Warrant Officer Albert E. Smith DFC
Unit : 575 Squadron, 46 Group
Awards : Distinguished Flying Cross
Bert Smith was born on the 30th May 1917 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. After leaving school in 1930, he became deeply interested in all aspects of engineering and trained as a radio engineer before becoming a teacher at a public elementary school, lecturing six to fourteen year olds on a broad range of subjects.
Smith joined the RAF in 1939 and trained as a navigator, thereafter progressing to become an instructor and then a bomb aimer. When Transport Command established squadrons for the specific purpose of training and deploying airborne troops, Smith was highly recommended for a move to 575 Squadron as his navigating and aiming skills were much in demand. He became a fully qualified pilot and flew a Dakota as co-pilot to Flying Officer Ed Henry; an easy going Canadian with whom he got on very well. Also in the crew were Flying Officer Harry McKinley, the navigator, and Sergeant Bill Fowler, the wireless operator, who Smith remembered as a young man who was highly skilled with a radio, had no respect for rank and possessed the same easy manner as Ed Henry. By the time of Arnhem the crew were experienced in their trade, but they had not yet seen a shot fired in anger.
They participated in the First Lift to Arnhem on Sunday 17th September, and on the second day they were towing a Horsa glider. Amongst its passengers was Lieutenant-Colonel Haddon of the 1st Border, who had attempted to fly to Arnhem on the previous day but a broken tow rope had forced his glider to cast-off over England. As the formation crossed into enemy territory, the Dakota was hit by a shell burst. Ed Henry was killed immediately, Smith was bleeding from the inner side of his right arm, and everyone else aboard was carrying a wound of some description. Warrant Officer Smith struggled to control the badly damaged aircraft; he did not know until he landed, but most of the tail had been shot away together with the rudders. The glider pilots in the trailing Horsa, seeing that their tug was clearly in trouble, radioed through that they were going to cast-off, but Smith told them to remain attached until he had brought them back over friendly territory. The combination of a damaged craft towing the dead weight of a Horsa made flying conditions most difficult, but Smith managed to get them across the British lines where the glider cast-off and made a safe landing. The passengers soon met up with elements of XXX Corps and so caught a lift in the direction of Arnhem; Lieutenant-Colonel Haddon, who perhaps had the most frustrating experience of any commander in the 1st Airborne Division, attempted to cross the Rhine with the 4th Dorsets on Sunday 24th September, but was taken prisoner on the northern bank.
Although Smith's aircraft was now free of its burden, another problem was discovered when he asked McKinley for a bearing back to base, only to find that he was unable to give one as his navigational equipment had been destroyed. He therefore set the Dakota on a bearing of 270°, reasoning that by heading due west they would reach England sooner or later. The first indication that they had of their position came when they flew over Dunkirk, which was still in German hands at the time and so a good deal of anti-aircraft fire came in their direction. Flying low over the rooftops, Smith evaded this and, with their position now established, corrected their bearing and headed for home.
It had been Bill Fowler's habit on previous missions to nonchalantly stand in the cockpit doorway, smoking a cigarette, waiting for the order to lower the flaps and undercarriage, and, despite the perilous situation they were in on this day, he repeated the same procedure as Smith brought the Dakota in to land. He was, after several hours of wrestling with the damaged aircraft, very tired and had lost a fair quantity of blood, nevertheless he brought the plane down safely. It wasn't until he came to go to bed that evening that he removed his trousers and discovered that, in addition to his arm wound, he had also been hit in the leg.
Having recovered from his ordeal, Smith flew to London on the following day to participate in a BBC broadcast. He flew two more sorties to Arnhem, possibly on Wednesday 20th and Thursday 21st September, acting as co-pilot to both the Group Captain and Wing Commander. A short time later, after fourteen months in the Squadron, Smith left 575 on compassionate grounds due to a family tragedy.
Bert Smith and Harry McKinley were both awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions on Monday 18th September, but Smith, in his modesty, was a little confused by the award as he did not believe that he had done any more than his job had required him to do.
My thanks to Bert Smith and Alan Hartley for this story.
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