4 July 1920 – 11 July 2018
Wing Commander Tom Neil, who has died aged 97, was one of the last two surviving Battle of Britain fighter “aces”; he was credited with destroying at least nine enemy aircraft during the period and was twice awarded the DFC.
Neil and his colleagues of No 249 Squadron joined the main battle when they flew their Hurricanes from their base in Yorkshire to Boscombe Down near Salisbury on August 15 1940.
The squadron was in action immediately and over the next few days Neil flew as the wingman to his CO, Squadron Leader John Grandy (later Marshal of the RAF Sir John Grandy, Chief of the Air Staff), but their section was frustrated at not engaging the enemy. Another section, however, led by a friend, Flight Lieutenant James Nicholson, did engage enemy fighters on the 16th, which resulted in Nicholson being awarded Fighter mmand’s only Victoria Cross.
When the squadron moved to North Weald in Essex on September 1, No 249’s pilots discovered that they were in the thick of the action. Neil achieved his first success on September 7 when he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Ashford and a few days later he accounted for a Heinkel III bomber. On the 15th, during intense fighting on the day that is immortalised as Battle of Britain Day, he shot down a Dornier bomber and shared in the destruction of a second. Later in the day he destroyed two Bf 109s escorting a bomber force south-east of London.
The Luftwaffe mounted one more major raid during September. On the 27th, in the Redhill area, Neil shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 110 and probably a second. On a later sortie he destroyed a Junkers 88 and shared in the destruction of another near Guildford. On October 8 he was awarded the DFC for “displaying dash and courage of a high order”. Later in the month he destroyed another Bf 109 and shared in the destruction of two bombers.
Thomas Francis Neil was born in Bootle, Liverpool, on July 14 1920 and educated at Eccles Grammar School, Manchester. Whilst working in a bank, he joined the RAFVR in October 1938 to fly at weekends. He was called up on September 2 1939 and completed his training as a fighter pilot before joining No 249 Squadron in May 1940, aged only 19.
Once the Battle of Britain was over, No 249 remained in Essex. On November 7, operating off the Thames Estuary, Neil was again in action when he intercepted a Junkers 87 “Stuka” dive-bomber and shot it down. Three Bf 109s immediately attacked him and during the engagement he shot down two.
Later that day his Hurricane was in a collision with his station commander’s aircraft and he was forced to bale out. At the end of the month he received a Bar to his DFC. The citation concluded: “His magnificent fighting spirit has enabled him to destroy at least 11 enemy aircraft.”
In May 1941 No 249 was sent to Malta. On the 21st they took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and headed for the beleaguered islands, arriving after a five-hour flight and during a German bombing attack on the airfield at Luqa.
Neil was in constant action, leading his flight as the islands came under heavy attack. On June 12 he shot down an enemy fighter, his twelfth and final victory. He also led fighter-bomber attacks against airfields in Sicily. Finally, after 18 months on operations he was rested and returned to England to train fighter pilots.
Following a period in command of No 41 Squadron flying Spitfires on escort duty, he was seconded to the 100th Fighter Wing of the USAAF’s 9th Air Force, based in southern England. He flew numerous US fighter aircraft and moved to Normandy after D-Day. He took part in a few ground attack operations, sharing in the destruction of a number of aircraft on the ground. He was later awarded the US Bronze Star.
In January 1945 he joined the staff of the School of Land/Air Warfare, and spent six weeks in Burma. He flew some operations in the Hurricanes of the Indian Air Force.
He attended the Empire Test Pilots’ School and spent three years at Boscombe Down as a test pilot followed by time in the US at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, where he took part in the first high altitude pressure suit experiments, a precursor to the US aerospace programme.
After a period as a staff officer at HQ Fighter Command he took command of No 208 Squadron in May 1953. Based at Abu Sueir in Egypt, the squadron flew Meteor jets in the fighter/reconnaissance role. At the end of his tour in the summer of 1956 he was awarded the AFC.
In 1959 he went to the British Embassy in Washington where he spent three years. He retired from the RAF in 1964 having added the Air Efficiency Award to his other decorations.
He returned to the US to lead a British consultancy firm in Boston for three years before settling in Norfolk where he became a director in the shoe industry and secretary of his local chamber of commerce. He retired in the early 1980s.
Neil wrote extensively about his wartime experiences. Sir John Grandy, described his book Gun Button to Fire as “the best book on the Battle of Britain”. In later years he was in great demand to attend functions and was a devoted member of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust. He regularly attended the annual Battle of Britain service held at Westminster Abbey. To mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 2015, he once again flew in a Spitfire, an aircraft he described as “like flying a Bugatti”.
The memory of the young men who had been his colleagues was never far from his mind. “Great too were the sacrifices made by my long dead colleagues and friends,” he wrote. “Only they enjoy the blessing of eternal youth.”
Tom Neil married, in June 1945, Flight Officer Eileen Hampton. She died in 2013, and he is survived by their three sons.
Wing Commander Tom Neil, born July 14 1920, died July 11 2018