Gun Button To Fire by Tom Neil

www.amberley-books.com; £9.99 RRP; Softback; 320 pages, black-and-white photographs throughout

For obvious reasons there are a lot of books about World War Two around at the moment, as anniversaries are marked and people in a position to give us first-hand accounts slip slowly out of our reach. This much reprinted book stands out, however, as a lasting legacy to mark the bravery of Tom Neil and his achievements in the Battle of Britain, when he was only nineteen years of age. It also gives testament to one of the most traumatic times in Britain’s history in a way that brings the hellish world to life without turning it into a tale of gung-ho derring-do that often fails to spark any empathy in the reader. Only in his descriptions of his Hurricane and flying does his youthful excitement show through.

For one so young, Neil was able to view events with a calm and undramatic eye that does fire your imagination to understand what it must have been like for those barely out of school to be faced with such responsibility. His matter-of-fact account of what must have been a terrifying and deeply upsetting time in his life, when there were no guarantees that you would return alive and unscathed from a raid, and when daily so many of his friends and fellow pilots did not, makes what he writes about all the more engrossing.

Make no mistake, though, his simple statement of facts does not mean that he was unmoved, or habituated to the terrible loss of young lives or the effects of the destruction, as his vivid memories and the mature, unsensational way he writes his colleagues’ stories show. In one passage he tells of an elderly gardener, tending the rosebushes in front of the airfield mess when a bomb explodes close to him. ‘I had never before seen a person utterly broken by an event beyond his experience and comprehension and was mutely horrified by what I beheld. Here was no dignity, not even a flicker of retaliation or resistance. Just silent, shivering defeat, so greatly in contrast with the man’s thick frame and brawny, veined arms.’

An Epilogue added after the first edition of the book brings up to date the histories of 25 of the members of 249 Squadron who fought in the Battle of Britain. It recounts what happened to those who died in those eight months and to those who lived on through the war and beyond. Reproductions of Tom Neil’s logbook for the 1 July to 30 November 1940, also found at the end of the book, bring home the relentlessness of the pilots’ lives in that period and contain his very human observations and contemporary catalogue of what he writes about with hindsight so well. SH