Wing Commander T. F. Neil, DFC & Bar, AFC, AE

The name of Tom Neil crops up in several posts dedicated to the air war in 1939-45 on this blog. Since first encountering him, his stories and his writing, the S&G has been squarely in his debt for his passion to ensure that what the airmen of Fighter Command actually saw and did might be preserved without sentiment.

A print hangs on the S&G’s wall of three Hawker Hurricanes tipping over to dive upon a formation of Italian bombers high over Malta and the brilliant blue Mediterranean beyond. It’s a masterpiece by Michael Turner, an artist with whom it was a privilege to work on the 60th anniversary of the Formula 1 World Championship some years back, and the Hurricane depicted in the foreground is that of Tom Neil.

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The S&G’s treasured print

The future Wing Commander T.F. Neil was born in Bootle in 1920. His passion for flying was inspired at the age of 12, almost immediately announcing his intention to go to Cranwell and become a career officer in the RAF. This idea did not greatly please his mother and, decades later, Neil remembered that: ‘In the First World War, she said, she’d mixed with a lot of RAF officers and RFC officers and they were all drunks. And she had no intention of allowing her only son to go down that particular path!

Undeterred, Neil was still at school when he applied to join 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force – his local unit.

‘…the bald-headed squadron leader – positively senile – who interviewed me initially, pointed out that as i was still at school, did not own a car and lived some 30 miles away, I might not be much use to them. I disagreed, of course, but my protestations cut no ice. Why didn’t I join the Manchester Auxiliary Squadron, which would be forming a year or two hence? Or the local RAFVR (Volunteer Reserve) even? After five years of waiting and longing, I was appalled – crushed – and demolished. It had never occurred to me that I might not be welcomed with open arms. Furthermore I had never heard of a Manchester Auxiliary Squadron, nor did I want to know of one. And the RAFVR? What utter nonsense!’

Neil’s remaining school days saw him take a trip to Germany, where he had heard reports of state-sanctioned violence towards the Jewish population and the ranting behaviour of its ‘Führer’ but witnessed no such barbarity on the streets of Koblenz, where the school party was to stay. Instead he was impressed by the courtesy of his hosts, albeit whilst awe-struck by the vast number of military camps and aircraft overhead and by the ‘toughness and sense of dedication’ that had been instilled in the population as a whole. An ominous interlude.

Through his father’s connections, Neil left school and went to work in a bank, whilst also swallowing his rather bruised pride and joining the RAF Volunteer Reserve. Thus he was already a trained pilot when war broke out and was commissioned in April 1940, joining 249 Squadron. So began more than two years with 249 spent in the cockpit of Hawker Hurricanes, during which time he scored 13 victories during what Neil himself described as the ‘so-called Battle of Britain’.

This relationship with the Hurricane was somewhat love-hate. It was robust and a stable gun platform, but Neil found design issues like the location of the fuel tanks, which caused many pilots to be killed or maimed by fire, largely unforgivable. By the time that he and the rest of his detachment from 249 was transferred to Malta in mid-1941, he believed that the Hurricane was dangerously obsolete and that the RAF was simply using up old stock at the expense of the men who should have been in Spitfires if they were to stand a chance.

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A 249 Squadron Hurricane at Takali airfield, Malta 1941

Fortunately, the period in which Tom Neil was stationed on the besieged Island was May to December 1941 – in between the two most catastrophic periods when the Luftwaffe held absolute air superiority. The closest encounter that they had with the Germans turned out to be the morning after they had landed, when the all-conquering Joachim Müncheberg and his Messerschmitts from 7/JG26 destroyed several of 249 Squadron’s Hurricanes in a final strafing mission before they, and the rest of the Luftwaffe in Sicily, were recalled to join Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of Russia.

As a result, Neil and his colleagues were left to face up to the forces of the Italian Regia Aeronautica – a group of pilots steeped with skill and equipped with highly effective fighters, but whose bombers were second rate and generally did not press home their attack with anything like the same vigour as the Germans.

Most of the conflict and losses amongst RAF fighters on Malta at this time was internally-driven. The commanding officer on the Island, Air Vice Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd, had no interest in defensive units: his only concern was to destroy Axis shipping in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile the fighter pilots were living and dying in worn-out aeroplanes, facing the perils of baling out over the sea or, worse, crash landing on Malta’s unforgiving warren of dry stone walls.

