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Sir Victor Alfred Trumper Smith (1913–1998)

by Desmond Woods

This article was published online in 2023

Sir Victor Alfred Trumper Smith (1913–1998), naval officer, was born on 9 May 1913 in Sydney, second of three children of George Smith, auctioneer, and his wife Una Margaret, née Trumper, both New South Wales-born. Victor was named after his famous cricketing uncle, Victor Trumper. He attended Chatswood Primary and Intermediate high schools, and contact with a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) lieutenant commander at wolf cub meetings of junior scouts inspired him to enter the Royal Australian Naval College in 1927. On graduation in December 1930 he served as a cadet midshipman and then midshipman in the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra (1931–32), before commencing further training with the Royal Navy in the cruiser HMS London and the destroyer HMS Bulldog on the Mediterranean station, followed by courses in Britain. During a two-week air course in the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, he became convinced of ‘the future increasing importance of aircraft’ (Smith 1992, 19).

Promoted to sub-lieutenant in March 1934, Smith returned to Australia in 1935 to again serve in the Canberra, and as a lieutenant (1936) in its sister ship HMAS Australia. Precluded from pilot training by a policy that only Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilots would fly navy aircraft, he began his career in naval aviation in April 1937 with training in Britain as an observer. He was posted to HMS Glorious for consolidation training with No. 825 Naval Air Squadron, operating Swordfish torpedo bombers. Ashore in London when World War II broke out in September 1939, he joined No. 821 Squadron, embarked in HMS Ark Royal, to search the South Atlantic for the German pocket battleship Graf Spee.

From early 1940 Smith was based at the Royal Navy air station HMS Sparrowhawk in the Orkneys, during which he was mentioned in dispatches for leading a daring strike by six Swordfish against the battleship Scharnhorst off the Norwegian coast, the first mass torpedo attack against a capital ship at sea. Converting to Fulmar two-seat fighters and posted to No. 807 Squadron as senior observer, he embarked in December 1940 in the catapult ship HMS Pegasus to protect a convoy against Condor long-range bombers. The convoy remained undisturbed. Off West Africa in HMS Furious in March 1941, he caught malaria which was to trouble him for many years. In April the squadron moved to Ark Royal and the hazardous work of protecting Malta convoys. He was shot down twice while attacking enemy bombers, incidents he made light of when returned to the carrier. On one of these occasions he saved the life of his wounded pilot by keeping him afloat until they were rescued. He was still serving in Ark Royal when in November 1941 it was sunk by a U-boat off Gibraltar. In early 1942 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his outstanding personal qualities and ‘wholehearted devotion to duty’ (NAA A3978).

Smith returned to Australia in February 1942, and was liaison officer aboard USS Chicago before returning to Canberra as observer of its Walrus aircraft. He was forced to abandon ship when it was lost in August 1942 after being set ablaze by Japanese cruisers in the battle of Savo Island. From December 1942 he briefly served in England, standing by the refitting cruiser HMAS Shropshire, but a shortage of observers saw him posted in July 1943 as air staff officer of the escort carrier HMS Tracker, protecting Atlantic and Russian Arctic convoys. The demanding role required his consolidating intelligence on enemy forces, plotting the positions of enemy and Allied aircraft and vessels, and taking account of weather conditions to construct an accurate picture of the tactical position facing Tracker. He impressed a fellow officer as ‘a thoughtful young man,’ in whom the loss of Ark Royal had left a ‘long score to settle with the Hun’ (Moore 1945, 31).

Promoted to lieutenant commander in 1944, Smith became air planning officer on the staff of the flag officer, British Assault Area, for the Normandy invasion. Initially aboard the command ship HMS Southern Prince, the headquarters moved ashore two days after D-Day into a commandeered chateau. Witnessing the application of air power in this campaign shaped his strategic vision, impressing on him the importance of close cooperation between the three services. On 28 October 1944 he married English-born Nanette Suzanne Harrison, an employee in a legal firm and former member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, at the parish church of St George, Hanover Square, London. He returned to Australia the following month to serve in Melbourne on the staff of the vice admiral (Q), British Pacific Fleet.

The abiding lesson that Smith took from his war at sea was that a navy needed its own tactical air power. He wanted to see a postwar RAN Fleet Air Arm of the highest standard, and returned to London in October 1945 to commence planning. In 1946–47 he was on the Air Planning Staff at Navy Office in Melbourne working on establishing the Fleet Air Arm, with the resultant two-carrier plan being approved by the Chifley government in July 1947. Smith was promoted to commander in December 1947 and was again posted to London, liaising with the Royal Navy on using its training resources. He returned to sea duty in January 1950 as executive officer of the new aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney, which saw action in the Korean War.

Following shore-based postings preparing the naval air station HMAS Nirimba, near Sydney, and at Navy Office in Melbourne as director of air warfare organisation and training, Smith was promoted to captain in December 1953. He commanded HMAS Quadrant (1955–56) and HMAS Queenborough (1956), as captain (F), 1st Frigate Squadron, and then HMAS Albatross (1957–59), the naval air station at Nowra, New South Wales. He attended the Imperial Defence College, London, in 1960 before taking command of the RAN’s second aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne (1961–62). Assessment reports noted ‘the confidence and skill’ with which he handled the Melbourne, which, along with his ‘energy and organising ability’ as a staff officer, made him ‘a strong contender for Flag rank’ (NAA A3978). In January 1963 he was promoted to rear admiral, and appointed CBE. He held successive appointments as second naval member of the Naval Board (1962–65), fourth naval member (1965–66), flag officer commanding the Australian Fleet (1966–67), and deputy chief of the Naval Staff (1967–68). In 1967 he was appointed CB.

