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Memories of a HURRICANE PILOT Wing Commander Tom Neil shares his remarkable experiences in the

Memories of a



Memories of a HURRICANE PILOT Wing Commander Tom Neil shares his remarkable experiences in the Battle

Wing Commander Tom Neil shares his remarkable experiences in the Battle of Britain with journalist George Cooper

in the Battle of Britain with journalist George Cooper O n 15th September, 1940, Adolf Hitler

O n 15th September, 1940, Adolf Hitler unleashed the might of the Luftwaffe in a series of major attacks against London

and the south-east of England in an all-or-nothing attempt to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force. Among the

handful of young men defending Britain’s shores was Tom Neil, a 19-year-old Hurricane pilot not long out of training

school, flying with 249 squadron at North Weald in Essex. Here he recounts his extraordinary experience of the day that changed not just the course of the Battle of Britain, but of European history.

It is 4am, first light and I have slept badly, kept awake by the constant hum of German bombers in the distance. The early morning silence at dispersal is broken by the now familiar sound of the ground-crew warming the Hurricanes’ engines. One by one, 13 aeroplanes roar into life. “Oh God, let them stop…” We are awake now and after a breakfast of bacon and fried bread we have nothing to do except wait for the sound of the telephone and the first scramble of the day.

This is a time of great apprehension. Will I be killed? The Germans are at the top of their game, they know it and we know it. They are going to invade — they are going to win. The whole of Britain, from John O’Groats to Land’s End, is expecting the invasion to come any day now. The day heats up as we wait, sat in deckchairs or asleep in our beds. I am apprehensive but excited. The enemy is late today; it has already gone 10am. The telephone rings: squadron scramble!

Above: Tom Neil pictured during the war at RAF North Weald and today (right). Below: The Battle of Britain memorial on London’s Victoria Embankment.


24 THIS ENGLAND, Autumn, 2016

With hardly time to think we dash to our

aircraft; we have only three minutes to get into the air. The rigger starts up my Hurricane as I put on my parachute. We taxi to the end of the field, turn into the wind, take off. The Hurricane is very prone to catching fire when hit. It does not have the performance or the armament of the Messerschmitt 109. When we engage with the bombers their fighter escort will, inevitably, be sat above and behind us, waiting to kill us. The Hurricane has three fuel tanks, one in front of the pilot and one on either side of his feet. That’s 94 gallons of fuel within a few feet of him. So many pilots who suffer terrible burns are Hurricane pilots. The 109s know all about this, of course. They come up behind us to within about 150 yards and hit one or both tanks. The fire starts immediately, coming up between the pilot’s face and hands. When that happens, you have eight seconds to get out or you’re dead. We climb up from North Weald and are at 12,000ft when we cross the Thames, climbing in close formation at 140 miles an hour through cloud. London is down there on the right. This is Kent and Sussex, our killing area. We burst through cumulus cloud into bright sunlight and I am now very aware that we are silhouetted against cloud. Anyone looking down on us will see us. The enemy has the initiative. We are vectored towards Maidstone and immediately we can see flak as the enemy crosses the coast. Hundreds and hundreds of dark grey flak bursts. You cannot yet see the enemy — 550 aircraft could be flying alongside us five miles away and we won’t see them. We fly towards the flak, and there in the middle

are the Germans — about 40 Dornier bombers escorted by 50 or 60 fighters at 18,000ft, slightly above us. There are 12 of us. Fear does not enter your head. I will not die today. We attack the bombers almost head on, getting to within

100 yards. My target is a Dornier and he gets close — good

God, I can almost reach out and touch him — before I open fire and he flashes past. I break off, climbing hard. Now where have they gone? Two miles away already! A fracas. Chaos. Aircraft all around me, to the left and right, ducking and weaving, diving and climbing. I get in the odd burst of fire but my marksmanship is bloody awful. Beam attacks, port attacks, head-on attacks, they’re all a waste of time when the aircraft are flying towards each other at a combined speed of

400 miles an hour. I see a bomber trailing away, surrounded

by Hurricanes. My ammunition spent already, I fly towards several other Hurricanes and we head for home. We land. Refuel and rearm. A successful interception for us, we only lost one or two. Lunch arrives amid much laughing and joking and talking about who was hit and who is missing. And, while we wait for the next scramble, we try to sleep. My God, I’m weary. Flop down on my bed and within seconds I’m asleep, but all the while with one ear for the telephone. 1pm — scramble. I am dragged from my sleep and we are

away again. The same routine: up through the cloud and straight into the enemy. Dorniers again and I immediately get behind one. I am just below him, dead astern, and at about 150 yards

I fire and hit him, the whole port side of the aircraft engulfed

in tracer. Two of the crew bale out, the rest are killed as the

aircraft plunges straight into the Thames. Little do I know it but

I will not learn the names of those dead men for 50 years. You do not think about the human cost; they are merely machines.

A replica of a Hawker Hurricane at the RAF Museum at Hendon. ADINA TOVY
A replica of a Hawker Hurricane at the RAF Museum at Hendon. ADINA TOVY

I am accosted by fighters, whizzing around my ears, venomously bent on murder and I try to engage one or two. Not with a hope of shooting anything down, just firing in self- defence I suppose. I pull my aircraft all over the sky. Another Dornier flies across my bows and I hare off after him. He dives for cloud, flying parallel to the Thames. Out of the cloud now and I am joined by a Spitfire. Both of us firing, my target comes down from 15,000ft and dives for home, now about 100ft above the Thames. I fire again, the clatter of my guns and he is going down. He’s done for, surely. We fly above a convoy of ships at mast height. I fly alongside my target, so close I can see the chaps in the cockpit, and notice he’s not firing back. He loses height, the tail comes up and he splashes down into the water in a flurry of white spray. Briefly the aircraft bobs back to the surface, and then sinks. We fly around several times and we can’t see survivors. No time to think about that. We fly home. Back at North Weald we are cock-a-hoop. The country is waiting for news of some success. There is a party in the evening and I drink too much. If there are German bombers overhead tonight I won’t hear them! We hear on the wireless that we have shot down 180- odd German planes. A few hours’ sleep before the next dawn. We do not know it yet but, in two days’ time, Hitler will postpone the invasion.

The National Memorial to the Few at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent. STEVE BRYANT
The National Memorial to the Few at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent.

THIS ENGLAND, Autumn, 2016