Sergeant (Pilot) Arnold George McNeil
At 1545 on the afternoon of Wednesday 25 February 1942, a flight in a small Miles Magister MkI trainer T9947 ended in tragedy. The aircraft’s occupants were carrying out low-flying practice when it stalled, crashed and caught fire near Three Bridges in Sussex (1).
The Magister was being flown by two RNZAF pilots from No 485 (NZ) Squadron based at Kenley aerodrome fifteen miles to the north of the crash site. Both were killed. They were sergeant pilots, Arnold McNeil, more commonly known as ‘Mick’ (2), aged 22 with 207 flying hours logged and James Burke who was 23 and who had flown 228 hours. Strangely, there is no record of the accident in 485 Squadron’s Operations Record Book.
The previous day Sergeant Burke had taken part in a four-aircraft anti-Rhubarb patrol along the southern coast which resulted in no sighting of enemy aircraft. The other pilots were Pilot Officers IJ McNeil and Fred Chandler who was to be shot down over France and killed on 2 April 1942 and Sergeant John Liken who shortly afterwards, on 26 April, bailed out into the sea off Dungeness but who died before reaching a hospital (3).
It is not thought that Pilot Officer McNeil and Sergeant McNeil were related.
On his attestation form, Mick McNeil listed his parents, William and Emily McNeil, as living on Pembroke Road at Stratford a small country town in the Taranaki province of New Zealand’s North Island (3). This rural road leads west from the town past a few farms towards the lower slopes of what was then known as Mt Egmont but has since reverted to its Māori name of ‘Taranaki’: the mountain resembles Mt. Fuji in Japan. Coincidentally, the author’s grandfather had a dairy farm on the same road, which was where his father grew up, so the McNeils and the Wicksteeds would undoubtedly have known each other.
Mick McNeil was born in the small Taranaki settlement of Opunake, not far from Stratford, on 9 December 1919. After leaving Stratford Technical High School with a year’s secondary education under his belt, he worked as a farmhand. In August 1939 he enlisted in the area’s part-time Territorial Force infantry battalion, the 1st Taranaki Regiment (4).
He was attested into the Royal New Zealand Air Force on 24 July 1940 and embarked on his recruit training at RNZAF Levin in the lower half of the North Island as an airman pilot (under training) in January 1941. In March he was posted to the 2nd Elementary Flying Training School at RNZAF Station Bell Block, outside New Plymouth, the largest town in Taranaki Province. 2EFTS had been set up in 1939 using impressed DH82 Tiger Moths, DH60 Moths and other light trainers sourced from aero clubs around the country.
In late April, Mick sailed to Canada for Harvard flight training, starting on 27 May on Course 19 at the RCAF’s No.32 Service Flying Training School at Moosejaw, Saskatchewan. On 8 August 1941 having successfully completed his training, he was awarded his wings and promoted to Sergeant.
Barely two weeks later he embarked for England where, on 15 September, he arrived at the RAF’s 3 Personnel Reception Centre in Bournemouth. This was the arrival point for thousands of Commonwealth aircrew after training in Canada and here they were accommodated in scores of requisitioned hotels and luxury flats. Their presence in the town eventually prompted a heavy raid by the Luftwaffe in May 1943 resulting in 161 deaths, mostly of Canadian and Australian airmen (5).
On 6 October 1941 Mick was posted to 58 Operational Training Unit at RAF Grangemouth in Scotland where he converted to Spitfires. His first operational posting, on 25 November, was to No 91 Squadron based at RAF Hawkinge near the coast in Kent. The squadron was equipped with the MkII Spitfire and, owing to the short range of the aircraft, was flying a mixture of coastal shipping patrols, weather reconnaissance flights and air-sea rescue sweeps.
Two months later, on 2 December, he was again posted, this time to No 485 (NZ) Squadron at Kenley which was equipped with the Spitfire MkVb. At the time of his death he had flown on five operational sorties.
Sergeant Arnold George McNeil is buried in the Air Force Section of St. Luke’s Cemetery at Whyteleafe, near Kenley aerodrome, next to Sergeant Burke and Sergeant Liken. Sgt. He is also remembered at Te Henui cemetery, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand.
Okioki ki te rangimarie – Rest in peace Sir.