One of Britain's greatest WW2 flying aces dies after one last flight with his wife

13th April 2007
Daily Mail

An RAF Spitfire (left) battles with a Luftwaffe plane over the White Cliffs of Dover during the Battle of Britain, an aerial battle fought over South East England between July 1940 and May 1941

Aviation historians have been paying tribute to one of Britain's most decorated Second World War fighter pilots who died shortly after his last flight with his wife.

Squadron Leader Neville Duke, 85, flew 485 operational sorties during the war and achieved 28 air combat victories, including seven aircraft shot down in seven days, to become the most successful pilot in the Mediterranean theatre of war.

Sqdn Ldr Duke, from Lymington, Hampshire, was flying his aircraft G-Zero with his wife Gwen, 86, when he landed at Popham airfield in Coxford Down, Winchester, on Saturday afternoon and collapsed a short time later.

Squadron Leader Neville Duke, 85, flew 485 operational sorties during the war

He had suffered an aneurysm and was transferred to St Peter's Hospital in Chertsey, Surrey, but died overnight, a spokesman for Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, where he was honorary president, confirmed.

The museum spokesman said: "We were very fortunate and always immensely proud that he should have agreed to serve as our president.

"The unstinting support that he gave us over so many years was outstanding.

"Conspicuous by his frequent presence at the museum, he will always be remembered for his courtesy and charm when with us and meeting our visitors - a true gentleman in every sense of the word."

He went on: "Neville was a highly-decorated Second World War fighter pilot accredited with the destruction of 28 enemy aircraft.

"Yet he was modest in the extreme, always eager to sing others' praises rather than his own and to seek the background rather than the spotlight.

Wearing his flying helmet and goggles, Neville waves to onlookers

"We have lost a very dear friend and he will be sorely missed."

During his time as a fighter pilot, Sqdn Ldr Duke was also shot down twice, including once by the German ace Otto Schulz.

After the war he became a celebrated test pilot for Hawker flying the Hunter fighter to the world speed record and the Harrier - before injuries caused by forced landings led to his retirement from this dangerous occupation.

But the accidents and near misses did not put him off the skies, and he continued flying, accompanied by his wife, until his death.

In December 2005 after 65 years in the skies, his medals and memorabilia were sold at auction for 138,000 to a private collector, who intended them to remain in Britain.

The fighter ace decided to sell the collection - including his Distinguished Flying Cross with two bars, his OBE, his wartime diaries, his mother's scrapbook of newspaper cuttings, and log books - because of security fears and the cost of insuring the items.

Smartly dressed, the brave soldier poses for a forces picture

The artefacts - including the parachute ripcord pull that Sqdn Ldr Duke was still clutching after he bailed out of his flak-damaged Spitfire over Lake Bracciano, Italy in 1944, and the original US Air Force "dome" flying helmet worn by him in his World Air Speed Record flight in September 1953 when he took the record from the Americans - went under the hammer at Dix Noonan Webb in Mayfair, London.

The money was also intended to secure the financial future of the pilot and his wife.

Last month, the couple celebrated 60 years together with their diamond wedding anniversary.

The spokesman for the museum, which permanently displays his record-breaking Hunter, added:

"With this latter date in mind, the timing of Neville's death is particularly poignant and our hearts go out to Gwen, who is in all our thoughts and prayers."