For many, Remembrance Day is an opportunity to show respect for veterans that fought in Canadian war efforts. For John Neil of Little Valley Restorations, it’s an opportunity to remember his father, Jack Neil.
Neil did not know much about his father’s military service until Jack passed away. Since then, Jack’s military history has been chronicled in a book by Nanaimo military historian, Harold Johnstone.
“He’d only talked maybe twice in my entire lifetime and told me a couple stories,” Neil said. “When my Uncle Tom started telling me these stories I thought we need to put this in writing so future generations can appreciate what these guys went through.”
Neil knew his father was a spitfire pilot, and that he had seen combat, but he didn’t know his father’s full story.
Jack Neil was an ace fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during World War II (WWII). Jack enlisted alongside his friend Bill Morgan in 1940. Both had a goal of becoming fighter pilots. At the time, the RCAF was only taking men with a university education, something Jack and Morgan did not have. That requirement was later dropped, and both went on to become pilots.
Jack was trained through the British Commonwealth Air Training Program, (BCATP), which saw pilots from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Poland and France being trained at airfields in Canada. Jack trained throughout 1941, and was posted to West Africa in 1942.
He was stationed in Egypt at an Air Force camp called Kasfareet. Jack was posted to #247 RAF Squadron. #274 Squadron operated out of an airfield named El Adem. His first flight with the Squadron was February 21, 1942. He spent the next few months learning from the more experienced pilots of the squadron.
On May 28, 1942, Jack got his first confirmed shooting down of an enemy plane — a Junkers 87 bomber. Throughout June 1942, Jack carried out several bombing missions against German motor transports. On July 21, Jack was shot down during a bombing raid and forced to crash land in the desert. He was uninjured, and walked an hour back to camp before being picked up by an allied vehicle. Jack was in the air again the next day.
That was not the only time Jack was shot down. On November 5, 1942, Jack was shot down after his right wingtip was shot by anti-aircraft artillery. He lost control of the plane and ejected at 300 feet. Jacklanded in the Mediterranean Sea 10 miles from shore. He inflated an emergency dingy and spent 18 hours paddling to shore. The dingy had no paddles with it, so Jack had to paddle by hand. When he arrived on shore, Jack buried himself and his dingy in the sand to hide out behind enemy lines. The next morning, he was picked up by two Australian soldiers who had been sent out to look for him.
Jack continued flying missions in Western Africa throughout 1942. On March 12, 1943, he was notified that he had been promoted to Pilot Officer. May 1943 was Jack’s final month in Africa. By the time he finished his tour of operations with #274 Squadron, Jack had amassed 365 hours 40 minutes total flying time, 235 sorties against the enemy, three enemy aircraft destroyed, three enemy aircraft probably destroyed, and nine enemy aircraft damaged.
From there, Jack spent a few months training pilots at an allied airbase is Ismalia, Egypt. His first exercise was June 23, 1943. By November, Jack was promoted again to Flying Officer. With his new promotion he made $7.00 a day. His last flight in Egypt was January 29, 1944. Jack was recognized for his significant contributions, and was granted the rare opportunity of leave to visit his hometown of Nanaimo. He sailed from Egypt on February 2, 1944, set sail for Canada from Liverpool on March 17.
Jack landed in Halifax and caught the train to Nanaimo. He arrived home to a hero’s welcome. Jack spent time with his family and friends. He led a military parade down Commercial Street. Before joining the airforce, Jack was popular around town. He spent time on leave going to dances around town, and at one of those dances met the love of his life, Lavina Irene Foster. The pair later married in 1945 when Jack returned home from the war.
On June 15, 1944, Jack was posted to #83 Group Support Unit, Tactical Air Force at Redhill Surrey south of London. His job was to shoot down V-1-bombs dropped by the Germans during the Battle of Britain. Jack shot down 11 bombs, and was moved to frontline squadron role.
Jack went to France on July 1, almost a month after the D-Day invasion. He ran several operations during his time in France. Part of the reason he flew so many missions was because he hoped to earn another leave home.
On August 23, 1944, Jack was shot down for the third time, and ejected over the French countryside. He sustained an injury from cannon shrapnel — some of which remained in his back for life. When he landed, he was taken in by the French Underground and received medical care from them. He was subsequently arrested by the Gestapo and taken as a prisoner of war (POW).
During his time as a POW, Jack was able to find a notebook, a pen, and a pencil. He detailed his experiences in the POW camp in that notebook. Jack also wrote poems about his experience, and love letters to Lavina back in Nanaimo. One of his poems, “Storm” was included in Johnstone’s book.
“For all my comrades on the line tonight,
Out there among the craft and tempestry,
I breath a soldiers prayer begrudging me
This billet where there is a little light,
My empty useless shoulder is contrite,
With warmth & life altho’ my door be barred,
My straw is paradise, but sleep is hard,
With knowledge that I share not in the plight.
We who are prisoners, do not complain,
For we are sheltered from the stormy spaces,
But there are some tonight who face the rain,
And some who do not feel it on their faces.
Ah, what’s the use of shelter over head
If on my heart I feel the rain instead.
Composed at 2am on a rainy moon ‘in the latrine”.
Following the German surrender on May 6, 1945, all prisoners of war were legally free. Jack left the camp by May 12, and made his long journey home to Canada. When he returned home, Jack married Lavina Irene Foster on July 21, 1945. They had five children, Brian, Marilyn, Karen, Susan, and John. Jack never lost his love of flying, and dedicated much of his life as an air instructor for local Air Cadets. He passed away July 13, 1993.
John asked his father what he wanted done with his ashes. Jack requested to have them spread on Wolf Mountain where they used to go fly fishing. John went up with a family friend in a Harvard Trainer aircraft and spread his father’s ashes from the sky.
“We did a fly past of the cenotaph and my mom’s house, then we went over the mountain. I had a bag full of the ashes, and Phil warned me, he said ‘just don’t let go of them, make sure you’ve got both hands on that bag because we don’t want them coming back in the cockpit’… I put my hands out with the bag, and my headset fell off — it was banging on the side of the plane — so I let go of the bag, and I tried to grab the headset with one hand. The ashes were all over the cockpit and in my face, it was bloody mess,” Neil said.
“We got back to the base at Qualicum I offered to pay him for his fuel. He said, ‘absolutely not.’ He said when he was 14 years old my dad had taken him and a bunch of cadets from Nanaimo out to Ottawa. They went to an airbase out there, and he said this exact plane was sitting out there, owned by a doctor and his partner. He said ‘your dad took me out at 14 years old and showed me how to fly this Harvard Trainer. I got out of that plane and said Mr. Neil, one day I’m going to own that plane.”
Years later, Phil Calvin bought that exact same plane for $1 million — the same plane that Jack’s ashes were dropped from.
For Remembrance Day this year, Neil plans to get together with his family and go to the cenotaph in Nanaimo to honour his father.