In April 1968 Smith was promoted to vice admiral and appointed chief of the Naval Staff. He saw ‘the fundamental problem’ facing him in this position as being ‘how to maintain the security of the country and meet the commitments overseas into which the Government has entered’ (Royal Australian Navy News 1970, 2). At this time the RAN stood at the peak of its post-1945 strength of vessels in commission and building. During a South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) exercise in the South China Sea on the night of 3 June 1969, the Melbourne collided with the United States destroyer USS Frank E. Evans with the loss of seventy-four American lives. Smith quickly contacted his United States counterpart to propose a joint board of investigation to establish the facts of the case. This was not only the correct legal response, but also would head off other possible enquiries, including the prospect of a royal commission in Australia, as had occurred in 1964 when the Melbourne collided with HMAS Voyager. The board of investigation correctly blamed officers in the destroyer for the disaster, but claimed unfairly that Melbourne’s commanding officer, Captain J. P. Stevenson, could have done more to prevent or mitigate it. The RAN’s decision to court- martial Stevenson on charges of negligence and to post him ashore immediately after his acquittal was widely criticised as unjustified.

Smith was appointed KBE in 1969. In November the next year, promoted to admiral, he became chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CCSC), making him the first Royal Australian Naval College graduate to achieve the rank. Sir Victor’s term coincided with a turbulent period which included the adoption by the United States in 1969 of the Guam Doctrine of greater self-reliance by its allies, the withdrawal of Australian forces from Vietnam, and the effective end of SEATO. The Australian Labor Party’s election to government in December 1972 brought profound changes both in strategy and in defence organisation, including a move away from a forward defence strategy in favour of continental defence. The new government’s 1973 assessment that Australia was unlikely to come under direct military threat over the next fifteen years elicited a public caution from Smith that this ‘does not mean that Australia can dispense with defence strength,’ which ‘can still prevent potential conflicts from materialising’ (Royal Australian Navy News 1975). The secretary of the Department of Defence, Sir Arthur Tange, with Smith’s support, successfully championed the merger of the departments of defence, navy, army, air, and supply. Yet the three services each retained a considerable sense of their autonomy. Some of their senior officers thought that Smith complied too readily with the forceful Tange, and he found himself having to ease inter-service disagreement over the retention of the Melbourne. In 1975 he was appointed AC. As CCSC for five years until his retirement in November 1975, he became tri-service in outlook and orientation, as the job required. His new motto was deceptively simple: ‘convince me’ (Dadswell 1998).

In retirement in Canberra, Smith was active in the Australian Birthright Movement, supporting families without an adult male. He became patron of the Australian Capital Territory Rugby Union, having played the sport when he was young, including in the Naval College team that famously beat the team from the larger Royal Military College in 1929. Tall, popular and tactful, he usually refrained from public comment on defence policy. But when the new Hawke Labor government decided in 1983 not to replace the Melbourne and that there was no need for naval fixed-wing aircraft, he and three other former chiefs of the Naval Staff criticised this as likely to be ‘seen by neighbours as a lack of determination to protect our interests’ (Mannix 1983, 9). Smith died in Canberra on 10 July 1998, survived by Nanette and their three sons. He is widely seen as the father of the RAN Fleet Air Arm. A portrait by Nancy Menetrey is held by HMAS Albatross.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Birsch, Albert. ‘Admiral Sir Victor Smith, AC, KBE, CB, DSC.’ Naval Historical Review l2, no. 3 (March 1979): 3–9
  • Dadswell, Toz. ‘Eulogy for Admiral Smith.’ Unpublished manuscript, 16 July 1998. Copy held on ADB file
  • Fleet Air Arm Association of Australia. ‘VAT Smith—Father of the Fleet Air Arm.’ Accessed 3 March 2023. https://www.faaaa.asn.au/snippets-history/vat-smith-father-fleet-air-arm/ (faaaa.asn.au). Copy held on ADB file
  • Lunn, Graeme. Personal communication
  • Moore, John. Escort Carrier. London: Hutchison, 1945
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, Smith V. A. T.
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, Smith V. A.
  • Noye, Larry. ‘The Father of the RAN’s Fleet Air Arm.’ Canberra Times, 24 September 1989, 19
  • Mannix, Teresa. ‘Ex-naval Chiefs Give Defence Warning.’ Canberra Times, 4 June 1983, 9
  • Royal Australian Navy News (Sydney). ‘VADM Sir Victor Smith’s Farewell to the RAN.’ 27 November 1970, 1
  • Royal Australian Navy News (Sydney). ‘VADM Sir Victor Smith.’ 27 November 1970, 2
  • Royal Australian Navy News (Sydney). ‘Sir Victor Smith on Defence Outlook.’ 28 March 1975, 2
  • Smith, Victor Alfred Trumper. A Few Memories of Sir Victor Smith. Campbell, ACT: The Australian Naval Institute, 1992
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Sir Victor Smith AC.’ 15 July 1998, 14

Additional Resources

Citation details

Desmond Woods, 'Smith, Sir Victor Alfred Trumper (1913–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-sir-victor-alfred-trumper-32340/text40083, published online 2023, accessed online 17 June 2024.

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