Lieutenant Commander David Fielding Smith Royal Navy

Posted on Thursday 16 May 2024

Inspired by meeting Douglas Bader as a child, David Fielding Smith longed to become a fighter pilot until his dream was scuppered by a failed eye test. He settled on joining the navy to train as an aeronautical engineer and 20 years later he emerged as a hero in the Falklands.

His task was to keep the two Westland Sea King HC4 helicopters of 824 Squadron “battle-ready” for the varied and hazardous tasks ahead as Britain took back the south Atlantic islands after they were invaded by Argentina on April 2, 1982.

Arriving in the exclusion zone on May 1 in the fast fleet tanker RFA Olmeda, the two helicopters were kept in almost constant use for the next seven weeks to carry servicemen, ammunition and stores to where they were needed on the battlefield. Fielding Smith led a team of 20 men who often worked through the night in stormy seas to ready the aircraft for their next missions, including stripping out the engines at high speed.

On June 3, 1982 the Sea Kings lifted off from RFA Olmeda on a 400-mile journey to San Carlos in East Falkland, transporting urgently needed stores and ammunition from ships anchored in the bay to operating bases on land. Fielding Smith was told at 8pm that the Sea Kings must be ready to fly at first light. The operation lasted for four days and three nights, including supplying water and rations to the teams operating the Rapier missile sites on the hilltops.

“Each morning the machines were ready at first light and flew all day, during frequent air raids,” said Commander Ian McKenzie, Fielding Smith’s commanding officer. “Credit must go to David and his team for keeping the helicopters flying and on task day and night.”

Having originally been told they would be ashore for 24 hours, all the engineering team had to sleep in was a large tent on a slope in sub-zero temperatures. When the pilots returned after flying all day, there was nothing to eat apart from cold mashed potato in a nearby field kitchen.

After a miserable first night, Fielding Smith found a barn, complete with a stove. He knocked on the door of the nearby farmhouse to explain their urgent need. The barn’s incumbents — six aircrew from an RAF Chinook — were persuaded, not entirely graciously, to move. That night the pilots returned to a peat fire and hot food cooking on the stove. During air raids Fielding Smith, a fine shot, would return fire to enemy aircraft with a self-loading rifle.

After four days of almost constant use, one of the Sea Kings had an oil leak and was emitting plumes of blue smoke. Having safely landed back on Olmeda, a complete engine replacement was prescribed. The operation usually takes 12 hours; Fielding Smith and his team did it in seven.

On June 19/20 one of the Sea Kings took part in Operation Keyhole to land 48 commandos from the Royal Marines on Thule, part of the South Sandwich Islands towards Antarctica, where 11 Argentinian scientists and a company of soldiers were refusing to accept that their country had surrendered to Britain on June 14.

Because the helicopter originally planned for the mission had broken down, one of the Sea Kings from Olmeda was pressed into action. As an anti-submarine helicopter it was not designed as a troop carrier. Fielding Smith’s task was to strip out the anti-submarine equipment and seats so that the aircraft could accommodate 24 marines sitting on the floor. The weight limit was 21.5 tonnes and 19 in blizzard conditions. The Sea King took off carrying 23 tonnes. “It was illegal without official approval and if it had not worked we would have been court-martialled,” said McKenzie. “Any other engineer would have said ‘sorry I can’t do this’.”

The Sea King duly landed the first 24 marines in a blizzard and the Argentinians quickly surrendered. The second party landed in time to see the Argentinian research station and radio mast blown up. Fielding Smith and his team restored the helicopter to its original condition on the voyage home.

On June 21 he received a signal to return with his 20-strong team exhausted but unharmed and the two Sea Kings intact. The helicopters Fielding Smith had been in charge of had each conducted an average flight time of 140 hours 48 minutes during seven weeks in the Falklands.

