William Henry Smith 1920-1941

William Henry Smith was born in Radcliffe on Trent in 1920, the son of Arthur W Smith and Alice A Bates. He had 2 brothers Leslie C Smith born 1924 and Leonard A born 1925. His mother Alice had previously been married to Horace Beet who died on 26th December 1918 while serving in the Royal Field Artillery in WW1. He is also remembered on the Radcliffe on Trent War Memorial.

In 1939 the family were living at 7 Bingham Road, next door to the Bates family. Arthur was a turner and fitter.

William Henry Smith enlisted before the war as a private in the Yorks and Lancaster Regiment 2nd Battalion. Service no 4746825.

At the out break of the Second World War the 2nd Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment was based in Khartoum in the Sudan on garrison duties.In July 1940 they were moved to Egypt and then to Palestine where they became part of the 14th Infantry Brigade. The battalion was again part of the 6th Infantry Division. In May 1940 the Brigade moved to Cairo and was then broken up. The 2nd Battalion went to Alexandria. On 28 October Lieutenant-Colonel Sim, C.O. of the battalion, was told by Vice-Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commanding the British Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, that the battalion was now on loan to the Royal Navy and would be moving to Crete as soon as possible in the cruiser HMS Ajax. On 1 November 1940, the battalion sailed for Crete, arriving at Suda Bay on the 2 November. Their arrival was met by an attack from the Italian Air Force.

On 31 December 1940 Lieut.Col.Sim went to Egypt and Maj.A.Gilroy (Black Watch), who would later command the 14th Infantry Brigade, took command of the battalion. The 14th Brigade was reformed around the 2nd Yorks and Lancs and 2nd Black Watch. The brigade spent its time building defenses on the island, but these were limited. Little happened on Crete until April 1941 when the Allied forces in Greece were evacuated.

With the surrender of Greece in 1941 Crete was thrust into the war. The 2nd Battalion, Yorks and Lancs along with the 2nd Battalion, Black Watch and 2nd Bn, The Leicestershire Regiment were tasked with the defence of Heraklion airfield.

From the middle of May 1941 air attacks against Heraklion increased to four or five a day until 20 May when troop carriers dropped paratroopers at Maleme airfield on the west of the island. Warning reached Heraklion as their own share of German troop transports were spotted arriving at about 400 feet four abreast in long columns that stretched out of sight. 

The three battalions of the 14th Brigade managed to kill or wound nearly all the German parachute troops that were landed at Heraklion on in this first wave, apart from a small pocket, the brigade had inflicted massive casualties on the enemy paratroopers. After this attempt the Germans did not try to land any more paratroopers at Heraklion instead they built up their forces outside the perimeter.

Before the Germans were able to complete the encirclement of Heraklion a company from the 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders joined the defence from Tymbaki on the south coast.

The German forces from Maleme landed four more companies of troops in the vicinity of Heraklion which successfully linked up with the survivors of the first landings and launched counterattacks on the British positions. The fighting at this time was extremely fierce but the Yorks and Lancs held their positions. By 28 May the position on the island as a whole had been lost and General Freyberg ordered the evacuation. When the men of the 14th Brigade heard of the evacuation they were astonished as to them the whole battle of the last ten days had seemed to have been eminently successful.

The evacuation was badly attacked during the withdrawal to Alexandria with over one-fifth of the 4,000 troops evacuated being killed, wounded or captured on the voyage out. The destroyer HMS Imperial suffered mechanical failure and had to be sunk by the Hotspur and due to the delay, caused by transferring men over to the other ships, the convoy was still well within reach of the Luftwaffe and Italian Air Force. The Hereward was sunk (her survivors were rescued by the Italians). Both the Dido and the Orion suffered massive bomb damage with heavy casualties amongst the crew and troops packed onboard both ships. Some 600 troops were killed or captured before the convoy could reach safety.

After a brief period of recovery in Egypt the 2nd Battalion was sent with the 14th Brigade to fight the Vichy French forces in Syria. As they arrived at Damascus the French had surrendered. The battalion remained in Syria on occupational duty until mid-October 1941 when they moved to Alexandria to a staging camp from where they would be sent to Tobruk to relieve the besieged Australian 9th Division.

The 6th Infantry Division was renumbered as the 70th Infantry Division, for deception purposes, and then were sailed into Tobruk by the Royal Navy from 19 August to 25 October 1941.

The 70th Division along with the Polish Carpathian Brigade, a Czech brigade and the 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion, which missed the boat out, settled into the considerable defences. The 2nd Battalion was placed in the 2nd line (Blue Line) of defences. In November the garrison was informed of its role in the upcoming Operation Crusader in which the 70th Division would have to break out through the besieging German and Italian force and link up with British Eighth Army.

The 2nd Battalion were one of the reserve battalions in the break out. They suffered massive casualties assaulting the enemy positions after the first assaults. While the relief force got held up fighting toward Tobruk, the battalions of the 70th Division had to hold the positions they had gained and wait. The battle ended up resembling trench warfare from the First World War.

William was killed during the assault on 23rd November 1941 and is buried in Knightsbridge War Cemetery, Acroma, Libya.

The notification of his death in the Nottingham Evening Post described him as a Lance Corporal.

Not included on Radcliffe on Trent War Memorial

Thomas Johnstone Dickson

Thomas Percy Rook

Arthur Varney