Cameron, Neil, Baron Cameron of Balhousie 1920-1985, marshal of the Royal Air Force, was born in Perth 8 July 1920, the only son and younger child of Neil Cameron, an inspector of the poor, and his wife, Isabella Stewart. His father died in the year he was born and he and his sister were brought up by his mother and grandfather in Perth. Having attended Perth Academy he worked in the Royal Bank of Scotland. After joining the RAF Volunteer Reserve in May 1939 he was called up on the outbreak of war and qualified as a pilot. He joined No. 17 Squadron towards the end of the Battle of Britain, was commissioned in 1941, flew in Russia with No. 151 Wing, and in 1942-3 served with the Desert Air Force in No. 213 Squadron. In 1944-5, now a squadron leader, he commanded No. 258 Squadron and flew Hurricanes and Thunderbolts in Burma, earning the DFC (1944) and DSO (1945) for his outstanding leadership.
Awarded a permanent commission after the war, he instructed at the School of Air Support, Old Sarum, attended the Staff College, and in 1949 went to the Air Ministry, where he became seriously ill with sub-acute bacterial endocarditis. He was never again allowed a full flying category, making his eventual rise to the top of the RAF particularly remarkable. A spell instructing at the Staff College (1953-6) enabled him to deepen his thinking and begin writing about air power, and he saw something of the academic world while commanding London University Air Squadron (1956-8). He then served as personal staff officer to the chief of the air staff (1958-60), commanded RAF Abingdon (1960-2), attended the Imperial Defence College (1963), went to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe (1964), and in 1965—now an air commodore—became assistant commandant at Cranwell. There ensued four years in the Ministry of Defence working in Denis Healey's programme evaluation group and as assistant chief of staff (policy), when he showed the ability to take an overall defence view but in the process aroused suspicions among his single-service contemporaries, and he subsequently saw little chance of further advancement. Nevertheless after serving at Headquarters Air Support Command and RAF Germany he was promoted to air marshal in 1973 to become AOC No. 46 Group. Ten months later he became air member for personnel, where—at a time of major cuts in RAF strength—he combined his essential humanity with the ability to take hard decisions, notably in the matter of redundancy.
He became chief of the air staff in 1976 but had hardly had time to make much impression before the sudden death of Sir Andrew Humphrey [qv.] led to his becoming chief of the defence staff (1977-9) and marshal of the Royal Air Force (1977). As CAS he had already emphasized the need for better communication within the RAF and deeper thinking about air power, and as CDS he was determined to argue the defence case in public debate; he held strong views on what he saw as a dangerous growth in Soviet military power and his much publicized reference in China to the Russians as an enemy led to their calling him a drunken hare and to a minor political storm at home. Of the domestic issues he faced the most difficult was service pay, where he led his colleagues in confronting the government and winning the battle for the military salary.
After handing over as CDS in 1979 he was appointed principal of King's College, London, in August 1980, giving him the opportunity to show his leadership qualities in the academic environment that had eluded him in his youth. Here, despite failing health, he played a major part in the restructuring of London University and in particular the merger between King's, Chelsea, and Queen Elizabeth colleges. He was created a life peer in 1983 and a Knight of the Thistle the same year. He had been appointed CBE (1967), CB (1971), KCB (1975), and GCB (1976). He received an honorary LL D from Dundee in 1981.
His many wider interests included the RAF Rugby Football Union, the RAF Club, the RAF Museum, the Trident Trust, and the British Atlantic Committee, and underlying all else was a deep Christian faith rooted in his experience when ill in the 1950s and quietly but sincerely demonstrated through his support for St Clement Danes and organizations such as the Officers' Christian Union. A man of great honesty, integrity, and forthrightness, who was widely respected, he saw no difficulty in combining a firm military stance based on a belief in nuclear deterrence with his strongly held Christian convictions.
In 1947 he married Patricia Louise, daughter of Major Edward Asprey, a civil engineer. They had a son and daughter. Cameron died in the Middlesex Hospital 29 January 1985.
Neil Cameron, In the Midst of Things, 1986
Contributor: Henry A. Probert