Churchill’s letter to Lymington Spitfire ace fetches thousands at auction

neville duke
Neville Duke in his flying days

A LETTER sent by Sir Winston Churchill to a decorated Second World War fighter pilot from Lymington has sold at auction for thousands of pounds.


Squadron Leader Neville Duke, who downed 28 enemy aircraft, was commended in the handwritten letter by the former British Prime Minister for his stoicism in taking to the skies in a supersonic prototype hours after a catastrophic air accident.

Mr Duke, who became the lead test-pilot for Hawker after the war, flew a Hawker Hunter P107 at the Farnborough Air show in September 1952 following a display that went wrong and ended in the deaths of a pilot and 29 spectators.

Churchill’s letter to Neville. (Picture: Sotherby’s)

The pilot, John Derry, had been a friend of Mr Duke for many years but perished when the prototype de Havilland DH disintegrated mid-air.

In the letter, sent the day after the tragedy, Sir Winston acknowledged Mr Duke’s “stoic bravery” following the “shocking accident”. Sir Winston added it was “characteristic” of those who had served in 615 squadron, such as Mr Duke.

Auctioned online by Sotheby’s, the letter was bought by an unidentified bidder for £8,125, exceeding its pre-sale estimate of £6,000-£8,000.

During his Second World War service Mr Duke flew Kittyhawks and Spitfires in North Africa. The 485 operational sorties he flew enabled him to become became the most successful pilot in the Mediterranean theatre of war.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two bars, the Distinguished Service Order and the Air Force Cross.

His subsequent work as Hawker’s chief test pilot, at a time when transonic and supersonic flight was at an experimental and dangerous stage, resulted in him being awarded an OBE.

Mr Duke also established two word air speed records in the 1950s, including one at sea level in 1953 when he flew an all-red jet Hunter at 728mph.

Neville owned numerous light aircraft

He also commanded the 615 (County of Surrey) Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, of which Sir Winston was honorary air commodore, and received many national and international honours in addition to his gallantry awards.

In 2002 he received the Air League’s Jeffrey Quill Medal and gained the rarely awarded and internationally prestigious Award of Honour from the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators for his “unique and incomparable record”.

Mr Duke and his wife Gwen, who were married in 1947, owned numerous light aircraft over the years and regularly flew to airshows, air rallies and reunions.

He died in 2007 aged 85 after falling ill having flown Gwen in a light aircraft to Popham in Hampshire.