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On July 11, 2018, Tom Neil, one of only two living RAF aces from the Battle of Britain, died a few days short of his 98th birthday. He flew an astonishing 141 combat missions in the Battle.

His very long career in the RAF (he did not retire until 1964) also included such things as the Battle of Malta, and intercepting jet-powered V-1 “buzz bombs” over Britain in 1944.

Throughout the war, Tom managed to fly an incredible range of airplanes, from various fighters to large and small transports (sometimes when he wanted to transport a girlfriend). He flew with the USAAF as well, writing affectionately about the American pilots he met, and knowledgeably about such things as the differences between various models of the P-51. Referring to the P-51D, which he flew just before the Normandy invasion, he remarked that it “…was just about the best aircraft around in which to go to war…”

And he was a bit of a gentle renegade: in the last year of the war, after participating in the Normandy invasion, he adopted as his personal taxi an orphaned (it didn’t even have registration markings on it) Spitfire that he had found broken, forlorn, and abandoned. After the problem which had grounded it had been repaired, and the camouflage paint removed to leave only shining bare aluminum (hence the title of his book), he took it with him from place to place as the Allies pushed eastward toward into Germany. He used it essentially for non-combat use behind the lines, eventually accumulating about 120 hours on the airplane – although he wasn’t really sure, as a logbook was not really a part of the operation. Not surprisingly, two of his children inherited his passion for flying, both becoming pilots.

When he tried to return the Spitfire to the RAF in the spring of 1945, he couldn’t find any logistics officer willing to take it from him, and claimed he even considered bailing out over the English Channel to get rid of it.  The airplane, and his experiences in the last year of the war, were the subject of one of his books, entitled “The Silver Spitfire.”

In reading that book, and the several others he wrote, one can enjoy the company of not only a remarkable pilot, but a graceful, funny, charming, modest and – as he repeatedly emphasized – very lucky, man.  Prince Harry thought so too: having met Neil at a Battle of Britain commemoration in 2015, the Prince used this photo of the two for his Christmas card that year:

You can get a sense of this remarkable man in a very good BBC interview from 2011. It’s 26 minutes, but well worth your time.

6 replies
  1. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    Beginning with the first time I saw the movie Battle of Britain in 1969, and continuing right through several visits to Duxford including the wonderful 60th anniversary display in 2000, these guys have been my heroes. They literally saved the world. I highly recommend that you take the half hour needed to listen to Victoria Derbyshire’s interview with him. Bear in mind the context of the Battle. He was 19 years old and flying three to five sorties a day…and in that period, there was no one…no one…else in the war against Hitler. Britain stood alone that summer. Europe was defeated, the Russians weren’t in it, and we certainly weren’t in it. In that context, listen closely to him and think about words like duty, fortitude, and humility. He wished to be remembered as someone who set an example. I’ll bet you will see aspects of character that every one of us would aspire to.

  2. Wayne Cochrane
    Wayne Cochrane says:

    Thank you very much for your comment, Steve. I feel exactly the same as you do: the pilots of the Battle of Britain are heroes to me as well.

    They came in many nationalities, of course. Like Neil, most were British, but there were also New Zealanders, Canadians, Czechs, South Africans, and others, including Americans. Next to the British, the most numerous (yet perhaps the most often overlooked) were the Poles who flew with the RAF. The RAF’s 303 Polish fighter squadron was the most successful Hurricane squadron in the Battle.

    But – whatever their nationality – these pilots gathered together to willingly face “fearful odds” (in Macaulay’s words, echoed by Churchill). And now, almost all of them are gone. Wayne

  3. R C Smith
    R C Smith says:

    Veterans of conflicts that survive spend the rest of their lives marching into History ,,looking over their shoulders at the lengthening shadows behind them,,James Jones,WW2

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