Obituary: John Jarvis-Smith DSC, sailor, shipbroker and oil trader

Born: 15 March, 1922, in London. Died: 15 May, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 91

John Jarvis-Smith DSC, centre, was a Shipbroker who, as a young sailor, was involved in the hazardous Operation Infatuate
John Jarvis-Smith DSC, centre, was a Shipbroker who, as a young sailor, was involved in the hazardous Operation Infatuate

As he stood before the King to receive his Distinguished Service Cross, 23-year-old war veteran John Smith found himself tongue-tied and panic-stricken. When George VI, attempting to strike up a conversation, commented on his young age, all he could do was blurt out: “Yes, Sir!”

And after the investiture, photographed outside Buckingham Palace with his proud mother and sister, there was no sign of the bravery award – with typical modesty he had shoved it in his pocket.

It was a measure of the man, who this week received the private funeral he wished, that he had quietly received the honour without fuss, a scenario that could not have been further from the mayhem in which it was won, amid the churning waves and screaming gunfire off the coast of Holland during the amphibious assault on one of the world’s most fortified targets.

Smith, who had yet to acquire his double-barrelled surname, was part of Operation Infatuate, a particularly hazardous attack on the Dutch island of Walcheren which was vital to the Allies’ progress through Europe in late 1944.

They had already captured the port of Antwerp but Walcheren, at the mouth of the River Scheldt, had been heavily fortified with German defences including 18 major gun batteries, impeding the access way to the port further inland. The estuary, with its dangerous sandbanks, was also riddled with mines and the coast littered with concrete blocks and other obstacles, all of which hampered landing craft.

The area had already been blitzed by Bomber Command and dykes breached to flood the area but some gun batteries were still active when the Combined Operations landing was launched on the morning of 1 November.

Smith, a naval sub-lieutenant, was with the Royal Navy Support Squadron, in a Landing Craft Gun (Large), armed with two guns, about 1,000 yards off the coast from Westkapelle. Their task was to engage and distract the German defences while Royal Marines and Norwegian and Belgian Commandos landed on the beach.

The tactic proved successful as the German shore batteries let rip but as the enemy repeatedly targeted their vessel, Smith’s captain dispersed his officers by sending Smith below decks – a move that was to save him from the carnage about to be wreaked above. Just as he reached the wireless room he heard a huge bang and, on rushing to the bridge, discovered all his colleagues either dead or injured.

The engine room was then hit by a second explosion and another destroyed the wireless room. The 22-year-old then took command and slowly manoeuvred the stricken craft, by now on one engine, alongside a hospital ship which took the wounded on board.

The fight lasted nearly four hours and there were heavy losses. Of the 27 ships involved, eight sank and only seven were left unscathed.

Later that year Smith, who had previously seen action off Sword Beach on D-Day and spent three weeks providing covering fire for troops during the British landings, was given command of a landing craft tank to take relief supplies to the people of Caen who had suffered during ferocious fighting to capture the city which was mostly destroyed as a result.

Then, a couple of months before the end of the war in Europe, Smith found himself at the centre of a surreal episode when he discovered, through the London Gazette, that he had been Mentioned, “posthumously”, in Despatches. In March 1945 he was named among those honoured “for gallantry and great devotion to duty in the assault on Walcheren, in which operation they lost their lives”.

Once informed that it was another officer by the name of Smith who had been killed and that John Smith was alive and well, the Admiralty awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. An amended statement in the publication just over a month later announced his DSC. 

Born John Frederick Smith in Streatham, South London, he was educated at Woodmansterne Road Primary and Tooting’s Central School. A boy chorister and London YMCA singles tennis champion, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, under the Y Scheme, a programme where boys with officer potential were selected while still at school.

As an ordinary seaman he was put in charge of 30 of his peers and was promoted a year later, having proved his leadership qualities, to midshipman, serving during the Second World War on landing craft.

Despite the confusion over his name in wartime, it was not until 1971 that he formally changed his name to Jarvis-Smith. By that time he had become a shipbroker, entering the profession through the firm Simpson, Spence and Young – the Simpson being Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a former captain in the Coldstream Guards and the second husband of Wallis Simpson who went on to marry the Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII who had abdicated rather than end his relationship with her.

Smith, who often lunched with Simpson at London’s Savoy Hotel, went on to work in oil trading for Murco and John Latsis, the Greek shipping tycoon, before retiring at 62.

He then divided his time between a thatched cottage in Wiltshire’s Savernake Forest and a house in Les Ferres in the Alpes Maritimes above the Cote D’Azur.

Along with his partner Roger Cave, Jarvis-Smith met one of the glamorous society characters who populated the Riveria Set post-war, Frances Rachel Bailey, known as Billy. She had married journalist and photographer Alfredo Quaglino, who had taken hundreds of photographs of the area’s high society and photographed the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier in Monaco.

The images included many candid and unpublished shots of Picasso, Chagall and Matisse, Erroll Flynn, the Aga Khan and Rita Hayworth, Somerset Maugham and Brigitte Bardot.

Both Billy, gregarious and willowy, and Quaglino had joined the French Resistance and both were the outsiders in their families. Her most enduring relationship had been with her female lover but she and Quaglino were friends for many years and they married shortly before his death.

She then looked after his collection of photographs secretly for 20 years. She died, aged 85, in 1995 and Jarvis-Smith and Roger Cave were her executors.

They did not know the photographs existed but subsequently put Quaglino’s extraordinary archive up for auction in Edinburgh.

Jarvis-Smith recalled: “I had a message that Billy was dying and would like to see me to talk about her will. So I jumped on a plane and flew to Nice.” He arrived when she was asleep and had to return the next day.

“She was very lucid, we had a little chat. She said the doctor had told her that she had had a visitor from the UK the previous day. She thought she’d have a little joke so she said, ‘Yes, he’s good friend of mine, he’s the ex-ambassador, you know.’ And she roared with laughter. The next day she was dead.”

A great lover of opera, ballet and horse-racing, which he watched on television most afternoons, Jarvis-Smith had moved to Crossmichael, near Castle Douglas in 1990 where he opened his house and garden to raise funds for various causes including the National Trust for Scotland, the Red Cross and the local Conservative Party which he chaired.

He died in The Erskine, Edinburgh, with his partner Roger by his side, who survives him along with his sister Jean in Canada.