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Gun Button to Fire a Hurricane Pilot's Dramatic Story of the Battle of Britain
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Gun Button to Fire a Hurricane Pilot's Dramatic Story of the Battle of Britain (Hardback)
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Product Synopsis

The amazing story of one of 'the Few', fighter ace Tom Neil. This is a fighter pilot's story of eight memorable months from May to December 1940. When the Germans were blitzing their way across France, Pilot Officer Tom Neil had just received his first posting - to 249 Squadron, in process for forming at RAF Church Fenton in Yorkshire. Nineteen years old, fresh from training at Montrose on Hawker Audax biplanes he was soon to be pitch forked into the maelstrom of air fighting on which the survival of Britain was to depend. By the end of the year he had shot down 13 enemy aircraft, seen many of his friends killed, injured or burned, and was himself a wary and accomplished fighter pilot. Tom Neil is one of only a handful of veterans still alive today. The average age of surviving veterans is 91. Only 20 veterans out of 2947 official Battle of Britain pilots are fit enough to attend Battle of Britain Fighter Association events (although around 90 are still alive in total). He is 89 and lives in Suffolk with his wife who was a Fighter Command plotter when they met in 1940.

He flew 141 combat missions (few pilots reached 50) mostly from North Weald airfield in Essex, and shot down 13 enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain. Tom Neil was one of the pilots the War Ministry used in their propaganda at the time of the Battle of Britain partly because of his height (6 ft 4) and his good looks. Tom Neil flew with James Nicolson at the time he won the only Battle of Britain Victoria Cross.

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Staff Choice

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 as too light-hearted, his tone too buoyant. 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, although 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, both then and, if they survived, since. 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 the ultimate military epic and also distinctly personal.

Reprinted with permission by

Charing Cross Rd Bookshop - 22/02/2011


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