to embark for the landing in Taranto, we gave a party at Brigade Headquarters. We called it a ball—as a matter of fact we called it the Duchess of Richmond's Ball—and there was even some music and a few charming nurses came in from a military hospital nearby. The Battalion was well represented and the members were having a huge time.

Late in the evening Major Warr approached me and said, standing very steadily to attention, ‘Excuse me, Brigadier. Have I your permission, sir, to knock out my Commanding Officer?’ ‘Kidney’ Smyth, in his quiet way, with a skinful of vino, was proving just the least bit difficult to handle. All the belligerence of this placid man tended on these occasions to come up near the surface. He did not then stop at being difficult: he tended to become impossible.

Knocking out Commanding Officers, however, was scarcely within the rules. I told Peter Warr it was highly improper of him even to make such a suggestion. It did occur to me, however, that if the Battalion were to get off in good order in an hour or two there was something to be said for getting the Commanding Officer under way. If Peter Warr (and one or two others, of course: this was unlikely to be a one man job) were to accompany the Colonel outside the tent and reason with him they might, perhaps, be able to persuade him to leave. Peter accepted the advice without comment and withdrew and before long I saw a group leaving the ballroom with Kenneth Smyth, looking argumentative but saying nothing, in the middle, moving arm in arm with two of the officers while several others moved along in close support. A minute or so later I heard a jeep drive off and then some officers of the group trickled back, with dead-pan faces but without the Colonel. Next day the Brigade moved up to Bizerta and set out for the war in Italy. It was not my business, of course, to ask what reasoning had been used to persuade the Colonel to allow himself to be conducted home. Knowing him, however, I am sure the arguments were powerful ones.” [2]

The main battle that the 10th Battalion were involved in, after landing at the port of Taranto in Italy on 9 September 1943, was at Castellaneta on 10/11 September. It was during this attack that Maj-Gen. Hopkinson went forward to Lt-Col. Smyth’s most forward position and was hit by enemy fire and mortally wounded. The following attack by the 10th Battalion was successful and the Germans driven from the town.

In December 1943 the 10th Battalion, along with the rest of the 1st Airborne Division returned to England and Lt-Col. Smyth and his Headquarters settled into Somerby in Leicestershire.

After training and preparing for numerous operations after the Normandy invasion the chance for action came on Monday, 18 September 1944. The 10th Battalion, along with the whole 4th Parachute Brigade, and its attachments, were going to land in Holland as part of the second lift of operation ‘Market-Garden’. The jump onto D.Z. ‘Y’, Ginkel Heath, was met by stiff German resistance and some of the aircraft were hit. When Lt-Col. Smyth finally got his Headquarters together and was given a ‘roll call’ he was short of approximately 100 men. Worse still the plan had to be changed and instead of moving directly to the east into their allotted defensive positions, they were to remain where they were to cover the move of the rest of the 4th Parachute Brigade south-east towards Wolfheze and Oosterbeek. The 10th Battalion were not to get going until just after mid-night and formed the rear-guard of the Brigade. It took them from 01.00 hours until 10.00 hours to move into position for the attack that had been planned to try and break through to the north of Arnhem.

In their attempt to support the left flank of the 156 Battalion on Tuesday 19, it was expected that the 10th Battalion would not meet very heavy opposition on their advance along the Amsterdamseweg. However, near the pumping station on the junction with the Dreijenseweg, ‘D’ Company were pinned down by heavy gun and mortar fire, and as per usual the ensuing attempt by one of the Company's platoons to flank this opposition failed. The 156 Battalion had earlier been caught in a similar situation and tried to break through it with a bayonet charge that resulted in half of their number becoming casualties. Lt-Colonel Smyth however chose to be a little more cautious with his approach, and ordered ‘D’ Company to hold their positions while the Battalion's Mortar Platoon subdued the German defences. This move was successful, but the mortar ammunition eventually ran dry.

During the same action, a column of German vehicles approached the positions of Headquarter Company from the direction of Arnhem. Smyth ordered the men to lie on either side of the road and ambush the convoy at close range, however the vehicles did not take the bait and instead battered the Company’s positions with every weapon at their disposal. During the fight, the pumping station was hit and exploded, scattering its tiled roof into the sky and it took about a minute for all of them to return to earth. Smyth drily commented “The landlord won’t like that”.

