Neil Ralph Blunden

Pilot Officer Neil Blunden RNZAF
Photo: A Wallis
Neil Ralph Blunden was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on November 4th 1915 to Arthur Reginald Blunden and Nora Tresillian Blunden (nee Shand). His father, Arthur, worked for a stock and station agency and later took over the running of the family property, "The Downs" at Bennetts, which had been in the family since 1851. He was the youngest of six children, two of his three brothers, Arnold and Peter, served with distinction in the New Zealand Army in Greece, North Africa and Italy. The third brother, Terence, managed the family's two backcountry properties before moving to live in Australia. He had two sisters, Janice, a governess and then a nurse, and Betsy who was a pioneer female climber and mountain guide in New Zealand.

Neil started his education at Oxford District School, Oxford, New Zealand, in 1923 and in 1931 proceeded to Christ's College in Christchurch, where his father had also been educated, until 1933. During his time at Christ's College he excelled at gymnastics and was a member of the School Cadets.

In 1934-35, Neil attended Canterbury Agricultural College, Lincoln, where he studied Agriculture and was awarded a Diploma in Agriculture in 1936. He spent the following two years putting his agricultural skills into practice working at the family property, and also for a time in the North Island at his uncle's property. He returned to the college to do a Diploma in Farm Management and Valuation, which he passed, with honours, in 1939.

While attending Canterbury Agricultural College Neil was a keen sportsman. He enjoyed football, tennis, cricket and mountaineering. He played football for the College 1st XV for three years and cricket for the 1st XI for a year. He was also a keen athlete and was awarded his Athletic Blue in 1938.

After leaving college Neil became a Civil Servant, working as a Fields Instructor in Agriculture for the Department of Agriculture in Dunedin. During his time there he played rugby for the Pirates Club in the 2nd XV.

In June 1940, he signed up to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force for the duration of the war. He was 24 years old. On September 29th he was called up to commence his Ground Training at G.T.S. (Ground Training School) Levin and was given the Service Number NZ 403419. After four weeks at G.T.S. he continued his training at No. 1 E.F.T.S. (Elementary Flying Training School), Taieri, where he trained on Tiger Moths. This was followed by a period at No. 2 F.T.S. (Flying Training School), Woodbourne, for Intermediate Flying Training, where he flew Airspeed Oxford twin engine aircraft from December 26th 1940 to February 9th 1941. Neil was awarded his Flying Badge on February 10th 1941 after which he remained at No. 2 F.T.S. and completed his Advanced Flying Training on March 22nd 1941 when he was also promoted, being granted a temporary commission to the rank of Pilot Officer in the RNZAF.

On April 24th 1941, Neil embarked on the first part of his voyage to war onboard the ship Awatea that sailed from Auckland across the Pacific to Vancouver in Canada. From here he travelled by rail to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he boarded a ship which was to sail to Oban in Scotland. During this crossing German U-boats were sighted from the ship, a stark reminder that there was a war on in Europe. He arrived in Oban on June 2nd 1941 and travelled by train to 3 P.R.C (Personnel Reception Centre) in Bournemouth.

Once in the UK, life continued apace for Neil. On June 6th he was in a party of thirty or so airmen from the RNZAF, RCAF and RAF who met the King, Queen and two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, with their dogs at Windsor Castle. The following day, on June 7th he arrived at No. 10 O.T.U. (Operational Training Unit) in Abingdon, Berkshire, where he would learn to fly with a crew. His first flight here was on June 13th flying a Whitley and he completed the course towards the end of August 1941.

Neil's first Squadron posting was to 10 Squadron who were based at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire, flying Whitley V's. He arrived at Leeming on August 29th 1941 and took part in his first operation on August 31st during an attack on the German City of Essen. Over the following months flying over enemy territory at night was to become the norm and Neil continued to fly over Europe gaining valuable operational experience.

