Admiral Sir Victor Smith, AC, KBE, CB, DSC

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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved) of March 1979

INASMUCH AS THE NAME VICTOR TRUMPER remains immortal among the followers of cricket, so will the name Sir Victor Smith serve as a reminder, to all those connected in any way with the RAN, that he was a person who achieved such rank in the RAN, as a graduate of the RAN College had before him. Many will ask, ‘What was the connection between the two men?‘, yet the answer is simple.

When on the 9th May 1913, a son was born at Chatswood, NSW, to George and Una Smith, he was duly christened Victor Alfred Trumper Smith, and there can be no doubt whatsoever that his mother held all the cards in her hand on this occasion, as she was the sister of the immortal Victor Trumper. As a boy, Smith was educated at Chatswood Public School, where he participated in such sports as swimming, tennis and rugby – but not cricket.

There was no evidence of any seafaring back-ground in his family, so the sole remaining event, which no doubt caused him to chose a naval career, was his joining the Chatswood Wolf Cub Pack, where one of their instructors, a Lieutenant Commander Sims, taught the Pack bends and hitches. Sims was a serving member of the RAN at the time.

So it happened that in February 1927 Smith joined the RAN himself, entering the College at Jervis Bay as a member of the Flinders Year of cadets, his classmates including D.B. Harvie, N.B. Wilson, P.S.F. Hancox, R.T. Ridley, J.H. Dowson, G.F.E. Knox and A.H. Robertson. They spent three and a half years at Jervis Bay and six months at Flinders Naval Depot.

When the class went to sea on 21st January 1931, Smith, together with Harvie and Wilson, joined the flagship HMAS Canberra, the remainder joining HMAS Australia. In May 1931 he was promoted to Midshipman and in July 1932 left Australia to join HMS London, flagship of the 1st Cruiser Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet. In July of the following year he was promoted to acting Sub Lieutenant and sent to England for courses until October 1934 when he returned to Australia.

Smith served in Canberra from January 1935 until March 1936, when he joined Australia as a Lieutenant. In March 1937 he left to proceed to England to do a Naval Observers Course, thus taking the first practical step towards achieving his early ambition to participate in a modest way in naval airpower, which he firmly believed would be of increasing importance.

At the beginning of 1938 Smith joined No. 825 Squadron aboard HMS Glorious in the Mediterranean, and remained in the ship until August 1939 when he left for England to do a Meteorological Course. Due to the outbreak of war, the course was abandoned and Smith was appointed to the new carrier Ark Royal. In 1940 Ark Royal took part in operations off Norway and at the time of the unsuccessful attack on the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst at Trondheim in June, Smith was serving with No. 821 Swordfish Squadron at the RN Air Station at Halston, Orkney Islands.

On the 21st June six Swordfish carried out the first ever torpedo attack by aircraft on a capital ship at sea. ‘Intelligence was received that Scharnhorst was proceeding south of the Norwegian coast‘, Smith wrote, ‘and RNAS Hatston was ordered to send off an aircraft striking force. Three aircraft from each of the two Swordfish squadrons formed the force and flew across the North Sea to the coast. As no ships were sighted the force turned north and sighted the Scharnhorst, heavily screened by destroyers, in the mid afternoon. The weather was fine with no clouds. Consequently with the Swordfish approaching from the south and flying at 90 knots they were very visible to the German ships. The Swordfish carried out a sector torpedo attack against heavy AA fire and no torpedo hits were obtained on the Scharnhorst. Several of the Swordfish received hits, but owing to the ruggedness of the aircraft and its wonderful Pegasus engine, all aircraft managed to return to an airstrip in the Shetlands. This was necessary because the aircraft did not have sufficient fuel to return to the Orkneys. After refuelling and making good some repairs the aircraft flew south to Hatston’. Lieutenant Smith received a mention in despatches for the attack on the Scharnhorst.

