Blessed to be a witness

Monday, July 25th

Cmdr. George B.L. Smith, RN, OBE

My grandfather died yesterday. He was ninety-one, and in good health. He died from a stroke, after having collapsed while ringing bells in the church at Bosham, Sussex. His death shouldn't have been a surprise, given his advanced years, yet he was in such rude health that it really did shock me.

George was truly my a role model: a gentleman in the true, old-fashioned sense of the word, and something I could but aspire to being. Firm but fair, stern when he needed to be, always wise, yet with a delightful streak of humour. I shall miss him so much.

Born to a protestant family in Northern Ireland at the beginning of the First World War, his sister and he were brought to England by his mother as the troubles worsened. He joined the Royal Navy at a young age. He progressed through the ranks, and by the time of the Second World War he was Chief Gunner.

He saw active service, though not a great deal. He and his crew sunk a merchant ship that was bringing supplies from America to the Nazis. He was often, however, transferred just before action or disaster. Typical of his modesty, and though he was awarded an OBE for his services, he rarely spoke of his experiences. However, the last time I saw him, he began to remnisce. He told many, many stories, but the one that I remember with the most fondness is the story of the porcupine, which to me sums up his good sense, and his humour.

At one point in the war, George's boat's task for several months was to escort troop ships from Australia to India. The job was tedious, and no action was seen, and the men were going nearly insane with boredom. George and his fellow officers therefore devised a little treat to relieve the tedium: every so often the gunners were ordered to train the entirety of the ship's multitude of guns and cannons into the air. On the command "fire", the entire lot were discharged simultaneously, which created an almost unimaginable noise and a spectacular sight, and great hilarity all round. This practice they dubbed "the porcupine".

One day the admiral came on board to inspect. "Do you have any special procedures to show me?" he asked George. Not having prepared anything, George thought for a while, then improvised "allow us to demonstrate our new anti-aircraft measures, sir". He then ordered the men to perform "the porcupine".

Alas, the ship's communications system was feeble, so when the chief gunner said "none of you are to fire until I give the order", all the gunners heard was "fire", and the guns went off with no notice, sending the admiral jumping out of his skin. He was, however, rather impressed with the procedure.

He was awarded an OBE for his services during the war. He then worked for NATO for several years, which took him to Oslo. On retirement he worked in a charitable capacity, raising funds alongside, of all people, Jimmy Saville.

What should have been his twighlight years were spent absurdly full of activity. He sailed dinghies and won trophy after trophy. He tried out a windsurfer in his seventies. He trekked Milford Sound in his eighties. He baked his own bread, and made his own wine for a spell. He taught me how to make summer pudding. He was churchwarden, and president of the sailing club. Even after my grandmother Ros's death he said he was determined not to give up living. He remained totally independent until the last, demonstrating a true stoicism and stiff upper lip that is lacking in my generation.

And very selfishly, I am sad that the house in which he had lived since 1942 will now almost certainly leave my life. Cob Cottage, two eccentric, beautiful, ancient back-to-back cottages knocked through into one, right on the seafront, that he bought for a pittance from his landlord, was the only constancy in my life. As my family and I moved around the world, Cob Cottage remained, unchanged. It bears the imprint of his personality, as does the village around him. It will never be the same again.

When I attended his ninetieth birthday party last year. I wanted to tell him how much I admired him, and how much he meant to me, but I don't think that would have suited his character; I think he might have found it unneccessary: I trust he already knew that I loved him.

If I could be half the man he was, and live half the life he did, I will have achieved something.

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