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Wheeler, Sir (Henry) Neil George [Nebby] (1917–2009), air force officer, was born on 8 July 1917 in Plymouth, the younger son of Thomas Henry Wheeler (d. 1933), bandmaster of the 4th Worcestershire regiment, later director of music for the South African police, and his wife, Wilhelmina, née Abernethy. , army officer and special operations officer, was his elder brother. Like him, Neil Wheeler was educated at Water Kloof House, Pretoria, and St Helen's College, Southsea, Hampshire.

In 1935 Wheeler was awarded a dominion scholarship to attend the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell. It was there that he acquired the nickname Nebby, after an instructor described him as ‘nebulous’. In 1937 he joined 207 squadron at Worthy Down, where it was equipped with Fairey Gordons. He became a flight commander in 1939, moving with the squadron from Cranfield to Cottesmore and then Benson, where the squadron became part of 12 officer training unit, and where Wheeler was engaged in instruction. Wishing to take on a more strenuous role, in 1940 he took the unusual step of visiting the Air Ministry, to put his case. He was subsequently posted to the then top-secret photographic development unit at Heston, and spent the next eighteen months engaged in photographic reconnaissance, flying unarmed Spitfires modified to fly over long ranges. Based at a variety of locations, from Wick to Cornwall, he was mainly involved in naval reconnaissance, but also endured heavy anti-aircraft fire while engaged in low-level reconnaissance of ports, troop movements, and radio and radar sites in Germany and occupied Europe. He was awarded a DFC in August 1941, having completed fifty-six operations. On 6 May 1942 he married Alice Elizabeth Weightman (b. 1917), a flight officer in the WAAF, and daughter of William Henry Weightman, civil servant. They had a daughter, Caroline (b. 1944), and two sons, Nicholas (b. 1945) and David (b. 1948).

Soon after his marriage, Wheeler was involved in a serious car accident, which led to several months' recuperation. On return to active service in November 1942, by now a squadron leader, he was posted to Coastal Command and given command of 236 squadron, equipped with Beaufighters, and part of the newly formed North Coates shipping strike wing, based near Cleethorpes. The strike wing had suffered many casualties in previous attacks on shipping, and Wheeler's predecessor as squadron leader had been among the losses. Seeing the need for new tactics, he argued successfully for an integrated approach, in which the strike wing's 236 and 143 squadrons would first sweep in to suppress the convoys' flak defences using cannon and rockets, and the Torbeaus of 254 squadron would then unleash their torpedoes against the merchant ships; the whole force would fly in close formation, and be accompanied by a fighter escort to deal with enemy air attacks. After intensive training the new system was tried out in April 1943, and was declared a resounding success: a convoy of eight merchant ships accompanied by eight flak ships was attacked off Rotterdam in a four-minute attack which sank the 5000-ton Hoegh Carrier with its valuable cargo and disabled several other ships, without any loss to the RAF. The tactics were repeated on further occasions, and by the end of the year the strike wing could claim to have sunk more than 35,000 tons of enemy shipping. Wheeler remained in command of 236 squadron until August 1943; for his service with the squadron he was awarded a bar to his DFC and the DSO, both in 1943. He was then withdrawn from operational duties and sent to the RAF Staff College and United States Army Staff College. He ended the war with appointments on the Cabinet Office's strategic planning staff and then on the directing staff of the RAF Staff College.

In May 1947 Wheeler was posted to the headquarters of Far East Air Force, based in Singapore, but on the outbreak of the Malayan emergency he was given command of RAF Kuala Lumpur. He returned to England in 1949, where he was successively on the directing staff of the Joint Services Staff College (1949–51), wing commander, RAF Marham (1951–3), on the air staff of the Air Ministry (1953–4), staff officer in the directorate of operational requirements (1954–7), and assistant commandant of the RAF College (1957–9). Two years as officer commanding RAF Laarbruch were followed by a course at the Imperial Defence College and, with promotion to air commodore, two years on the defence research policy staff. In 1963–6 (by now an air vice-marshal) he was senior air staff officer at headquarters RAF Germany, before returning to the Ministry of Defence as assistant chief of the defence staff (operational requirements) then, with promotion to air marshal, deputy chief of the defence staff. In 1969–70 he was commander-in-chief of the Far East Air Force at a sensitive time, the British government having already announced its intention to withdraw all forces from the region. From 1970 to 1973 he was a member of the Air Force Board as air member for supply and organization; he was promoted air chief marshal in 1972. His final position, from 1973 until his retirement in 1975, was as controller of aircraft, in the procurement executive of the Ministry of Defence, in which post he was centrally involved in the refinement of the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (later the Tornado). He was appointed OBE in 1949, CBE in 1957, and CB in 1967, knighted KCB in 1969, and advanced to GCB in 1975.

In retirement Wheeler was a director of Rolls Royce Ltd (1977–82), where he was responsible for promoting the company's military products, and of Flight Refuelling (Holdings) Ltd (1977–85). He was also chairman of the Anglo-Ecuadorian Society (1986–8) and master of the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators (1986–7). A man who set very high standards for himself and for other people, he had a fierce reputation, but was widely respected and admired. A keen fisherman, he was at one point president of the Flyfishers' Club. He died at his home, Boundary Hall, Wickham Lane, Cooksbridge, near Lewes, Sussex, on 9 January 2009, of heart failure, and was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children.

Alex May

Sources  

J. Hamlin, Always prepared: the story of 207 squadron Royal Air Force (1999) · Daily Telegraph (14 Jan 2009) · The Times (29 Jan 2009); (5 Feb 2009) · www.rafweb.org/Biographies/Wheeler_HNG.htm, accessed on 1 June 2012 · www.207squadron.rafinfo.org.uk, accessed on 1 June 2012 · Burke, Peerage · WW (2009) · m. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£828,524: probate, 5 Feb 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales