Hugh was born on the 4th November 1924 in Sydney, New South Wales, and he enlisted in the RAAF in Sydney, on the 30th January 1943. He was posted to 452 Squadron in May 1944. At that time, the Squadron had just become part of No.80 Wing RAAF protecting Darwin.
Later that month, Hugh was flying off the west coast of Australia, out to sea from the Drysdale River mouth. Two planes from No.1 Fighter Wing in Darwin were sent down each month to patrol the west coast and be on call if needed.
They were flying Spitfire VCs and were shadow spotting over the sea. Hugh throttled back to position his plane, but when he throttled up again, the CSU (Constant Speed Unit) had locked in fully coarse pitch. No amount of coaxing with the throttle lever had any effect on his revs. He was at 2,000 ft. and estimated to be 1 to 1 ½ miles from Governor Island. He was virtually gliding with the brakes on. Fortunately, there was a narrow, sandy beach around the island, so he headed for it, deciding to belly-land.
The first point of contact was the 90 gallon belly tank, which was full, and which he had forgotten to jettison. Luckily, this flew off without exploding. He skidded along on the belly of the aircraft, unable to steer, and hit a huge rock, which ripped off the left wing where it joined the fuselage. He just made the end of the beach with about 300 yards of sand and a few rocks ahead of him.
The plane eventually settled, still upright, and to his amazement, the radio was still working. He called his partner and asked him to send out the rescue launch. In the meantime, to pass the time and to let off a bit of steam, he tested his .38 revolver on the local seagulls. They were quite safe. He hit one at a distance of no more than 20 feet and it merely squawked and flew away; so much for the side-arms. Somewhere on his way back to Darwin, he lost his revolver.
It was fortunate he wasn’t an hour later, because by that time the beach was entirely covered by the incoming tide. He was also glad he hadn’t had to bale out, because the water was alive with sharks.
On arrival back at 452 Squadron, the CO asked what happened to the plane. His explanation was accepted without question, but Headquarters, with all their red tape, insisted he was to be court martialled over the loss of his revolver. He was eventually let off, but the cost of the court martial was considerable.
(Web Master: Another account of the incident by ADF Serials is quite different: Spitfire A58-171. Accident 0800 hrs 23rd May 1944 when operating as Yellow 3 at Drysdale as part of 452 Squadron carrying out an air to ground gunnery exercise, the airscrew went into coarse pitch at 4,000 feet. As the aircraft could not maintain height, the pilot glided south towards Government (sic) Island to make a wheels up landing on the beach. The aircraft stopped after skidding 30 yards on the beach.)
Another incident involving Hugh was as follows: Hugh MacNeil took off at 1755 hrs on the 7th January 1945 as No.2 of Flying Officer R.S. STAGG for an intruder mission over Halmaheras. He was hit by ground fire just behind the pilot’s seat. It is presumed that a bullet also hit the glycol system as the temperature rose rapidly and the engine seized in flight. The pilot was unable to re-start the engine and tried to make a safe way home, but failed and crashed at 1836 hrs in heavy timber on Cape Gela (Morotai) some three miles from Pitoe Strip. Pilot Officer MacNeil was severely injured in the head and could not escape alone. He was extracted by an American Officer before flames could burn him.
Another report has more detail: Enemy action, afternoon of 7th January 1945 when on straffing run, aircraft was hit by ground fire over Halmaheras. Hit behind in the cockpit seat, the aircraft immediately cut out but resumed. Pilot Officer Hugh Sutherland MacNeill, assumed that his gycol lines had been damaged. He tried to nurse his aircraft back, but crashed some three miles from the Pitoe Strip in heavily forrested jungle at Cape Gela, Morotai. With canopy slide back, the pilot was thrown clear of aircraft on landing and was dragged away from the burning wreck by Lieutenant John L Ranney USAAF of the 822 Bomb Squadron, 38th Bomb Group. He was sent to the 155th American Station Hospital, where he underwent immediate surgery on a fractured skull and other injuries.
The Squadron photo was taken at sattler in June 1944. J. Beaton is sitting on the prop.
Back Row left to right: R. Stagg, Alan S. Jones, Peter W. Bullock, David J. Murray, Fred R. Johnson, W. Ron Cundy (B Flight), Louis T. Spence (C Flight), Keith M. Gamble (A Flight), Proctor, C. MacDonald, Ray Job, Ken V. Robertson, Jack G. Sanderson.
Front Row left to right: John H. Greenfield, Rex L. Sprake, Arthur R. Heaney, H. J. Bill Stevenson, Col S. Tapp, Hatten, Tom W. Scott, Tolhust, Hugh S. MacNeill, Doug E. Hoile, Colin H. O’Loughlin
Hugh achieved a fine flying record and an excellent assessment. (See photos). After the accident, he recuperated in Concord Repatriation Hospital, Sydney for three months. He was discharged on the 1st October 1945 from No.8 OTU Narromine, and returned to his parent’s property “Struan” at Grenfell, NSW.
Hugh stated that he would never cease to be amazed at the red tape in our Air Force in wartime.
Bruce Read and Geoff Litchfield
Updated by Vince Conant
The Spitfire Association