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Sir Alan Smith

Published on 5 March 2013

Fighter pilot and businessman;

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Born March 14, 1917; Died March 1, 2013.

Sir Alan Smith, who has died aged 95, firmly believed in the policy of not getting up unless you intended to pull on your boots and do a good day's work. In his case, a good day's work varied from being a teenage entrepreneur to heroic Spitfire pilot and Sir Douglas Bader's wingman, from chairman of a successful textile firm to provost and councillor.

Even as he planned his retirement he declared: "I'm simply getting back to working seven days a week." As he saw it "one must always be fully stretched in life" and there was no point in navel-gazing – an act of procrastination that could never be applied to him.

Born a Geordie in South Shields, though he spent the greater part of his life in Kinross, he was one of four sons of Merchant Navy Captain Alfred Smith and his wife Lilian, who also had an adopted daughter.

After his father was lost at sea, in 1931, he immediately left Bede College School and never returned. He was 14 and it was in the middle of the Depression. His 16-year-old brother had just gone to sea and his mother was left with three young sons and a five-year-old daughter who had been adopted only three weeks earlier.

After selling their house and paying off the mortgage she was left with £168. The two younger boys were sent to an orphanage for master mariners' children and the little girl went to live with relatives.

His mother bought an ironmongery store in which the teenage Sir Alan helped out but, just a year later, he branched out into business himself, setting up an enterprise selling sweets and tobacco.

He was self-employed from 1931 to 1936 before joining Unilever until 1939. On the eve of the Second World War, he signed up for the RAF Volunteer Reserve and qualified to fly Tiger Moths. He was part-way through his flying training when he was called up and later qualified on Spitfires.

In October 1940 he was posted to 610 Squadron in Acklington, Northumberland. He arrived at RAF Tangmere in West Sussex the following February, shortly before Douglas Bader took command in March 1941 and, as a sergeant pilot, formed part of the famed Tangmere Wing with Bader, Johnnie Johnson and "Cocky" Dundas. Sir Alan was the last surviving member of the four.

Bader, who had already lost both legs as a result of crashing his plane in 1931, personally picked out Sir Alan as his wing man. "He came into the dispersal hut, got his eyes on me and said 'What's your name?'," Sir Alan recalled. "'Smith, sir', I said. 'Right you'll do. Fly as my number two and God help you if you let any Hun get on my tail'."

The pair flew alongside each other, Sir Alan protecting Bader from enemy aircraft until August 9, 1941. That day Sir Alan, laid low by a cold, was not allowed to fly. Instead he was dispatched to London to collect a new uniform.

Another airman, Sgt Jeff West, acted as number 2 to Bader who set off as target support for a bombing raid on northern France. Bader was either shot down, as the enemy claimed, or involved in a mid-air collision and baled out, subsequently becoming one of the Germans' most famous prisoners of war. Despite numerous escape attempts, immortalised in the film Reach For The Sky, he remained in captivity until the end of the war.

Reunited with Bader on the television show This Is Your Life, Sir Alan recalled providing fighter escort for the British plane delivering Bader's replacement false legs to France where he was imprisoned. Sir Alan was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1941 and received the Bar to the Cross the following year after supporting the Allied invasion of North Africa.

He met his first wife, Margaret Todd, while he was posted as a Spitfire instructor during the war to Balado Airfield where she ran the mobile canteen. She was the daughter of Herbert Todd of Kinross woollen mill Todd & Duncan and after their marriage, at the end of the war, he joined his father-in-law's business.

He transformed it from a local company into nationally-known British business Dawson International, with 9000 staff, a multi-million pound turnover and several Queen's Awards for Export.

Sir Alan, who was made a CBE in 1976 and knighted in 1982, was also founder and chairman of the Scottish Cashmere Association. He served as chairman and chief executive of Dawson International from 1960 to 1982 and subsequently chairman of financial advisers Quayle Munro plc until 1993. He was also a board member of the Scottish Development Agency and chairman of Gleneagles Hotels during the 1980s.

In tandem with his business interests Sir Alan, who listed his recreation as "work", also supported his local community as a councillor, firstly on Kinross Burgh from 1952 and Provost of Kinross from 1959 to 65. One of his policies was to switch the street lamps off at 10pm because he thought everybody should be in bed. He only got away with it for a year. He later served on Tayside Region, where he was finance convenor in the 1980s, stepping down from local government in 1990.

He remained a personal friend of Sir Douglas Bader, whom he regarded as a hero and a great leader, and supported the Douglas Bader Foundation.

Predeceased by his first wife Margaret and their eldest child Susan, Sir Alan is survived by his second wife, Alice, his children Michael, Bruce, Stuart and Ailsa, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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