It was a legacy of the British Indian Civil Service couples serving in the colonies that their progeny, mostly schooled in England and charted their future with minimal parental oversight. So it was that John Smyth ( JS) entered the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (UK) in the class of 1911 and set his sights on the Indian Army and be closer to his parents. But to exercise that choice he would need to graduate among the first twenty and indeed, he ended the final term with the coveted Military History Prize, four Sports Blazers (Hockey, Tennis, Rackets, Horse-Riding) and 8th in the over-all merit!
JS was commissioned in the Battalion of his dreams’, the 15 Ludhiana Sikhs (post Independence 2 Sikh, currently stationed at Chandimandir) and with less than three years service he led a suicidal mission in WW I and was awarded the Victoria Cross for Valour. And on the fourth anniversary of that VC, leading another dare do action (solo in the last twenty minutes) in the Chitral Valley he was awarded the MC! Yet by a cruel twist of Kismet, Major General John Smyth, VC, MC in command of the 17 Infantry Division in the opening phase of WW II in Burma was divested of his Command and dismissed JS was commissioned in the Battalion of his dreams’, the 15 Ludhiana Sikhs (post Independence 2 Sikh, currently stationed at Chandimandir) and with less than three years service he led a suicidal mission in WW I and was awarded the Victoria Cross for Valour. And on the fourth anniversary of that VC, leading another dare do action (solo in the last twenty minutes) in the Chitral Valley he was awarded the MC! Yet by a cruel twist of Kismet, Major General John Smyth, VC, MC in command of the 17 Infantry Division in the opening phase of WW II in Burma was divested of his Command and dismissed from Army Service; ironically, some ten years after WW II Field Marshal Wavell was to admit his grave mistake and made sincere efforts with Prime Minister Winston Churchill to restore the rank and pension of a Major General to JS but to no avail.
When JS and Frances, his wife returned to London in October 1942 to make a fresh start in life, Major General JC (“Boney”) Fuller the BBC’s chief broadcaster on WW II sought retirement and recommended that JS was eminently suited as his replacement. Before long JS won accolades both as BBC broadcaster and War Correspondent of Sunday Times. But his moment of real fulfilment would arrive only when Wimbledon Tennis Championship was revived, post WW II. Unfortunately for the Sunday Times, their lawn tennis writer Hamilton Price had passed away, the night prior to the men’s quarter finals. During the morning conference, on an impulse the Editor sent for Smyth and holding him in his gaze said: “John, I believe no one in the Indian Army can hope to command and lead a Division in battle unless he had been an outstanding sportsman in his subaltern days… would you report for us on Wimbledon also, henceforth” or words to that effect.
Taken by surprise and suppressing his inner misgivings JS responded “well I have played a lot of first-class tennis both at home and in India and am a member of the All England Club at Wimbledon. I have never written on the game, but I could.”
His first article “By a Correspondent” appeared on 03 Feb, 1947. As there was no adverse comment, two more followed and on 14 February, a very comprehensive article appeared under his name. And Sunday Times new lawn tennis writer had “arrived”! Two years later, Smyth was invited by the All England Club to write all the articles and the photo-captions for the Wimbledon Programme which became so popular that nearly 100,000copies sold each year!
When one of the chair-umpires fell ill, Smyth was asked to deputise. Once again, he became a permanent presence in this department too! Finally, he wrote a book on the subject (“Lawn Tennis: A History of The Game”) which became a classic even with the American LTA! Two more books which followed, “The Game’s The Same” and “Behind The Scenes at Wimbledon,” also became instant favourites. A while later, Smyth was to suggest a new foot-fault rule which was easier for the umpires to enforce and welcomed by the players and remains in force to date. So much for the mixed bag of fortunes of War!
I wonder whether 2 Sikh or the Rattrays Sikh (currently, 3 Sikh) the Battalion which JS Commanded in Chitral Fort and later at Allahabad, think of him as the Wimbledon Grand Slam plays out each year? Or have among their Regimental memorabilia all the twenty books which includes three for children, two Plays and the scintillating biography of the Rani of Jhansi (“The Rebellious Rani”) as a mark of honour for their Gentleman Officer?
Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956,Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces. This article first appeared in the Tribune, 14 July 2019.