Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (19 & 20 September 2013)
Date of Auction: 19th & 20th September 2013
Sold for £20,000
Estimate: £15,000 - £20,000
‘Whenever the place is mentioned, my mind goes back to the Naval Officer-in-Charge, Captain Frank Montem Smith, D.S.O., R.D., R.N.R., outstanding among gallant men. Except for a few weeks when he had to be withdrawn for illness, he was at Tobruk throughout the siege. When he was in hospital in Alexandria I went to see him and offered him command of a ship; but in his quiet voice he firmly replied: “No! sir, I’d like to go back to Tobruk,” and he went.
Unperturbed and unafraid in the midst of the heaviest air attacks, he was always the first man to board any ship hit by a bomb, on fire, or in any other trouble. The first in any post of danger, he set an inspiring example to everyone. And at Tobruk Smith was killed, the last man to leave after seeing the oil storage tanks well ablaze when the fortress fell into the hands of the enemy in June 1942.
As a guide to the destroyers coming into Tobruk at night the green starboard light was always shown in the sunken ship alongside of which they lay to unload. This lantern now rests on Smith’s grave.’
A Sailors Odyssey, by Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, refers.
“Shoot, man, shoot! You can almost spit into the harbour!”
Rommel to a hesitant 88mm. anti-tank gunner, Tobruk, 20 June 1942.
The outstanding Second World War siege of Tobruk C.B.E., D.S.O. group of ten awarded to Captain F. M. Smith, Royal Naval Reserve, the gallant and long-served Senior Naval Officer-in-Charge of the besieged town who was mortally wounded by 88mm. gunfire in June 1942, while departing in the last vessel to leave the harbour - but not before organising vital demolition work, for which he received a posthumous mention in despatches: as the Admiralty’s official history of the Mediterranean Fleet later concluded, ‘If any individual could be said to have been the hero of the siege of Tobruk, ‘it was this white-haired Captain of the Royal Naval Reserve’
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, C.B.E. (Military) Commander’s 2nd type neck badge, silver-gilt and enamel, in its Garrard & Co. case of issue; Distinguished Service Order, G.VI.R., 1st issue, silver-gilt and enamel, the reverse of the suspension bar officially dated ‘1941’ in its Garrard & Co. case of issue; 1914-15 Star (S. Lt. F. M. Smith, R.N.R.); British War Medal 1914-20 (Lieut. F. M. Smith, R.N.R.); Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-18 (Frank M. Smith); Victory Medal 1914-19 (Lieut. F. M. Smith, R.N.R.); 1939-45 Star; Africa Star; War Medal 1939-45, M.I.D. oak leaf; Royal Naval Reserve Decoration, G.V.R., silver-gilt, silver, hallmarks for London 1928, in its Garrard & Co. case of issue, together with a related set of Great War period miniature dress medals (5), generally extremely fine (15) £15000-20000
FootnoteC.B.E. London Gazette 30 June 1942:
‘For outstanding services’.
D.S.O. London Gazette 19 August 1941:
‘For bravery and devotion to duty at Tobruk’.
The original recommendation states:
‘Commander Smith was the Naval Officer-in-Charge, Tobruk.
On 8 February 1941, when the S.S. Adinda, carrying aviation spirit, caught fire after two mine explosions in Tobruk harbour, Commander Smith displayed great courage and initiative. In company with the Master and four of Adinda’s officers, he boarded the ship while the fore part was blazing fiercely, in order to close the hatch to the after part which was still open. At the time no one knew whether the after part would burst into flames.
Again on 25 February 1941, when the S.S. Tynefield was on fire after being struck by a bomb, Commander Smith boarded the ship despite the fact that an air raid and heavy gunfire were still in progress. By his personal example, he organised the officers and crew into dealing with the situation. He arranged for the ship to be towed stem to wind by H.M.S. Aphis, thus containing the fire in the fore end. He then organised a supply of water from the damaged fire main to play on the fire, thus saving 3500 tons of fuel remaining on board.
On these two occasions and also in other emergencies such as the bombing of H.M.S. Dainty and the mining of the S.S. Rodi, Commander Smith has displayed a complete disregard of personal safety and shown himself full of initiative and resource. He has set a fine example on all occasions.’
Frank Montem Smith was born at Warminster, Wiltshire, in February 1894, and entered the Mercantile Marine shortly before the outbreak of hostilities - so,too, the Royal Naval Reserve, with an appointment as a Probationary Midshipman in July 1913.
The Great War - Gallipoli - Submariner - and beyond
Mobilised for active service in April 1915, young Frank underwent training in Lighters, and was actively employed off Gallipoli in the K. 42, landing troops from Lemnos and elsewhere. Confirmed in the rank of Midshipman in September 1915, he next served in the screw-tug H.M.S. Hughli, and thence, from September 1916, as a newly promoted Sub. Lieutenant, in the cruiser Devonshire. Having then served in another cruiser, the Carnarvon, from October 1917 until February 1918, he volunteered for submarines, and served in the E. 39 up until April 1919, part of the 9th Flotilla operating out of Harwich.
Demobilised, he returned to peacetime employment with the Shaw, Saville and Albion Line, but retained his commission in the R.N.R. and was advanced to Lieutenant-Commander in December 1926 and to Commander in June 1934, in addition to being awarded the Reserve Decoration.
And the renewal of hostilities in September 1939 found him in command of the liner Moreton Bay in Sydney, from whence he returned to the U.K. to take command of H.M.S. Alpha, then employed in boarding enemy trading vessels and, later still, pursuing enemy submarines.
