Commando who fought the Nazis is laid to rest

Top row, left to right: SM Brodison DCM, Lt Ambrose McGonigle MC, L-Cpl Howells. Bottom row, left to right: Cpl Nash MM, Lt Ian Smith MC, RFM Coleman
Top row, left to right: SM Brodison DCM, Lt Ambrose McGonigle MC, L-Cpl Howells. Bottom row, left to right: Cpl Nash MM, Lt Ian Smith MC, RFM Coleman

LIMAVADY lost one of its favourite adopted sons last week when ‘The Happy Amateur’ Ian Smith was laid to rest.

Ian Smith died in his nineties after a long and eventful life, one in which he fought Nazis, Greek Communists, Italian Fascists, and was almost blown up in Randalstown during a paramilitary carjacking.

Smith was well known in Limavady for his book ‘A Happy Amateur’, which gives an interesting and vivid account of his time in the army, both as a member of the newly established Parachute Regiment and as a recruit to the Commandos. He also wrote about his life post-WWII, including details of his careers which were as varied as a hotelier and a salmon farmer. He was husband to the late Peggy Smith, who had family ties with the Roe Valley. Ian Smith’s funeral was held at Christ Church, Limavady on Thursday, May 10.

In ‘A Happy Amateur’, the late Ian Smith tells his story with wit, personality and no short measure of humour. When he recounts the tale of a childhood visit to 1930s Germany, where Hitler and his Nazi party had been in power a few years but before the onset of war. He speaks about what he and fellow scouts thought of the Nazis, but spends more time on another childhood story of how he was caught in Guernsey sending a message via morse code which read “the headmaster’s balls are not round.”

A chapter entitled ‘Wycliffe and School and Trips Abroad’ contains the following passage: “As far as we could see in our immature way, Germany had regained pride in herself and there was an air of prosperity, this was before the onslaught of the Jews, but I recall heated discussions over the anti Jewish speeches of the Nazis.”

However, the spirit of ‘A Happy Amateur’ is more apparent when he writes: “In 1936 there was a scout camp in Guernsey, I don’t really remember much about it except for one outstanding incident.

“Now all good scouts were expected to know the Morse code by both flag and wireless buzzer. In a forgetful moment I sent a message to another duty cook announcing that ‘the Headmasters balls are not round’. It was unfortunate that not all the Masters had gone to Church.”

It is the tales of daring raids across numerous countries in Europe during World War Two which truly set Smith’s story apart. He tells of how one Belgian “expert in small arms” and his friend who, during the closing stages of the evacuation at Dunkirk, were tasked with sorting weapons recovered from civilian refugees. The Belgian began spinning a pistol on his finger and flinging it into the air, before catching it on his finger again – an act which convinced Smith that “at one time he had been a circus juggler.”

Unfortunately, despite Smith shouting “Oi” and again, “Oi, Oi – for God’s sake stop it”, one of the pistols went off and shot a friend of the ‘arms expert’ through the heart, dead – an incident which obviously made a lasting impact on Smith.

He was among the first members of the Parachute Regiment and the SAS, but eventually joined the Commandos. He was posted to Norway where, disguised, he kept watch on German shipping movements. He recalls one photograph where he was pictured in costume standing under a swastika in Norway.

As for the invasion of Nazi-occupied France, Smith writes with fluency and gives a highly personal account of the battles fought as part of what colleagues described as “some hush, hush thing to do with the commandos.”

He writes: “I have forgotten exactly how many raids we made on the French Coast, mostly unsuccessful, it must have been eight or nine, but I will tell in detail of but two, because in the haze of time I am unable to identify one similar op from another. I remember thinking at the time that we were in what was a singularly unique position. Stalin and others who should have known better were calling for the immediate launching of the Second Front ie the invasion of Europe, and here were we answering this demand. We were on our way to Europe, all seven of us, so look out Mr Hitler.”

After detailing the ensuing action, he also recounts an incredible tale of his time in Yugoslavia, assisting communist partisans in their fight against the Nazis. Among the stories of fighting in the fierce Eastern European nation, he summarised his time there: “Life amongst the Partisans was very different, they on the whole occupied the mountains and anywhere the Germans were not. One immediate difference was the lack of food. Whatever the variety of my way so far, and my experiences were pretty unique, there was always enough to eat, particularly when we were fed by the Navy – it was certainly a rare event to go hungry.” He added: “Generally we got one meal every other day, this was made up of meat from oxen which had been killed that morning, boiled and eaten in the afternoon, it was so tough that the chewing took several hours and so passed the time and eased the hunger pains.”

Smith also has many tales of war involving Crete and Greece, Lake Comachio in Italy and a host of locations throughout Europe in the worst war ever fought in human history, as well as colourful, humorous and interesting stories of life in the army.

After fighting against the Nazi tyranny in Europe, Smith was almost blown up by a car bomb in Randalstown in the 1970s, a story he tells briefly in a chapter entitled ‘An Incident’.

Despite all this, the lasting impression left by a reading of ‘A Happy Amateur’ is that of warmth, family and humour and a feeling of great empathy towards the sadly deceased Ian Smith.

While it was undoubtedly his time in the army which provides the greatest drama, the warmth with which he recounts the stories of his life after the war in Wales, Ireland and elsewhere which leave their mark on the reader. His final chapter is dedicated solely to his late wife, Peggy, who had family ties with the Boyles from the Roe Valley area.

Ian Smith’s remains were cremated last week, and a funeral service was held at Christ Church, Limavady on Thursday, May 10, 2012.