Smyth, John George (1893-1983)

John "Jackie" Smyth had been an instructor at Staff College Camberley and had led a brigade in France in the debacle of 1940. He was commander of 17 Indian Division when war broke out in the Pacific. His division was deployed to Burma, where Hutton ordered Smyth to hold Moulmein in spite of its tenuous communications to Rangoon: There was only a single bridge across the Sittang and Bilin rivers and no bridge at all across the Salween, which left Moulmein reliant on ferries from Martaban. This was a hopeless task, and Moulmein fell on 31 January, though not before the garrison put up a stiff fight.

Japanese troops crossed the Salween on 10 February and advanced rapidly. Smyth had put together a realistic and intelligent plan to hold on the Sittang, a formidable military obstacle, long enough to be joined by 48 Indian Brigade and 7 Armored Brigade. The terrain west of the Sittang was flat and cultivated and would have been good tank country for 7 Armored to operate in. However, Wavell, who consistently underestimated the Japanese, ordered Smyth to hold east of the Bilin, which was little more than a shallow creek at this time of year. Smyth was outflanked by 214 Regiment and his forces badly battered and forced back. The last bridge across the Sittang was demolished prematurely on 23 February 1942, leaving much of the 17 Indian Division on the wrong side. Most of the men escaped, but the heavy equipment was lost and the division was hors de combat, making a prolonged defense along the Sittang impossible.

Smyth was sacked on 5 March 1942, probably unjustly. Certainly his treatment by Wavell was shabby. Smyth was stripped of general rank and forced into retirement, and Wavell formally charged him with failing to have a medical inspection when ordered to Burma and of applying for leave after having been passed fit by a medical board. The second charge not only appears to contradicts the first, but was patently untrue and grossly unfair. Smyth was in great pain from an anal fissure throughout the battle, for which he was being treated with arsenic and strychnine, but the recommendation by Smyth's medical officer that he take leave as soon as possible was either not seen or was ignored by Wavell.

Smyth believed, probably correctly, that he had been severely hampered in his defense of east Burma by Hutton, who did his best to carry out Wavell's unrealistic instructions to fight for every foot of territory. Smyth would rather have retreated to a more defensible position where he could have fought the Japanese on his own terms, and the British Official Historian agreed in the postwar history. This led to controversy when Hutton all but accused Smyth of timidity.

Service record



Instructor, Staff College Camberley

Commander, 45 Rattrays Sikhs Battalion

Staff, 2 London Division
Commander, 127 Brigade
Major general     
Commander, 19 Indian Division

Commander, 17 Indian Division


References (accessed 2007-11-8)

Slim (1956)

Willmott (1982)

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