Obituary: Air Chief Marshal Sir Denis Smallwood

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The Independent Online
Air Chief Marshal Sir Denis Smallwood was one of those rare men who were equally successive in conducting and planning military operations. His personality and always cheerful disposition made him, too, universally popular at all levels both within and outside the service. The Royal Air Force has been remarkably fortunate in producing a number of such men.

"Splinters" Smallwood was commissioned in 1938 and his first appointment was to No 605 Auxiliary Air Force Squadon to whose atmosphere he was temporarily well suited. In 1940 he was transferred to No 87 Hurricane Squadron, of which he later took command. Owing to the somewhat artificial timescale imposed on the official duration of the Battle of Britain he did not qualify as taking part in it, but thereafter saw a great deal of intensive action and made a fine and justified reputation for himself. His DFC was awarded after the abortive raid on Dieppe on 19 August 1942 when he led three sorties in one day against heavily defended German cliff-top defences.

After a period commanding 286 Hurricane Squadron Smallwood took over a Spitfire Wing in 12 Group in the South West, eventually operating in support of the D-Day landings. For his outstandingly skilful and inspirational leadership in support of these operations he was awarded the DSO.

After further active service, when peace came he became an Air Ministry planner and began to establish a reputation for thorough and far-sighted competence. However, albeit reluctantly, in 1956 he was involved in the planning and preparation for the disastrous Suez campaign about which he found it impossible to be confident. His scathing personal opinion of that campaign, that it was a "monumental political cock-up", was not exaggerated. However at least the RAF performed its role with meticulous accuracy in an action which certainly justified all the criticism aimed at its purpose and concept.

His next command appointment was to the Bloodhound Surface to Air Missile Wing at North Coates in whose planning and development he had previously paid a major part. Thereafter he commanded the prestigious College of Air Warfare before returning to the Air Ministry as Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations).

His next and very significant appointment was to command No 3 Group - significant because it marked his transfer tool and first experience of Bomber operations. He took to this new role with his usual enthusiasum and insouciance. It should not be forgotten that our national strategy at this stage, in the mid-Sixties, depended very much on the concept of the deterrent, practically implemented by the V Bomber force and its quick reaction alert capability. Whatever the validity of this concept he and he colleagues implemented it with the maximum efficiency and his personal performance was rewarded by further advancement to Senior Air Staff Officer at Bomber Command in 1967; Deputy Commander in Chief at Strike Command; and later Air Officer Commanding in Chief of the near East Airforce and Commander of all British Forces in that area.

This was perhaps the happiest period of Smallwood's life and he enjoyed it to the full both on and off duty, among other things leading his RAF polo team to a satisfying victory over the local army team.

Inevitably, like all men of such talents he was doomed to return to Whitehall, to serve a long stint as Vice Chief of the Air Staff from 1970 to 1974. His capacity for friendship served well in smoothing any inter-service rivalries and he made close friends of his Army, Navy and Civil Service colleagues and also his political masters - this in spite of the fervour and skill with which he fought the RAF's corner both before and after his eventual retirment in 1976.

He was a regular contributor to their correspondence columns of this and other newspapers and unusually, perhaps, could always be counted on to hit hard but never below the belt. Throughout, although by now recognised as a man of great influence and stature, he never became conceited. Important yes, but pompous never.

His final service posting was from 1974 to 1976 as Commander in Chief of Strike Command, the RAF's last surviving operational command. Thereafter he was enthusiastically head-hunted and finished his last six years of full employment as military adviser to British Aerospace (1977-83). He had a large number of outside interests, including riding (he was chairman of the RAF Equitation Society), shooting and gundog training. He also played a major part in charitable fields, notably at Pace, a locally based charity to assist children with cerebral palsy, for which he was a most effective fund-raiser, and as a crusading chairman of the Air League and co-founder and chairman of the Friends of the Air Force Church of St Clement Danes in London.

His personal and family life was happy. In 1940 he married Jeanne Needham, who predeceased him. She was a quieter and more reticent partner in what was a finely balanced partnership. They produced a son and a daughter and a number of devoted grandchildren.

Smallwood had the rare distinction of being knighted twice, being appointed KCB in 1969 and GBE in 1975. No one could deny that such recognition was fully deserved by the life that he led.

Christopher Foxley-Norris

Denis Graham Smallwood, air force officer: born 13 August 1918; DFC 1942; DSO 1944; MBE 1951, CBE 1961, GBE 1975; commander, RAF Guided Missiles Station, Lincolnshire 1959-61; AOC and Commandant, RAF College of Air Warfare, Manby 1961-62; ACAS (Ops) 1962-65; AOC No 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command 1965-67; CB 1966, KCB 1969; SASO, Bomber Command 1967-68; Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Strike Command 1968-69; AOC-in-C, NEAF, Commander, British Forces Near East and Administrator, Sovereign Base Area, Cyprus 1969-70; Vice-Chief of the Air Staff 1970-74; Commander in Chief, RAF Strike Command 1974-76; Military Adviser to British Aerospace 1977-83; married 1940 Jeanne Needham (died 1992; one son, one daughter); died Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire 26 July 1997.