Tom Neil repeatedly badgered Lloyd about replacing the Hurricanes with Spitfires or even the Curtiss Tomahawks that were coming into RAF service from America, only to be told that the problem was ‘not the aeroplane: it was the man.’ In later years, former bomber crews would often drink a toast to ‘Hugh Pughe’ when they gathered, but to Neil he was remembered as ‘a bullshitter of the first order.’

Neil survived his tour and later wrote the remarkable book Onward to Malta based upon more than 600 letters that he wrote at the time. It remains the S&G’s favourite airman’s memoir, distinct even from Neil’s other works on the Battle of Britain (Gun Button to Fire) and his later life (The Silver Spitfire), because it is so clearly written in the voice of a witty and irascible young warrior.

After Malta, Neil was given desk jobs until becoming commanding officer of 41 Squadron, primarily escorting US Army Air Force operations over occupied France, and then became a liaison officer with the Americans for much of the duration. He remained with the RAF in peacetime, reaching the rank of Wing Commander and retiring in 1964 for a long career in commerce.

In recent years, Tom Neil became one of the most called-upon and popular veterans of both the Battle of Britain and Malta campaigns. There was never any wistfulness or whimsy about him, exemplified when he gave the keynote address at the RAF’s 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Britain in 2010 – opening with:

‘Well I’m almost 90 now, a couple of weeks, and I’m one of about 20 remaining veterans – I hate the word ‘veteran’ – still reasonably active. There are of course another 60 of us still alive but less able to get about and take part in such splendid occasions as this. Our average age during the Battle of Britain was 21. The age of us now remaining is 93 and we are dying off at the rate of 30 a year. Those of you with Oxford educations will realise that in three years’ time it’s more than likely that the rest of us will be up there with the fairies!’

Prince Harry Attends The Battle Of Britain Flypast

Prince Harry surrendered his seat in a Spitfire to Tom Neil for the 2015 Battle of Britain commemorations

Well, perhaps predictably, Tom Neil did better than that. He died late on 11 July 2018, three days short of his 98th birthday. In between times he was a regular face on TV, taking centre stage at Goodwood for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, when he almost single-handedly saved Channel 4’s coverage of the commemorations from becoming a parody of itself.

Once again, it is remarkable to think how a life of all-but 98 years was defined by barely five of them. We are all fortunate indeed that the deeply personal way in which he spoke of those days has been so well documented; never once wavering or differing in details that will continue to amaze and inspire for generations to come.

Commemorating the Battle of Britain

The history of the world is written by its victors.  So it was that, this summer, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain has been commemorated: a 14-week period that was defined by Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that ended on 31 October 1940 and resulted in Germany’s first defeat of the war.

That is not the way everyone saw it at the time, of course. Churchill was a politician who needed to inspire his country towards a prolonged and outwardly hopeless war that most people dreaded, thus he declared Fighter Command’s survival of the Luftwaffe’s summer onslaught to be a victory of epic proportions. Even as he spoke, however, German bombs were raining down on British cities at night as the Luftwaffe operated almost with impunity.

It is important to remember that, even in 1940, the pilots of RAF Fighter Command considered that their leader had somewhat over-egged the pudding.  Tom Neil, a 20-year-old Hurricane pilot and ‘ace’ in 1940 described the ‘so-called’ Battle of Britain thus:

“So-called, as that then-familiar phrase related to a national crisis which for us had been merely part of a sustained period of activity against the Luftwaffe, a tidy but emotive expression for a tidy fourteen-week event, conveniently terminating on 31 October 1940.  As though the war had started for us in July and ended in October, which it most definitely had not!”

The 'Battle of Britain' saw Churchill in the role of commentator, umpire and team captain

The ‘Battle of Britain’ saw Churchill combine the roles of commentator, referee and team captain

The Battle of Britain is therefore open to considerable interpretation and the 75th anniversary of these events should have been handled with care with those few remaining voices who fought and lived through it being given fullest attention.  But this is 2015 so there was no chance of such subtlety.

The role of host broadcaster for the commemorations was handed, fairly inexplicably, to Channel 4. This is the broadcaster of bean curd, socialism and dubious sexual practices; sort of an advertiser-funded Student Union.

The presenter of Channel 4’s broadcasts was to be Dermot O’Leary, a man who has fairly rocketed up the greasy pole of media celebrity from local radio to hosting The X-Factor, aided by his anodyne matiness and a bottom that makes grown women weep.  Alarm bells immediately clattered into life at the S&G.

Then came the title of the first of Channel 4’s commemorative programmes, which caused the alarm bells to shatter and the wall upon which they were hanging to be blown down flat. Battle of Britain: The Day The War Was Won

As the opening credits rolled, Dermot’s voice rang out with no little sense of occasion.  “Tonight we will be winding the clock back 75 years to that crucial day when the Nazis attempted to annihilate the RAF and pave the way for a full-on land invasion.”

