Biography

Smyth, Sir John VC

Brigadier Sir John Smyth Bt, VC, MC, MP (1893–1983) wrote on the rather diverse subjects of military history and cats, and this series of three children’s books, about the resourceful Ann Sheldon, who tells her story in diary form. The most pony-orientated of the series is the last, Ann Goes Hunting, though ponies do feature in Trouble in Paradise. Paradise Island has the least pony content. The books were well received when published. Penelope Mortimer said on Children’s Hour that Paradise Island was 'fraught with excitement, full of such hazards and dangers that you simply can’t put the book down until you have devoured the very last word.' The Tatler liked Trouble in Paradise, finding it 'irresistible.'
What younger readers thought of the first two books I don’t know. Ann Goes Hunting was reviewed by 15-year-old Lorna P Stagg in Pony Magazine. Sir John Smyth was an MFH, so well placed to give the book authenticity, and Lorna duly found the hunting scenes very good reading, and the characters vivid. She had concerns about the rest of the book, though:

Personally, I think some of this book is rather far-fetched (I do wish horse-dealers were not always portrayed as such villainous men!) and I would not recommend readers to follow Ann’s example in spraying a horse with car paint. Ann and Podge gaily rush off to Ireland without a word to their hosts and throughout the book show little concern for the conventions. Ann rides out the the Mayberry Hunt in a head scarf, and seems to graduate very quickly to hunting over large banks, as at the beginning of the book she could not even jump.

Far-fetched plots are something of a curse in pony books, as are children who learn to ride at lightning speed. Sir John Smyth presumably preferred to sacrifice accuracy for narrative excitement, and his adult reviewers were too.

Sir John Smyth was certainly a man who lived life to the full. In later life, he became a Conservative MP for Norwood, and also worked as a broadcaster and journalist. His military career, which ended in controversy, started conspicuously well. At the age of 21, he was a lieutenant in the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, 3rd (Lahore) Division, Indian Army, and served in the the First World War, and in 1915, he was awarded the VC.
'For most conspicuous bravery near Richebourg L'Avoue on 18th May, 1915. With a bombing party of 10 men, who voluntarily undertook this duty, he conveyed a supply of 96 bombs to within 20 yards of the enemy's position over exceptionally dangerous ground, after the attempts of two other parties had failed. Lieutenant Smyth succeeded in taking the bombs to the desired position with the aid of two of his men (the other eight having been killed or wounded), and to effect his purpose he had to swim a stream, being exposed the whole time to howitzer, shrapnel, machine-gun and rifle fire.' (citation in London Gazette, 29210)

He was also awarded the Russian Order of St George, 4th Class, and after the First World War ended, continued in military service. In 1920, he was awarded the MC. He wanted to command a brigade during the Second World War, but was initially given a staff job. He was eventually given the command of the Indian 17th Infantry Division, and fought in Burma. In February 1942, he recommended to General Hutton a withdrawal to the West Bank of the Sittang River, to allow a strong defence line to be established, but the recommendation was refused. When the bridge came under threat from the Japanese, he was forced to order the destruction of the bridge when two thirds of his brigade were on the wrong side of the river, and thus doomed. His division were all that stood between the Japanese and Rangoon, and the territory was therefore lost. General Sir Archibald Wavell sacked Smyth, who returned to Britain. It took 16 years before the differences between his account and General Hutton’s were clarified.

Finding the books
Paradise Island isn’t easy to track down. Trouble in Paradise isn’t that common either, and is not necessarily cheap. Ann Goes Hunting is the easiest of the three to find. When I did this piece (April 2010) cheaper copies were available, but most were on the pricey side for a pony book.

Sources and links
Pony Magazine, November 1960, p 146.
Dustjackets of the books
Wikipedia entry on Sir John Smyth
Biographical information on Sir John Smyth

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