Wing Commander Thomas “Ginger” Neil DFC, AFC, AE is a Battle of Britain ace with 14 confirmed “kills” (downed planes) to his name, but the first thing he does is shoot down some myths. “The Hurricane was essentially an obsolete aircraft in 1940,” the 95-year-old says. “The design went back to 1926, almost the First World War.”
But surely the Spitfire was matchless? “It looked very nice, but in 1940 the Messerschmitt 109 had better armament. It had cannon – the Spitfire had peashooters by comparison.” But didn’t the RAF shoot down masses of German planes? “We did, though not always as many as we said. On 15 September 1940 the Government claimed we destroyed 180 aircraft – in fact, it was about 60.”
So the figures were exaggerated? “If you’re fighting four miles high and an enemy pilot bails out, it’s a kill. But the plane could travel for 30 miles before it crashed, being attacked by other squadrons, and could be claimed as a kill, perfectly legitimately, four or five times. Still, it was enough to make Hitler change his mind [about the invasion].”
Now celebrated as Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 1940 marked the fierce zenith of fighting between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. The toll on the Luftwaffe was enough, as Tom Neil says, for German bombers to turn away from attacking airfields and on to bombing our cities. But be it 60 kills or 180, it was a decision forced on the Luftwaffe by the bravery of RAF pilots facing fearful odds: on 15 September 1940, the RAF’s Fighter Command was at times outnumbered by the Luftwaffe two to one.
This year, 15 September will be marked by a fly-past, attended by Prince Harry, at Goodwood Aerodrome in West Sussex. Featuring around 40 Spitfires and Hurricanes, it brings together more Battle of Britain aircraft than at any time since the Second World War. Followed by Channel 4 cameras, Tom hopes to take to the air in the two-seater Spitfire he flew at the war’s end. “I could still fly one – it’s like riding a bicycle. But getting in the cockpit is the problem. I’m 6ft 3in and, in my 96th year, I don’t bend too easily.”
Tom was only 20 years old when the Battle of Britain began in July 1940, and still shows the brusque humour that was necessary to survive the desperate struggles of that far-off summer. “In the beginning, I did virtually nothing except marvel at the enemy aircraft all around me,” he says. “The first time you see the black crosses on the side of an enemy plane, you’re fascinated. You don’t think about the fact that they’re enemies shooting bullets at you.”
Despite that, Tom soon gained a formidable reputation for shooting down Germans. “If you got through the first six weeks you became wise,” he says of those days flying a Hurricane in 249 Squadron. “I always felt that as long as I could see a German fighter, I could deal with him.” Was he ever concerned about the Germans he shot down? “No! We were really destroying aeroplanes, not people. Though I did meet German pilots after the war. Many of them didn’t like flying over Britain. A 109 taking off from northern France would only get as far as London and the little red fuel light would come on. And if they were shot down, that was it. With us, if we were unhurt we could be picked up and quickly be back in the air. We were resupplied with aircraft wonderfully.”
Wasn’t he scared? He was barely out of his teens. “There’s trepidation when there are only 12 of you in the air and you hear from control that there are 100 aircraft heading your way. But climbing through cloud to 20,000ft, you’re exhilarated by the business of fighting. You’re not full of fear. It’s only when you’re hit that you look at it differently – are you going to bail out, are you on fire? That was the greatest fear with the Hurricane.” He’s referring to the plane’s design, which put unprotected fuel tanks near the pilot. “If the aircraft caught fire, you had seconds to get out or you were barbecued.”
Casualties were considerable. From an operational strength of 22 pilots, Tom’s squadron saw 18 pilots “burnt badly, wounded or forced to bail out. Most of them were on fire and killed when they hit the ground,” he says. “It was only that night when you saw the empty beds of people who didn’t come back that you thought about it. But it was a question of, ‘Well, Charlie’s not turned up, he may come back tomorrow.’ We didn’t let it bother us.”
Tom Neil (right) as a young pilot
Strangely, it’s only now, three-quarters of a century later, that Tom feels the loss of his young comrades most acutely. “I look back now at the bravery of those who were killed and those who were hideously wounded and burnt, and I think perhaps I didn’t do enough,” he says. “It’s very difficult to talk about it, but as you get older you wake up at 4am or some ghastly hour and you have horrible thoughts about those rather precarious days you were faced with. All those occasions when you were enthusiastic for battle, and you think: I should have done more.”
The 20-year-old Tom had no such doubts; neither did he question the certainty of victory. “We were British,” he says, “we didn’t lose wars! Defeat never occurred to us.”
Among the men that Churchill honoured as “the Few,” there were also pilots from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Ireland, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, the USA and the West Indies. In the excitement of Tuesday’s commemorations and the fly-past, it’s worth remembering that without the courage of such boys, flying under-gunned Spitfires and Hurricanes that might barbecue them, our world might have been very different.
“We didn’t ‘win’ the Battle of Britain, but we didn’t lose it,” says Tom. “Had we lost it, I am perfectly certain the German Army, which was highly trained and very able, would have landed on the south coast and history would have changed absolutely.”
Battle of Britain: the Day the War Was Won is on Channel 4 tonight (Sunday 13th September) at 7.00pm; Battle of Britain: Return of the Spitfires is on Tuesday 15th at 8.00pm