Not just any kind of invasion, you understand, but a ‘full-on land invasion’.  I bet that’s what Hitler called it as well – about ten seconds before he realised that, in 1940, any kind of sea invasion of the British Isles was utterly impossible to achieve.

The thrust of the programme, however, was that Churchill did not go far enough in distilling an 11-month campaign into a 14-week victory. Now it all boiled down to one day, 15 September 1940, upon which the fate of everything in the world, if not the known universe, would depend.

Presumably even the producers realised that they were catastrophically wide of the mark and thus to save their bacon a tame historian was required to endorse the scriptwriter’s dismal handiwork.  Enter the ubiquitous James Holland.

Dermot O'Leary and James Holland told their version of the Battle of Britain

Dermot O’Leary and James Holland told their version of the Battle of Britain

James was not his usual ruddy-faced self.  He had the haunted look of a man who had been handed the choice between making a convincing case for the script or making a convincing case for his reputation.  In the end, he managed neither. As a fall-back position, he adopted a slightly weird Estuary twang and said:

“The idea is to kind of, sort of bomb London into submission, demoralise the people, you know, hit the factories, but it’s also to, you know, kill people as well.  That’s the point of it.  But what the Luftwaffe have got to do is destroy the Air Force because you cannot do a cross-Channel invasion unless you have command, or control at least, of the skies in that invasion.”

There was that word again: invasion.  Not a ‘full-on land invasion’ but still, scary stuff.  Yet although the ‘i-word’ was repeatedly proffered it was never explored. This was a shame, because I’d like to have heard what thoughts James had to offer on that subject.

Mary Wilkins, wartime ferry pilot with the ATA, featured heavily in proceedings

Mary Wilkins, wartime ferry pilot with the ATA, featured heavily in proceedings

Instead we were offered Arthur Williams, whose PR describes him as ‘a young, ambitious and exciting new broadcaster identified by Channel 4 as a star of the future, and he was ready for his big moment.  Pointing out towards France, Arthur said: “Waves of Hitler’s planes set off to attack us…”

Terminology is everything. First we had Dermot telling us that the Nazis were attempting to annihilate the RAF. Now we had Arthur describing ‘Hitler’s planes’ mustering over France. There is an obvious omission here: the ‘g-word’. This was not a small, crazed sect of ‘Nazis’ with ‘Nazi plans’ and armed with ‘Hitler’s bombers’ – it was the entire nation of Germany galvanised to arms and cheering itself hoarse with delight at having conquered mainland Europe.

The political map of Europe in October 1940

The political map of Europe in October 1940

After Arthur’s contribution came Dermot’s recap: “Hitler’s Luftwaffe had set out to smash the RAF and pave the way to invasion…”  The S&G’s television narrowly escaped from being chucked through a window.

So thank God, then, that for the last couple of minutes the endless parade of statements died down and, in the quiet, those last few faltering voices of the men and women who were there spoke their own epitaph.  This was brilliant, electrifying TV of a kind that Channel 4 couldn’t possibly have bargained for or understood, otherwise it would have shown nothing else.

First there was Tom Neil, still clear-eyed and forthright at 95, who concluded: “I’ve done my bit.  My generation’s done its bit.  But I’m now not afraid of dying.”

Then there was Geoff Wellum, still full of dapper good cheer, who added: “It’s not about medals.  It’s not about thank-yous.  But it’s nice to be remembered because being remembered covers everybody who served through and fought in the Battle of Britain. And being remembered is all that we want.”

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum also gave his thoughts

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum also gave his thoughts

‘Battle of Britain Day’ is commemorated on 15 September each year, and for the 75th anniversary this meant a live broadcast on Channel 4. Up to 40 aircraft, representing types flown by the RAF in the Battle of Britain, prepared to fly off from Goodwood to tour the south of England as the main act of the day.  To make sure that as many people took notice as possible, this programme was entitled The Battle of Britain: Return of the Spitfires

Dermot O’Leary and James Holland were back in their Laurel and Hardy roles. The programme was called Return of the Spitfires, thus Dermot was walking among Spitfires (after flying in a two-seat Spitfire) when he asked James which particular aircraft of all those standing around them stood out: ‘that Hurricane over there’, James replied, pricelessly.

