Extended Biography for SSgt Sydney Neill

Sydney Neill was born in York in 1921. His mother died when he was only 2 years old and he was brought up in what were known as  ‘Scattered Homes’ run by Quakers until the age of 7 when he transferred as a boarder to The Bluecoat School. This educational regime was very strict and very religious: church parade 3 times each Sunday and 3 or 4 times each year to the Minster church dressed in the school uniform of long tailed coat and long woollen stockings. After each outing these ancient garments were mothballed, and they were so pungent that only a moth with a death wish would have ventured near them!

When he was 12 his father remarried and Syd was taken from The Bluecoat School to live at home and completed his education at a local elementary school – which he left at age 14. He went to work – as most local people did – at Rowntree's Chocolate Factory, but this kind of life didn’t suit him and he soon left and went to work on a farm on the Yorkshire Wolds, living in and earning 4/-d a week. This was a very harsh and bleak environment, and at sixteen and half years he wanted more out of life and to see more of the world. He left the farm and took a train to Hull to try and find work on trawlers. Not being successful there he walked to Beverley to join the Army. Arriving very late on a bitterly cold and frosty March night, he slept overnight under a hedge (clad only in a thin jacket) and went into the barracks about 5am covered in frost; there he was taken straight to the cookhouse to thaw out.

At just 5’6” and weighing 108lbs he put his age up a year and joined The East Yorkshire Regiment, taking the King’s shilling. He was issued with a canvas suit, puttees and WW1 webbing equipment etc., and settled into Depot training. The starting pay was 2/-d per day with one free uniform and boots. A compulsory second uniform had to be paid for with the help of a monthly allowance – this being the price of a pair of Army boots (approx 13/-9d – 14/2-d).

On drawing the first week’s pay of 2/0d he was ‘left right, lefted’ to the NAAFI by the squad sgt to purchase Brasso, boot polish and duster, plus a 2/-d pkt. of Woodbine cigarettes for the hovering sgt! A posting to the 2nd Bn, East Yorks Regt followed, where a quick course as drummer and bugler ensued. A ‘Distinguished’ grade in Maths in the Army Education Certificate allowed a transfer to the Royal Army Pay Corps in May 1939, plus 1 stripe and extra pay, also civilian digs in Reading with a subsistence allowance of 3/9-d – 4/-d per day. Civilian digs were 21/-d per week, all meals and laundry inclusive. Life was good until mobilisation in August ’39, when uniform had to be worn at all times, so a double-breasted, black pin-stripe suit he had saved hard for (from Burtons 50/- tailors) had to be consigned to the kitbag unworn, where it ended up as meal for moths!

In December ’39 he was posted to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France, but after 3 weeks it was decided that all BEF pay records would be done in the UK so it was back to Blighty. At that particular time the 2nd Btn East Yorks Regt was defending an extension of the Maginot Line so in Jan 1940, eager for action Syd applied to rejoin the East Yorks Regt.

The response came on 24 May ’40 – report to France! He set off by rail to Southampton, boat to Cherbourg, cattle wagon to Le Mans, Rouen, where the Regimental Transport Officer instructed this non-combatant from the Pay Corps to board a 30cwt and proceed to No 1 Infantry Base Depot. This turned out to be a huge area of white bell tents. The rear end of the 30cwt disappeared from view leaving this bewildered young soldier with a full kitbag, but no rifle or ammo, in a completely deserted Depot. Fortunately, before long, a truck appeared carrying odd bods from the area, the driver having been told to look for stragglers and then to proceed to some farmyard south of Rouen to await orders. A few day later officers and men (including a young Eddy Edwards DFM) set off on a short route march to Elbeuf railway station. The usual cattle wagons eventually appeared complete with straw and horse muck left by the previous occupants. This was soon pushed out with the use of broken orange boxes, and the human ‘cattle’ soon filled all floor space, finding the best squatting position for the journey to Cherbourg and thence to Weymouth via the good ship Maid of Orleans after an uneventful night crossing. They learned from the morning papers of the last few days at Dunkirk, which gave an inkling of the seriousness of it all.

