Sir Alan Smith D.F.C. and Bar C.B.E.
Sir Alan Smith D.F.C. and Bar C.B.E.
Born: March 14th 1917 South Shields, Co. Durham. Died March 1st 2013 Age 95
Flew as Douglas Bader’s wingman during Fighter Command’s offensive over northern France in the spring and summer of 194, he went on to become a fighter ‘ace’, destroying at least five enemy aircraft.
Smith joined No 616 Squadron as a sergeant pilot in early January 1941 as the squadron moved south to Tangmere, near Chichester – it was soon in action over northern France on offensive sweeps. On March 18 Wing Commander Douglas Bader (who had lost both legs in a pre-war flying accident) arrived to take command of the three Spitfire squadrons of Tangmere Wing. He always led 616 in his personal Spitfire marked ‘DB’.
Bader selected Smith to be his wingman, and two of the squadrons’ most charismatic pilots, Johnnie Johnson and “Cocky” Dundas, to form his section of four aircraft, which used the call sign ‘Dogsbody’. The wing commander’s only comment on choosing Smith was: ‘God help you if you let any Hun get on my tail.’ Johnson later described Smith as ‘leech-like, and a perfect number two who never lost sight of his leader’.
As operations intensified during the spring, 616 moved to the nearby Westhampnett airfield at Goodwood, and under Bader’s dynamic leadership the Wing’s successes mounted. The ever-faithful wingman Smith stuck to Bader throughout, protecting his rear during a series of hectic battles, for this reason he did not open his own account until July 2, when he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 in the Lille area and also damaged a second.
In what Johnnie Johnson came to describe as ‘The High Summer’, the Bader Wing achieved considerable success, often against the Bf 109s of Adolf Galland’s Jagdgeschwader 26. During July, in sweeps over the Pas de Calais, Smith probably destroyed two more Bf 109s and damaged a third. On one occasion his oxygen supply failed and he was forced to descend to low level. Spotting an airfield near St Omer packed with Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, he determined to inflict further damage on the enemy, and flew the length of the parked aircraft, destroying two with his cannons.
On August 9 Smith was suffering from a head cold and was unable to fly. Bader led the Wing, but from the outset the operation went badly. Bader’s aircraft was attacked and, without Smith to protect his tail, he was shot down – to spend the rest of the war as a PoW.
Alan Smith on far right, with Douglas Bader
Bader had lost one of his false legs when he was shot down, and the Germans offered free passage to an RAF aircraft to drop a replacement near St Omer, where he was being held. The RAF refused, and a few days later mounted a bombing operation during which a new false leg was dropped by parachute. Smith, who had just been commissioned, was one of the pilots that escorted the Blenheim bombers on the mission.
Smith remained with No 616 for three more months, during which time he damaged a Bf 109. On September 21 he shot down another near Le Touquet. He left the squadron in November, when he was awarded a DFC, the citation concluding: ‘In combat, he has been of great support to his leader.’
The youngest son of Captain Alfred Smith, Alan Smith was born at South Shields, Co Durham, on March 14 1917. After his father had been lost at sea, he left school at 14 to help his mother in her ironmongery store. He joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, trained as a pilot, and was called up at the outbreak of war. After a brief spell with No 610 Squadron, he joined 616 .
Following his hectic spell with 616, Smith served as a fighter instructor, and in June 1942 was attached to the USAAF’s 31st Fighter Group to convert the Americans to the Spitfire. In November 1942 he joined No 93 Squadron as it departed for North Africa to take part in Operation Torch, the landings in Morocco and Algeria. Flying from airfields in Algeria, Smith and his colleagues were used initially on ground support operations. As the ground war and advance to Tunisia intensified, the Luftwaffe appeared in force and losses mounted.
On November 22 Smith shot down a Bf 109 over Tunisia and probably destroyed an Italian Macchi 202 fighter. Four days later he accounted for two Focke Wulf 190s, and by the end of the year he had shared in the destruction of two more FW 190s and damaged a Stuka dive-bomber. At the end of January 1943 he returned to England, and two weeks later was awarded a Bar to his DFC for his ‘inspired skill and great leadership’.
He spent the next 18 months as an instructor at various fighter schools before departing for the United States to serve as an instructor at one of the British Flying Training Schools in Florida. He was demobilised in December 1945 as a flight lieutenant.
After the war Smith worked for his father-in-law at his Kinross woollen mill, Todd and Duncan, the start of a highly successful career in the textile industry. He was managing director of Todd and Duncan for 14 years.
From 1960 to 1982 (when he retired) he served as chairman and chief executive of Dawson International, a group of companies in the Scottish knitwear industry.
He was appointed CBE in 1976 and knighted in 1982. He was also appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Kinross in 1967.
Although some criticised Bader’s ‘Big Wing’ tactics, Smith always remained a great admirer of his former wing commander. In later life he observed: ‘He was a marvellous leader, a brilliant pilot, a dead shot and everything you relished.’
In March 1987, to mark his 70th birthday, Smith returned to Westhampnett (by then Goodwood airfield) and took to the air in a Spitfire.
Sir Alan Smith married first, in 1943, Margaret Stewart Todd. She died in 1971, and he married secondly, in 1977, Alice Elizabeth Moncur, who survives him with three sons and a daughter of his first marriage; another daughter of his first marriage predeceased him.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.