When, finally, the flying got underway the focus did at least fall in the right direction: back on that brilliant man Tom Neil, who was back in a two-seat Spitfire after half a century and in pride of place in the formation as it toured the skies where the battle was fought.

Wing Commander Neil had refused a full helmet or radio link.  Instead we were treated to the view of his 95-year-old features wordlessly absorbing the environment that, within just five years on active service, had come to define the rest of his life. It is also an environment to which he is unlikely to ever return, making it all the more remarkable to share his experience as best we could.  When this silent, stoic salute to a generation was over, Dermot could be relied upon to ask the Wing Commander for his thoughts.

“Quite an emotional business,” came the reply.

Prince Harry was a major part of the 15 September commemorations - as was Tom Neil

Prince Harry was a major part of the 15 September commemorations – as was Tom Neil

Right from the very first planning meeting, through two deeply underwhelming TV programmes, nobody else had stood a chance of saying anything more profound than its veterans. If only they could have had the courage not to even try.

The Maltese Hurricane

The Malta Aviation Museum is home to a trove of remarkable artefacts and aircraft. There is everything from the flying boot that Adrian ‘Warby’ Warburton was wearing on his final flight – recovered, along with his remains, in 2002 – to restored post-war jets.

A veritable trove of aviation history in Ta'Qali (formerly the RAF fighter base of Takali)

A veritable trove of aviation history in Ta’Qali (formerly the RAF fighter base of Takali)

One can wander freely around, getting a close-up look at the restorations underway and the seemingly endless supply of parts. One source of parts is the sea around the island – into which so many aircraft dropped during the siege of 1940-42. One of the treasures offered up by the Mediterranean was the Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIa now so beautifully restored by the museum volunteers.

The museum's Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIa Z3055

The museum’s Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIa Z3055

Hurricane Z3055 was built in early 1941, one of the fifth production batch of 1,000 aircraft built at Kingston. It was delivered from the factory to No. 48 Maintenance Unit at Hewarden on 27 February 1941 and prepared for squadron service. Over the next few months the Hurricane was shuttled between It was transferred to Abbotsinch and No. 5 Maintenance Unit at Kemble. It was delivered back to Abbotsinch on 18 May, for shipment to Malta as part of the convoy known as Operation ROCKET.

To start this, the seventh ‘Club Run’ (as the Royal Navy christened the Malta convoys), the converted Edwardian cruise ship HMS Argus was loaded with 29 cased Hurricanes on the Clyde, and sailed with the cruiser HMS Exeter to join convoy WS 8B to Gibraltar, arriving on May 31st. A day later the carrier HMS Furious, a converted WW1 battle cruiser, also arrived in Gibraltar, upon which were 48 pre-assembled Hurricane Mk.II aircraft including Z3055, which were transferred to HMS Ark Royal as she lay at anchor in Gibraltar.

Ark Royal at rest, as she would have looked on Operation SPLICE and Operation ROCKET

Ark Royal at rest, as she would have looked on Operation SPLICE and Operation ROCKET

This was a repeat of the previous Club Run, Operation SPLICE, which had taken the elite 249 Squadron to Malta a fortnight earlier. Among the pilots who made that journey was 249 Squadron’s top-scoring ace Tom Neil, who memorably described the voyage in his memoir Onward to Malta:

“In the warm and sultry blackness of the Mediterranean night, Gibraltar was a blaze of light, a stirring and nostalgic sight for those of us who had lived in conditions of blackout for almost two years. Gathering our meagre belongings we bade farewell to the Furious and stumbled along the debris-strewn dockside towards the Ark. Above us, planks had already gone down and the first of our aircraft were being trundled across.”

The Argus then made a stern-to-stern transfer of her completed aircraft to Furious, while the remaining cased airframes were landed on Gibraltar for assembly. Although the scene was one of furious activity for many engineers, stevedores and sailors, the same could not be said for the pilots. Their job was still to come, and Gibraltar provided an ideal interlude:

From our hosts we learned that we would be sailing as soon as the transfer of aircraft had been completed,” Tom Neil wrote.

Later, much later, with pink gins fairly slopping around inside I returned to my cabin, my morale restored absolutely by the sophistication of my surroundings and the courtesy of my new-found friends. Then, in the wee small hours, tremors and subdued grumblings started up somewhere underfoot and, in a cosy, gin-induced stupor, I concluded that we were once more heading seawards… Good ol’ Navy, I thought; Cap’n Bligh, or whoever, would probably know the way. Two points to starboard, if you please, Mister Christian! Dear God! If only the sides of this cabin would keep still.

