Wg Cdr Tom Neil

14 July 1920-11 July 2018

The ever-stylish Tom Neil, a regular at commemorative events, in 2010.
BEN DUNNELL
A tousle-haired Tom Neil during the Battle of Britain.
VIA ANDREW THOMAS

Wg Cdr Tom Neil died just three days short of his 98th birthday, at Thwaite St Mary near Bungay in Norfolk, on 11 July. He is credited with 14 victories during the war, destroying at least nine enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain period. Born in Bootle, Liverpool, Neil was educated at Eccles Grammar School, Manchester. He joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in October 1938, and was called up on 2 September 1939 to complete his ighter pilot training. At the age of 19, he joined No 249 Squadron in May 1940 at Church Fenton, the unit lying its Hurricanes south to Boscombe Down on 15 August.

Neil lew as wingman to the CO, Sqn Ldr (later Marshal of the RAF) John Grandy. He scored his irst victory, a Messerschmitt Bf 109E over Ashford, Kent, on 7 September, the unit having moved to North Weald six days earlier. On 15 September, now known as Battle of Britain Day, he destroyed a Dornier Do 17, and two Bf 109Es that were escorting bombers south-east of the capital.

On 27 September, Tom Neil shot down a Bf 110 near Redhill, and on a later sortie that day accounted for a Junkers Ju 88 in the Guildford area. He was awarded his irst DFC on 8 October, the citation praising him for “displaying dash and courage of a high order”. After shooting down two Bf 109s over the Thames Estuary on 7 November, Neil collided with another Hurricane and had to bail out. When he received a Bar to his DFC at the end of that month, the citation read, “His magniicent ighting spirit has enabled him to destroy at least 11 enemy aircraft.”

During May 1941 No 249 Squadron was sent to Malta, taking off in a Hurricane from the deck of HMS Ark Royal and arriving at Luqa after a ive-hour light during a bombing raid, an experience Tom describes vividly in the recently released documentary feature ilm Spitire. On 12 June 1941 he got his 12th and inal victory, a Macchi MC200, and then returned to the UK via the Middle East, South Africa, West Africa and Canada, inally arriving at Liverpool in early March 1942.

Tom became tactics oficer at No 81 Group and took command of No 41 Squadron at Llanbedr on 1 September, leading Spitires on bomber escort missions. After a short time with No 53 Operational Training Unit at Kirton-in- Lindsey as an instructor, Tom became a lying liaison oficer with the USAAF’s 100th Fighter Wing, part of the 9th Air Force, lying various American ighters. This eventually led to the award of the Bronze Star Medal in August 1949. After D-Day Tom did some operational lying as a supernumerary pilot. In March 1945 he went to Burma, lying Hurricane missions once again with No 1 Indian Wing.

Upon returning to the UK, in June 1945 Tom married Flt Off Eileen Hampton, who he had irst met at Biggin Hill in 1942. He later said, “I was only there for a week or two until I moved on. We didn’t see each other again until 1943. We agreed to marry but not until the end of the war”. Eileen and Tom had three sons. Eileen died in August 2014.

Another phase of Tom’s amazing career began in January 1946 when he went through the Empire Test Pilots’ School course at Cranield. After three years at Boscombe Down he went to Wright- Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and participated in early high-altitude pressure suit experiments. During 1959 he was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington for three years, retiring from the RAF in 1964. Tom then went back to the USA, working for a British consultancy company in Boston. He returned to the UK three years later, becoming a director of a shoe company, retiring in the early 1980s.

In his later years, Neil wrote several books about his wartime experiences. His old CO, Sir John Grandy, described Neil’s book Gun Button to Fire as “the best book on the Battle of Britain.”