In August Smith left the Swordfish squadron to join No. 807 Fighter Squadron, a section of which was sent to the Pegasus (ex Ark Royal), which had been converted to a Fighter Catapult Ship. The ship was used to protect convoys in the Western Approaches against the German Condor aircraft. Later a large number of merchant ships were fitted to carry fighter aircraft for the same duty. In February 1941 the squadron joined HMS Furious to give protection to shipping off the African coast.

In April No. 807 Squadron joined Ark Royal, in which Lieutenant Smith served until the carrier was sunk off Gibraltar on 30 November 1941. During this period he was shot down twice, each time being picked up by a destroyer. At the end of the year he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross ‘for out-standing zeal, patience and cheerfulness and for setting an example of wholeheartedness devotion to duty’. After the war there was an amplification to the citation: ‘This officer has set a high standard of courage and a fine example. He has been shot down into the sea by enemy aircraft on two occasions, and having been picked up by a destroyer on each occasion he has returned making light of his experience and showing unabated keenness to engage the enemy‘.

After the sinking of the Ark Royal Lieutenant Smith returned to Australia, where he was appointed Liaison Officer to the heavy cruiser USS Chicago until the 1st May, when he was appointed to HMAS Canberra as the Observer for the aircraft. He served in the cruiser until she was sunk at the Battle of Savo Island on the 9th August 1942 with heavy casualties. On returning to Sydney Smith paid his tribute to Captain Getting, who had been mortally wounded on the bridge and to the ship’s company. He also paid a special tribute to the three doctors – ‘They never let up during the hours before we abandoned ship. They were marvellous‘.

After the sinking of HMAS Canberra, Smith was appointed to the Amphibious Training School, HMAS Assault, for a short period prior to being appointed to stand by HMAS Shropshire. The cruiser was finally commissioned by Captain J.A. Collins on 20th April 1943, but did not leave for Australia until August. Smith had been promoted to acting Lieutenant Commander in March and in July he had the good fortune to be appointed Air Staff Officer to HMS Tracker, an American built escort carrier.

Tracker proved to be a most successful escort carrier and is the subject of the book Escort Carrier by John Moore. The photograph of the Air Staff Officer is in fact taken from the book. From mid 1943 Tracker operated in the Atlantic and on several occasions joined with Captain Walker’s famous escort group in forming a hunterkiller group.

In his book Moore refers to Lieutenant Commander Smith on several occasions. In one he wrote – ‘He was a thoughtful young man, who had seen much of the sea-war in good times and bad, for he had fought in Norway, and over Malta convoys, and in Crete. He had seen a good many ships go down, and had been in the Ark when she was torpedoed; he had a long score to settle with the Hun, and especially with the Hun’s submarines‘.

Later on this score was settled by Tracker. The Russia-bound convoy of late March 1944 included the escort carriers Activity and Tracker. The latter introduced the Avenger to Russian convoys, carrying twelve of the American carrier bombers and seven Wildcats.

During the passage Tracker aircraft cooperated with a destroyer in sinking one Uboat, and aircraft from the two escort carriers sank another U-boat. The aircraft also shot down six German long-range planes. U-355 and U-288 were sunk on the 1st April and 3rd April 1944 respectively.

On returning from Murmansk from this highly successful action, Smith was appointed Air Planning Officer on the staff of the Flag Officer, British Assault Area, Normandy. In June he took part in the invasion of Normandy. He was next appointed Air Planning Officer on the staff of the Vice-Admiral (Q), British Pacific Fleet and retained this position until October 1, 1945.

The Naval Board now decided to send him to the Admiralty, London to obtain information that would assist in the planning and formation of an RAN Fleet Air Arm. In January 1947 Smith returned to Australia as a member of the Australian Naval Aviation Planning Staff. Government approval for the formation of the Fleet Air Arm was given on the 3rd July 1947. In November he was appointed back to London on the staff of the Naval Liaison Officer as Fleet Air Arm staff officer. Promotion to Commander came through on 31st December. Just over a year after the formation had been approved, the Australian Fleet Air Arm was born on the 28th August 1948, when the 20th Carrier Air Group commissioned at the Royal Naval Air Station, Eglington, United Kingdom. In May 1949 the new aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney arrived in Australian waters.

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