Obituary courtesy of The Daily Telegraph
Lieutenant Colonel Ian Neilson, who has died aged 98, waded ashore on Sword Beach during the afternoon of D-Day; a Royal Artillery officer, and a flight commander on an air observation post (AOP) squadron, it was his task to establish an advanced landing ground for the squadron’s Auster aircraft.
He met up with his ground party before setting off on his motorcycle to find a suitable location for his unit, No 652 (AOP) Squadron. He selected land at Plumetot near Ouistreham, which he first had to clear of explosives. He then alerted his squadron waiting at Selsey Bill and the first five Austers arrived early on D-Day plus two with the remainder and the squadron transport and ground support arriving shortly after.
Neilson was then able to resume command of his flight and his flying duties in support of the 3rd Division, directing fire from the three artillery regiments of 5 Army Group Royal Artillery. He undertook the squadron’s first flight recalling that “it all looked completely peaceful.”
Soon after arriving in Normandy, two replacement aircraft were required and Neilson and another pilot flew to Britain to collect them. After a major shopping trip for beer and fresh bread, the two heavily-overloaded Austers were flown back to France.
Having trained alongside the 3rd Division for three years, Neilson was anxious to get on with supporting the advancing troops with artillery cover. His flight closely followed the advance, directing artillery and naval gunfire and undertaking liaison and reconnaissance tasks. On one occasion he observed a 5.5 in shell “passing onwards and upwards beneath my left wing”. On another occasion he found himself at 2,700 ft in the middle of a dogfight between four Spitfires and three FW 190s, “who were all much too busy shooting at each other to worry about me in my Auster IV”.
Later in the campaign, his tasks included aerial photography and flying agents to meet up with their contacts in the Netherlands. Neilson handed over command of his flight early in November 1944 having been selected to become the first GSO2 AOP in HQRA 21 Army Group, though he retained his own Auster allowing him to follow the advance across Europe, including observing the Rhine Crossing, “at 4,500 feet, without interference from German fighters”
Neilson flew 55 operational sorties over north-west Europe in his Auster and was awarded the DFC, the citation recognising that “most of the initial reconnaissance and preparation had fallen on his willing shoulders and as the success of subsequent operations showed, had been well carried out”.
Ian Godfrey Neilson was born in Glasgow on December 4 1918 and attended Glasgow Academy before studying Law and Forensic Medicine at Glasgow University. He joined the Territorial Army in 1938 and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery. In 1940 there was a call for gunner officers to undertake AOP training. After qualifying as a pilot, he was a founder member of the first AOP squadron, No 651. Showing natural flying and staff talent, he was posted to form the second squadron, No 652, where he commanded B Flight.
After VE Day, Neilson was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed CO of No 3 War Crimes Investigation Unit, based at Bad Oeynhausen, a testing, and often harrowing, job involving coordinating teams in France, Belgium and Germany and directing pathologists and gravediggers.
Neilson returned to Britain in autumn 1946 and completed his examinations at Glasgow University, which qualified him to practice as a solicitor, when he enrolled as a member of the Royal Faculty of Procurators in Glasgow. He joined the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) in Edinburgh, where he was appointed Scottish secretary. He worked for the RICS for 19 years, moving to the London headquarters office in 1953.
After the war he retained close links with the TA and formed No 666 (Scottish) AOP Squadron, which he commanded until 1953 taking his flights on regular weekend AOP sorties and annual training camps. He only reluctantly resigned his TA commission when he left Scotland. His last flight was on December 1 1953, when he took an Auster from Scone near Perth to Turnhouse, Edinburgh, where he handed over command. He received the Territorial Decoration in 1954.
From 1966 to 1974 he served as national secretary of the Boy’s Brigade then became clerk to the Governors of the Cripplegate Foundation until 1982.
Neilson was appointed Chairman of the AOP Officers’ Association in 1994 and helped to ensure that the association remained active and relevant well into the 21st century, among other things helping to steer the commissioning of an AOP Memorial at the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop.
A man of great energy, Neilson undertook numerous honorary appointments and was a Liveryman of the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators. He was an avid golfer – proud of his hole-in-one at Wentworth – and a fearless sailor; he sang with the Epsom Choral Society and the Marlborough College Choral Society. He wrote about his experiences in his book, Air OP – Action Remembered (The Air Observation Post 1940 – 1957).
In July 2015 the French President appointed him as a Chevalier de l’Ordre la Legion d’Honneur.
In 1945 Ian Neilson married Alison Aytoun, who survives him with their son and daughter.
Ian Neilson, born December 4 1918, died January 20 2017