Bob Willis

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BOB Willis, who has died aged 92, was as successful in business as he had been daring in the war.

In 1985, he created the Barnsley-based grocery chain, Willis Discount, with 31 stores. He had already developed and operated four cash-and-carry warehouses, a wholesale delivery business, and wholly-owned Spar stores. He had created two new companies: R T Willis (Superstores) Limited and R T Willis (Cash and Carry) Limited.

Much more was to come, including a commitment to training for which he received an MBE.

Mr Willis was born in Barnsley, his father Tom, having a wholesale grocery and soft drinks manufacturing business.

He went to Barnsley Holgate Grammar School, and leaving at 16, he joined the family business.

He joined the RAF, was commissioned, trained in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and South Africa and returned to England where he and navigator Tommy Thompson, from Dewsbury, formed one of the RAF’s elite fighting units.

Learning his friend was without a girlfriend, Mr Thompson introduced him to an acquaintance, Joan Nowell, and the couple married in 1945.

Between 1941 and 1946, Mr Willis piloted Beaufighters and Mosquitos in 63 bombing missions carried out from Algeria, India and Burma.

His plane was repeatedly hit by gunfire, a wing tip was shot off and he survived crash landings and on one occasion, an on-board fire.

Mr Willis was awarded the DFC for his coolness under fire, and his courage and devotion to duty while flying with 47 Squadron.

He later wrote a book No Hero Just a Survivor describing his experiences.

Subsequently a war researcher was able to identify the German pilot of an Arado 196 reconnaissance seaplane which Mr Willis had sunk in the Aegean in December 1943.

The pilot, Karl Steinbrecher, escaped in a dinghy, and seeing the RAF plane being flown by Mr Willis, expected to be finished off. However, Mr Willis chose not to open fire.

In 2002, the two men met in Wakefield when the German presented Mr Willis with his Luftwaffe silver gilt wings as a thank you for sparing his life.

He spent his last year in the RAF as a flying instructor, leaving the service to help his ailing father run the family business, now down to 10 employees.

He borrowed from the bank to start a food distribution business which benefited as food rationing was gradually eased.

In sole charge of the business following his father’s death in 1955, Mr Willis founded R T Willis (Food Distributors) Limited with 20 employees. In 1963, and after becoming a director of the European buying and marketing consortium, VIVO, he opened his first cash-and-carry business.

In 1964, he was made chairman of VIVO, and reflecting his sense of social responsibility, he was appointed chairman of the Rebecca Guest Robinson Charity in support of the community needs of Worsbrough, Birdwell and Barnsley.

In 1970, VIVO merged with Spar (UK) Limited, and Mr Willis became a director of the combined organisation.

He was a founder member and a director of Distribution Computer Services Ltd., and up until 1984 was board chairman and chief executive of R T Willis (Food Distributors) Ltd. In that period he oversaw the building of distribution centre in Barnsley and the head office for a group of seven companies employing 250 staff.

He served as chairman and chief executive of Rialco Securities Limited and became chairman of Distribution Computer Services Ltd.

Mr Willis was an active member of Barnsley Chamber of Commerce as a council member and chairman of its education committee.

He retired as a director of Spar when he was 65, and with the Chamber of Commerce worked on developing links between business and educational establishments.

He served as chairman of the Local Employers Network (Lens) and of Compact, set up by the Department for Education in partnership with the local authority, and he was made a director of Barnsley and Doncaster Training and Enterprise Council.

In 1991, now aged 70, he retired from his roles with the Willis group of companies, and in 1996 retired as chairman of Barnsley Business and Education Partnership.

In 1996, Mr Willis was awarded the MBE for services to training in Barnsley and Doncaster.

He edited the Mosquito Aircrew Association magazine The Mossie, and in 2009 published a second book No Escaping Our Roots recording his family history.

Well into his 90s he spent most of his spare time outside, whatever the weather, often digging large holes, moving heavy slabs and building dry stone walls as improvements to his garden. He only recently accepted, due to family pressure, that he should no longer be clearing snow from the drive in winter.

Mr Willis is survived by his wife, their children Catherine, Ian, Andrew and Howard, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.