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Desperate to join the RAF from the age of 12, Tom Neil makes no bones about the fact that the war was ‘a very exciting business for a 19-year-old’. He acknowledges in the foreword to this, his sixth book on his experiences as a fighter pilot, that some may consider his approach to such a grave subject to be too light-hearted. Rather than apologising, he maintains that ‘youth sees great humour in almost everything – even destruction and death.’
These words set the tone for this war memoir: conversational, often stream of consciousness, skipping between past and present tense as if Neil’s flashbacks are vivid enough to bring the moment back into being. The text is scattered with exclamations from his teenage self – ‘Crikey! My first solo in a Spit! Electrifying! Wonderful!’ – and he is self-deprecating and honest about the crippling fear of battle. Nearly 65 pages of glossy photographs and diagrams include copies of touching log-book entries: ‘My first flight. Nearly died of shock’. Later, ‘We lost half squadron…I was very, very scared.”
Few World War II fighter pilots reached their 50th combat mission. Tom Neil flew 141. Granted the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for ‘an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy’, he shot down 13 enemy aircraft, earning himself the title of ‘ace’. On this he is characteristically modest, saying only that all the fighters ‘simply did the best we could.’
Neil is now 89 years old, and has outlived all of his squadron but one. As such, he was determined to write this Battle of Britain memoir as the ranks of ‘the Few’ gradually diminish, keen that the story of their efforts and achievement remains fresh. This volume is the second reprint of the original Gun Button to Fire, published in 1987 and now very scarce. The bulk of his material came from the discovery of over 600 letters, the extensive correspondence between Neil and his parents during the five years he flew in World War II, which Neil found when clearing his family home in the 1970s.
New information has seen the Epilogue updated. Neil notes it as extraordinary that, though he knew some of the men he fought alongside for only a few days or weeks, he remembers the smallest details of their tastes and idiosyncrasies. The Epilogue describes each of his colleagues and friends from this period, as he knew them then and as much as he knows of them now: the men they grew into, or – too often – as they died too young around him. Irreverent, honest, but always affectionate, his respect for each and every one reflects back onto his own achievements.
Chosen for his 6’4” stature and good looks, Neil was featured in a Ministry of Information propaganda booklet on the Battle of Britain. He was also part of some of the most widely circulated and easily recognisable of the Battle of Britain photographs – distributed amongst Luftwaffe pilots as a representation of the type of RAF pilot they were up against. An icon of the Battle as well as one of its most successful pilots, he is uniquely qualified to tell a story that is both universally relevant today, and also distinctly personal.