Information for Veterans and their families

Herbert Henry Smith

I had the privilege to hear from Dilip Sarkar, MBE, with information on his late grandfather, Guardsman Herbert (Bert) Henry Smith of the Grenadier Guards.

With Dilip's kind permission, I have reproduced the details he provided to me below. If anyone has any further information on Guardsman H.H. Smith or was a PoW with him in Stalag XXB, please do get in touch with me via the Contact page. I was very interested to visit your site today, given that my late grandfather, Guardsman 2611042 HH Smith, Grenadier Guards, was in Stalag XXB, with a VC, Lance Corporal Harry Nicholls, for most of the war.

Smith had served with the GG between 1928-31, but was recalled to the colours in 1939 and joined the 3rd Bn which was amongst the first BEF units to cross the Channel (1st Infantry Div, 1st Gds Brig). Smith was a member of No 4 Company, Nicholls, the Bn boxer, of 3 Coy.

On May 21st, 1940, the entire BEF, division upon division, was aligned alone the west bank of the River Escaut in Belgium, where it successfully fought off a determined assault by the Germans. The 1st Gds Brig was in the Pecq sector, No 4 Coy of the 3rd Gren Gds being deployed forward on the river bank. No 3 Coy was held in reserve at a village a mile back.

(Click any image to enlarge it)

Guardsman Bert Smith pictured in Birdcage Walk, Wellington Barracks, 1928
Bert upon repatriation, May 1945
Lance Corporal Harry Nicholls VC, also upon repat
'Poplar Ridge', Esquelmes, Belgium, scene of the Nicholls VC action, pictured by Dilip Sarkar 1998. Over the ridge is the main Pecq Road, and behind the photographer is the River Escaut (Scheldt).
Bert Smith and hut mates in Stalag XXB, 1943. Bert is rear row, third from right. The PoW fourth from right is Corporal Bryant Everitt, also 3rd Bn Gren Gds and captured at Esquelmes on May 21st, 1940.

Shortly after morning stand-to, an artillery stonk was laid down over the riverside positions, causing heavy casualties, this being followed by a river assault crossing by II/Infantrie Reg 12 (30 Infantrie Div). Smith was wounded and captured, his companions killed. The remnants of Nos 1, 2 & 4 Coys retreated into the large cornfield behind the river where they were pinned down by withering MG 34 fire from 'Poplar Ridge', a slight rise where the Germans had established themselves and to which point reinforcements continued to pour across the river and there await the push inland.

The Gren Gun Carrier Section made an unsuccessful attempt to neutralise the guns, so No 3 Coy was brought up and mounted a counter-attack. During this suicidal action the Duke of Northumberland was killed, and many other Guardsmen. Nicholls however, supported by Guardsman Percy Nash, dashed forward, firing his Bren from the hip, and, although hit many times and seriously wounded, caused such panic amongst the enemy that II/IR 12 abandoned its bridgehead and fled back across the river. Convinced that Nicholls was dead after this 'signal act of valour', Nash left his friend for dead near the riverbank.

1st Gds Brig then withdrew to the Pecq Road (the cornfield and Poplar Ridge being between the road and river), and withdrew to the Ypres-Comines Canal. During the night, the Germans recced the west bank and found Nicholls gravely hurt but still alive. He was captured and taken back to the Regimental CP where Smith dressed his wounds and cared for the gallant boxer until they could both be transferred to hospital.

Smith was reported MIA, Nicholls KIA. In August 1940 Mrs Nicholls attended Buckingham Palace and received her husband's 'posthumous' VC; the following month news was received via the Red Cross that Nicholls and other Grens captured in May 21st, 1940, were actually alive and POW. So, Mrs Nicholls gave the medal back for her husband to collect himself. This he did in 1945, making it the only time a VC has ever been awarded 'twice'!

Nicholls and Smith were in Stalag XXB for the entire war, and legend has it that Hitler, who had served as a corporal himself during WW1, offered to present Nicholls with his VC - this the battalion boxer apparently rejected out of hand, although I doubt that the story has any basis in fact.

Sadly after the war Nicholls was beset by physical and pyschological problems arising from his serious wounds, and he died prematurely in the 1970s. My dear old granddad returned to his native Worcestershire where he worked as a horticulturalist until his death in 1983. He never, ever, discussed his wartime experiences with the family, and it was only at his funeral that we learned of his association with Lance Corporal Harry Nicholls VC.

Having been fascinated by this story I traced numerous 1st Gds Brig and 30 ID survivors and ultimately wrote a book, 'Guards VC: Blitzkrieg 1940' (Ramrod Publications, 1999, now out of print), after visiting the actual battlefield and unearthing various relics.

I never traced any other Stalag XXB POWs, however, so would always be interested to hear from either survivors or their relatives. I have a number of letters sent home by my grandfather, photographs etc, but have not recognised him on any of the pictures already published on your site.

Anyway, I hope that this is of some interest.

Happy New Year!

Dilip Sarkar MBE

Dilip then sent me the following information also:

Another thing that might be of interest.

On 22.01.45 XXB started the long march west to Brunswick. As a result of statements made by survivors upon repatriation, the Kommandant, Oblt Arno Von Heering, was located in a British POW camp in August 1945. Subsequently charged with the ill-treatment of British & Allied nationals, he was tried at Hanover in January 1946. The 48-year old former laundry worker was found guilty and sentenced to just one day's imprisonment, the Court taking into account the time spent on remand.

The file on this matter is available for inspection at the Public Record Office, under the title 'Ill-Treatment of British POWs, Stalag XXB' (WO 309/34).