The 10th Battalion was ordered to withdraw from the pumping station, just before the Polish gliders came in to land on LZ-L, half a mile away from the area. Captain Nick Hanmer, the Adjutant, was with Headquarters when the order came through over one of their radio sets. He told his Colonel that they couldn't do that as it was always said to never disengage while under attack. Captain Hanmer shouted across to Lt. Colonel Smyth: “We can’t withdraw from here - the Jerries are all around us.” The Commanding Officer shouted back: “We’ve got our orders - let’s get going!” Orders were sent out to each of the Battalion’s companies, and the withdrawal got underway without serious loss.

As the 4th Parachute Brigade’s vehicles and equipment were slowly passed through a tunnel underneath the railway line, the 10th Battalion were charged with holding the ground west of the area. Now with only 100 men, Smyth began to fortify his men inside Wolfheze, and also made use of some glider pilots present and a large force of men separated from the 156 Battalion. However the expected German attack on Wolfheze did not come during the night.

The Brigade began to move towards the comparative safety of the Oosterbeek Perimeter on Wednesday morning, with what remained of the 10th Battalion leading their way. German infantry and tanks harassed the Brigade every step of the way, though the fast moving 10th Battalion was not as severely effected by this as the 156 Battalion. Sometime during the morning, Smyth was wounded when a bullet hit his right arm, but with a final determined charge, he led his men into the Divisional area at 13:10. Major-General Urquhart saw the men as they arrived at the Hartenstein, and noted that they were exhausted, filthy, and bleeding, though their discipline was immaculate. Smyth, now with a bandage around his arm, reported to the General without drawing breath “We have been heavily taken on, sir. I have sixty men left”. Aside from himself, the only other remaining officer of the 10th Battalion was his Second-in-Command (Major G.F. Widdowson) and Major Peter Warr. Urquhart ordered him to take his men to the Utrechtseweg-Stationsweg road junction and occupy the houses there, just in front of one of the Main Dressing Stations.

On  the morning of Thursday 21, the Germans made a determined attempt to remove the 10th Battalion from their positions. The initial assaults were all repelled, but a self-propelled gun was later placed where it could not be attacked, and it proceeded to blow the occupied buildings apart, sometimes using phosphorus shells to set them alight. During this assault, Smyth was severely wounded in the stomach. Unconscious, he was brought down into the cellar of No.2 Annastraat with the other wounded. Upon waking it became clear that he was utterly disorientated and kept on asking “Where am I?” As he drifted in and out of consciousness, the owner of the house Mrs Bertje Voskuil tried to explain that he was in Holland, at Oosterbeek, but he didn’t understand.

Soon after, German troops moved into the buildings and captured most of those inside. A rather stereotypical German officer entered the cellar; a seemingly hideous man, with a centre parting and a monocle on a ribbon. Lt-Col. Kenneth Smyth regained consciousness and asked to see a commanding German officer. The man spoke no English and asked Mrs Voskuil what “that man” wanted. She was quite outraged and abruptly said that “The Colonel” needed a doctor. He left and returned several minutes later with a German doctor. He briefly examined Smyth’s stomach wound and asked Mrs Voskuil to “Tell the officer I am sorry I have to hurt him but I must look at his wound. Tell him to grit his teeth.” As the doctor began to pull back the clothing around the wound, Smyth fell unconscious once more.

The wound was fatal and it left Smyth paralysed from the waist down. His suffering ended one month later on the 26 October 1944. Before he died, and whilst he was occupying a bed in the St Elizabeth’s Hospital, he dictated his list of recommendations for bravery awards to Brigadier Hackett, who was laying in the bed next to him.

Initially buried in the General Cemetery at ‘Heidehof’, he now lies at rest in the Arnhem/Oosterbeek C.W.G.C. Cemetery.

On 14 October 1943 Major (temporary Lieutenant Colonel) Kenneth Smyth was awarded the Order of the British Empire, “In recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the Middle East”. On 24 August 1944 Major (temporary Lieutenant Colonel) Kenneth Smyth was awarded a Mention in Despatches, “In recognition of gallant and distinguished services in Italy”. On 20 September 1945 Major (temporary Lieutenant Colonel) Kenneth Smyth was awarded a Mention in Despatches, “In recognition of gallant and distinguished services at Arnhem”.

[1] 10th Parachute Battalion War Diary. January 1943.

[2] THE TENTH, by Maj. R. Brammall. Pages 16-17.

 

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  • Bob Hilton with the daughter and grand-daughter of Lt Col K Smyth, Ginkelse Heide, 20 October 2012.

    Bob Hilton with the daughter and grand-daughter of Lt Col K Smyth, Ginkelse Heide, 20 October 2012.

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