On Operation ROCKET, Ark Royal and Furious set off eastwards late on June 4th, escorted by Force H of the Mediterranean fleet: the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the cruiser HMS Sheffield and the destroyers HMS Faulknor, Fearless, Foresight, Forester, Foxhound and Fury.

HMS Furious was a much older vessel than the Ark

HMS Furious was a much older vessel than the Ark

Early in the morning of June 6th the carriers launched a total of 44 Hurricanes from their regular point close to the Balearic Islands. The Hurricanes would rendezvous with eight Blenheim bombers that had taken off from Gibraltar and fly the regular supply route towards Cap Bon on the northeast tip of Tunisia then skip round the hostile islands of Pantelleria, Lampedusa and Linosa before arriving over Malta.

The route was difficult and potentially dangerous – Italian, German and Vichy French aircraft were all in range of the Hurricanes, which were unarmed and over-laden with fuel for the flight and supplies for the island such as cigarettes and toothpaste, stowed where the ammunition should be. There was also, for the pilots, the new and daunting prospect of taking off from a ship.

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

The experience was recorded by Tom Neil, who was not in the best of spirits when he had to make his great leap into the unknown.

“Silent and yawning, we went in single file to one of the deserted dining rooms and were each handed a fried breakfast by one of the kitchen staff whose bare and bulging arms were liberally garnished with red-and-blue pictures referring to Love, Mother and a lady called Doris…”

Although there was considerable trepidation among the young men who would fly off, catastrophes were thankfully rare on these convoys. The mighty Ark Royal in particular could summon up 30 knots into wind, giving the over-burdened Hurricanes all possible help to take off despite the short runway of her deck.

All 44 of the Hurricanes got away safely on Operation ROCKET but one was forced to return to the Ark Royal due to engine problems and made an unheard-of deck landing – all the more remarkable when laden with long-range fuel tanks and stowed equipment. The remaining 43 Hurricanes and the eight Blenheims from Gibraltar arrived safely in Malta.

Z3055 wears the colours of 126 Squadron in 1941, with which she flew

Z3055 wears the colours of 126 Squadron in 1941, with which she flew in a quiet spell of the siege

At this time the war in Malta had quietened down significantly. The Luftwaffe had only days before withdrawn from Sicily in order to make its way to the Russian border, where soon Operation BARBAROSSA would launch Hitler’s offensive to the east.

Tom Neil would recall it as: “a delightful period of my life. Here I was on a nice warm Mediterranean island, surrounded by friends and decent aeroplanes to fly… what we had was a private war between three squadrons of Hurricanes and the Italian air force in Sicily, which was very much a comic opera affair… The Italians were not really interested in this war. They did not bother us much.”

As a result Z3055 was held in reserve until July 1st when she was taken on charge by 126 Squadron. On July 4th she took off before daybreak from the reserve airstrip at Safi before dawn with Sergeant Tom Hackston at the controls. For some reason Hackston got into difficulties and crashed into the sea and was killed, with Z3055 ending her marathon journey to Malta in ignominious fashion.

In 1993 a local Maltese diver called David Schembri discovered Z3055 lying at a depth of 40 metres only a short distance from the coast off Wied Iz-Zurrieq, a tiny harbour set in a narrow inlet in the cliffs and guarded by a watchtower from which tourist boats take tours to the Blue Grotto.

The Hurricane was remarkably well-preserved – despite the ravages of her crash, more than half a century of passing tides and regularly snagging fishing nets on her exposed structure. After a thorough exploration, she was salvaged two years later, on Thursday, 19 September 1995.

Raised from the seabed: Z3055 appears after 54 years

Raised from the seabed: Z3055 appears after 54 years

The restoration of Z3055 is undoubtedly the high point of the Malta Aviation Museum’s work to date and she sits proudly alongside the restored Spitfire Mk.IX. Many of the replacement parts used in the restoration were sourced from other Hurricane crash sites on Malta – such as the engine cowling taken from the Mk.IIc night fighter of Alex Mackie, whose death in January 1942 is described so memorably in the prologue to James Holland’s history, Fortress Malta.

Malta's Hurricane and Spitfire - both first class restorations

Malta’s Hurricane and Spitfire – both first class restorations

One day the Museum hopes to perform a full restoration of the celebrated Gloster Gladiator, Faith – although controversy still dogs that issue. It also has sufficient parts to rebuild a Fairey Swordfish, which is rather more likely, while this brilliant and friendly museum – located on the former fighter airfield of Takali – continues to act as a beacon for all who are interested in the remarkable role that Malta had to play in World War 2.