Battle of Britain: ’75 years on, I’m still awake every day by 4am’
Tom Neil, the last surviving RAF ace from the Battle of Britain, reveals what a day in the life of a fighter pilot – a group that Winston Churchill nicknamed The Few – actually entailed
Neil: ‘I was deeply privileged’ (Christopher Pledger)
By Victoria Lambert
7:53PM BST 14 Sep 2015
At RAF North Weald in Essex, the day began at 3.30am, with the noise of the plane engines being warmed up. In the nearby huts, 12 pilots would be lying in bed – sometimes in pyjamas, some still in uniform – one ear listening for the telephone.
“We’d start getting information via the radar systems,” says Wing Commander Tom Neil, now 95 years old, and one of the last of the Few, the 3,000 young Allied Forces pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain between July and October 1940. There are only 20 of them thought to be left, but he is the last remaining Ace: a pilot who claimed five confirmed kills. Over the course of his dozens of missions, Tom brought down 14 enemy planes.
“The picture would be building up,” he continues. “Fifty bombers were taking off in Germany, they were being joined by fighter planes, there were 100, 200, 300. My God, they are coming in our direction.”
And then, as the young pilots started to eat breakfast, “invariably as the first morsel reached your lips the scramble would begin. The bell would sound, and you had three minutes to get to your aircraft, get in and take off.”
Today, as Wing Commander Neil of No. 249 Squadron watches the 75th commemorative flypast of 40 Hurricanes and Spitfires at Goodwood Aerodrome in Chichester, alongside Prince Harry, his mind will go back to those adrenalin-fuelled flights, the subject of his latest book, Scramble, a collection of his writings on his wartime career.
“You didn’t pay a great deal of attention to wind,” he goes on, “you didn’t have time. But you always had to consider the cloud – there’s always cloud above Britain. So you’d get into close formation, the closer, the better, and by the time you reach the Thames, you are at 12,000 feet, 13,000 feet… London drifts by on the right hand side. Then you’re off towards Maidstone, climbing to 14, 15, 16,000 feet, and you get directed towards the centre of Kent, and begin to look for the enemy. But you don’t see them. Too far away.
“Instead, you look for the black puffs of smoke caused by the anti-aircraft fire below. Then you’d turn your plane towards them, and eventually among the smoke, you’d suddenly see 30 to 40 bombers, and you’d be surrounded by fighters, perhaps more than 100 German planes in all. Look to your side, and there would be just 11 other chaps beside you.”
At this point, incredibly, says Wing Commander Neil, there is no apprehension or fear. “You are eager to see him and fight with him. You are not frightened, but exhilarated: let’s do it. So you launch at them, fire, break away, or dive, and reform to come back.”
The pilots who made up the Few – so-named by Winston Churchill – had to be incredibly efficient with their guns. “We only had 15 seconds’ worth of fire, which we deliver in three-second bursts. Then you would turn and go home.”
All the time, they would be attacked and harried by the enemy, in front and behind. “You see tracer bullets and cannon shells; sometimes you are hit. You don’t hear anything above the roar of your engine, but you feel the knock if a bullet hits home. It might even be from your own anti-aircraft flak. You get home and in 20 minutes the plane is rearmed and ready to fly again if the scramble sounds.”
Planes were taking off up to five times a day at the height of the battle in September 1940. Wing Commander Neil flew 20 days out of 31, 65 times in total that month. In the 16 weeks of the Battle of Britain, he took off 157 times.
Some had to bail out; he only parachuted once, when the rear section of his Hurricane was knocked off in a mid-air collision with another Englishman.
“The plane was spinning out of control. At 1,500 feet, I got out with great difficulty” – he is 6’ 4” – “and was in my parachute for about two to three minutes, falling into a wood close to Maidstone. I came to in the mud, with two women and two men deciding what to do with me as they thought I was German. The men wanted to string me up; they were from the East End and weren’t friendly. But some army officers turned up and recognised I was British.”
Back at base, the beds in the officers’ hut would empty out constantly, but there was little time for grief. “You hardly knew anyone, there was no time to become close, and men wouldn’t come back for all kinds of reasons. They might just have bailed out and taken a few days to get back to base. And we never saw the gory ends.
Tom Neil in his Hurricane
“Everybody had a different view; I was never terribly upset. When you are aged between 19 and 25, the body and mind can put up with anything.”
He recalls only two fears – being burned in his plane (Hurricanes were notorious, as the petrol tanks were situated just below the pilot so if hit, a blaze would engulf the cockpit immediately), and of drowning. “If you were hit over water, the Hurricane would sink like a stone. Even if you bailed out, you wouldn’t get picked up, so would drown nonetheless.”
Wing Commander Neil ended up training the Americans, and took part in D-Day. He met his wife, WAAF officer Eileen Hampton, at Biggin Hill and they married in June 1945. Eileen, with whom he had three sons, two of whom went on to become pilots, died last year. (“We had 70 years of happy marriage…” he says, with pride.)
Spitfires and Hurricanes: The anniversary is likely to be the last major one at which surviving members of the conflict will be fit to take part
Prince Harry today sacrificed his chance to fly above southern Britain in the biggest display of wartime aircraft since the Battle of Britain to ensure RAF veteran Tom Neil (pictured in the Spitfire) and two wounded servicemen (including Nathan Forster, left) could still take part