As you all probably know Ian Douglas Smith, the late Prime Minister of the then Rhodesia, and who declared UDI which caused a lot of controversy was a RAF Spitfire Pilot during WW11.
I will give you a brief summary about his time in the war but what I want to tell you is a very interesting story which has been given to me by my sons father in law, Dr Jerry Grant who held a very senior position in the Department of Research and Specialist Services of the Ministry of Agriculture in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Below is Jerry’s story.
” I was in charge of Grasslands Research Station near Marondera, 70 kilometres East of Harare sometime in the mid 1970’s. One day I got a call from the Prime Minister’s Office to say that the Prime Minister wanted to come out and see the work of the Station. I said ” Yes that’s fine ” and then said is the Minister of Agriculture coming ?” ” No ithe caller said it’s just the Prime Minister. Obviously the Prime Minister’s Office had cleared it with the Ministry.
Ian Douglas Smith duly arrived, in his government Mercedes Benz with a CMED driver who had been driving Prime Ministers for years, and a Special Branch bodyguard – a youngster in his late 20’s with a bulge under his jacket, that was the only bulge that I saw on him and that was the only weapon I saw around. They arrived with no Blue Light escort, no outriders, no sirens, no accompanying soldiers – nothing, Just the black standard issue Government Mercedes pulled up at the office and I introduced Ian Douglas Smith to the staff, gave him an overall briefing and took him around the Station to show him some of the field work in the Livestock and Pastures Division. I sat on the back seat with the PM and his bodyguard sat on the passenger’s seat and his driver drove us around. I had staff stationed at strategic points along the route to explain their work to the PM who, being a farmer himself, was very interested and right up to speed.
At one point along the trip I looked between the front seats of the Mercedes and saw an instrument mounted on the lower console, which was strange, and I said to the PM ” That instrument is not a standard Mercedes instrument ? ” He said ” No, it’s the altimeter out of my Spitfire ”
I have wondered about this for years and I regret that I never got to ask him how he had recovered it. I knew him quite well following the visit to Grasslands Research Station and on more than one occasion he came to my office at the Commercial Farmers Union Headquarters to see me, as he was a member of ours in good standing. In typical Ian Smith informal fashion, he used only my first name as Jerry, though out of respect I always addressed him as ” Sir “. He recalled, quite clearly, his visit to the Research Station some 20 – 25 years previously. ”
Thank you very much Jerry for that very interesting account of your meetings with Ian Smith and what a pity you didn’t ask more questions about his altimeter.
What has happened to the Altimeter ?
I thought it would be a challenge to try and find out what happened to Ian Smith’s. Where does one start was upermost in my mind, so after giving it a lot of thought I started wIth what I knew. After leaving Zimbabwe in 2005 Ian Smith finally retired to the St James Retirement Hotel in St James, that very quaint little suburb just after Muizenburg south of Cape Town. He was there for a number of years before passing away on 20th November 2007. I happen to know the CEO of the St James Retirement Hotel so I called her to see if she knew whether or not Ian Smith had an old altimeter in his room. She unfortunately did not know but suggested I try and contact his daughter Jean Tholet ( who was the wife of the late well known Zimbabwian folk singer and entertainer Clem Tholet ) as she and her brother Robert spent most of their time with their very sick father up until the time he passed away. ( Ian Smith had met and subsequently married a widow, Janet Duvenage nee Watt in August 1948 and adopted her two children Jean and Robert. Together Ian and Janet also then had a son Alec who sadly passed away from a Heart attack at London Heathrow on 26th January 2006. As Ian Smith’s wife Janet passed away in 1994 and Robert passed away shortly after Ian Smith passed away this only left me with trying to contact Jean in the hope that she knows about her father altimeter. Although I have tried social media I have not been able to contact her and can only hope that eventually I can or perhaps someone who reads this article knows of her whereabouts and puts her in touch with me. She after all hopefully has the altimeter in her possesion.
Ian Douglas Smith,s War accounts.
When WW 11 Ian was halfway through his university course and feeling patriotically compelled to put his studies aside to fight for Britain and all that it represented. Excited by the idea of flying a Spitfire he wanted to join the airforce but was prevented from immediately doing so by a policy adopted in Rhodesia not to recruit university students until after they graduated. Smith engineered his recruitment into the Royal Air Force suppressing mention of his studies , and formally joined in September 1941. After a year’s training at Gwelo he passed out with the rank of pilot officer in September 1942. He was posted to the Middle East where he joined 237 ( Rhodesia ) Squadron RAF , flying Hurricanes. In October 1943, in Egypt, he crashed his Hurricane after his throttle malfunctioned during a dawn takeoff. Suffering serious facial disfigurements, he also broke his jaw, leg and shoulder. Doctors and surgeons in Cario rebuilt his face through skin grafts and plastic surgery and he was passed fit to fly again in March 1944. He turned down an offer to return to Rhodesia as an instructor. He rejoined 237 Squadron, which had switched to Spitfires Mk 1Xs in Corsica in May 1944. During a strafing raid over northern Italy on 22nd June 1944 he was hit by enemy flak and forced to bail out behind German lines. He was briefly hidden by a peasant family named Zunino, then recruited into a group of pro-allied Italian partisans with whom he took part in sabotage operations against the German garrison for about 3 months. When the Germans pulled out of the area in October 1944, Ian left to try to link up with the Allied forces who had just invaded southern France. Accompanied by three other servicemen, each from a different European country, and a local guide, he hiked across the Maritime Alps, finishing the journey walking barefoot on the ice and snow. He was recovered by American troops in November 1944. Ian Smith again turned down the offer of a billet in Rhodesia and returned to active service in April 1945 with RAF130 ( Punjab ) Squadron, by then based in western Germany. He flew combat missions there and to quote him ” had a little bit of fun shooting up odd things ” he recalled until the war in Europe ended on 7th May 1945. He remained with 130 squadron for the rest of his service, flying with the unit to Denmark and Norway, and was discharged at the end of 1945 with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He retained reasonable proficiency in Italian for the rest of his life, albeit reportedly with an ” atrocious ” accent.
In closing one can only speculate how he managed to get his altimeter but he had it and that’s all that matters. Perhaps he either found the wreck or they found the wreck earlier and stripped it out but as Jerry said personally saw it and was told by Ian Smith that it was out of his Spitfire and he had it mounted in the console of his official Mercedes Benz. One has to admire his bravery and determination to carry on fighting even though he could have returned to Rhodesia when offered on two seperate occassions. He was a remarkable man and did a lot for Rhodesia when he was again faced with a very difficult time.
I trust you have enjoyed this article, until the next time.