On December 14th 1941, Neil was posted to 28 H.C.U. (Heavy Conversion Unit) at Leconfield in Yorkshire where he learnt to fly the four engine heavy bomber, the Handley Page Halifax. Bad weather and a lack of aircraft meant that it was March 3rd 1942 before he was posted back to 10 Squadron at Leeming to continue his operational flying.

In March 1942, Neil was denied another opportunity to meet the King and Queen by an unfortunate incident on the runway at Leeming as this extract from his diary relates:-

Wednesday 25th March 1942
Warm day. Air test in morning and did air firing beside a convoy which I did not like and didn't stay beside long. When returned to base pranged Whitley and something else on intersection of runways so had to land at Croft with about 12 other of our planes! Had lunch and returned at 1500 hrs - couldn't land until 1630 hrs and so missed afternoon visit by King and Queen: 1 ½ hours just circling aerodrome! Very brassed!

Further extracts from Neil's diary in the day's leading up to the attack against Tirpitz give some insight into how the aircrew prepared for such an operation:-

Thursday 26th March 1942
Warm day. Had a briefing at 0915 hrs which A.O.C. came to and gave us a talk and generally conducted it with our C.O. Only Captains and Observers attended - it is most secret and hush hush etc! Ten crews of 10 Squadron are on and wouldn't miss it for pounds! Managed to get Ganger unscreened for it too! As is Jack Watts and Angus Buchan. Did air test in P.M in 'D'. Did air-firing and all but 3 guns jammed! Whilst up the brakes went for a burton and had to land without brakes. Stopped well short of runway end and taxied right back to dispersal, but didn't turn there!

Friday 27th March 1942
Cool day. Low cloud 1000'. Set course about 1200 hrs for Lossiemouth in N. Scotland. Approx 1 ¾ hrs flight. Brakes became U/S soon after being airborne and had to land on a short runway (grass only) without any - same as yesterday. Coped ok. Bit of a party in evening.

Saturday 28th March 1942
Cold day. 5-8/10ths cloud 3-5000 ft and good vis. Target area no good for tonight so we can have evening off till 12.30 ie. 0030 hrs. Ground crew have fixed up brakes and I taxied 'D' to her dispersal point in the afternoon. Had crew out there and we decided upon dinghy drill and odds and ends etc. After tea ie 1700 hrs we of 'D' fame walked into Lossiemouth village - 2 miles - and spent a reasonably quiet evening. Came back and had supper in Sgts mess.

The last entry that Neil Blunden made in his diary was on Sunday 29th March 1942, the day before his final operation. He was quite obviously a very thorough pilot who kept his crew well informed of their objective as can be seen in his last entry:-

Sunday 29th March 1942
Warmer day and some sunshine. Met no joy for this evening - decided on at briefing at 1530 hrs. Quiet evening in Mess and went to bed at 2130 hrs. After briefing cancelled I got crew together and showed and explained to them the target and my plan of action.

The following evening, Monday 30th March, Pilot Officer Blunden and his crew, along with nine other 10 Squadron Halifaxes, took off from RAF Lossiemouth. The target was the German Battleship Tirpitz, which was moored in Fættenfjord in Norway. The Halifax, W1044 ZA-D that he was flying crashed in the Hemnefjord area not far from the target with the loss of all onboard. The body of Pilot Officer Neil Blunden was never recovered.

Neil Blunden is commemorated on panel number 114 of the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey, England, and by an oak tree which was planted at Bennetts on the road between Oxford and Cust where he grew up. His name also appears on the Roll of Honour at the Oxford Town Hall, New Zealand, Christ's College Chapel in Christchurch, New Zealand and at Wigram Air Force Base, Christchurch, New Zealand.

My grateful thanks to the relatives of Neil Blunden for assistance with this page and for their kind permission to publish extracts from Neil's personal diary.

The full entries of Neil Blunden's diary can now be read on this website covering the period from when he left New Zealand on 29th April 1941 until the day before he died on an operation to bomb Tirpitz. Click here to view the diary entries.

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