Sir Alan Smith, CBE, DFC and Bar, DL was a Battle of Britain hero. Alan Smith also took part in RAF Fighter Command’s offensive over northern France in the spring and summer of 1941. Smith, however, is better known as the wingman of legendary Spitfire pilot Douglas Bader. (A wingman’s duty is to protect the leader of an element of fighter aircraft. In dangerous dog fights with enemy aircraft, the wingman always stays close, flying ‘on his leader’s wing’. They support and protect the leader, watching out for enemy attacks from behind.)
During the Battle of Britain, Alan Smith, was converting over to fly Supermarine Spitfire’s. Alan Smith joined Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on the eve of the start of the Second World War. In October 1940 he was posted to RAF 610 squadron at RAF Acklington. He was next posted to RAF 616 Squadron as a sergeant pilot in early January 1941, just as the squadron moved south to RAF Tangmere (near Chichester). He was very soon in action over northern France, conducting offensive sweeps against the enemy. On 18 March 1941, Wing Commander Douglas Bader (who had lost both legs in a pre-war flying accident) arrived from RAF Duxford to take command of the 3 Spitfire squadrons that comprised the Tangmere Wing, which was subsequently nicknamed the ‘BBC’ (‘Bader’s Bus Company’).
Douglas Bader immediately selected Smith to be his wingman. Bader’s only comment on choosing Smith being, “God help you if you let any Hun get on my tail”. Two of the squadron’s most charismatic pilots, Johnnie Johnson, and ‘Cocky’ Dundas, were chosen to form Bader’s section of 4 aircraft, which used the call sign ‘Dogsbody’. Bader always led RAF No. 616 Squadron in his personal Spitfire marked with his initials, ‘DB’.
Sergeant Pilot Alan Smith described how he was selected and what Bader was like as a leader:- “We had just come back from an operation and were at readiness, refuelling and such like, when a single Spitfire flew across the airfield, and performed aerobatics, the like of which you had never seen. He did three slow rolls, flick rolls and side slipped down to a perfect landing beautifully like a butterfly. He switched off and the prop stopped. The hood slid back and out got this legless guy we had heard about. He came in to the dispersal hut and said,’ I am Douglas Bader and I have come to take over the wing, I have decided to fly with 616 Squadron’. All other Wing Commanders took turns to fly with all their squadrons, but Douglas looked around those standing in the hut and he saw Billy Burton, Cocky Dundas and spoke to each of them in turn. Then he spoke with Johnnie Johnson who he had obviously heard off. He looked at me and said ‘who are you’ I replied I’m Sergeant Smith sir. He said to me’ you’ll do you can fly as my number two’. Needless to say I was taken aback. I was just an ordinary Sgt pilot, I can’t say that I flew with him on all trips but most. He was a great leader. He always flew after that with 616.”
Johnnie Johnson later described Smith as “leech-like”, and “a perfect number two who never lost sight of his leader”. Due to a bout of influenza, Smith was not with Bader when the latter was forced to bail out of his Spitfire after a dogfight over France on 9 August 1941. Bader spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war, eventually being sent to the ‘escape-proof’ Colditz Castle.
Alan recalled that Bader being shot down had a serious affect on morale: “My job was to watch Bader’s tail and watch out for the hun in the sun. I was to cling to him like a limpet. No one can describe what it’s like to be in the middle of an air combat. One minute flying along in perfect formation, blue sky and peaceful and sun shining then all of a sudden all hell breaks loose, I called it a Beehive, aircraft going in all directions. Then all of a sudden nothing, everything vanishes. We didn’t have time to be frightened, but in the middle of all this action, aircraft exploding and parachutes opening all around. In the middle of all this Bader called up Group Captain Woodhall, the Tangmere controller and say ‘Woody old chap, Douglas here. I quite forgot to book a squash court for 7 o’clock, can you book one for me’. All of a sudden, there was an aura of piece around you, as you digested the fact that if Douglas was not afraid, what was I doing afraid?
Bader always flew as often as he could and he was never out of the cockpit, he was such a great pilot, I think eventually he was getting tired and could have done with a rest. He always insisted on flying on every operation. I always enjoyed flying with him and I always managed to stay with him in combat. I was too scared to leave him! He drove himself very hard harder than he expected anyone else to work. I learned all my skills from him. As we crossed the coast on the way back from France he would get you to tuck in close in formation, you felt safe with him as he was the Wing Commander. He would often beckon me closer, very close in behind his wing. You could see him in the cockpit sucking on his pipe as we crossed back over the English coast.
