Obituaries: Brigadier Roy Smith-Hill

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The Independent Online
Brigadier Roy Smith-Hill was not only the oldest surviving Royal Marine officer, but the last surviving officer of the ill-fated 6th Battalion Royal Marines Light Infantry. He died nine months short of his 100th birthday.

The 6th Battalion was formed in 1919 to carry out ceremonial duties during the plebiscite being held in Schleswig-Holstein: their main task being to man the polling booths. Before boarding the troopship Czar they were informed of a change of plan. They were now to sail to north Russia to bolster the forces covering the evacuation of British troops from the area.

Morale sank, for many of the men had served in the First World War and did not now want to lose their lives fighting in Russia in circumstances of which they knew or cared little. The battalion also contained a number of very raw recruits and prisoners of war who had only recently returned from Germany and had had no leave.

On arriving at Murmansk, they were ordered to man outposts close to Lake Onega. Smith-Hill's company arrived at Kapaselga to hear that the previous night the Portsmouth Company had unsuccessfully attacked the village of Koikori and lost three men and 18 wounded. After a week's preparation his company was ordered to form the first wave of an attack on the same village.

His company was led into the attack by a Russian guide who betrayed them and left them in a vulnerable position before disappearing. The Bolshevik forces' machine-guns caused a number of casualties, especially among the senior officers. Two hours later, now in charge of his company, Smith- Hill was ordered to retire.

The next morning, faced with the prospect of another attack on the village, the men of Smith-Hill's company refused to obey orders from the platoon commanders and removed themselves to a nearby friendly village. Smith- Hill pursued them. On finding them, he ordered them to fall in and told them they would all be court-martialled. In fact, 93 men from the battalion were tried by Field General Court Martial and 13 were sentenced to death, while others received substantial sentences of hard labour.

One of the accused, who had been wounded in the attack, did not undergo court-martial until his return to Chatham, where he was found not guilty. This threw doubt on the validity of the Field General Court Martial. In December 1919, the Government, under pressure from several MPs, revoked the sentence of death and considerably reduced the sentence of all the men.

Smith-Hill's commanding officer informed him that as an officer he had incurred their Lordships' displeasure - i.e. the Lords of the Admiralty. He asked to be court-martialled, but this was refused. However, a brigade major told him later that it was not a bad thing for a young officer to be the object of their Lordships' displeasure, because it would get him recognised. Indeed it did, for Smith-Hill left the Royal Marines 35 years later with the rank of brigadier and appointment as CBE.

Roy Smith-Hill was born in Aspatria, Cumberland, where his father was the principal of the local agricultural college. He was educated at St Bees and joined the Royal Marines in 1915. During the First World War he served as a gunnery officer with the Grand Fleet aboard HMS Vanguard and HMS Erin. In 1922, when events became rather hot in Turkey, he was serving in a light cruiser (HMS Carysfort) in the Eastern Mediterranean. He kept watch on the bridge at sea, which was unusual for a Royal Marine officer. He then served two years with HMS Hood as Captain of Marines.

After Staff College in 1935 he was seconded to the Army for four years at HQ Southern Command as Brigade Major of the Devon and Cornwall Light Infantry Brigade (TA). When war broke out, his first-hand experience of both the Army and the Navy in war and peace was put to good use and he served on both Army and Navy staffs. He was GOS1 to the Army Commander, Major-General N.M.S. Irwin, during the abortive attack on Dakar in September 1940 and later, as GSO1 of the Royal Marine Division. For the attack on Algiers, he was Staff Officer of Assault Planning to the Naval Commander and liaison officer between the naval and military forces for the attack on Sicily in July 1943.

Before and after D-Day he was on the staff of the Director of Combined Operations at the Admiralty. After the war, he commanded the Infantry Training Centre at Lympstone, then became Commandant of the Royal Marines School of Music. He retired in 1950.

After retirement he returned to his old home in Braithwaite, Cumberland, where for four years he was the County Cadet Commander. In 1954 he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Cumberland, a position he held until the counties of Westmorland and Cumberland combined to become Cumbria. From 1957 to 1963 he served as Area Civil Defence Officer in West Cumberland.

Smith-Hill was active in the local community, as churchwarden and President of the Braithwaite Cricket Club. He indulged his interest in woodwork and was a born storyteller and reciter of narrative poems. One way or another, by telling people or by charming them, he managed to get things done. Until the end he retained his wry good-humour.

In his last few months, he would often recall Russian phrases.

Philip Royal Smith-Hill, soldier: born Aspatria, Cumberland 5 May 1897; CBE 1946; married Sybil Knight (died 1974; two sons, two daughters); died Carlisle 4 August 1996.

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