Major Robert William (Bob) Smith, often known as ‘Flight’ by his regimental contemporaries because for an extended period of his early life he sported an RAF-style handle-bar moustache, died on 9 September 2020, a month short of his eighty-ninth birthday.
The next day fifty-two messages were posted on a Facebook page.
Here is a sample.
That (the news of Bob’s death) has made me cry. What a lovely man he was. LP (wife of an old comrade).
I was one of his B vehicle drivers. Don’t mourn his loss, celebrate his life. Flight was one in a million. BF.
So sad. He was a brilliant man who helped my mother loads when dad died. TR (daughter of an old comrade).
Bob was my first SSM. What a character and what a gentleman. Mente et Manu. BD (old comrade).
I knew Bob from when he joined the VIII Hussars. A great chap and a staunch supporter of our great regiment. He will always be remembered. BK (former Trumpet Major).
Sad, sad news; he was a lovely, lovely man. SH (widow of an old comrade).
Really sad. Best of the best. Always fair. When I was on squadron orders he asked me how many fags I had. ‘Give us one’, he said. ‘How many extras do you think you deserve?’ ‘I think two would be fair, Sir.’ ‘Very well. Two fags. March out.’ TH (old comrade).
The end of a long life in the 8th Hussars, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars and the Regimental Association, all of which he served so well. He will be sadly missed. GM (old comrade)
Rest in Peace, Sir. (nine old comrades in separate messages.)
These tributes and others like them, sum up a man who was loyal (both upwards and downwards), conscientious to a fault, flamboyant and notably irascible. Above all, he loved the regiments in which he served both as a soldier and as a retired officer. And he was also part of a family team: for many years his wife Inge was personal assistant to successive commanding officers of the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, for which work she was awarded the British Empire Medal in the 1980 birthday honours and presented with it by the Colonel-in-Chief, and both were supported lovingly by their daughter Barbara.
As the last regimental secretary of the Irish Hussars and the first of the Queen’s Royal Hussars, it was to Bob that fell the task of creating a new Regimental Association of eleven troops scattered throughout England, Ireland and Germany and fostering that Association’s hugely important role in benevolence to old comrades who had fallen on hard times and encouraging a spirit of friendship, loyalty and fun which has permeated it ever since.
Trooper Smith 76 enlisted in September 1949 and, after basic training in Catterick and Barnard Castle was posted in January 1950 to ‘C’ Squadron of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars who were stationed on an old RAF airfield near Leicester. He moved with the regiment to Tidworth where within only a few months it was warned for active service in Korea. Bob couldn’t wait – but there was a snag; he was only eighteen years old and the minimum age for active service at that time was nineteen. He was going to be left behind. Then he discovered that the troopship which was to take them to Korea would not be arriving at Pusan until November by which time his nineteenth birthday would have passed. He drew his squadron leader’s attention to this and was allowed to sail.
By February 1951 he was beginning to think that he had made a wrong decision (never volunteer), as in a temperature of -27 degrees centigrade, as a tank crewman in ‘C’ Squadron he found himself attacking Hill 327 – a heavily defended enemy position. In April at the Battle of the Imjin River, in which C Squadron performed so admirably that the squadron leader, Major Henry Huth, was awarded a Distinguished Service Order, Trooper Smith was slightly wounded in an action which saw his tank’s driver killed and its gunner taken prisoner.
While recuperating Bob attended a junior NCO’s cadre conducted by the Regimental Sergeant Major who must have seen at least some talent in one of his most difficult students because by the time the regiment had sailed home, had some leave and reassembled at Lüneburg in North Germany in February 1952, Bob had become a Lance Corporal. On April Fool’s Day, recognising the joke, he was promoted again but within three months was reduced to Trooper. The problem was drink and Smith 76’s inordinate fondness for it. In January 1953 and now working for the Quartermaster, Smith set off up the promotion ladder once more and this time lasted nine months in the Corporal’s Mess before being busted once again.
The following year matters took a decisive turn for the better: he was again promoted, married Inge and advanced to Corporal. He was still drinking but now, under his wife’s critical gaze, it was under control and within two years he was not only a Sergeant but had a daughter. Shortly after amalgamation and now a troop sergeant in ‘A’ Squadron he was stationed at Castlemartin in Pembrokeshire and gave up drinking altogether, becoming tee-total for the rest of his life.
Having shown himself to be a reformed and responsible junior NCO he joined the Sergeants Mess in 1956, two years before his regiment was amalgamated with the 4th Hussars. He remained a sergeant for eleven years serving in a variety of appointments which included running the Officers Mess and being posted for two years to the North Irish Horse in Ballymoney.
