Obituary: John Smith-Hughes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
John Smith-Hughes, soldier and barrister: born 27 November 1918; OBE 1945; married 1945 Angela Louvaris (died 1972; one son, one daughter); died Tortola, Virgin Islands 4 March 1994.

LIKE many of those who joined Special Operations Executive in the Middle East, Jack Smith-Hughes possessed considerable intellectual talents matched by a lack of reverence for conventional army pieties. His path to SOE's headquarters in Cairo had also been decidedly unpredictable.

At the end of 1940, Smith- Hughes, a portly and precocious 22-year-old subaltern in the Royal Army Service Corps, was shipped to Crete as part of the Allied garrison sent to defend the island after the Italian invasion of Greece. When the German airborne invasion took place in May 1941, he was in charge of shipping supplies to outlying detachments from Chania, in north- west Crete. On the night that Brigadier Robert Laycock and Evelyn Waugh landed with the Layforce commandos at Suda Bay, the most chaotic moment of the battle, Smith-Hughes was astonished to find himself walking up and down the jetty for a considerable time with General Bernard Freyberg VC, the Allied commander on the island. Freyberg was worried that the Australian force at Rethymno, on the coast to the east, would not receive the order to withdraw. Unfortunately, this concern for his troops meant that Freyberg was out of touch with his headquarters during several hours while the last Allied counter-attack collapsed in confusion.

The next day, retreat nearly turned into rout. Smith-Hughes was soon one of the 20,000 exhausted men making their way over the White Mountains to the southern coast for evacuation by the Royal Navy. He was one of the unlucky ones. On his way to join the queue on the last evening, he was turned back by an embarkation officer and told not to worry: the warships would be back again the following night. A couple of hours later, he realised that the man had lied to him. Captured by Austrian Alpine troops the next morning, he was marched back over the mountains, the most painful journey of all, to prison camp.

He escaped soon afterwards and hid at the house of Colonel Andreas Papadakis, who later proclaimed himself chief of the Cretan Resistance. George Psychoundakis, 'The Cretan Runner', then guided him to the monastery of Preveli on the south coast. Evacuated finally to Egypt by submarine, Smith- Hughes had the satistaction in a Cairo restaurant of encountering the embarkation officer again and telling him exactly what he thought of him.

To his surprise, Smith-Hughes was summoned to SOE's Cairo headquarters, in Rustum Buildings - known to Cairene taxi-drivers as 'secret building'. He was then sent back to Crete 'to feel out the country and see who had influence'. Accompanied by Ralph Stockbridge of Inter-Services Liaison Department, the cover-name for MI6, he landed on 9 October 1941. Smith-Hughes was fortunate not to never encounter a German patrol or roadblock: his Cretan disguise only seemed to draw attention to his unusual bulk, his Britishly pink compexion, and his ungainly walk.

Smith-Hughes and Stockbridge set off to see Papadakis, the only person they knew who claimed to have influence. But Papadakis's folies de grandeur made him impossible to use as a focus of resistance. Other leaders were sounded out, mainly those rallied by the archaeologist John Pendlebury who had then been executed by German paratroopers during the battle. Smith-Hughes handed over to Monty Woodhouse from Egypt shortly before Christmas and returned to Cairo, where he ran the Cretan desk at SOE headquarters with great skill.

Promoted to major, Smith- Hughes managed to preserve the section from the terrible infighting in Rustum Buildings by moving out to an annexe. It was Smith- Hughes who briefed and backed up Woodhouse's successor, Tom Dunbabin, another distinguished archaeologist of great courage, and his two deputies, Xan Fielding for western Crete and Patrick Leigh Fermor for eastern Crete. Unusually for SOE in the Middle East, the Cretan section, B5, was neither riven by animosity nor plagued by rivalry with ISLD. Smith-Hughes's joint mission with Stockbridge laid the foundations for an unusual degree of co-operation between the two organisations, and he managed to maintain it even in the torrid bureaucratic warfare carried out by the 'Gaberdine swine' in Cairo.

The Germans did all they could to track down the 'espionage organisation of Captain Huse', as one of their reports put it. But perhaps the greatest contribution made by SOE officers in the field and in Cairo was to prevent the latent civil war between the Cretan nationalist EOK and the Communist-dominated EAM-ELAS from exploding into a war to the knife. After the liberation of Heraklion, when a reactionary kapitan shot and wounded one of the Communist andarte leaders, Dunbabin and Smith-Hughes managed to prevent an explosion by driving round the town in open jeeps, and persuading both sides to back away from a battle which would have led to the virtual annihilation of the Communists. The Nationalists, unlike their counterparts on mainland Greece, were untainted by collaboration and much stronger than the Left.

Smith-Hughes, with typical self-deprecating humour, recounted that his most terrifying experience during the war was the formal liberation of Kastelli Kissamou, on the north-west tip of Crete. As a mark of honour, the Cretan kapitan for the area insisted that he should ride with him into the town. Smith- Hughes, who had never felt comfortable with horses, was obliged to overcome his fears, and when the cheering crowds made the horse caracole, he had to hold on to the saddle with both hands.

After the war, Smith-Hughes turned his incisive mind and astonishing memory to the law, first in the Army, and then as a barrister at Tortola in the Virgin Islands, where he became Attorney-General. In 1991, he returned to Crete for the 50th anniversary of the battle and was one of the guests at the memorable all-night glendi in honour of Patrick Leigh Fermor and his Cretan comrades who abducted General Heinrich Kreipe in April 1944.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments