Tom Neil

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Thomas Francis Neil
Nickname(s) Ginger
Born (1920-07-14) 14 July 1920 (age 96)
Bootle, England
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Air Force
Years of service 1938–1964
Rank Wing Commander
Unit No. 249 Squadron
Commands held No. 41 Squadron

Second World War

Awards Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar
Air Force Cross
Air Efficiency Award
Bronze Star Medal (United States)

Wing Commander Thomas Francis "Ginger" Neil, DFC & Bar, AFC, AE (born 14 July 1920) is a famous Royal Air Force fighter pilot and ace of the Second World War, and one of the few remaining survivors of the Battle of Britain.[1] Neil scored a total of 14 kills during the Second World War.[2]

Early life[edit]

Neil was born in Bootle on 14 July 1920;[3] he had a keen interest in aircraft as a child and played cricket and football for local teams. His family moved to Manchester when he was 16, and he attended Eccles Secondary (grammar) School where he was awarded an art prize for a drawing of an aeroplane. After taking the School Certificate in 1937 he started work at the District Bank in Gorton whilst training to be a pilot with the RAF Volunteer Reserve [4] Tom had wanted to attend Cranwell (the RAF Officer training college) but his parents did not approve of his plan!

Military career[edit]

He joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on 17 October 1938 at the age of 18 and was called up to full-time service at the outbreak of war. He was posted to No. 8 FTS on 1 December 1939 and was commissioned as a pilot officer on completion of the course. He was posted on 15 May 1940 to No. 249 Squadron RAF, which was an operational fighter squadron based at RAF Church Fenton in which he flew Hurricanes from RAF North Weald during the Battle of Britain alongside "Tich Palliser". He recalled that the 12 Hurricanes in the squadron were permanently ready to scramble and that the pilots were simply instructed to shoot down as many enemy aircraft as possible and avoid getting shot themselves.[5] The enemy aircraft he destroyed with the squadron included six Messerschmitt Bf 109s, two Heinkel He 111s, a Messerschmitt Bf 110, a Junkers Ju 87, a Junkers Ju 88 and a Dornier Do 17.

He flew 141 combat missions during the Battle of Britain but his only serious mishap was later on 7 November 1940 when he had a mid-air collision with another Hurricane and lost the rear section of his aircraft. This rendered it uncontrollable, but he managed to bail out and survived with a minor leg injury. Asked in an interview how he survived so many missions virtually unscathed, he said that in addition to being very lucky and spending a lot of time ducking and weaving, it is important in aerial combat to have the sensitivity to know instinctively what is around you and he was lucky to have that ability.[6][7]

The apprehensions were before the event. We would see the German planes on the radar and that period used to be rather, shall we say, worry-making. As soon as you got airborne everything was easy because you’re so busy dealing with it.

Neil on aerial combat.[5]

Neil was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, on 8 October 1940 and was awarded a Bar to his DFC on 26 November 1940. He embarked with 249 Sqn on HMS Furious on 10 May and sailed for Gibraltar, and on arrival the squadron transferred to HMS Ark Royal. The squadron flew to Ta' Qali on 21 May 1941 to take part in the Battle of Malta and he shot down a Macchi C.200 fighter on 12 June 1941.

On 26 December 1941 Neil left Malta and in 1942 he became tactics officer for No. 81 Group, then he served with 56 OTU and was officer commanding No. 41 Squadron. He then became liaison officer to the US 9th Air Force's 100th Fighter Wing. This posting led to the award of the Bronze Star Medal. He was awarded the Air Force Cross in the 1950s and retired from the RAF in 1964 at the rank of wing commander.

Post RAF Life[edit]

After retiring from the RAF, Neil returned to the USA to lead a British consultancy company in Boston.[8] He returned to Great Britain in 1967, settling in Norfolk where he became a director in the shoe industry, and later became secretary of his local Chamber of commerce. He retired in the early 1980s.


Neil has written a number of books on his experiences:

  • Portrait of an Airman (2015)
  • Jonathan Kerr (2015)
  • Acts of Fate (set for release Oct 2015)
  • Scramble! (2015)
  • From the Cockpit: Spitfire (1990)
  • Onward to Malta (1992)
  • Flight into Darkness (2006)
  • Questions of Guilt and Other Stories: The Stories of Wing Commander Tom Neil (2008)
  • Gun Button to Fire: A Hurricane Pilot's Dramatic Story of the Battle of Britain (2010)
  • The Silver Spitfire: The Story of his own Personal Aircraft (2013)

Battle of Britain 75th anniversary[edit]

Neil took part in the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in which he took to the skies in the largest formation of Spitfires and Hurricanes seen in British skies since the Second World War. The formation consisted of 40 aircraft and flew a route[9] around southern England in the areas which saw the most aerial activity during the war.


External links[edit]