At the end of 1962, Bob and his family rejoined the Irish Hussars in Malaysia as a troop sergeant in ‘A’ Squadron from which for a time he was detached to command a small psychological warfare team in Brunei, persuading would-be rebels not to be so silly. When the regiment moved to Wolfenbüttel in 1964 he became the troop sergeant of ‘A’ Squadron’s Support Troop, called the rock-apes by the irreverent members of sabre troops.
But Support Troop had the last laugh: under Inge’s tutelage Bob’s German was nigh-on perfect and on exercise, in the bitter Westphalian winter he was able to secure for his men, night after night, the snuggest of barns.
Movement up the ranks followed until in 1970 as SSM of ‘C’ Squadron in Bovington he was offered a commission by the commanding officer. Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Troughton was a Korean veteran who had won a Military Cross in that campaign and had known Bob all their military lives. He knew what he was doing but it would be true to say that some were surprised by the news; commissions offered to warrant officers class two were rare. No one though was more surprised than the recipient of this advancement; he had only just had his application for a long service and good conduct medal turned down. Whatever the qualities Colonel Troughton had seen in Bob which had brought him to this decision, he never had cause to regret it.
He had supplied the regiment with an officer of outstanding ability and integrity.
His first appointment on the regiment’s move to Paderborn was Motor Transport Officer during which time he again applied for a Long Service and Good Conduct medal and this time he was partially successful – he got the medal but not the gratuity that usually went with it. He was given a number of extra-mural jobs keeping some tricky accounts which had often defeated younger officers of doubtful numeracy: officers’ mess, stables and PRI accounts all benefited from his meticulous work and he was dogged in pursuit of those who fell behind in paying their bills. A polite ‘Good morning, Bob’ was often answered with ‘Good Morning, Nigel. Pay your mess bill’.
He usually cycled to work in both Paderborn and Tidworth, despite being the owner of a succession of highly polished top of the range BMW motorcars – sometimes two, or even three, at a time. His final regimental appointment was squadron leader of ‘HQ’ Squadron from which one day, and against his will, he found himself in the company of other Korean veterans including Henry Huth at a seminar held by the Junior Division of the Staff College at Warminster. Protesting that he was too junior to contribute anything meaningful he electrified the audience by pointing out that in an armoured regiment at war effective leadership depended on the leader having gained the respect and trust of his subordinates before going into action.
In this way, he explained, just hearing Henry Huth’s calm voice over the radio was enough to instil confidence in all ranks, however junior and however afraid.
In 1980 he left the regiment to spend four years with the Royal Yeomanry in London while he, Inge and Barbara moved to Kent. When Jock Ferrier retired from the retired officer’s post of regimental secretary in 1984, Bob took it on.
Home Headquarters was now in Regents Park Barracks in London having moved from Belfast some years previously because of the troubles, and for the same reason, the regimental museum had to leave Carrickfergus Castle for the Redoubt in Eastbourne, a complicated process in which Bob played a prominent role, later serving as a museum trustee and member of the management committee. His work on behalf of the Regimental Associations of first the Irish Hussars and then the Queen’s Royal Hussars was tireless.
As the right-hand man to successive Colonels of the Regiment, first General Sir Brian Kenny and then Major General Richard Barron he performed outstandingly – so much so that both colonels tried, year after year, to get him an honour, all without success; the regimental secretary’s chain of command led to London District and there was little hope of such a reward for those not in the Household Division.
In 1993 came the amalgamation and Bob played a key role in helping the regimental secretary of the Queen’s Own Hussars to close down his office in Warwick and move everything to London while ensuring that what could have turned out to be a sticky situation went smoothly and without complaint.
The same applied to his tactful handling of the assimilation of the Queen’s Own Hussars association troops in Birmingham and Coventry into this new and wider fold. Somehow he also found time to contribute significantly to the Korean Veterans Association and helped to organise the annual combined Irish Regiments’ Remembrance parade in London.
When Bob retired in 1995 the occasion was marked by a luncheon and presentation held at the Cavalry and Guards Club but he remained a font of knowledge on regimental and association affairs giving advice (not always solicited) to his successor and the trustees. Both Barbara and Inge pre-deceased him and he spent the last few years of his life in a care home on the south coast from which (not always willingly) he was persuaded occasionally to talk on the telephone to those who had his welfare very much to heart.
It is given to few to be so widely admired and indeed loved as Bob and there is no doubt that without the continued threat of Covid 19 his funeral would have been supremely well attended.
The story of his military life in his own words will appear in The Chronicle – the journal of the regiment’s historical society.