Sir Alan Smith: Wingman to Douglas Bader who became a fighter ace in his own right

 

Sir Alan Smith's name is forever linked to Douglas Bader's as "wingman" to the wooden-legged fighter ace in the heady summer of 1941, when they flew with Johnnie Johnson and "Cocky" Dundas in Spitfires over France.

Smith, who later became a successful businessman, was the last alive of those four, and could claim at least five "kills" himself against opponents including Jagdgeschwader [fighter-wing] 26 commanded by Germany's greatest fighter pilot, Adolf Galland, in the skies above Lille and the Pas de Calais.

Smith's final tally also included two shared destructions, four aircraft probably destroyed, five damaged and two destroyed on the ground, but he did not begin counting his own victories until around the time that Bader – immortalised in the 1956 film Reach for the Sky starring Kenneth More – was shot down and captured in August 1941.

Up until then Sergeant Pilot Smith's job had been to keep the enemy from pursuing the then Squadron Leader Bader during combat. On the fateful day Smith was grounded, suffering from influenza, and events overtook the best efforts of Sergeant Jeff West, who stood in for him.

Smith returned to the skies on his recovery in time to do his chief one last service, escorting the bomber formation that dropped a spare false leg over St Omer to replace the one Bader had been obliged to leave stuck in the fuselage of his Spitfire as he baled out and landed in a field.

Smith joined 616 Squadron at RAF Tangmere in West Sussex in December 1940, barely a month before Bader, whose legs had been amputated after a flying accident 10 years before, arrived to command it. Bader asked the 23-year-old's name, and announced: "Right, you'll do. Fly as my No 2, and God help you if you let any Hun get on my tail." It was a job Smith proved to be spectacularly good at, being described by colleagues as "leech-like" , and "a perfect No 2 who never lost sight of his leader".

The four and their fellow pilots developed the idea of the "big wing", a formation of as many as 60 aircraft with its leaders flying positioned like the four spread fingers of a hand. This way, Bader argued, the pilots could see what was happening around each other and so all were protected. The concept won the support of Air Vice Marshal (later Air Chief Marshal Sir) Trafford Leigh-Mallory, but was criticised by some including Air Vice Marshal (later Air Chief Marshal Sir) Keith Park, as too cumbersome to be fast into action.

Smith took Bader's part, arguing many years later that the "big wing" was "logical and sensible," and declared of Bader and the tactic: "He didn't just save my life, he saved a hell of a lot of lives."

Smith brought to his wartime role wisdom and experience gained during an adolescence that had been devoted to protecting his family in hard economic times. He left school – Bede College, Sunderland – at 14 in 1931 to help his mother run an ironmonger's shop after his father, a captain in the merchant navy, was lost at sea. After a year he set up his own business selling tobacco and sweets, and was self-employed until 1936, when he took a job at Unilever, staying there until he joined up for the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1939 as war loomed.

He qualified to fly Tiger Moths, attending 7 Operational Training Unit at Hawarden, Flintshire, and was posted to 610 Squadron as a Sergeant Pilot. He was commissioned in August 1941, after he achieving a notable destruction on the ground in France that went much of the way to gaining him the DFC awarded him that October.

Running low on oxygen, he descended over St Omer, and found an airfield full of parked Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers. He flew along the whole line, shooting with his cannon, and wrecked two of them. His other victories in 1941 were all scored against Messerschmitt 109s.

After the "high summer" of '41, Smith made his first acquaintance with Scotland, which was to be his home for most of the rest of his life, as an instructor at 58 OTU at Grangemouth, near Falkirk, before returning south to Atcham, near Shrewsbury, to show American pilots how to fly Spitfires.

There followed more victories in North Africa after he was was promoted to Flight Lieutenant in 1942 and joined 93 Squadron. Between then and the end of his tour in January 1943 he chalked up successes including a Messerschmitt Bf 109 destroyed and a Macchi C.202, probably shot down, on 22 November and, in another same-day coup, two Focke-Wulf 190s destroyed on 26 November. On 3 December he shared in the destruction of another two Focke-Wulf 190s, having scored a "probable" Messerschmitt Bf 109 the day before. His last score was a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka damaged on 4 December.

The year 1943 brought Smith not only the Bar to his DFC in March, but love, when, posted back to 58 OTU as an instructor, this time at Balado Bridge in Kinross, he met Margaret Todd, who was running the airfield's mobile canteen with the WRVS. The couple married in July. Two more instructor postings followed, to 15 Armament Practice Camp at Peterhead near Aberdeen and at 57 OTU at Eshott in Northumberland, before he went to the US for the rest of the war, as an instructor at 5 British Flying Training School at Clewiston, Florida.

Smith returned to Scotland and began a business career that was eventually to win him a knighthood and his company a number of Queen's Awards for Export. He joined Todd & Duncan, his wife's father's yarn and cashmere company on Loch Leven, founded in 1867, and in 14 years as managing director oversaw its international expansion as part of Dawson International, of which he was chairman and chief executive from 1960 until 1982.

Todd & Duncan acknowledged its debt: "In 1946 a young entrepreneur entered the family firm. Alan Smith was convinced that the future of the firm lay in specialised high-value knitting yarns, rather than the broad range of textiles it had traditionally produced." He did not stop work until 1993, retiring as chairman of Quayle Munro, the financial advisers.

He was a board member of the Scottish Development Agency, Deputy Lieutenant of Kinross-shire, chairman of Gleneagles Hotels, a Kinross burgh councillor, Provost of Kinross from 1959-1965, and finance convenor for Tayside Regional Council. He and Margaret Todd had three sons and two daughters. She and their eldest child, Susan, predeceased him. In 1977 he married Alice Moncur, who with his other children survives him.

Anne Keleny

Alan Smith, pilot and entrepreneur: born South Shields, Tyne and Wear 14 March 1917; Kt 1982; CBE 1976; DFC, 1941, and Bar, 1942; DL; married 1943, Margaret Todd (; died 1971; three sons, one daughter and one daughter deceased), 1977 Alice Moncur; died Kinross, Scotland 1 March 2013.

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