Peter Smithers, 92, WWII Spy and Diplomat
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Sir Peter Smithers, who died on Thursday at 92, was a diplomat, politician, and distinguished botanist; in the political arena he served as a conservative member of Parliament from 1950 until being appointed General Secretary of the Council of Europe in 1964.
He was also a noted medievalist and student of the early 18th century, in 1954 publishing a life of Joseph Addison, the essayist and poet, for which he was awarded a D.Phil. by Oxford University; during his research he amassed an important collection of pamphlets, now in an American university.
Peter Henry Berry Otway Smithers (in earlier times he hyphenated Otway-Smithers) was born in Hampshire on December 9, 1913. His father was a considerable sportsman, but Peter owed much of his upbringing to his nanny, who taught him to love gardens, serving him the shoots of hawthorn hedges to nibble, and giving him poached blackbirds’ eggs for breakfast. He was educated at Harrow and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a First in Modern History.
Smithers found himself unimpressed by the lectures on Marxist-Leninism given by AL Rowse, since he considered Communism doomed to failure. He was drawn to conservatism and, on coming down, applied unsuccessfully for a seat. Instead he became a barrister.
At the beginning of the war, Smithers was commissioned an officer into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, but dropped out after contracting measles. He instead found a job in naval intelligence under the command of Commander Ian Fleming.
Posted in Paris, Smithers debriefed Dutch tugboat captains. He lived in the Hotel Vouillement, and recalled air raids during which another resident, the painter Marc Chagall, would join them in the hall. When the Germans began to close in, Smithers escaped to a safe house at Sologne, in the Loire.
After Paris fell, the intelligence team moved to Bordeaux, where Smithers arranged their escape to England. Having got his colleagues safely on board a ship, he was ordered back to Bordeaux to arrange the departure of British nationals. In one afternoon Smithers and Ian Fleming commandeered seven merchant ships and supervised the departure of hundreds of well-off British refugees, many of them weighed down with jewels and wearing heavy mink coats despite the blazing hot weather. They also burned all the British papers in the consulate.
He finally returned in a Sunderland flying boat. During the Battle of Britain, Smithers was in England, rounding up German spies as they landed in Britain, having unraveled their codes.
Fleming, by now a friend, arranged a posting for him in Washington, where he served as assistant naval attache. While there Smithers was charged with spreading disinformation, much of it circulated on the cocktail circuit. He also dealt with intercepted Japanese coded telegrams and recalled seeing black smoke emerge from the Japanese embassy after Pearl Harbor as the diplomats burned their documents.
The collaboration between Fleming and Smithers provided inspiration for later James Bond books, and Smithers was part inspiration for Bond himself. Fleming once presented him with a pistol disguised as a pen, and used Smithers’s wife’s gold typewriter in “Goldfinger.” Smithers recalled that Fleming had been taught by Lord Suffolk how to kill a man in combat by biting the back of his neck.
Subsequently Smithers was appointed naval attache in Mexico, the Central American Republics and Panama to monitor the refueling operations of German submarines.
The war over, Smithers resumed his historical studies, became director of a Leeds publishing firm founded by his grandfather, and was elected Member of Parliament from Winchester. During the period of decolonization, he played an important role in representing conservative views to the government.
Tall, languid, and given to wearing drainpipe trousers, Smithers had the smooth, assured air of the natural diplomat and was fluent in several languages. He greatly preferred overseas affairs to domestic politics, and, though always a dependable backbench loyalist, he was never at home with the rough and tumble of party controversy.
Television, still much in its infancy in the early 1950s, fascinated Smithers, and he produced a series of programs on foreign affairs for the BBC which were based on films he had made in France, Germany, and Spain.
In 1964 he became Secretary-Gener al of the Council of Europe, which involved organizing 18 governments, the Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Court of Human Rights, which he considered “the best international court in existence then or since.”
The early 1970s being a time of gloom for Britain, Smithers accepted a rare invitation from Willi Spuhler, president of the Swiss Confederation, to settle in Switzerland and take Swiss citizenship. He later offered advice to Margaret Thatcher, who greatly respected his opinions, the more so since he was a little removed from the political scene.
Among his many interests, Smithers was a keen amateur botanist. He grew more than 2,000 species of cactus at his Winchester home, which he transferred to Strasbourg on his appointment to the Council of Europe. He also collected tropical species for the British Museum herbarium. His interest in botany went back to his childhood, and just before leaving Harrow he had purchased a plant ledger. By 1993 he had made 32,147 entries.
His philosophy as a gardener was: “It shall be a source of pleasure to the owner and his friends, not a burden and an anxiety.” He favored rhododendrons, magnolias, tree peonies, lilies, wistaria and allium, and he revived long-lost nerines. He was particularly delighted when the Dalai Lama planted a Michelia doltsopa (one of his propogations) at the Thyssen house at Lugano.
He published an account of his work in 1979, “Adventures of a Gardener.”
In later life Smithers opposed the Euro, and was forever attuned to changes in world politics. He continued to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, because its industry and agriculture were so ramshackle. He forecast that governments would lose control of events world-wide due to the acceleration of technology, which would make “powerful and dangerous instruments available to private syndicates and individuals.” Thus, in 2002, he was reluctantly impressed by how Osama bin Laden had single-handedly compelled the world’s only superpower to reshape its defense policy.
Smithers had been impressed that Joseph Addison had died in June 1719, having expressed the wish to die in the summer, surrounded by the beauties of nature.
Peter Smithers was lucky to achieve a similar ambition, having written: “It would be nice to end life surrounded by the beauty which is my garden … As long as memory lasts my garden will remain with me, like my own past life, a delightful dream which once I dreamed here on this mountainside.”