A Noble Man
Neville Duke was an exceptional airman. Here, Graham Pitchfork relates his wartime exploits, while Ken Ellis examines his test piloting career
One of Britain’s most charismatic and respected airmen is Neville Duke. During the 1950s his exploits at the annual Farnborough airshow made him a household name and a hero to thousands of air-minded boys – not least the authors. Before this, he had already established himself as one of the RAF’s greatest fighter pilots.
Born in January 1922, he spent his early life in Kent. By the age of seven he’d become fascinated by flying, saving his pocket money to make models and for joyrides, including a number with Sir Alan Cobham’s ‘circus’.
In the summer of 1939 Duke applied to join the Fleet Air Arm but became frustrated at the delay in processing his application, so he joined the RAF in June 1940, just six months after his 18th birthday.
He started his flying tuition on Tiger Moths at White Waltham, Berkshire, going solo after 8½ hours’ dual instruction. He continued his training at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, with 1 Elementary Flying Training School before moving to 5 Flying Training School at Sealand, North Wales, where he was introduced to the Miles Master advanced trainer. In February 1941 Duke was presented with his ‘wings’ and commissioned as a pilot officer.
He was introduced to the Spitfire when he went to 58 Operational Training Unit at Grangemouth, near Edinburgh. After six weeks, and with 26 hours on Spitfire Mk.Is, Duke received the posting he wanted and in April left for Biggin Hill in Kent to join 92 Squadron, equipped with the Mk.Vb.
At Biggin Hill he found himself surrounded by some of the most famous names from the Battle of Britain: the wing leader was Wg Cdr ‘Sailor’ Malan and in command of 92 was Sqn Ldr Jamie Rankin.
Duke’s first victory was scored in June when he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Dunkirk, followed a few weeks later by a second. He had already been credited with damaging two others.
When 92 moved north in October 1941 and away from the action, he was posted to North Africa to join 112 Squadron. On arrival at the Egyptian landing ground at Sidi Hanneish he discovered the unit flew Curtiss Tomahawk Mk.IIs.
He soon discovered the American fighter’s performance came nowhere near that of the Spitfire, and in four operations 14 were lost against superior German fighters. A month after arriving in the desert, Duke was shot down twice in the space of six days, but each time managed to crash-land.
On the first occasion, during a sweep over the El Gobi area, he fell victim to German ‘ace’ Otto Schulz. After walking away from his wrecked aircraft, Duke met a forward patrol and was picked up by a passing Lysander. Six days later, on December 5, a Bf 109 damaged his Tomahawk and he came down near Tobruk, Libya.
The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at www.flypast.com