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Grp Cpt Wilfred Duncan Smith DSO & Bar DFC & 2 Bars AE

28 May 1914 - 11 December 1996

Group Captain Wilfrid George Gerald Duncan Smith, DSO & Bar, DFC & Two Bars, AE (28 May 1914 – 11 December 1996) was a Royal Air Force flying ace of the Second World War.

wilfred duncan smith on corsica

First RAF fighter pilots to land in southern France, 1944. On the right is W/C Duncan Smith,
commanding 244 Wing,
third from right if Flt Lt Prince Emanuel Gazaltine

Born in Madras, India (now Chennai) on 28 May 1914, the son of a Mysore Post Office Superintendent. Educated at Nairn and Morrison's Academy, Crieff, in Scotland, where he joined his school's Officers' Training Corps. Returning to India in 1933, he became a coffee and tea planter, but in 1936 returned to Britain to work as a mechanical engineer, and then was a salesman for Great Western Motors in Reading. With war looming, he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR).

Initially a sergeant, he was commissioned as a pilot officer (on probation) on 29 September 1940. Serving with 7 OTU (Operational Training Unit) at the outbreak of war, he was posted to 611 Sqd RAF on Spitfires at RAF Hornchurch in October 1940.

wilfred duncan smith spitfire battle of britain painting

Smith's Spitfire during Battle of Britain*, print available from Steven Heyen

DFC in June 1941. Citation:

'This officer has participated in many operational flights over enemy territory and has always displayed the utmost keenness to engage the enemy. During recent operations, Pilot Officer Smith has destroyed at least three hostile aircraft.'

To 603 Sqd RAF in August 1941 as a Flight Commander. Promoted to flying officer. On 20 November 1941 he was taken ill, passing out after returning from a convoy patrol, with double pneumonia, the symptoms of which he had assumed was only the result of exhaustion from a long operational tour.

Awarded Bar to DFC. Citation:

During 1941, this officer has carried out 190 operational patrols, 98 of which have been over enemy territory. By his skill, coolness and strong sense of duty, Flight Lieutenant Smith has set a splendid example to all. He has always devoted himself unselfishly to the success of his squadron thereby contributing materially to its achievements. Flight Lieutenant Smith has destroyed at least 5 enemy aircraft.

Wilfred duncan smith by cuthbert orde

January 1942, rejoined the Hornchurch Wing, now flying the improved Spitfire Mk.IX. In March 1942 he was promoted to acting squadron leader and given command of 64 Sqd RAF. Promoted to flight lieutenant. During the ill-fated Dieppe Raid on 19 August 1942, he was shot down by an enemy fighter but rescued from the English Channel with injuries and eardrum pain. In August he became an acting wing commander (flying) at RAF North Weald. In November he was rested from operations with a posting to take charge of the Tactics Branch at Fighter Command, his input leading to the formation of the Fighter Command School of Tactics at RAF Charmy Down. Promoted to squadron leader.

(right: portrait by Cuthbert Orde)

In August 1942 he was promoted, leading the Norwegian Wing from North Weald.

Duncan-Smith spent much of the winter as an instructor at Fighter Command’s School of Tactics.

Sent to Malta to command the 244th Fighter Wing. Flew in support of the Allied landings on Sicily. On 12 July his Mark IX Spitfire was badly damaged in combat, but this episode ended well when he landed at Safi airfield on Malta with his aircraft riddled with cannon shells in fuselage, elevator and rudder:

"My Spitfire was in a mess. Cannon shells had blasted a couple of large holes in the side. One had burst against the radio and armour behind my seat. Another, having made a hole the size of a football, had torn the control wires to shreds. The elevator was hanging by one thread of frayed wire and my rigger neatly snapped this with a sharp blow from his fingers. "You will not be needing that any more," he grinned at me. "It all looks very untidy – doesn't it?" Another cannon shell had torn big pieces out of the elevator and rudder surfaces.'

Potential victors could be Experten Feldwebel Heinrich Steis from 4./JG 27 or Oberfeldwebel Günther "Hupatz" Seeger of 7./JG 53.

