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Notable Ex Cadet – 2120 Desmond Smith: Successful military officer & businessman

When the battle for Rome ended, Lt-Gen Sir Oliver Leese, Bt, commander of the 8th Army, expressed his dissatisfaction at the performance of the Canadian inexperienced 1st Corps Headquarters

Desmond Smith served in Italy and the Netherlands during the Second World War as the youngest Canadian brigadier in charge of an armoured brigade, and subsequently enjoyed a highly successful career in England as a businessman.

‘Des’ Smith first saw action in the Liri valley in May 1944, when, at the young age of 32 he was commanding the Canadian 5th Army Brigade as the 8th Army opened its drive to outflank Rome. His leadership and coolness under fire in the fight for the Melfa river crossing were readily distinguished.

When the battle for Rome ended, Lt-Gen Sir Oliver Leese, Bt, commander of the 8th Army, expressed his dissatisfaction at the performance of the Canadian inexperienced 1st Corps Headquarters.

Three brigadiers were replaced but Lees grudgingly accepted that Lt-Gen ELM (‘Tommy’) Burns, the Corps commander, should be given a further chance. Smith became Burn’s chief of staff.

During the next four months the Corps drove up the east coast of Italy, broke through the Gothic line, took Rimini and advanced into the Lombard Plain. They achieved all their objectives moved faster and farther than any other corps in Italy, and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.

The headquarters was seen to be operating smoothly and efficiently under Smith’s energetic guidance, but relations between Leese and Burns became strained to breaking point. Worse, Leese’s lack of confidence after the fighting in Liri valley was common knowledge among subordinate Canadian commanders.

By the end of October 1944 the situation had become so untenable that Burns relinquished his command. In the minds of some Canadians, Smith Brutus to Burn’s Caesar.

Smith was replaced as chief of staff and sent as stop-gap commander to the 1st Infantry Division, pending the arrival of its new general. Under Smith’s command, the division advanced into the Lombard Plain towards a succession of resolutely defended positions.

At Lamone, an attack by his 1st Brigade met with disaster. Smith had no opportunity to recoup the situation before his temporary command ended. However, the new commander did not last long and Smith took his place.

In the bitter fighting of the Battle of the Rivers he was both aggressive and successful. In North-West Europe, during the final stages of the war, his brigade assaulted westward across the Ijssel river, captured Apeldoorn and advanced towards the great cities of Holland.

James Desmond Blaise Smith was born in Ottawa on Oct7 1911 and  entered the Royal Military College of Canada in 1929, where he was a cadet company commander, played rugby for the College and was runner-up for its Heavy-weight boxing championship.

In 1933 he was commissioned into the Royal Canadian Dragoons. At the outbreak of the Second World War Smith was staff captain of the 1st Canadian Division with which he sailed to Britain.

Smith attended a staff course at Camberley before returning to the division at its GSO 2. He was then appointed brigade major of the newly raised 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade.

In 1942 Smith was promoted to command his regiment, then equipped with armoured cars.

Four months later, he became GSO 1 of Canada’s 5th Armoured Division – although for a while he commanded the 4th Armoured Brigade, stationed in Susses.

After the end of the war in Europe Smith returned to Canada, where VJ Day found him training a brigade for the assault on Japan.

His first peacetime task was to reorganize the Royal Military College at Kingston.

In 1947 he left to attend a course at the Imperial Defence College in London, and on its completion became military secretary of the Cabinet defence committee in Ottawa, before being being promoted .to Quartermaster-General. In 1951 Smith Smith returned to London, as chairman of the Canadian Joint Staff, the work of which greatly increased under his direction.

After three years he returned to Canada to become Commandant of the National Defence College; and then in 1958 he was appointed Adjutant-General of the Canadian Army.

Four years later Smith resigned and moved to Britain. Determined to obtain first-hand knowledge of British industrial relations, he found himself a job on the shop floor of an an engineering firm.

After six months he joined the Thomson publishing organization and a member of the team that launched the innovative colour section of the Sunday Times.

In 1964 Smith joined Pillar Holdings, and within he year became a director. In 1966 he formed Pillar’s engineering subsidiary, developing it into a multi-million dollar business that won the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement in 1979.

He retired from active business in 1986, and became the first Canadian member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Two years later he helped to organize the Canadian Memorial Foundation.

Smith was appointed CBE and DSO in 1944 and twice mentioned in despatches. He was also decorated by France, Greece, Italy and the United States and in 1948 was awarded the Canadian Forces Decoration.

‘Des’ died in London, England on 11 October, 1991 in his 81st year.


One Comment

  • #2944 John D. Reid

    June 12, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    In early June,1953, just a few days following our graduation from RMC, classmates D.B. McPherson and J.D. Grant and I set sail from Bermuda on the Royal Navy frigate St. “Austel Bay”, bound for Portsmouth, England, and a summer of cycling throughout England, Wales, Scotland and much of Europe. By chance at a tea held at the RMC Commandant’s home a few weeks prior to graduation we had met the commander of the Royal Navy Western Atlantic, who arranged our passage to England on the “St. Austel Bay” when he learned of our need to cross the Atlantic to begin a bicycle tour of Britain and Europe.

    Once we had made our way to London we of course first explored London prior to purchasing bicycles and setting out on our “tour”. On our very first day in London as we three were walking smartly down the Mall in our RMC blazers a very distinguished gentleman coming from the opposite direction stopped us and requested our RMC numbers. Of course he was an ex-cadet. And yes, he was Desmond Smith.

    Our meeting on the Mall turned out to be a stroke of very good fortune for we three. When Smith learned in conversation with us of our “free” passage to England via the British Navy, and that we therefore had with us our Canadian Army uniforms, (a requirement of our passage aboard a Royal Navy ship, where we had been required to stand watch with the ship’s officers), he inquired regarding our arrangements for our return passage to Canada. We responded that we had yet to make the necessary arrangements. On learning this Smith instructed us to telephone him on our eventual return to London from our bicycle tour and he would place us on an RCAF transport aircraft returning to Canada from somewhere in England. Eventually this arrangement was fulfilled by Smith and in late August we three landed at Montreal’s Dorval Airport in an RCAF North Star transport plane.

    The image of Desmond Smith stopping we three as we walked down the Mall in our RMC blazers on our first day in London that June 1953 day is embedded forever in my memory, and of course we are forever grateful for the transportation that he arranged.

    But as a post script to my tale I must add that today in addition to my everlasting gratitude for the free passage back to Canada arranged by Desmond Smith, I blame that North Star transport flight from England to Canada, with its four un-muffled Rolls Royce engines roaring loudly at my stupidly unmuffled ears, for my present need to wear hearing aids in both ears as I approach my 87th birthday. But then perhaps my hearing difficulties result from other causes, and so without hesitation I continue to retain my gratitude to Desmond Smith for the North Star trans Atlantic ride that he arranged for we three.