After a few days in the Tarran Flats in Leeds, Syd then rejoined the 2nd East Yorks outside Frome in Somerset (meeting up with Buck Turnbull CGM again). The battalion was preparing to re-enter southern France, so a 48 hr pass was issued and Syd was given the job of pay clerk dolling out approx 14/-d per man. Later the re-entry of southern France plan was scrapped and the now fully equipped battalion started serious training around southern England.

During 1941 Syd made many applications for transfer to the RAF as pilot, navigator, rear gunner and for Special Service Commando and Mercantile Anti Aircraft Artillery – all to no avail. The battalion still had 75% of its pre-war strength, so for the flute and drum players who were pre-war regulars, escaping from this set up proved difficult until November ’43 when an Army Council Instruction called for more glider pilots and commanding officers could not stop applications.

Having passed aircrew selection Syd was then sent to Fargo Camp. Initial training was intended to break the spirit, but he survived the ordeal known to all glider pilots and proceeded to Elementary Flying Training School Booker for the next phase of pilot training. It was at this time that he made a life-long friend of another trainee called Fred Tilley. Flying Tiger Moths was a most enjoyable experience, especially side slips and aerobatics. Navigation was his favourite ground subject.

His next move was to Shobdon for glider training in Hotspurs. After night flying before his final test, he awoke to learn that the second front had already begun – was he ever to see action? North Luffenham for heavy glider conversion training lasted until the middle of July, and it was here that he received his Army Flying Badge, although it had been awarded a month earlier at Shobdon.

Transferred to E Squadron at Down Ampney on 15 August '44 the prospects of some action seemed imminent as various operations were planned – but then cancelled. He was then sent to 14 Flight, F Sqdn, commanded by Lt Packwoad DFC based at Blakehill Farm. More ops were planned and again cancelled. Whilst there he soon made friends with Dave Creevy and Joe Wren and somehow a jeep came into their possession for leisure trips to Swindon when time allowed!

At last ‘Market Garden’ was planned and put into operation. His second pilot was Sergeant Jim Robertson, an experienced glider pilot with a D-Day landing to his credit. On the tow path that bright Sunday morning his glider, chalk no 210, was placed second for take-off. The main occupants were Colonel Barlow (2nd i/c Airlanding Brigade and Town Commandant designate) his assistant and interpreter Lieutenant Commander Jan Wolters of the Dutch Royal Navy, a Senior Medical Officer, Brigade HQ staff plus a jeep.

Flying in loose twos over the North Sea the sky, filled with aircraft, was a wonderful sight. Syd was a little concerned when he noticed combinations forging ahead on the port side – half of 14 Flight had passed before reaching the flooded Walcheren Islands, and he had no means of communication with the tug pilot to find out the reason.

Well into Holland he prepared for the landing at Landing Zone S at Wolfheze and, after cast off, half flap was selected to reduce height from 2500 ft – alas no air pressure (he later learned that the glider had sustained Ack Ack damage). The approach then had to be made in a wide arc with nose up attitude. He could not deviate from his line because of other gliders all around. Touching down inside the landing area with too much speed he decided to try to break off the undercarriage by ramming the nose wheel into the ground. The resultant crash left Jim with a compound fracture to one leg, Syd himself had hit the side of a tree and was thrown clear with nothing more than badly grazed shins and elbow. Lieutenant Commander Wolters had a swollen knee and bruised ribs due to the nose wheel coming through the floor of the glider, and the remainder were unscathed.

A senior Medical officer set Jim’s leg with suck skill that it never had to be reset thereafter. After unloading the glider Syd joined the Glider Pilots on the march to Wolfheze where they formed a defensive position behind some houses and facing a sparsely wooded area. Lieutenant Pickwoad requested three men to reconnoitre for any enemy: Syd was volunteered by (and with) Dave Creevy and Joe Wren. After searching a few houses to the left of the defensive position they entered the woods and discovered two dead Germans lying beside a 3 ton Ford truck which was obviously used as a mobile workshop. The six plug leads had been disconnected, but Dave quickly solved that problem and the trio once again had transport!