On 2 September 1943, just before the invasion of Italy, he ran out of fuel when a switch between fuel tanks failed and was forced to bail out into the sea, injuring his kneecap in the process. He was rescued after more than six hours adrift. He was very lucky for a second time; while he was being dragged to the Air Sea Rescue Services Supermarine Walrus by a rope, the Walrus was severely shot up by an enemy fighter:

supermarine walrus

Walrus rescuing downed pilot

'The Walrus was badly holed below the water and a cannon shell had pierced the wing tank, but luckily, though petrol spewed all over the place, the old bus did not catch fire. The blow I felt was from a bullet that tore through the collar of my Mae West grazing my neck before smacking into the Walrus. We got down at Milazzon safely, after a brilliant landing by the pilot, and I was whisked off to the American field hospital close by. There they were very kind and after fixing up my leg and dressing the neck wound tried to keep me for the night, but I managed to talk the doctor into letting me return to Lentini. The Walrus Air Sea Rescue aircraft was a total wreck having been damaged in too many vital parts.'

The sad end to the story was news that his comrade Dick Charrington had been shot down and killed during this rescue mission by an enemy fighter. Charrington may have been shot down by Unteroffizier Alfred Scharl of 2./JG 53 who was credited with a kill at 17:20 2 September 1940, 15 km north of Tropea at low altitude. The identity of the German pilot who severely damaged the Walrus is not known.

Awarded DSO. Citation:

Since being awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross, this officer has completed a great number of sorties. He is a brilliant pilot and a fine leader whose skill has proved a source of inspiration to all. Squadron Leader Smith has destroyed 10 and probably destroyed several other enemy aircraft.

"Group Capt. Smith has led a fighter wing in the invasion of Sicily and in operations over Southern Italy. The high measure of success achieved by the squadrons under his command has been largely attributable to the boldness and soundness of his leadership. Since he took over command of his wing, 85 enemy aircraft have been destroyed in combat and many others damaged.

Group Capt. Smith has taken an important part in the successes thus achieved. He has destroyed in all 14 enemy aircraft and a large number of transport vehicles and locomotives. As an operational commander, Group Capt Smith has rendered extremely valuable and devoted service."

wilfred duncan smith and bonzo

After all those sunburns, injuries, wounds and the return of his ear pain from 19 August 1942, Duncan Smith was considered unfit for action. As an acting group captain, he then took charge of 324 Wing, finally leaving in March 1945.

Duncan Smith was credited with 17 enemy aircraft shot down, two shared destroyed, six probables, two shared probables and eight damaged in aerial combat. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar and the DFC and Bar in recognition of his bravery.

Left: Wilfred Duncan Smith with Bonzo, Italy 1943

He was the author of Spitfire into Battle (1981), an account of aerial combat in the Supermarine Spitfire.

He received a second Bar to his DFC for service in the Malayan Emergency in 1952, and was promoted to wing commander on 1 January 1953. He retired on 24 November 1960, retaining the rank of group captain.

Duncan Smith was given his mother's maiden name (Duncan) as a middle name—a fairly conventional practice of the Edwardian period—but his father's name was 'Smith', not 'Duncan Smith' and, in Second World War RAF records, Duncan Smith himself is always listed as W. G. G. D. Smith, not W.G.G. Duncan Smith. It is not known precisely when he started using his mother's maiden name as part of his surname but he decided to pass the name to his children. Whether this makes the current family surname 'Duncan Smith' or still 'Smith is unclear.

He was the father of Iain Duncan Smith, a Member of Parliament (MP) since 1992 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 2001 to 2003.

Oral History interview at Imperial War Museum

* The artist has labeled this painting as depicting Smith's Spitfire during the Battle of Britain. During Smith's oral history interview at the Imperial War Museum (around the 8 minute mark), he says he joined 611 Sqd in late September 1940 but was made declared as unfit to fly owing to injuries suffered earlier. He goes on to say that by mid-October he was re-assessed as ready to fly and then describes operational sorties he made including hits on at least 2 German planes. He speaks of these incidents as though they occurred shortly after he was declared operational, presumably still in October. If so, he meets the criteria for wearing the Battle of Britain clasp, since he flew at least 1 operational sortie before midnight 31 October 1940 as a member of a qualifying squadron. However, nowhere can we find his name among lists of Battle of Britain participants. Examination of 611 Sqd ORBs (Operational Record Books) for September - November 1940 shows the first mention of his name occurring in November, and if this is recording his first operational flight, he just missed out on being eligible to wear the Battle of Britain clasp. As of November 2021 we are still working to see if clarification is possible.

SY 2021-11-17

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• Last Modified: 25 November 2021, 14:57 •