Battle of Britain profile of courage: Flight Lieutenant Forgrave Marshall 'Hiram' Smith

Biography / September 11, 2015

By Major William March

72 Squadron, Royal Air Force

Forgrave Marshall “Hiram” Smith came into the world on August 17, 1913. A native of Edmonton, Alberta, he joined a local militia unit when he turned 20 and spent three years learning all about the Canadian Army at its best. However, he was also pursuing his private pilot’s license at the North Alberta Aero Club, and decided in late 1935 that a life in aviation was what he wanted. He made his way to England and was accepted into the Royal Air Force (RAF) on a short service commission. On March 14, 1936, he reported to No. 3 Flying Training School at RAF Grantham, Lincolnshire.

A little more than a year later the newly-promoted Pilot Officer joined the RAF’s No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron at RAF Tangmere, Sussex (not to be confused with the RCAF’s No. 1 Squadron). Smith’s stay with No. 1 Squadron was to be short-lived as a rapidly expanding RAF used “B” Flight from the squadron to form the nucleus of a new unit. Formed in February 1937, No. 72 (Fighter) Squadron was based at RAF Church Fenton, North Yorkshire and, in late March, Smith joined this squadron and honed his skills on Gloucester Gladiator bi-plane aircraft. In April 1939, No. 72 Squadron was re-equipped with brand-new Supermarine Spitfire aircraft. Smith was one of the first Canadians to fly this potent fighter.

During the opening months of the war, the squadron flew convoy and defensive patrols, only occasionally coming to grips with the enemy. In the northern part of England and into Scotland, the weather was often atrocious; at the end of a long patrol over the water, returning pilots were greeted with rain and fog. More than once Smith just managed to make a “blind” landing, or was forced to divert to another airfield with mere “fumes” remaining in his gas tank. It must have seemed to the aviators on No. 72 Squadron that meeting the Germans in combat was a safer proposition then dealing with English weather.

After seeing some action at Dunkirk in June 1940, Flight Lieutenant Smith (also by then a section leader) dealt with increasing German attention throughout June and July as the Luftwaffe attacked their airfield on a fairly regular basis. Operating out of a small auxiliary airfield to avoid German bombs, Smith scored his first victory on June 29. At the end of a long night in the dispersal hut, his section was just about to grab a cup of tea and some much needed sleep when they were scrambled to intercept a solitary unknown aircraft. After a 40-minute flight, Smith and the three other members of Yellow Section approached the aircraft and flashed the recognition signals of the day. If the lack of a proper response was not enough to convince the Spitfire pilots that the aircraft was German, the tracer fire from the guns turrets left no doubt. Smith closed to point-blank range from astern and raked the Dornier 17 bomber with gunfire, but broke off after being hit by defensive fire. The other members of the section then took their turns until the Dornier crashed into the sea. Smith and two other members of the section were each credited with one-third of an enemy aircraft destroyed.

He was in the thick of things again on August 15 when No. 72 Squadron was part of an RAF response to numerous German attacks throughout the day. Scrambled in the afternoon, No. 72 and two other squadrons encountered more than 100 Luftwaffe aircraft, mainly Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111 bombers escorted by Messerschmitt Bf-110 fighters, from bases in Denmark and Norway. Attacking out of the sun, Smith and his squadron mates dove through the German fighter escort and pounced on the bombers. Selecting a Heinkel 111 as his target, Smith closed to within 100 yards (91.5 metres) before firing and left it with one engine billowing smoke. Speeding by the damaged bomber, a second Heinkel rose in front of him; with a quick burst, he sent it reeling out of the fight to crash into the sea below. Banking hard to return to fray, Smith fastened his sights on the last aircraft in a line of Heinkels and cut loose at less than 100 yards distance. The aircraft disintegrated with a flash, forcing Smith to take violent evasive action to avoid the debris. In doing so, he took the opportunity to pour fire into a Messerschmitt that appeared before him.

Ammunition exhausted and low on petrol, the squadron headed for home, satisfied with a job well done.

Later that month, No. 72 Squadron was ordered south to Biggin Hill, and it was from this airfield on August 31 that Smith’s part in the Battle of Britain came to an abrupt end. A little more than three hours after arriving at their new home, squadron members were scrambled to engage German raiders. Somehow, Smith and the three other pilots of his section became separated from the rest of the squadron and found themselves alone in the sky—except for more than 100 enemy aircraft a few thousand feet below them. The four airmen did not hesitate, and dove to attack. Smith was immediately challenged by a Messerschmitt making a head-on pass, cannons and machine guns blazing; Smith’s Spitfire was mortally damaged. A cannon shell exploded near his head, and shrapnel penetrated his head, neck, shoulders and arm.

With his aircraft spiraling down out of control, the dazed and bloody Canadian jettisoned the cockpit canopy and attempted to climb out of the aircraft. The slipstream pinned Smith to the rear of the cockpit, hanging half in and half out of the Spitfire. Later, Smith recalled that “every effort having been made to no avail, and having gone through the full range of emotions – embracing emergency, frustration, consternation, fear, panic and supplication, it was clear to me that owing to the speed at which I was approaching the ground, it could only be a matter of moments before I hit it. I then became completely relaxed and resigned to imminent extinction.”

Then suddenly, unexpectedly, he found himself clear of the aircraft. Hurriedly pulling the ripcord of his parachute he drifted down to a hard, but satisfying landing. And after convincing a member of the Home Guard that he was indeed an “English” airman and not eligible for shooting, he was taken to a casualty clearing station.

 Smith survived his injuries, but it would be three-and-a-half months before he flew again. He would go on to command squadrons in the Middle and Far East, rising to the rank of wing commander and being awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. He retired from the RAF in October 1957 at that rank, and went to work for British Petroleum. Wing Commander Smith (retired) died of natural causes in 1994.

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