Tuesday 15 September marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain day and was celebrated with a fly over of historic aircraft of that era. The article below is a summary of experiences flying aircraft in the Battle of Britain. Tom Neil is the last surviving fighter pilot from the campaign.
- The Battle of Britain was a pivotal moment in WW2 when the country stood alone against Hitler’s seemingly unstoppable military power
- In July 1940 the RAF deployed 640 planes, although more were available, and aircraft production was subsequently ramped up
- The Luftwaffe could call upon 2,600 fighters and bombers
- Nearly 3,000 aircrew served with RAF Fighter Command during the battle
- The average age of a pilot was 20 years old
- 20% of the pilots were from the British Dominions, and occupied European or neutral countries
- The RAF lost 1,023 planes and the Luftwaffe lost 1,887 planes in the battle
Click here to view fly past (Note: In the early part of the video you will see an older gentleman sitting in the rear seat of an aircraft – It has been reported on media that this is Tom Neil who was offered the seat which was reserved for Prince Harry)
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
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 75th 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 bale out; he only parachuted once, when the rear section of his Hurricane was knocked off in a mid-air collision with another Englishman.We only had 15 seconds’ worth of fire, which we deliver in three-second bursts. Then you would turn and go home’Wing Commander Tom Neil
“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 baled out and taken a few days to get back to base. And we never saw the gory ends.
“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 baled 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.)
Even now, the Wing Commander has few regrets. “I was deeply privileged to be involved in the Battle of Britain,” he says. “I’ve had a wonderful life: sometimes dangerous, interesting, delightful, even.
“But I’m an old gentleman now – always awake at 4am. Other people were deeply affected by the war and still wake up screaming, but that never happens to me. But sometimes I think: did I do enough?”
‘Scramble! The Dramatic Story of a Young Fighter Pilot’s Experiences During the Battle of Britain’, by Tom Neil, is published by Amberley, £19.99. For details of the Battle of Britain Day Flypast, go to tinyurl.com/battleofbritain75flypast