Syd put his rucksack into the wagon and joined the other glider pilots advancing towards Oosterbeek. Whilst searching a farmyard he met his mate Fred Tilley again. That night the wagon was parked in the drive of what may have been a German officer’s billet, and Syd spent the night in the back of the wagon on a newish mattress acquired from that building. Syd remembers the morning when anti-personnel bombs from a ME 109 were dropped on the front lawn of this building killing two men (which he believes were Staff Sergeants Banks and McLaren) and wounding some others. Syd was only a few yards away but round the side of the building, and thus escaped any injury.

Almost immediately Dave jumped into the truck and requested a push because the battery was flat. Fortunately the road was downhill and after thirty yards the engine was revving hard. Lieutenant Pickwoad then mustered all available pilots to patrol through the streets and roads of Oosterbeek converging on the Lower Road to Arnhem. Being held up at the railway bridge over this road, it was not advisable to proceed further so a trudge back to the Hartenstein Hotel was ordered. Slit trenches already dug on the western perimeter were then occupied by Syd and about 11 members of the flight.

The back entrance to the Hartenstein Hotel was visible about one hundred yards to the rear and an open field glanced by trees to the front. Morning came and before long the RAF boys were overhead at about 250 ft dropping supplies, the Germans giving them a very hot reception. Syd recalls vividly one Dakota with its starboard engine on fire and the dispatcher clearly visible in the doorway on the port side pushing out a pannier.

During the next forty hours the perimeter was repeatedly attacked through the woods. The Germans that strayed intothe British area got a very hot reception, and the British in return received heavy mortar bombing. Syd could hear the enemy shout ‘Fire’, then after a quick count to eight they would duck right down in the trench as the bombs exploded in the trees and surrounding area. This continued for a couple of days.

Night time was reasonably quiet but a state of alertness was essential as the Germans moved snipers into position under cover of darkness. Lieutenant Pickwoad moved their little section northwards to the houses around Paul Kruger Straat; here Syd was given a sniper’s rifle and positioned in a house adjoining the Kings Own Scottish Borderers (KOSBs) northern defence line.

Opposite this house was a dense wood previously occupied by British troops. Syd left the house about 5am on Sunday with Lieutenant Pickwoad, and another glider pilot, entered the  nearby woods, carrying a PIAT (anit-tank weapon) and bombs, to make an attack on what appeared to be a German strongpoint. For some unknown reason the PIAT was not fired and they retraced their steps, with Syd returning to his sniping position.

By chance his pal Fred Tilley came into the house bringing with him two men of the 7th Bn KOSB as reinforcements and informed Syd of the seriousness of his position in the defence line. Fred had become personal bodyguard to Lt Col Peyton-Reid of the 7th Bn KOSB  and each day they checked all positions and defences; he also attended Divisional HQ for meetings and briefings – thus Syd learned of the withdrawal. (Fred was given an immediate award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal by Brigadier Hackett).

At 9pm with muffled feet, the KOSBs moved out followed by Syd, along a route through gardens until reaching big houses opposite the Hartenstein Hotel, then the open area was crossed very quickly indeed despite airbursts overhead. The darkened path through the woods to the river was marked by white tape and the troops snaking through in single file held the tail of the airborne smock of the main in front.

There was light rain falling as Syd passed the house of Kate Ter Horst and looking up he could see the low cloud as the star shells came over, these two lines of glowing shells in two parallel lines formed the direction to the river. Arriving at a meadow by the Rhine at about 10.30pm Syd waited, with others, in two lines at right angles to the river bank whilst the walking wounded came past in an orderly manner to take their places in the boats. The wait was to be about 4 hours but watching a train burn through from end to end, on the raised track one mile to the east and the continual star shells through low cloud, helped pass the time The small boat operators ferrying the troops did a marvellous job and Syd finally landed unscathed on the other bank where the Military Provost had put down white tape in the direction of the road.

The mufflers round each foot were soaking wet and heavy until the binding broke loose then, with more freedom of movement, Syd continued down the road for about 3 miles until he reached a small isolated building where refreshments of a tot of rum and a blanket were being issued. Not being a spirit drinker Syd ignored the queue of men at the front and went round the back of the building to collect his blanket. A lift in a Jeep for the next few miles was most welcome. It stopped at a larger well lit first-aid post, where a medical orderly brought in a bucket of very hot Oxo. Six or more troops surged forward only to discover no cups. Syd, the old infantry man always carried a mug on field exercises (early morning gunfire, drink half, the other half for shaving) and on this occasion was the first to sample this hot drink after which he left the priceless article for the others.

The barracks at Nijmegen was Syd’s next stop and here his beautiful sniper’s rifle with telescopic sights was taken from him, A good hot meal was provided, then sleeping bags issued. After a sound sleep, a roll call. Many of the lads standing there were without uniform, having discarded boots and clothing to swim the Rhine. Syd travelled to Brussels by road transport and from there to the UK by air, and eventually back to Blakehill Farm.

Lieutenant Pickwoad assembled the remnants of 14 Flight to confirm casualties and prisoners – this being 40-50% of the total force. Next, Syd volunteered for the invasion of Malaya along with other survivors of 14 Flight including Dave Creevy and Lieutenant Pickwoad DFC. At Mushroom Farm where the volunteers were stationed, Syd again met up with his pal Fred Tilley DCM who was now Squadron Sergeant Major. Their destination was India to form 668/9/70 Sqdns, 343 Wing.

Pilots were flown to India occupying any spare seat in any aircraft going east. Syd and a few others left Lyneham in an Avro York, stopping in Sardinia, at El Adem, Cairo, Sharjah and landing at Karachi. After a few days here 668 Sqn entrained for Rawalpindi, then by army transport west-northwest to Fatehjang very near the Afghan frontier. It was not long before he was on a seven day rail journey to Calcutta in carriages that were not built for comfort. Fortunately, frequent delays allowed time to exercise aching bones. A short stay in Calcutta and then northward to board a steamer on the Brahmaputra river to journey upstream to Assam, disembarking at Goolunderghat for an overland journey to Lalaghat.

Syd vaguely remembers this area of bamboo huts with tree all around; Hadrian gliders were parked on a grassy strip nearby and elephants were used to pull the gliders into position for take-off. S/Sgt Mick Hall gave Syd, as second pilot, his first flight in these gliders. Pre-flight checks, air brakes, take-off and towing position behind a Dakota were explained (Mick had assembled and flown these American machines in North Africa). The flight was a two thousand ft release. The following day on 26 February '45 Syd had dual instruction from Capt Lachalles – two flights, then two solo flights with passengers, each flight being a 2000 ft release.

Capt Lachalles then introduced Syd to twin tows, a few solo trips followed with passengers. Kissing the elephants goodbye, it was now time for the jungle course. The course was run by a major of V Force and a lady anthropologist. About six Naga headhunters were in attendance controlled by the lady, who spoke their language. The camp was situated near Tiki and well away from any inhabitants, approached alongside a stream where Syd noticed monkey limbs hung for cooking and smoking!

Each day it was training for survival, demonstrating the various uses of bamboo such as cooking, making twine, setting traps for men and animals and shelters. Trucks would appear each day to traverse the area round the camp and men were dropped off in pairs about 300 ft above the stream leading to the camp. The way was to follow animal tracks and Syd used vines to lower himself a few feet here and there then chopped the thick undergrowth with his machete. Arriving back at base Syd stripped off his jungle suit, pulled off ticks and leeches, then washed and cooled down in the stream.