Naval Officer-in-Charge - Tobruk
Then came his orders to report to the shore establishment Nile, namely his appointment as Naval Officer-in-Charge at Tobruk, in which capacity he he was advanced to Captain and remained actively employed from January 1941 up until his death in June 1942 - that is with the exception of 6 weeks in hospital in Alexandria, a destination he was lucky to reach, his ship being sunk en route and he cast overboard into a sea of oil. Fortunate to be picked up, he insisted on reporting to the C.-in-C., General Auchinleck, who ordered him to report to the hospital forthwith - and to take two bottles of Guinness a day at the Admiralty’s expense.
He had by then, as cited above, already won the D.S.O. for setting a shining example by his courage in boarding seemingly doomed vessels during enemy raids in February 1941 - a hallmark of his period of command in one of the most bombed places on earth. A mention in despatches having followed (London Gazette 17 November 1942), he then added the C.B.E. to his accolades for his part in the rescue and salvage of another damaged vessel, the S.S. Cerion, on 7 March 1942 - a vessel of the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co. laden with 2000 tons of fuel, which had been severely damaged by enemy aircraft.
Finally, on 20 June 1942, he was once more to the fore, supervising the clearance of the Navy from the harbour and orchestrating the destruction of the fuel and oil dumps, gallant work that won him a posthumous “mention” (London Gazette 15 June 1943 refers), the original recommendation stating:
‘During the withdrawal from Tobruk on 20 June 1942, he displayed great courage and resource in rapidly organising arrangements for embarkation of Naval ratings and firing of demolition charges, all under a heavy fire and in a period of intense stress. Soon after embarking in the last craft to attempt to leave he was fatally wounded, and died in the harbour which he had loved so well.’
A more expansive account of the gallant Smith’s exploits on 20 June may be found in Captain Walter’s covering report, the C.O. of the Inshore Squadron at Tobruk:
‘In the event, Captain Smith and I left Admiralty House soon after Lieutenant Guinness and evidently only missed escaping by a narrow margin.
As soon as the Naval Officer-in-Charge [Smith] reported that all possible arrangements for firing the demolitions was completed, we proceeded on foot, together with a few of the base staff, towards No. 6 Jetty. On the way Captain Smith and Lieutenant-Commander W. G. Harris, R.N.V.R. (the First Lieutenant of the Base) fired various demolition charges. I proceeded along the north shore sufficiently far to observe that all craft had left the Boom Jetty, where I had hoped to embark in an M.T.B., and rejoined the Naval Officer-in-Charge at No. 6 Jetty.
The party embarked in a “Z” Lighter, the only serviceable craft that then remained. On our way towards the boom, the Lighter was subjected to a heavy fire from tanks on the north shore and from 88mm. artillery on the high ground to the south of the harbour. The engines were putout of action and many casualties sustained. The Naval Officer-in-Charge was mortally wounded and I was hit, by a burst of fire from the tanks striking the bridge. The Lighter subsequently drifted ashore on the south shore from where the wounded were conveyed to Tobruk General Hospital the next morning.
I personally observed the Boom Defence Depot to blow up and also saw a heavy explosion in the vicinity of the Naval oil fuel tank ... Captain F. M. Smith, C.B.E., D.S.O., R.D., R.N.R., displayed his usual magnificent courage and complete coolness throughout a very trying time, and I greatly deplore the loss of this very gallant officer who had done so much for Tobruk.’
And yet still a closer glimpse of events aboard the ill-fated Lighter, as related by Commander W. G. Harris, R.N.V.R.:
‘We set off into the middle of the harbour, and everyone knew we were going to catch it. Smith and Walter were on the little bridge with an Army officer and the helmsman. It wasn’t long before the first shell hit us. After that, it just rained tank shells, anti-tank and machine-gun bullets. One went right through the engine-room and set the petrol alight. But for some reason the fire only burnt for a few seconds, though the engine-room party came out terribly burnt and were a most pitiful sight.
We then drifted helplessly with both engines knocked out. The Huns plastered us, and practically everyone on board was wounded. An 88mm. kept firing from the top end of the bay, using high explosive, but his shooting was bad and his shells kept exploding just astern all the time.
The suspense was awful as one felt that the next time he simply had to hit us.
Finally he put one right into the bridge, wounding both Captains Smith and Walter. The former came down with his left arm practically severed. We helped him down the ladder, and while two men applied first aid, I went to see how Captain Walter was. I found him walking about with his left arm held up. I asked him if he was wounded, and he told me that he was. I made him sit down while I found a shell dressing. It was then dark, so the Hun stopped shelling and left us to drift.
I saw no sign of the Army officer or the soldier, so I don’t know what became of them.’
As the Admiralty’s official history of the Mediterranean Fleet later concluded, ‘If any individual could be said to have been the hero of the siege of Tobruk, it was this white-haired Captain of the Royal Naval Reserve’.
Smith, who died of his wounds on the deck of the drifting Lighter, was 48 years of age and left a widow, a son and a daughter, Joan, a member of the W.R.N.S., the ladies attending a Buckingham Palace investiture at which they received his C.B.E. and D.S.O.
Sold with a quantity of original documentation, including the recipient’s C.B.E. and D.S.O. warrants, and mention in despatches certificates (2), together with Admiralty condolence slip and Buckingham Palace investiture letter addressed to his widow, in addition to an Admiralty communication confirming his place of burial in Acroma Military Cemetery, near Tobruk.