Obituary: Ian Neilson DFC, Legion d'Honneur

Ian Godfrey Neilson, DFC, Legion d'Honneur: Born, 4 December, 1918, in Glasgow. Died, 20 January 2017, in Marlborough, Wiltshire, aged 98

Ian Godfrey Neilson, DFC, Legion dHonneur: Born, 4 December, 1918, in Glasgow. Died,  20 January 2017, in Marlborough, Wiltshire, aged 98

Picture: contributed by writer
Ian Godfrey Neilson, DFC, Legion dHonneur: Born, 4 December, 1918, in Glasgow. Died, 20 January 2017, in Marlborough, Wiltshire, aged 98 Picture: contributed by writer

Ian Neilson, a Royal Artillery officer from Glasgow, was the man who set up the means for directing both the Allied naval bombardment and field artillery shooting as the Allied invasion of Normandy began on D Day June 6 1944.

So effective was that shooting, from 15 in naval guns, 5.5in and 4.5 in medium guns, and 25-pounder field guns, that German infantry and Panzer reinforcements were crucially delayed – but none of it could have been done without Neilson’s bravery and resourcefulness in the invasion’s first hours, which won him, as an army aircraft pilot, the Distinguished Flying Cross. France awarded him the Legion d’Honneur in 2015.

His task on D-Day was to get ashore by landing ship tank (LST) and, using a small army-issue James motorbike, explore the still-enemy terrain and find a landing-ground for his No 652 Air Observation Post Squadron’s Auster IV aircraft. The hair-raising hours he spent, inland from Sword Beach near Ouistreham, before he succeeded, included crossing the battlefront with bullets whizzing around his ears, and stumbling on a minefield. One possibility, near the bridges on the river Orne and Caen canal, had to be ruled out because it was covered with crashed British gliders.

He chose a field near the village of Plumetot, six miles from Ouistreham,and a day later – after he had organised a party to blow up obstacles including a concrete water trough, electricity pylons and enemy anti-landing poles – the first aircraft were ready to operate. Neilson himself flew 55 sorties directing, by radio, the fire of the 15in-gun battleship HMS Warspite and the 15in-gun monitor Roberts, as well as the cruisers Belfast, Mauritius and Diadem.

The 856 sorties that 652 Squadron recorded up to July 20 1944 were generally flown at a few hundred feet, with some risk of being hit by the shells on their trajectory – Neilson remembered seeing a shell from a destroyer pass close under his wing during practice on the Scottish coast.Most of the sorties were in fact in support of 1(British) Corps, with Neilson’s B-Flight supporting 3(British) Infantry Division, as they advanced inland. The Auster pilots also took low-level photographs with fuselage-mounted cameras to help the ground forces.

Once, flying higher than usual at about 2,700 ft, to direct more distant fire, Neilson found himself in the middle of a dogfight between four Spitfires and three Focke-Wulf 190 fighters: “They were far too busy shooting at each other to worry about me”, Neilson said.

Much flying was done at dawn and dusk “because you could see flashes, and pinpoint hostile batteries”, Neilson recalled. “I only saw German tanks on two occasions… I think we had quite an effect.”

“I was delighted to be shooting with the Navy because they were so accurate,” he added. The Navy used a “clock-code”, with 12 o’clock being North, and this proved more precise than the map-references used by gunners on land.

Neilson, a solicitor’s son from Hillhead, Glasgow, felt responsibility early after his father died when he was eight. At Glasgow Academy he would check to see his younger brother, Hugh, was all right. He enjoyed model railway engines. He went on to study law and forensic medicine at Glasgow University, and while training to be a solicitor would spend his lunch hour spotting locomotives at Glasgow Central Station. He joined the Territorial Army before the outbreak of the Second World War, and via a gunnery course in Wales, moved on to join 127 Highland Field Regiment near Forfar. After an air-co-operation course on Salisbury Plain, he determined to learn to fly himself. He became one of a handful of gunner officers who pioneered the Air Observation Post idea, flying with 651 Squadron from August 1941, and 652 Sqn from 1942. Intensive training included flying from aircraft carriers, night flying and radio work.

No 652 Sqn crossed north-west Europe to Breda, from where, in November 1944, Neilson was posted to HQ Royal Artillery 21 Army Group at Brussels as GSO2 Air O.P.

In November 1945 he was put in charge of Britain’s War Crimes Investigation Unit. Neilson requisitioned vehicles, pathologists and gravediggers and solved such mysteries as the summary shooting of captured airmen. He investigated war crimes at Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin.

Neilson married, in 1945, Alison Aytoun, a trainee almoner from Birmingham. They met when she lodged with his family while working at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. They would have two children, Hamish, a planner and landscape architect, and Catherine, an administrator, who lives in the United States. All three survive him; Hugh died in 2002.

Neilson was demobbed in 1946, but formed and commanded No 666 Scottish Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force from 1948-1953,while living in Edinburgh. His civilian career, as an administrator with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and other bodies, later took him to England. He became a sailing instructor. A man of fine wit, he had a lifelong love of golf, especially playing at Troon.

ANNE Keleny