John Henry Smythe was born in Sierra Leone where he received a grammar school education. After completing his studies, he found work as a civil servant before joining the Sierra Leone Defence Corps which was part of the British Colonial Army in 1939.
Smythe served with the Sierra Leone Defence Corps before volunteering for the RAF as a navigator. Of ninety men, Smythe was one of four men who finished basic training to become a navigator.
On the night of November 18, 1943, Smythe was the navigator aboard a Short Stirling III heavy bomber of No 623 Squadron, one of 395 aircraft dispatched to attack the German city of Mannheim. The aircraft was crippled by anti-aircraft fire, and the crew was forced to parachute from the stricken aircraft. Enemy troops found him hiding in a barn. Smythe later recalled: “The Germans couldn’t believe their eyes. I’m sure that’s what saved me from being shot immediately. To see a black man — an officer at that — was more than they could come to terms with. They just stood there gazing.”
Smythe spent the rest of his time during the war at Stalag Luft I in northern Germany where he served on the escape committee to free white POWs. When he returned home to Freetown, he received the welcome of a hero. He later worked as a military liaison officer. By 1951, he was a practicing barrister.
In 1953 he represented the Sierra Leone Naval Volunteer Force at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Having been a Queen’s counsel for several years, in 1961 he was appointed Solicitor General of the newly independent nation of the Republic of Sierra Leone. After returning from public service in 1993, he moved with his family to Britain. Smythe died on July 9, 1996.