Neil Thorsen tells the story of his uncle and namesake, who he never knew — Pilot Officer Neil Frederick McLean.
"My mother May was in the Hamilton nursing home having given birth to me on October 26, 1941, four days before Uncle Neil was to lose his life.
I was to be called Kenneth after my wonderful father. Mum's father, Charles McLean, came into the room to tell her that she had lost her younger brother missing in action.
"I think you should call your little boy Neil," he said. It is a name I am extremely proud of."
The two red Flanders Poppies disappeared quickly in the slipstream from the Dover to Calais ferry. This was my tribute to a man I never met, but who I have loved ever since my mother told me his story.
A few short weeks later my wife Jo and I had a night in Mannheim, the city Neil had bombed from his Halifax and then lost his life on the flight home from his next sortie, as the German artillery improved its accuracy.
Neil was born at Hataitai, Wellington on March 28, 1915 to Charles and Mary (nee Bartlett) McLean. He attended Tokanui School in 1923-28; Te Kawa School 1928-29 and Hamilton Technical School from 1930-33.
He had brothers Jim and Charlie, and sisters Phyllis and May. (The sisters married brothers Ron and Kenneth Thorsen — Neil is a cousin to Te Awamutu Courier sports editor Colin Thorsen).
Neil was a fine sportsman, good at golf and rugby — a primary school representative and in the 1st XV at Hamilton Technical School and in his House First XI at cricket. I would have enjoyed his company.
It is interesting that after Neil's father died, his mother Mary came to live with us on my father's dairy farm that was a couple of kilometres up the road from Brightlands.
In the many years she stayed with us I can only recall one conversation we had about Neil.
Nan told me that her son had been a very good sportsman at school, but she didn't mention which sports.
She also told me that one of Neil's friends had died from drinking cold water too quickly after a cross country race.
Neil went to work for his father at Brightlands farm after he left school.
His Application for Enrolment in the Civil Reserve of Pilots in July 1937 shows he didn't enrol for the University Entrance examination, stating that he had 'four years Trade Engineering Course which included Technical Electricity, Applied Mechanics, Practical Mathematics, Workshop Theory and Practice, Machine Freehand and Instrumental Drawing. He also achieved Grade 1 of the City and Guild of London Institute in Electrical Engineering Practice'.
Neil had flown twice as a passenger in New Zealand Herald Aero Scholarships. He was accepted and assigned to the Auckland Aero Club for training when he gained his A Flying Licence in 1938, flying a DH60 Moth.
He was also authorised to fly a DH82 and a Rearwin Sportster.
Neil's father appears to have been a founder of the flying club at Rukuhia and Neil a member.
In March 1940 he applied for war service in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. On July 19, 1940 he applied to join the Air Force Reserves, aged 25.
I can state clearly that Neil was tall, dark and handsome (as evidenced from the head and shoulders photograph of him in his uniform and peaked cap that hung in the hall of my home as a boy).
He was six foot and half an inch tall with a 36 and a half inch chest with dark hair, hazel eyes and a fair complexion. He was obviously intelligent and had a good sense of humour as revealed in his letters.
It's no wonder that there was a mutual attraction between the young farmer and beautiful Auckland lady, Emily Heron.
After a short courtship they were married at the St Andrew's Church in Te Awamutu on December 26, 1940.
Neil was enlisted for aircrew training in October 1940 at the Ground Training School, Levin and the day after his wedding posted to the No. 2 Elementary Flying Training School, New Plymouth, to commence his elementary flying training.
On February 8, 1941 he went to No. 3 Service Flying Training School, Ōhakea where on March 24 he was awarded his flying badge, and commissioned as a Pilot Officer on May 3.
On May 26 he embarked for the United Kingdom. He and Emily had been married for five months to the day and he died in another five months.
Neil's shift to the UK was by way of Canada and Pilot Officer McLean arrived at No. 3 Personnel Reception Centre Bournemouth on July 3, 1941.
On July 19 he was posted to No. 10 Operational Training Unit, Abingdon, Berkshire, to complete his training on Whitley bomber aircraft and then on September 28 to No. 76 Squadron, Middleton St George, County Durham for operational flying. The airfield at Middleton St George is now Durham Tees Valley Airport.
As pilot of a Halifax bomber, he took off from this airfield to take part in four operational flights.
I have a few of the letters he wrote home.
On August 20, 1941 to mum and all: This is just a short note along with these snapshots. Just a few at a time in case they go down and I can't get many printed at a time.
I am really very well and doing fine. I didn't care much for the idea of going onto these Whitleys but now I am very pleased with them. They are nice to handle and well-armed and have a wonderful reputation for always getting home and that sure suits me eh what.
Well I think most of the news goes into the other letters so I'll say cheerio. Trusting this finds you all very well.
Your loving son Neil
On October 23, 1941 Neil wrote this letter to his brother Charlie, his wife Barbara and family (including Malcolm who is mentioned later): You would be amused to see the take-off and landing of the Halis. The pilot works like a one-armed paperhanger with the second Joe and engineer giving him a hand. They are very nice in the air but a bit hard to handle round the ground.
Neil's Log Book graphically details his four sorties.
On October 12 Neil was second pilot on Halifax L9563 under Flt Sgt Morin. They returned from bombing Nurnberg after a flight lasting eight hours and 55 minutes.
On October 20 the same crew on L9523 bombed Wilhelmshaven and returned safely after five hours and five minutes in the air.
Two days later the same crew and aircraft successfully returned after seven hours and 15 minutes from a raid on Mannheim.
Then on October 31 Neil left with a new skipper, Flt Sgt O'Brien, on L9602 to attack a target at Dunkirk. The terrible message written in red ink by the Officer Commanding B. Flight said OPS. FAILED TO RETURN TO BASE.
Neil wrote the letter on the 23rd while in London for two days so he had so few days to enjoy life before his last fateful flight.
Twenty-five aircraft left their base at Middleton St George, Durham, Yorkshire on the 31st for the raid on Dunkirk; 24 returned but the German gunners only success was the shooting down of Neil's four engine Halifax.
The plane took off at 19.17. It was assumed that the aircraft came down in the sea and the crew were lost without trace. Its seven crew have been commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial Panel 63.
Neil had flown 307 hours and it was his fourth operation.
The flames from the Halifax bomber that New Zealanders flew were very easy to spot by the German artillery.
My cousin Malcolm was told by a former Lancaster bomber navigator, himself shot down but who survived years in a Nazi POW camp, — We used to feel sorry for the Halifax crews as the War Office had left off their flame arrestors to save money and they were doing night raids with a six-foot-long flame coming out of each engine.
Neil's father Charlie had a close friend in Jerry Garvitch, a well-known photographer in Petone, Lower Hutt. He had migrated to New Zealand from White Russia.
Charlie wrote to Jerry from his hospital bed: Unfortunately our youngest son Neil was an air pilot and was lost somewhere about Dunkirk on Oct. 31 1941. Not at time of evacuation but his objective was Dunkirk. He was flying a Halifax 4 engined job. He was located in north of England and was not heard from time he left the airfield. He had been a lot over Germany.
Charlie carried Neil's last letter in his wallet until he died on May 30, 1950.
Neil's medals, which included the 1939-45 Star, Aircrew Europe Star, War Medal 1935-45 and NZ War Medal, were sent to his widow in Mt Eden.
Emily would have received these with pride, but also with deep sadness over the shortness of her marriage to the handsome farmer and Air Force Officer. Emily received her late husband's Log Book on March 17, 1948 and his King's Commission on May 8, 1945.
I met Emily before her remarriage to Bill Turner. I stayed with her in her Mt Eden home and vividly recall sitting on her bed one morning as we talked about my uncle Neil.
As I was tall with hazel eyes maybe she saw a bit of Neil in me. I hope so.
Malcolm gave me Neil's Log Book and medals, a gesture I deeply appreciate. I wear the medals with a great deal of pride tinged with regret that I never had the chance to embrace my cherished uncle. He gave his life so I could have a tomorrow.