[October 24, 2023] This is a true hero from South Africa. Sgt Quentin Smythe won the Victoria Cross in the Western Desert. This is the highest military decoration awarded for valor “in the face of the enemy” to members of the British Armed Forces and various Commonwealth countries (of which South Africa is one).
Upon the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, South Africans were deeply divided as to where their loyalties should lie. With memories of the Boer Wars still fresh in many minds, a sizeable minority felt no allegiance to the Allies. Others, however, sympathized with their wartime Prime Minister – then General Jan Smuts – who, though once a prominent Boer fighter himself, urged his citizens to enlist in defense of the British Empire.
Among the more than 300,000 men who volunteered was 23-year-old Quentin Smythe – a farmer by profession but, as he stated later, “a soldier by passion.” Deployed with the 1st Battalion Royal Natal Carbineers to Italian East Africa, it was there, in the summer of 1940, Quentin became part of the spearhead that broke Mussolini’s East African Italian Army and compelled “Il Duce” to surrender all of his East African colonies.
From there, he was sent to North Africa, where, not long after General Erwin Rommel struck the British-held “Gazala Line” in Libya, Quentin and his fellow Carbineers were ordered to “stand fast” in Gazala’s northern sector. When the “Desert Fox” attacked on June 5th, 1942, Quentin was knocked nearly unconscious by a blast of shrapnel, and, as the fighting intensified, so too, his commanding officer was seriously wounded by a hail of gunfire.
And yet, both he and his surviving compatriots didn’t just hold their own in the face of Rommel’s infantry and panzers but, in his capacity as their sergeant, he assumed command from his stricken superior and rallied his comrades to launch a devastatingly effective counterattack.
On reaching a German strong point, Quentin and his unit succeeded in overrunning it, only then to find themselves pinned down by a machine gunner and his crew. Although weak from blood loss caused by his earlier wound, the farmer-turned-soldier not only infiltrated the machine gun nest and captured its occupants single-handed but, on then encountering a well-entrenched band of anti-tank men, he even initiated a one-man ambush against them and forced the men to capitulate.
As the remaining Germans turned on their heels and withdrew, he signaled to his platoon to move up and join him, and, giving the order to affix bayonets, he led them in hot pursuit.
In so doing, he made it impossible for the enemy to regroup and, thus, thwarted any hopes of a German breakthrough.
For his “conspicuous gallantry,” Quentin became the first of just five South Africans to be awarded the Victoria Cross during WWII, and, for his “courage and leadership,” went on to win a rare battlefield commission to the rank of captain.
Not long after his passing, aged 81 in 1997, one of his former Carbineers paid tribute to him by saying:
“Quentin was a quiet, modest man who lived a humble yet fulfilling life. Fishing, farming, and shooting were his recreations. Needless for me to say, he was particularly good at the last.”
I believe in telling stories of heroes. Sgt Quentin Smythe, we salute you!
NOTE: See more at SA Military History and on Quentin Smythe here.
Please read my books: