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The Airmen's Stories - F/O A D Nesbitt


Arthur Deane Nesbitt was born in Montreal, Canada on 16th November 1910, the youngest son of Mr & Mrs Arthur J Nesbitt. He attended King's School and then Westmount High. Nesbitt made the junior team in basketball as well as the junior, intermediate and senior teams in football and hockey, often playing the position of goalie in the latter. He graduated from McGill University with the degree of Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) in 1933.

Nesbitt’s father had founded with Peter AT Thomson a stock brokerage firm, Nesbitt, Thomson and Company in 1912. The firm was closely linked with the hydro-electric power industry so this must have influenced his choice of study. During his undergraduate years at McGill he was a member of the Engineering Undergraduate Society and President of the Students' Executive Council, as well as President of his class.



He joined Nesbitt, Thomson in August 1933 and worked in the securities cage, at the trading desk and in the statistical department.

The concept of flying had intrigued him from boyhood. In 1935 he started flying lessons at the Montreal Light Aeroplane Club, making his first solo in July. That same year he received the Lieutenant James Lytell Memorial Trophy for the most competent flyer in the club's competition. He became a Director of the Club in 1937.



Seeing the direction of political events in Europe, Nesbitt applied in August to 115 Auxiliary Squadron in the City of Westmount for a commission as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. War was declared on Germany by Britain in the following month on the 3rd, with Canada declaring war a week later on the 10th. Nesbitt was awarded a commission as Pilot Officer (Provisional) on 15th September.


He became engaged to Ruth Sherrill McMaster (below) and the two were married on 26th October at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, Montreal, receiving an aerial salute over the Church from members of the RCAF. Years later he said to his son: "If I hadn't met your mother I don't think I ever would have got married."



Nesbitt was posted for further training to Trenton and Camp Borden, flying Harvards (with variable pitch propellers) and Fairey Battles (two-seat bomber aircraft). His first squadron posting was to Borden as a bombing instructor. He was then sent to Halifax to join No. 1 (F) Squadron, a RCAF permanent force squadron.

On 10th June 1940 this squadron embarked for the UK on the Canadian Pacific ship, Duchess of Atholl, one of the "Drunken Duchesses". These ships acquired the nickname because of their tendency to roll.

Arriving in England on 20th June they underwent six weeks training at Middle Wallop, during which time their Hurricanes were modified to RAF standards. They then moved to Croydon and flew each day to Northolt for instruction by 111 Squadron, becoming operational on 17th August 1940.




The squadron subsequently became the sole RCAF squadron to take part in the Battle of Britain. Nesbitt claimed a Me110 destroyed on 4th September. At the height of fighting during the Battle, 15th September 1940, Nesbitt was scrambled from Northolt and engaged in combat with Messerschmitt 109s. He shot one down but was himself attacked from behind. His Hurricane, P3080 YO-C, caught fire and he was forced to bail out. As he was leaving the aircraft the tail's horizontal stabilizer hit him in the neck and he became unconscious for a few moments. He recovered in time to pull the ripcord of his parachute and landed in a field near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Some farmers, thinking he was German, ran towards him with pitchforks. However, he was able to convince them that he was Canadian and he was taken to hospital in Tunbridge Wells.

He was later transferred to the Canadian Red Cross Hospital on the Cliveden Estate in Berkshire, staying there 10 days. He found himself in a large ward with numerous others, but his own bed had curtains all around it.

"Am I dying?" he asked the nurse, referring to the curtains.

"No," she said. "You are the only officer in the ward."

"Please pull them open!" Nesbitt begged, overcome with relief.

Nesbitt was shot down again less than a month later, on 7th October. Still operating from Northolt, he was able to bring his Hurricane P2993 down to a forced landing at Biggin Hill.

During the subsequent reorganization of the squadron at Prestwick in late October 1940, Paul B Pitcher, of Montreal, became Squadron Leader and Nesbitt became Commander of "A" Flight, assuming the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Nesbitt was posted to the northern tip of Scotland in December 1940 and it was while he was there that his son, Arthur Koss Dearie, was born.

On 1st March 1941 all non-RAF squadrons were renumbered to eliminate duplication and No. 1 (RCAF) was renumbered No. 401 Squadron.

By February 1941 the squadron was based at Digby in Lincolnshire, remaining there until October 1941. Nesbitt took command on 1st March and was involved in an incident later recorded in the Winter 1973 edition of the Canadian Military Journal:

Flying Officer Deane Nesbitt of Montreal was unquestionably the coolest man under emergency conditions in the whole squadron. In 1941 while leading a section of aircraft on patrol over the North Sea he was given faulty instructions from Ground Control concerning the course he was to fly. The weather was very bad. All the aircraft were critically short of fuel. He finally disregarded the instructions from the ground and found the coastline of England through sheer instinct and coolness and ability. His wingmen and himself made emergency landings and hence saved their lives and badly needed Hurricanes.

The squadron then moved south to Biggin Hill and under 11 Group carried out the first offensive sweeps over Northern France.

Nesbitt was awarded the DFC (gazetted 23rd September 1941).



The Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor, Alaska in June 1942 and to strengthen the Western defences Nesbitt was recalled to Canada and posted to Vancouver Island. He then went on to Anchorage, Alaska as a Wing Commander and became CO of the Canadian squadrons forming the first RCAF base in Alaska. This was on Annette Island at the southern tip of the Alaskan panhandle. His next posting was Wing Commander, Fighter Operations, at RCAF Headquarters Ottawa. He then commanded No. 6 Service Flying Training School at Dunnville, Ontario before returning to England in March 1944.

Put in command of 144 Wing, part of 83 Group RAF Tactical Air Force, Nesbitt set up the first Allied air unit to operate entirely from a base within France. He then joined 83 Group HQ at Eindhoven in Holland as a Group Captain and took command of 143 Wing. The Allied fighter bases there were subjected to the opening attack of the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, the greatest attack of enemy fighters since Normandy. 56 aircraft on the ground were destroyed. RCAF aircraft were able to intercept and destroy a number of German aircraft returning from the attack.

The Wing then became 83 Group's first unit to operate from Germany, at Goch, and in the spring of 1945 it participated in the final blow to the German army at Celle, following which the Wing was taken off operations. In command of 143 Wing until the war's end, Nesbitt was appointed an Officer of the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire and an Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau (Netherlands).

He was also awarded the Croix-de Guerre (France).

Released from the RCAF in 1946 Nesbitt returned to Canada and Nesbitt, Thomson, eventually heading the company for 25 years. It became the largest investment bank in Canada and is now part of the Bank of Montreal, known as BMO Nesbitt Burns. It celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012.

Arthur Deane Nesbitt died in February 1978, at the age of 67, as a result of a skiing accident. The ski tows at Mont St-Sauveur, where the accident occurred, stopped to observe one minute's silence. In Montreal the Montreal General Hospital, McGill University and the Mount Royal Club flew their flags at half-mast.

In 1980 a Canadian stamp was issued to honour the Hawker Hurricanes flown by Canadians in the Battle of Britain. By coincidence, the plane featured in the forefront of the stamp bore the call letters YO-C representing the aircraft in which Nesbitt was shot down on 15th September 1940. The actual serial number of the aircraft shown on the stamp, however, would have applied to a YO-G flown in 1941 after the Battle of Britain. According to Nesbitt's log book, however, he flew YO-G as well.



Above: an impression of Nesbitt's bale-out on 15th September 1940 by Douglas A Fales


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