Alan McLeod's dream of flying and sacrifice remembered at CFB Borden's Military Museum
Alan Arnett McLeod was a tenacious 14-year-old with a dream. Today, he and his dream are remembered at Canadian Forces Base Borden, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on July 11, 2016.
Visitors to the Base Borden Military Museum will note that the building housing the Air Force Annex, located beside the old Borden airfield, is dedicated to the memory of World War I Victoria Cross recipient Lieutenant Alan McLeod, dedicated in April 2004 in a ceremony corresponding with the 80th Anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The building, one of only seven hangars built in 1917 for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) that are still standing today, became part of the Base Borden Military Museum organization in 1995.
Alan McLeod was born on April 20, 1899, in Stonewall, Manitoba, the son of a doctor. He joined the 34th Fort Garry Horse in 1913 when he was only 14. Although he was four years under age, his unit commander allowed him to serve anyway as a boy soldier.
McLeod’s duties back then consisted mostly of grooming horses and shovelling manure, but the young lad was happy just to be serving in the army. However, when war broke out the next year, McLeod’s military career came to an abrupt end. It was one thing for someone underage to serve during peacetime, but there was no way someone so young was going to serve during wartime.
Undeterred, he went to Winnipeg and tried re-enlisting several times, but was turned down for being too young. When McLeod was 17, he made his way to Toronto where the Royal Flying Corps had established a cadet-training wing, but he was once again rejected for being too young. It wasn’t until he turned 18 that he was finally able to resume his military career as a cadet in the RFC.
He was sent to the Cadet Ground Training School at Long Branch (located just outside of Toronto) for pilot training, where he proved to be quite capable of handling the Avro 504 airplane. After only five days of instruction and three hours of flight time, McLeod completed his first solo flight.
He was next sent to No. 42 Wing at Camp Borden for intermediate training, where he graduated with less than 50 hours of flying time.
On March 27, 1918, not yet 19 years of age, 2nd Lieutenant Alan McLeod became the youngest Canadian airman to earn the Victoria Cross — the highest award for bravery in the face of an enemy that can be awarded to members of British and Commonwealth militaries — for his actions during a battle with members of Baron Manfred (the Red Baron) von Richthofen’s squadron of the Imperial German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte).
The description of McLeod’s valour from his citation reads:
His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to award the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officer of the Royal Air Force, for services displaying outstanding bravery: 2nd Lieutenant Alan Arnett McLeod, Royal Air Force.
While flying with his observer, Lieutenant A. W. Hammond, M.C., attacking hostile formations by bombs and machine-gun fire, he was assailed at a height of 5,000 feet by eight enemy tri-planes which dived at him from all directions, firing from their front guns. By skillful maneuvering he enabled his observer to fire bursts at each machine in turn, shooting three of them down out of control.
By this time, 2Lt McLeod had received five wounds, and while continuing the engagement a bullet penetrated his petrol tank and set the machine on fire. He then climbed out on to the left bottom plane, controlling his machine from the side of the fuselage, and by side slipping, steeply kept the flames to one side, thus enabling the observer to continue firing until the ground was reached.
The observer had been wounded six times when the machine crashed in ‘No Man’s Land’ and 2Lt McLeod, notwithstanding his own wounds, dragged him away from the burning wreckage at great personal risk from heavy machine-gun fire from the enemy’s lines. This very gallant pilot was again wounded by a bomb whilst engaged in this act of rescue, but he persevered until he had placed Lt Hammond in comparative safety, before falling himself from exhaustion and loss of blood.
McLeod received his Victoria Cross on September 4, 1918, but sadly, would not live to see the end of the war. While back home recovering from his wounds, Alan contracted influenza and died on November 6, 1918.
Base Borden has changed considerably since McLeod’s days and he would hardly recognize the place today, save for the building that now bears his name.
Ninety-nine years after Alan McLeod trained as a pilot at Camp Borden, the McLeod Building not only serves as a monument to his bravery, but as a link to Borden’s proud past.