Monday, December 09, 2019

Posted at: Jul 14, 2019, 12:15 AM; last updated: Jul 14, 2019, 12:15 AM (IST)

Wimbledon’s Indian Army connect

A twist of fate took British Army officer John Smyth from the battlefield to the clay court

Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

It was a legacy of the British Indian Civil Service couples serving in the colonies that their progeny mostly schooled in England and charted their future with minimal parental oversight. So it was that John Smyth (JS) entered the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (UK), in the class of 1911 and set his sights on the Indian Army and be closer to his parents. But to exercise that choice he would need to graduate among the first 20 and, indeed, he ended the final term with the coveted Military History Prize, four Sports Blazers (hockey, tennis, rackets, horse riding) and 8th in the over-all merit!

JS was commissioned in the Battalion of his dreams — the 15 Ludhiana Sikhs (post Independence 2 Sikh, currently stationed at Chandi Mandir). With less than three years service, he led a suicidal mission in WW I and was awarded the Victoria Cross. And on the fourth anniversary of that VC, he led another dare do action (solo in the last 20 minutes) in Chitral Valley and was awarded the MC! Yet, by a cruel twist of Kismet, Major General John Smyth, VC, MC in command of the 17 Infantry Division in the opening phase of WW II in Burma was divested of his Command and dismissed from Army Service. Ironically, some 10 years after WW II, Field Marshall Wavell was to admit his grave mistake and made sincere efforts with Prime Minister Winston Churchill to restore the rank and pension of a Major General to JS, but, to no avail.

When JS and Frances, his wife, returned to London in October 1942 to make a fresh start in life, Major General JC (“Boney”) Fuller, the BBC’s chief broadcaster on WW II, sought retirement and recommended that JS was eminently suited as his replacement. Before long JS won accolades both as BBC broadcaster and war correspondent of Sunday Times. But his moment of real fulfilment would arrive only when Wimbledon Tennis Championship was revived, post WW II. Unfortunately for the Sunday Times, their lawn tennis writer Hamilton Price had passed away, the night prior to the men’s quarter finals.  During the morning conference, on an impulse, the editor sent for Smyth and holding him in his gaze said: “John, I believe no one in the Indian Army can hope to command and lead a Division in battle unless he had been an outstanding sportsman in his subaltern days... would you report for us on Wimbledon also, henceforth...” or words to that effect.

Taken by surprise and suppressing his inner misgivings, JS responded, “Well, I have played a lot of first-class tennis, both at home and in India, and am a member of the All England Club at Wimbledon.  I have never written on the game, but I could.”

His first article, By a correspondent, appeared on February 3, 1947. As there was no adverse comment, two more followed and, on February 14, a very comprehensive article appeared under his name. Sunday Times’ new lawn tennis writer had “arrived”! Two years later, Smyth was invited by the All England Club to write all the articles and the photo-captions for the Wimbledon Programme which became so popular that nearly 1,00,000 copies sold each year!

When one of the chair-umpires fell ill, Smyth was asked to deputise. Once again, he became a permanent presence in this department too!  Finally, he wrote a book on the subject which became a classic (even with the American LTA)!  A while later, Smyth were to suggest a new foot-fault rule which was easier for the umpires to enforce and welcomed by the players and remains in force to date. So much for the mixed bag of fortunes of war!

I wonder whether 2 Sikh or the Rattrays Sikh (currently, 3 Sikh) the Battalion which JS Commanded in Chitral Fort and later at Allahabad, think of him as the Wimbledon Grand Slam plays out each year?


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