Rear Admiral Percival Edwin McNeil

Percival Edwin McNeil was born at the family home in Curzon Street, North Melbourne, Victoria on 25 September 1883 the third son of John McNeil (Engineer) and Elizabeth Frances McNeil (née Jones). He was educated privately and gained experiences as an Engineer in the Merchant Navy. He also undertook a period of shipbuilding experience with the firm of John Brown and Company in Scotland.

On 14 November 1911, at the age of 28, he was appointed as an Engineer Lieutenant in the fledging Royal Australian Navy and was immediately posted to his first ship, the Torpedo Boat Destroyer HMAS Yarra for training. After five months in Yarra he transferred to her sister ship HMAS Parramatta for further engineer training. On 22 May 1912 he married 27 year old Emily Jean Leslie at the Methodist Church in Gladstone Street Moonee Ponds.

Two years after joining the RAN he was appointed as the Engineer Officer of the new Destroyer HMAS Warrego, in November 1913 and served in her for the next three years. This included war service during the capture of German New Guinea in 1914 and patrols of South East Asian waters during 1915-16 searching for German merchant ships hiding in neutral ports and ships attempting to illegally import weapons and ammunition into India (to support the Indian Nationalist movement). He was promoted to Engineer Lieutenant Commander on 1 January 1915. In late July 1916 he was appointed as the Engineer Officer of the elderly cruiser HMAS Psyche which had been commissioned for patrol duties in South East Asian and Chinese waters. Except for a short four week period attached to Williamstown Naval Depot (HMAS Cerberus) he remained in Psyche until she was decommissioned in March 1918.

McNeil then took up his first shore posting when he joined the staff of the Williamstown Naval depot for the 'instruction of Engine Room ratings and supervision of tenders' (tenders being the smaller vessels attached to the Depot). In early October 1918 he joined the new cruiser HMAS Brisbane which was deployed later that month to the Mediterranean theatre of war. Brisbane arrived in the Mediterranean in late November; too late to see any active service as the First World War had ended on 11 November 1918. Brisbane remained in the area briefly, including a short deployment into the Black Sea to support Allied Forces fighting against the Bolsheviks, in Southern Russia, before proceeding to England for a refit in Portsmouth. The cruiser returned to Australia in late June 1919 and McNeil was promoted to Engineer Commander on 1 July 1919. He left the ship in mid September 1919 to join the battle cruiser HMAS Australia as the Engineer Officer. McNeil served in the flagship until it was decommissioned on 11 December 1921. Australia was never recommissioned and in 1924 she was scuttled as part of the Washington Treaty on limiting fleet sizes.

In January 1922 he was appointed to the Sydney shore depot HMAS Penguin, at Garden Island, as the RAN's Coal Inspector until July of that year. He then undertook a brief posting to Cerberus (Flinders Naval Depot) in charge of the Mechanical Training School and responsible for machinery in attached tenders. In January 1923 he returned to Penguin as the Engineer Manager of HMA Naval Depot and Dockyard where his duties involved overseeing the maintenance and refits of the various ships of the Fleet. McNeil was promoted to Engineer Captain on 31 December 1926 and remained in this role until late 1928. During 1929-30 the McNeil's lived in London where he was the Technical Assistant to the Australian Naval Representative based at Australia House. In mid-1930 he also undertook the Senior Engineer Officers Course at Greenwich Naval College. While in England he applied for a Patent (5897/30) for his Improvement in Screw Propulsion System.

McNeil returned to Australia in early 1931 and was appointed to Navy Office in Melbourne as the Director of Engineering (Naval) and remained in Melbourne for the rest of his career. He was promoted to Engineer Rear Admiral on 30 June 1934 but was not appointed to the position of 3rd Naval Member (responsible for construction and repair of ships and control of Naval Dockyards), even though this position was vacant and had been so since 1922, when Vice Admiral Clarkson had retired. That said McNeil effectively did this job as the Director of Engineering (Naval) and kept the Naval Board well appraised of engineering problems in the fleet; particularly the need to replace ageing ships.

McNeil was not popular with the First Naval Member (Vice Admiral Sir George Francis Hyde) or the Second Naval Member (Captain PE Phillips, RN) who both threatened to resign if McNeil was appointed to the position of Third Naval Member. Hyde and McNeil had both served together in the RAN Destroyer Flotilla in 1911-12 and then again, briefly, in HMAS Brisbane in 1919 (when Hyde was in command of the cruiser) but the source of their animosity is not readily known. McNeil was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) for his services to Naval Engineering in June 1936 and continued to serve as the Director of Engineering (Naval) where he oversaw the significant ship building/acquisition program as the RAN increased in size during the late 1930s as the world drifted towards war. McNeil was finally appointed the Third Naval Member and Chief of Naval Construction on 30 July 1940 and held the post until placed on the Retired List, at age 60, on 25 September 1943.

Throughout the late 1930s and early war years McNeil played a pivotal role in preparing the RAN for war. Many of the ship types such as the Bathurst Class corvettes, River Class frigates and Tribal Class destroyers commissioned during the war all began as concepts or blue prints in the Directorate of Naval Engineering under McNeil's control. His report on Merchant Shipbuilding, presented to the War Cabinet in January 1941, formed the basis for a significant standardised merchant ship building program that commenced in May of that year.

Following his retirement he was the Director of Merchant Shipbuilding (Department of Munitions) from 1943-1948. In retirement he resided in Toorak where the family has lived for many years. Some historians consider it odd that he was not further honoured with a knighthood, upon retirement, for his lengthy and extensive service to Naval Engineering and the Australian Shipbuilding industry.

Rear Admiral Percival Edwin McNeil, CB, RAN died of cardiac failure and coronary sclerosis on 17 April 1951 at Caulfield Repatriation General Hospital and, following a small private funeral service in Toorak, was cremated at Springvale Crematorium. His wife Emily and three children (Jean, Percival Leslie and Nancy) survived him. His son served as a Captain (Surgeon) in the Australian Army Medical Corps during 1942-1946.

In 2016 the Australian Naval Institute inaugurated the annual Percival Edwin McNeil Prize For Excellence in Australian Defence Industry.