OBITUARY: Stan Smith

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The Independent Online
Like his uncle, a member of the 11th Hussars who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade, Stan Smith was himself a survivor - and the last survivor of the "Black Hole of Baku". The story of this appalling incident was not given much publicity, but it bears comparison with the worst atrocities endured by prisoners of the Japanese in the Second World War.

Smith was one of 28 volunteers under Commander Bruce Fraser sent to Enzeli, a port on the Caspian Sea, just after the First World War, in an attempt to prevent the advance of the Bolshevik revolution into Georgia. The whole party was captured and incarcerated in two small earth-floored cells. They were forced to witness atrocities beyond the imagination of any but the depraved. Men and women were disembowelled and mutilated in front of the naval party and then shot.

They had been reported "Missing, believed killed"; they were starving, lousy and in rags. There had been death in the cells, where bodies were left to decompose. Eventually, after almost two years, Fraser was able to get a concealed message to the British ambassador, carried out by his Georgian interpreter. Out of the 28 fit volunteers, only 14 survived and two of these died on the hospital boat home.

At the beginning of the war Smith had enrolled as a 15-year-old in the Royal Navy. At the Battle of Jutland in 1916, he was a gun-layer in the destroyer HMS Spitfire when, during a torpedo attack on an enemy battleship, he was the only survivor of his gun's crew: his ship was hit several times, and he was badly wounded himself.

After recovering from a serious leg wound, Smith volunteered to join one of the "Q-ships" - old merchant ships with concealed guns. After fitting out, Q-12, the first Q-ship, left harbour to swing compasses and was promptly torpedoed by one of the U-boats she was intended to combat. Onboard the second Q-ship, Smith and his gun's crew faced a submarine's shelling until it came close enough to be itself sunk.

Smith's peacetime career saw him join a naval party searching for the lost Colonel Fawcett in the upper Amazon jungle, pirate hunting near Hong Kong, and four years' adventures on the China station, as well as a long commission based in Bermuda. Smith's memoirs, Sea of Memories (1985), read like yarns from Boy's Own.

Pensioned in 1939, Smith was recalled within a few weeks of his discharge, at the outbreak of the Second World War. With the rank of Chief Petty Officer he found himself second-in-command of the gunnery training ranges at Sheerness; his batteries defended the Thames estuary and he was frequently under direct air-attack. Smith was responsible for the construction of one of the first Commando Training Courses, as Chief Gunnery Instructor. He was retired a second time at the end of hostilities.

Stan Smith maintained correspondence with his former commander, Bruce Fraser. They were the last two survivors of the "Black Hole of Baku". Smith, by then in a wheelchair, was the guest of the Royal Navy in 1990 when the Duke of Edinburgh unveiled a bust of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fraser of North Cape in Portsmouth Dockyard. The Duke accepted a copy of Smith's autobiography and Smith was presented with the Union Flag which had veiled the statue.

Geoffrey Kemble Johnson

William Stanley Smith, naval officer: born Beccles, Suffolk 23 March 1899; married 1936 Laura Flowerdew (two sons, one daughter); died Beccles 30 November 1995.