Several months after the end of the conflict, Fielding Smith returned to the Falklands in Olmeda. To service the aircraft on Lively Island he “liberated” a broken-down RAF generator needed to power floodlighting. His commanding officer later pointed out that Fielding Smith had taken the equipment broken, fixed it, used it and returned it operational, before adding: “We’re all on the same side aren’t we?” It was probably prudent that Fielding Smith did not speak in his own defence as he could be outspoken and direct. “It was surprising how quickly everything got back to needing to be signed in triplicate,” McKenzie recalled.

Fielding Smith was appointed MBE for “outstanding leadership” during the Falklands. He was promoted to lieutenant commander at the end of 1982.

David Smith was born in Westerton, Glasgow, in 1947 to Evelyn (née Muir) and Landor Smith. Fielding was his middle name but he changed his surname to Fielding Smith by deed poll in 2011. His father had served in the navy as a cipher officer during the Arctic convoys and witnessed the sinking of HMS Hood and the German battleship Bismarck. After the war he became a salesman for Hoover. David was educated at St Nicholas Grammar School in Northolt, west London.

Much of his bedtime reading with a torch under the covers was about the Battle of Britain, but he settled on joining the navy as an aeronautical apprentice in 1965. Told he would never become an officer, Fielding Smith proved his superiors wrong by becoming one in 1977 at the age of 29. Thereafter he excelled as a leader of men, it was said, because he had direct experience of “what makes a sailor tick” and how out of touch with the ratings senior officers could be.

At the time of the Falklands, he was the engineering officer in charge of two Sea Kings that had been “hangered” at Culdrose in Cornwall. Fielding Smith’s team had just been sent on Easter leave when orders were received to embark for war. All trains leaving Cornwall were stopped. Some 48 hours later both Sea Kings were on Olmeda loaded with torpedoes and depth charges. The taskforce sailed on April 5.

Over the three and a half weeks across the Atlantic, Fielding Smith was engaged in anti-submarine screening, but he found relaxation by working through his repertoire of blues and rock on his guitar and catching sea trout or salmon.

After the Falklands he was appointed chief engineering officer on the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and in 1984 was appointed to create an air engineering department for the fifth Ark Royal during fit out of the vessel at the Swan Hunter shipyard in Newcastle.

Fielding Smith’s final role in the navy was a desk job on streamlining the service. He put up with what he called the “petty politics” of civil servants at the Ministry of Defence until he could stand it no more and retired from the navy in 1989 in the rank of lieutenant commander.

He then emigrated to Kenya to work with the country’s emerging telecommunications sector and bought a 19,000-acre sisal farm.

A keen amateur pilot, he was once a passenger in a light aircraft when the plane flew into a storm on its way from Mombasa to Nairobi and started losing altitude rapidly. Fielding Smith took control of the aircraft and landed it safely at Wilson airport in Nairobi.

He returned to Britain in 2005. By this point he had been living with leukaemia for six years, having been told that he would live for eight years at most. Even close friends and family would hardly have noticed his affliction as Fielding Smith remained an indomitable figure, who collected wise sayings and loosely defined himself as a Taoist. He was a passionate photographer, loved motorbikes, cycled long distances to raise money for charity and mindfully baked his own bread. Music remained one of his great loves; as a young man he had played in a band that supported the Kinks.

He had a daughter, Donna, from an early relationship and a son, Mark, from his first marriage to Kathleen, which ended in divorce. Donna works in the NHS and Mark is a businessman in the engineering sector. Both survive him. After a brief second marriage, he met Elizabeth Davis, a businesswoman and fashion designer, in Kenya and they married under an acacia tree. His wife survives him along with their children William, a chef, and Amelia, who works in retail. Elizabeth and William run an events catering business together.

Fielding Smith was also a driving force behind Henley’s twinning with the Slovenian town of Bled — the plan had been years in the making but once he joined the organising committee it happened in six months.

He looked back fondly on his years in the navy but watched with sadness as the service continued to shrink over the years, belying its motto Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you wish for peace, prepare for war).

Lieutenant Commander David Fielding Smith MBE, aeronautical engineer, was born on December 20, 1947. He died on March 3, 2024, aged 76



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