November 29, 2000

Group Captain John Bisdee


Battle of Britain Fighter Ace


Group Captain John Bisdee, OBE, DFC, Battle of Britain fighter ace, was born on November 30, 1915. He died on October 21 aged 84.

JOHN BISDEE was a wartime fighter ace who shot down six enemy aircraft in the Battle of Britain and raised his tally to at least 11 well before VE-Day. Flying a Spitfire with 609 Squadron, he saw his first action over France, providing air cover for troops lined up on the beaches at Dunkirk before the air battle began over southern England.

In 1942 Bisdee led a flight of Spitfires to Malta, flying them on to the island from the American aircraft carrier Wasp ó but was himself shot down on the following day. His parachute nearly came adrift as he baled out and he floated down, hanging from it by one leg, to land in the Mediterranean. He managed to scramble into the dinghy strapped to his back, but spent many hours in the water before being picked up and taken to hospital.

Bisdee later led a detachment of Spitfires to the Western Desert and also served on the air staff in Cairo before being made military governor of the island of Lampedusa in 1943 at the age of 25.

He was only 29 when the war ended. Newly promoted group captain, he was appointed OBE and offered a permanent commission. But after careful thought,he turned it down, deciding to return to Unilever.

John Derek Bisdee was born into an old Somerset family. His father served as a brigadier in the First World War, during which he won the DSO and the Mc. John Bisdee was educated at Marlborough and Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where he read French and Spanish. He was in Spain when the civil war broke out and, along with other students, he had to be evacuated from Santander by a British destroyer.

He became a management trainee with Unilever, and also joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve. On returning to Unilever after the war, Bisdee rose steadily through the group, to become chairman of FabergÈ Gibbs (now called Elida FabergÈ), one of its subsidiary companies.

He carved out a niche in history on the way, by arranging the first advertisement ever to appear on ITV ó which showed a tube of SR toothpaste in a block of ice in the middle of a stream.

Retiring at the age of 62, he worked for a few more years for two other companies, including S. I. Industries, an American firm which made factory handling equipment. But he then finally retired, to indulge his passion for carpentry.

He retained his close links to the RAF through the Battle of Britain Fighter Pilots Association. A pen and ink sketch of him was the picture for October in the RAF Museumís calendar for this year.

A large ebullient figure, Bisdee was best described in a history of 609 Squadron as a ìcheerful, blonde mountain of confidenceî. One of the most popular so-called company ìbaronsî in Unilever, he was also a natural organiser ó which explains why both the group and the RAF were anxious to keep him.

He met his wife Pamela during the war in Cairo, where she was serving as an officer in the WAAF. A British Council employee stationed in Belgrade before the war, she had been put in charge of the Yugoslav Air Force which had flown to Egypt when the Germans invaded ó because she was the only British officer there who spoke Serbo-Croat.

They married in Naples shortly after VE-Day, honeymooned in Nice, then returned to their postings until they were demobilised. She survives him, together with their son and two daughters.


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov