Interview with William Neilson


Interview with William Neilson


William Neilson grew up in Edinburgh. After training as a pilot in Canada and the United States he served as a staff pilot at Number 1 Air Armament School RAF Manby. He discusses low level bombing practice. He was demobbed in 1946 and became a civil aviation pilot.




Temporal Coverage




00:31:20 audio recording


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WN: Yeah.
WN: I’m William Neilson. I was born in Fife in 1923. And my elder brother Jim and I were raised by our mother, Jessie. My father and my mother’s two brothers had all emigrated to America in 1925 to escape the post-war depression in the UK. My mother stayed here to look after my grandmother as it was the duty of the daughter in those day to do so. Grannie died in 1933 at the age of seventy three. There were some photographs at home of my Uncle Willie who had been a pilot in the Flying Corps in the First World War. Among the aircraft he flew were a Sopwith Pup. A Sopwith 1 ½ Strutter and a Bristol fighter. When war was declared in 1939 I still had another two years to go before I could sit my final exams and would be free to leave school. I finished my Scottish Highers and with my mother’s reluctant permission I went to Edinburgh to join the Air Force in 1941. On the morning of the first day there were about thirty five to forty volunteers of whom nineteen were soldiers. These nineteen were all hoping to be accepted as air gunners but none were. By late afternoon on the second day only five of us were sworn in for aircrew duties, one of whom was Alex Steadman from Dunfermline. We kept in touch with each other during the next six months of deferred service and became friends. We remained so for the rest of our lives until his death in 2008. I was best man at his wedding in 1944 and he was mine in 1945. We were duly called up in March 1942 and had to report to Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. We spent the next three weeks being kitted out, learning to march, being shouted at, inoculated and learning about beer. Our first payday took place outside the Monkey House in London Zoo. After all this I was posted to 12 ITW at St Andrews. That’s only thirty miles from my home. Alex Steadman was posted to Scarborough. We did the usual ITW things but navigation, Morse code, transmitting and receiving, using the Aldis lamp, aircraft recognition, assembling and stripping down a Vickers K machine gun. More marching. And swimming lessons in case we got shot down on operations later on. The North Sea in April and May was very cold and I’d never done it in all my life until then. After a fortnight we were told that two forty eight hour passes would be on offer every fortnight. There were only two Scots in our fifty strong flight so we got them until the end of the course. I’d only been away from home for five weeks before I came home on the very first weekend pass. Later my one time school friend said I was in the BEF — back every fortnight. All fifty Cadets were interviewed by our CO during the training period. When I asked, when I was asked about my father’s job I said he was professional golfer. When asked what I could tell him about golf my answer was that it was a game invented by the Scots for the torment of the English. Now, the CO was a Scot. He was vastly amused. The pilot/navigator/bomb aimer scheme was introduced during my time at ITW to split the observers work into two separate categories of navigator and bomb aimer in the new four-engined bombers coming into service. After three months at ITW I was posted to 11 EFTS at Perth for pilot training. I went solo after six hours. I learned, I did all my flying from a big grassy field owned by some farmer out in the sticks. The trainees were bussed out there and back every day because Perth Airfield wasn’t big enough to cope with the number of trainees coming through. I know for certain that five trainees from my ITW flight got their pilot’s wings because I met them by chance years later. All these trainees were disbursed to Canada, Rhodesia and America so we lost touch with each other. I had two months waiting in Heaton Park in Manchester between August and September 1942 and met up again with Alex Steadman. We were both posted to 31 Personnel Depot in Moncton, New Brunswick in Canada knowing that we were going to America to continue our pilot training. From Manchester we took an overnight train to the Clyde and embarked on the Queen Mary which had had a collision with the cruiser Curacoa on a trip from Canada. Her bows were all stoved in and been filled with concrete to make her watertight. After five days at sea we docked at Boston, Massachusetts where the Queen Mary was to be repaired. We then had a wonderful rail journey up the east coast through New England and the vibrant colours in the Autumn trees was magnificent and unforgettable. We spent another month at Moncton before getting on a train to Oklahoma — to a place called Ponca City. That took four days. All the instructors there were civilians employed by the Darr School of Aeronautics. My course was the eleventh to be trained there since it opened in December 1941. With a hundred and sixteen members it was the largest to date. There were twenty Americans included and they were all required to have a college education and at least a hundred hours flying experience. It was said that their superiors in the American Air Force didn’t want their trainees to suffer by comparison with us RAF trainees who had come in off the streets with whatever education they had and only a few hours flying at grading school with a maximum of fifteen hours. I went solo again after seven hours on a Stearman PT-17 and went on to a total of seventy hours. Next step up was to the AT-6A or Harvard as the RAF named it, for another hundred and thirty hours. We flew during the course on either the morning or afternoon with ground school during the other half of the day. We were free to roam the skies when we flew solo and could dogfight or chase horses at ground level or fly at trains to frighten the passengers. I never heard of any complaints from the train company about this latter activity. We flew day and night across country and all of us were hoping to fly at the required standard and thus avoid being washed out. That meant being sent back to Canada to be trained as a bomb aimer or a navigator. One of our more curious pupils on my course found out that the flying instructors were prone to leave the door of their rest room unlocked at the end of the day. We were thus able to find out what sort of marks we were being awarded for our flying ability. All recorded on coloured cards with the highest being on white cards. I was pleased to see that most of mine were white which did wonders for my self-esteem. There was no entitlement for leave during the course but mother nature intervened with a heavy snowfall which stopped all flying. There were four courses going through training at any one time so there were about three hundred pupils affected. We were given a week off and five of us who used to hang out together decided to head south for Texas. We got a hundred miles down to Oklahoma City and found out that the snow extended down to Texas as well. So we stayed in Oklahoma City. There was drinking and dancing and dates at 11pm with girls who didn’t finish work until then as well as sightseeing and taking express lifts to the tops of sky scrapers. We were photographed by, many times by Americans who wanted to know, ‘What outfit we belonged to.’ They were confused by our RAF blue uniforms. During the last week in April 1943 all the pupils on my course were sent on a long cross country with another pupil. I was paired with Don McCready. There were seven legs between airfields to the [unclear] so we tossed up to see who would get to fly four legs and navigate three. And I lost. The route was from Ponca City to Amerillo in Texas. Then to La Junta in Colorado. Albuguerque in New Mexico. El Paso, Midland and [Hensley?] in Texas and then back to Ponca City. We spent the night at Midland and were lined up waiting to take off the next morning when three trainee pilots from an American flying school came in to land on the main runway in a cross wind. One after another they all ground looped. Schadenfreude. I didn’t do too very well with my navigation and did a bit more map reading than I should and Mac wasn’t much better but when we got back to Ponca City no one in authority seemed to mind. Maybe they were just relieved to see us back safely after eighteen hundred miles. All the other pairs got around safety except one pair who ground looped at La Junta and were sent back on a twin-engine Beechcraft. The wings exam came at the end of the course in May 1943 and a pass in all subjects was mandatory. I failed in meteorology so I had to re-sit. I hadn’t really got my head around the way the first meteorology exam had been structured so I was very happy to find the format for the next was more to my liking. Ten percent was knocked off because it was a re-sit. So the maximum I could get was ninety percent. I got eighty nine percent. We left Ponca City during the last week in May 1943 and returned to Moncton. The successful Americans went to fly Dakotas in the US Transport Command and eventually DC4s. Twenty three RAF trainees and three United States trainees were washed out during the course. That was a failure rate of fifteen percent for the US and twenty five percent for the RAF. We boarded the train for another four days travel to Moncton and spent another month waiting for a boat back to Britain. My [pause] we sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia on a French liner called Pasteur heading for Liverpool. The Pasteur broke down in mid-Atlantic and took the best part of the daylight hours to mend. We feared the appearance of U-boats while we wallowed in the swell but after the war I learned that there were few U-boats in the mid-Atlantic. The ones on the American side were being refuelled by long range tankers and those in the European side by calling into ports in Germany and France. On our return to the UK we were billeted for six weeks at the Majestic Hotel in Harrogate. I was then posted with Alex Steadman to 40 Advanced Flying Unit in Banff where I was converted to flying twin engine Airspeed Oxfords and added another hundred hours to my flying time. I was expecting that the next posting would be our usual progression to OTU but instead was posted on the 1st of November to 1 Air Armament School at Manby in Lincolnshire as a staff pilot to fly Blenheims. Alex Steadman came as well. He had been posted to fly Ansons at a wireless op school on the Isle of Man but he wangled a change of posting to come with me. From a book I bought in 2014 I learned that in 1941 at 1 Air Armament School the station commander was Group Captain Ivans with the nickname of Ivan the Terrible. He followed regulations to the letter. Every week there was a station parade at which uniforms had to be immaculate and the staff, men and women, were expected to be perfectly groomed. Some engineering and ground staff worked from 6.30 in the morning till 10.30 at night so they didn’t take kindly to being disciplined for being poorly turned out. At the following week’s parade the entire base personnel were assembled in full uniform to salute the raising of the flag. As soon as the lanyard was pulled up a large pair of WAAFs nickers unfolded and started fluttering at the top of the flagpole while a wave of laughter spread across the parade ground. Group Captain Ivans was apoplectic with fury. He demanded to know who was responsible. Only to be met with a stony silence. He then announced that everyone was confined to barracks for seven days. There would be a colour parade every day and after normal working hours all personnel, including WAAFs would march around the perimeter of the airfield in parade dress. This would continue until the culprit confessed. It was clearly an outrageous punishment but within a few days he was replaced in 1943 but when I arrived in 19 [pause] In 1943, when I arrived he was back in charge as station commander once more. Three, three weeks went by before our instructor thought the weather was suitable to fly. I went solo on a Mark 1 Short Nose Blenheim after an hour and a half. I then had another six hours circuits and bumps on the Long Nosed Mark 4 before I was let loose with two bomb aimers to drop practice bombs on the beach north of Mablethorpe. There were four bombing ranges. Each separated by five hundred feet distance from the next. For obvious safety reasons. We flew a clover leaf pattern to drop bombs. That became my working life for the next five months. Weather permitting we were expected to bomb as high as possible up to ten thousand feet. Something went wrong on one occasion and two Blenheims collided over the target area with a total loss of life of all six crew members. Only one body was ever recovered and that came ashore in The Wash. In the Blenheims we practiced low level bombing at two hundred feet to educate bomb aimers destined for Coastal Command. Normally low flying was banned so we made the most of our legal opportunities. I remember low flying up the Yarborough Canal which runs from Louth in the direction of Grimsby. Our low level bombing target was set in a farmer’s field near the canal. So it was a temptation to fly up along the canal after we’d finished bombing. Temptation for me that is because the bomb aimers didn’t have any say on the matter. The swans on the canal would take off in an attempt to escape and would look back at the plane as it got near them. They would never fly out the canal but would land with a great splash of water. Great fun. In May 1944 a Wellington 13 arrived and all pilots were converted to fly it. I had an hour and a half instruction before I went solo and another three hours solo before I was let loose on the bombing ranges. This time with three bomb aimers. I flew both types until the end of July 1944 when the Blenheims were withdrawn. I only had two troublesome occasions with a Blenheim. On the way back to base after an exercise I noticed smoke coming from the port engine. Both engines were throttled back as I was descending to circuit height and the instruments didn’t indicate any engine trouble. There were no visible flames and I had to keep the engine going for safety reasons. I landed with no further problem and ran off the runway on to the grass to leave the runway clear. There had been an oil leak which dripped on to the exhaust and that had caused all the smoke. That was all. On the second occasion I had, had to fly two engine fitters with some spares to Bardney near Lincoln where one of our Blenheims had landed with an engine problem. After dropping off my passengers with their spares I left. I was very interested with the close-up views of so many Lancasters that I forgot an essential part of pre-flight check and off I went. At a hundred and sixty miles an hour I still couldn’t get the aircraft off the ground until I wrenched the control column hard back and raised the undercarriage to reduce drag. I was flying but not gaining height and all the time I was checking for a reason. I discovered I’d forgotten to close the cowling gills. This had spoiled the lift from the upper wing surfaces. The response was immediate and I was up and away. When the pilot of the other Blenheim came back to Manby he met me in the mess and said he’d watched my take off from the control tower. He admired my, ‘Lovely low take off.’ I advised him not to try to emulate me and told him the reason. It was decided to try night bombing. So, in August two other pilots and myself were sent to Catfoss to practice night flying on Wellingtons. The weather turned nastier and nastier and we were sent home after two days. In September we returned to Catfoss for another go and managed to get five nights circuits and bumps before being recalled. Since the Wellington was a heavier aircraft than the Blenheim it was decided that low level bombing in a Wellington should be carried out at four hundred feet. Some of the bomb aimers had trouble getting used to the low level bombsight for, that was used in Coastal Command and they asked me to drop the bombs for them. On the run in to the target I would watch for the triangulation target to disappear under the nose of the aircraft, count to three and use the master switch in the cockpit to drop the bomb. It was dead centre every time. The bomb aimers learned by observation when to drop their bombs at the correct [unclear], so it really wasn’t cheating. It was just a different way of helping them to learn. In November I had another sessions of circuits and bumps at Strubby. Only seven miles south of Manby. For some unknown reason the night bombing proposal was dropped but it was useful experience for me. I found out after the war that my wife’s brother in law, also a pilot, had done his operational tour of thirty ops from Strubby but was on leave in London when I was night flying there. I had only one problem with a Wellington while I was at Manby. I was on a wind finding exercise with three bomb aimers. One was in the nose measuring drift. One was seated at midship and the third was standing in the cockpit just looking about. He looked out at the starboard propeller which had started to vibrate massively. He thought the propeller was about to come off and then would come through the fuselage where he was standing. He’d pulled out his intercom plug and dived into the back of the aircraft. What I then saw was the spinner and the propeller both wobbling about in a very unsafe manner. I promptly pressed the feathering button and throttled back on that engine. Just before the propeller stopped the spinner came off and disappeared over the starboard wing. I felt it hit the tailplane before it fell clear. The prop stayed on but I concluded it was the spinner vibrating loose that had caused the propeller to vibrate. I didn’t restart the engine again in case some damage had occurred that I couldn’t see. I cancelled the remainder of the exercise and flew back to base to make my second single-engine landing at Manby. A policeman on his bicycle eventually found the spinner. I did only once have a bomb aimer who wasn’t keen to fly in a Blenheim when he saw the mag drop and wanted to use another aircraft. I explained my point of view. We could transfer to another aircraft but in any event they would all have the same five hundred revs drop. I said I flew them every day despite the mag drop and was happy to do so. It was normal. He accepted my reassurance and off we went. I flew Wellingtons there until I reached the top of the operational posting ladder. And on the 24th of April 1945 I was posted with Alex Steadman to 10 OTU at Abingdon with an additional four hundred and twenty six. [pause] Is that somebody at the door?
[recording paused]
April 1945 I was posted with Alex Steadman to 10 OTU at Abingdon with an additional four hundred and twenty six hours flying time. I was certainly a more experienced pilot than if I’d gone straight to OTU from AFU. And the first question one asks at a new station was usually about the local beer. Where was the best pub? In Abingdon it was the Lion in the High Street that got the vote. I duly made my way there. By 6 o’clock we were standing in the doorway when I was hailed by an old friend from my Ponca City days. He was there with a WAAF to whom he had just said he had just seen my name on the arrivals list and wondered if he’d see me. We spoke for about a half an hour and he introduced me to the WAAF. He had to go for his last cross-country to complete his flying programme and off he went. I never saw him again. So obviously he’s [unclear] I got myself a crew and started training but after a few weeks I was pulled out and given a more experienced crew from the course ahead of me who had lost their pilot througFh illness. I did another seventy hours flying. Forty by day and thirty by night. I was then posted to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit at Cottesmore in Rutland. I remember one daylight cross-country in the western extremity of the UK and the second leg was along the south coast. A very strong wind was blowing and had blown all the usual smog away and we could see for miles. Down in to the Bay of Biscay. All along the northern European coastline as far as the Frisian Islands. We could see the east coast of the UK past the Thames Estuary. Past The Wash and up as far as the Humber Estuary. The Lancaster was a delight to fly and so easy to take off and land. I once put a Lancaster down after a cross country to Wick and I couldn’t feel the slightest transition from flying to landing. I was sat there with the stick in my lap and the throttles closed. I glanced at the speedo that showed I was doing fifty miles an hour and could no longer be flying. That’s the best landing I ever made in all my flying career. I was told during the course that our night navigation exercises were going to include astral navigation because we were to be posted as replacements to the ten Lancaster squadrons known as Tiger Force. These squadrons were to be sent to Russia to bomb Japan from the north to supplement the bombing campaign being carried out by the Americans. Luckily for us the war ended and the plan was abandoned. We were, I was then posted to 16 Ferry Unit in Dunkeswell in Devon with a view to ferry aircraft to the Middle East. That proposal fell through and we were informed we would be flying aircraft to the Far East instead. That scheme was also cancelled because our demob numbers would be coming up before we could really be used for a useful time. My remaining few months in the RAF were just frittered away in a holding unit at Bruntingthorpe near Leicester. And I was demobbed in 1946 with four and a half years’ service. 6 BFTS turned out fifteen hundred pilots during its existence. I left the RAF as a flying officer on a salary of six hundred pounds per annum. Started at the Ordnance Survey on two hundred and twenty three pounds ten per annum. For the first year I was paid weekly but thereafter monthly. So we had to save hard in that first year so we could survive for a month before being paid monthly in the second year. I joined 14 AFS at Hamble in 1949 and flew Tiger Moths again and then Chipmunks until the year it closed in 1953. I joined the 6 BFTS Club with annual meetings, the Aircrew Association with local meetings in Southampton and Project Propeller with an annual flight in June in a civil light aircraft to various airfields around the country. That’s still ongoing. The first two Associations have now disbanded due to a lack of members as we all become older.
[recording paused]
WN: Civil pilot. We went out to Canada. I went on down to America. Came back and when I came back we were back at Moncton. And the fellow I’d been going around with at ITW, I hadn’t seen him since he’d left ITW, he comes in to the washroom where I was having my morning, doing my morning ablutions. We had a brief five minute conversation and he went out the door. I never saw him again. But there was five of us went around together in the American Flying School. They were all civvies. And Johnny Thompson got washed out. He went back. Became a bomb aimer. The rest, the other four of us we got our their wings. Albert Slade went on to a squadron and he got killed on his first. He was shot down over Denmark. They were on a mine laying operation. He was shot down over Denmark on the night of the 14th 15th of May 1944. So Alex Steadman and I survived because we’d both gone to Training Command for a, for a, it took me seventeen months to get to the top of the operational posting ladder. And he stayed in as I say. He would have been, he was eligible for a group captain’s post but he, he got caught up in one of these financial rearrangements that the Labour Party were so found off. You know, they were cutting money. Cutting money for that. So he was certain there were too many wing commanders you see. So he got, and he had, I think he had four pensions. He had his old age pension [laughs] He got an RAF pension. He’d got, he’d become a civil servant and he worked for the Air Force. He knew the duties of a flight lieutenant, a squadron leader and a wing commander. When these fellas were coming, being posted at the Group headquarters he was able to advise them. Keep them on the right track. Right. And then he got a [pause] he’d, he’d got a, the odd thing is that we were so keen to fly and we got the wish but sitting in the middle of four Merlin engines it made us deaf. You see, that’s the sting in the tail. So your pension. He got a, no he didn’t — yeah. He got a pension for that ,see. So, I went and had my ears examined but it was a nineteen percent reduction. So I didn’t get a pension. I got, I got, I think a lump sum of I about three thousand odd quid which of course was a windfall but with all windfalls you spend it on something you wouldn’t normally spend money on. So, I, I was a warrant officer by the time I got to OTU which pleased me greatly because it tells anybody who wants to know that you’ve been up at least, at least two years flying experience in your, in your pocket you know. But they started then, at OTU they started commissioning pilots so I’m a pilot officer. Could have, could have come straight from a flying school and nobody would know. Then after six months I was a flying officer so that stayed until I came out, yeah. I’ve had a good life. And that, when I was posted to Abingdon Dave [unclear] sitting there talking to this WAAF and he introduced me to her and away he went. He did a night cross-country. I never saw him again. But I was very much taken with this WAAF so I chased her for ten weeks. Used to say I chased her until she caught me and at the end of ten weeks I was waiting for her coming off her shift work at midnight and asked her to marry me. She said yes. I didn’t go down on one knee. I didn’t get a kiss to say seal it with a kiss. She said, ‘I’m starving. The girls have got my supper ready for me. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Of course, the girls said, what did, ‘What did he want?’ She said, ‘I think I’m engaged to be married.’ The girls said, ‘You can’t marry him. You’ve only known him ten weeks.’ They all worked together. They all knew intimately the others lives you know. Well, she said, ‘Oh, I’ll ask him to wait for six months.’ But being a man I went off and saw a minister and arranged for the wedding to be in, call the banns for three weeks, you see. And get the wedding to the fourth week. So, fourteen weeks after I’d met her we were married. Sixty eight years it lasted. Sixty eight years. We were made for each other. Two and a half years ago she went. So, now as I say my mother looked after me for eighteen years. The air force looked after me for four and a half years. My wife looked after me for sixty eight years. And the last two and a half years it’s been, I’ve been going solo. It’s quite an illuminating experience you know. Because one thing I have learned — never to be afraid to speak to anybody because you never know what you’re going to get back in return and it’s sometimes quite surprising. Yeah. Anyway, I was bloody near killed at Shoreham back in the summer. You know it? Do you know about Shoreham?
MJ: On behalf of the International Bomber Command Archive Unit I’d like to thank Bill Neilson at his home in Southampton for his recording on the 16th of November 2015. Once again I thank you.



Mick Jeffery, “Interview with William Neilson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 20, 2024,

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