He was quite a colourful character, It used to be amusing that once a week that he would get a signal asking for him to ‘moderate his language in the air’ as the WAAF’s were refusing to write down what he said!. On one occasion, I wasn’t there but the story goes that he went to the cinema and asked the ice cream girl. ‘Miss Can you get me a screwdriver’ she promptly did, he undid a few screws and took his legs off and she subsequently feinted!”
With Bader captured, Alan Smith was posted to RAF Balado (near Kinross), to train new pilots. It was here that he met Margaret Todd, a local girl who was aiding the war effort in the Women’s Voluntary Service.
Alan Smith later joined RAF 93 Squadron and took part in Operation Torch (the Anglo-American invasion of French Morocco and Algeria during the North African Campaign 8 Nov 1942 – 16 Nov 1942). Flying from Algeria he shot down four Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters. After service as a flying instructor in Florida he left the RAF in December 1945 as a Flight Lieutenant.
- On 4 November 1941, the then Pilot Officer Alan Smith, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 616 Squadron is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy: Throughout the 44 operational sorties in which, he has participated, this officer has shown the greatest keenness to ‘engage the enemy and has destroyed at least four of their aircraft. In combat, he has been of great support to his leader on numerous occasions — London Gazette
- On 16 February 1943, Flight Lieutenant Alan Smith DFC, Royal Air Force Reserve, No. 93 Squadron is awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy: During the campaign in North Africa, Flight Lieutenant Smith has destroyed 4 enemy aircraft. His great skill, and fine example have inspired the formation he leads. — London Gazette
Alan Smith survived the war and ended up with at least 20 confirmed kills during more than 1,500 combat hours flying time. He married his Scottish sweetheart and settled in Kinross where he became a highly successful businessman, mostly in the textile trade with his company Dawson International.
Alan Smith was a former director of the Scottish Cashmere Association and served as chairman of the Perth-based Tay Foundation, a charitable trust which seeks to help the River Tay, its tributaries, fish, and environment. (The Tay Foundation aims to conserve and enhance the area’s fish species and their ecological cycles.) He also served as Chairman of Quayle Munro, merchant bank, in Edinburgh.
Alan Smith was awarded the DFC on 4 October 1941. A bar was added on 16 February 1942 and he was appointed CBE on the 1 January 1976. On 12 June 1982, Smith was appointed Knight Bachelor as chairman and chief executive of Dawson International, becoming Sir Alan Smith.
Smith’s description of his early flight training in a Tiger Moth is telling: “The instructor merely pointed out the levers, patted me on the back and said, ‘best of luck’.”
Alan Smith remained friends with Johnnie Johnson after the war and described him with affection:- “Johnnie was every ones pall, Johnnie enjoyed life and he was a bloody good pilot. In all the war, he only once had a bullet hole in his aeroplane. He was a damn good shot because he had spent much of his youth shooting partridges. He knew deflection, far better than townsfolk like me who had never fired a gun in his life. Johnnie used to visit me at my Mill after the war in Scotland.”
Alan Smith was born on 14 March 1917 in South Shields, County Durham, he left school at 14 after the death of his merchant navy captain father to work in his mothers ironmongery business. Alan Smith passed away in Perth Royal Infirmary on 1 March 2003, aged 95.
Research by Ken Bruce
Johnnie Johnson was the fifth greatest British fighter pilot of all time – the 4 above him all being First World War pilots – credited with 34 individual victories, 7 shared, 3 shared probables, 10 damaged, 3 shared damaged, and 1 destroyed on the ground. Twenty of the enemy aircraft he shot down were the formidable Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. In fact, he was the highest scoring British fighter ace of the Second World War.
Alan Smith was one of the pilots who escorted six Bristol Blenheims on a mission to drop by parachute a new false leg for Douglas Bader which he had lost when he bailed out: “I can still remember seeing the box dropping under the parachute; it was one hell of a day, low broken cloud and rain. We had six Blenheims, the weather was appalling and the bombers could not drop their bombs on the target at Lille, but the leg was dropped over St Omer.”