An interesting move later was to the Officers Training School, Belgaum, situated north east of Goa. Here the whole squadron was assembled for weapons training. The main interest for Syd was .38 revolver, .45 pistol, Tommygun and knife. A colour sergeant and a sergeant taught the pilots to use these weapons, and by the end of the course Syd could put six shots from .38 into a playing card at ten paces using either right or left hand. Man-sized targets were used for Tommy gun practice, the aim being to put just one shot into each target. The war ended in Europe and the Far East and the chance of any more action was zero.

Syd returned to Blighty by the Royal Mail ship the Durban Castle passing, by comparison, a boring three weeks before arriving at Southampton. It was now March 1946 and with eight years regular service behind him, Syd was demobbed. With his wartime gratuity of about £106 and a few weeks’ paid leave, the next stop was London Olympia for a demob suit. Lodging with Fred Tilley and his family in London, Syd received a recall notice from the Army Records Office – report to Fargo Camp. The reason - when Syd transferred to the RAPC in May ’39 he re-signed for 9 years with colours and 3 years reserve, so he now had almost one more year to serve. From the Depot he moved to Netheravon, where he was greeted by Buck Turnbull, who he had not seen since the day after Arnhem.

It was now July ’46 and his first flight in a Horsa since Nov '44, but still granted First Pilot status. The airfield was used to demonstrate to British and foreign officers the dropping of jeeps and guns by parachute from RAF Lincolns etc, also gliders from other squadrons landing as close as possible to the stands seating the aforesaid officers. Field Marshal Montgomery was also there watching a jeep leaving a Mark II Horsa. Syd was demobbed for the second time in May ’47 but a short stay in civvy street was enough, so, back to Fargo in Oct ’47 having signed on for 22 yrs.

In Jan ’48 he was again with N Squadron, flying hours were – as always – hard to come by logging only 26 hours to the end of October. Then a change of scenery with a posting to RAF Schleswigland. With Staff Sergeant Sammy Mail he ferried Horsa gliders to Luneberg, four flights a week, then later back to Netheravon.

In March ’49 Syd was informed that he was being transferred back to the East Yorks Regt – that seemed a let down so he elected to purchase his discharge from the Army for £30. He received a gratuity of £33 for 11 years service.

After leaving the Army Syd did a variety of jobs. He took a correspondence course with the School of Accountancy and gained a proficiency certificate for keeping books to trial balance, and this led him to take an assistant accountant’s job with a small firm in the City of London. Responsible for all ledgers, wages, foreign payments and bills of exchange etc. After further study at night school he passed the first part of the intermediate exam of the Institute of Cost & Works Accountants and became Office & Accounts Manager with a larger company. Talking to a friend with a small building firm Syd learned that he could earn more money in the building trade.As he had married his wife Ivy soon after leaving the Army and they now had a son and a daughter, earning money was his prime objective. So he left his office job and started work with his friend, quickly learning the trade, especially carpentry, and doing the firm’s books in his spare time. In 1968 Syd decided to leave London and moved his family to Exeter. As a self-employed carpenter he had plenty of work there in far nicer surroundings, and both his children had just left school so could start afresh in Devon.

In 1972 he branched into Shuttering Carpentry working on big engineering projects. This entailed travelling to various places: to Unst, the most northern of the Shetland Isles working on a radar station for the RAF on top of a 900ft hill where the weather was cold. Next he worked in Germany on a nuclear power station for 3 years, after that it was back to the UK to work on cruise missile silos at Greenham Common and security work at Aldermaston. By now Syd was 65 years young and as there was no work available in the south west of England he and Ivy sold up and moved to Kent where he hoped to get work on the Channel Tunnel. He didn’t have any luck with that project, but found plenty of other work to keep him employed until he was 73. Then he decided to retire, and they moved back to Devon to be near their family.

Syd was the Glider Pilot Regiment Association Standard Bearer for many years and died in September 2003.

Further Reading:
Glider Pilots at Arnhem by Mike Peters & Luuk Buist (Published by Pen & Sword Ltd)

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