By Jon Guttman
Seven Canadian airmen have to date received the British Commonwealth’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross (VC). Of the three awarded in the First World War, two were to fighter pilots, William Avery Bishop and William George Barker. The third, Alan McLeod, earned his VC in the army cooperation role.
Alan Arnett McLeod was born on April 20, 1899 in Stonewall, Manitoba, just north of Winnipeg, the son of Dr. Alexander Neil McLeod and Margaret Lyllian Arnett. Growing up with an almost stereotypical Canadian mixture of self-effacing modesty and rambunctiousness, he took an early interest in the military life, somehow talking his way into a local militia unit, the 34th Fort Garry Horse, in time for its 1913 summer manoeuvres — at age 14.
By the time war broke out in August 1914, McLeod had made up his mind to trade horsepower for the budding potential of air power, but the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) told him he’d have to wait until he was 18. He continued on in the Fort Garry Horse until his birthday in 1917; then, with an enthusiastic hometown send-off, he boarded a train for Winnipeg with his friend Allan Fraser to join the RFC.
McLeod left behind a trail of chatty letters to his family, displaying the demeanour of a small-town teenager eagerly adapting to a rapidly broadening world. During training at the University of Toronto, he revealed occasions of homesickness, but he made friends easily. He sometimes wrote of boredom with military discipline and some aspects of training, but he took it all in stride and wrote, “I’m sure going to work harder than I ever did before so if I fail it won’t be my fault.”
Finally, on June 2, 1917, McLeod announced, “I passed my exams OK and leave for Camp on Monday.” This, however, was soon followed by the more sombre news that his friend Allan Fraser had died in a training crash at Deseronto, Ontario.
During two hours and 15 minutes of dual control training at Long Branch, Ontario, McLeod fell fully in love with flying and on June 9 he flew his first solo in Avro 504 No. 162. “I made a bombing success of it and did really well,” he wrote the next day, “but I made up for that this morning,” for he took up the same plane again, was buffeted by turbulent weather and pranged it in a rough landing. Nevertheless, on June 17, he was ready for transfer to No. 42 Wing at Camp Borden for intermediate training. On July 31, with 50 hours of flight time, McLeod got his wings and a temporary second lieutenant’s commission — and was made an instructor. Matters accelerated in August, however, as he flew Curtiss JN-4 Canucks with the 90th Canadian Training Squadron at Leaside aerodrome, spent a short leave at home in mid-month, then shipped overseas from Montreal on August 20. Crossing the Atlantic aboard the steamship Matagama — and being chased by a surfaced submarine off the Irish coast — he arrived in London on September 1.
After a time flying nocturnal patrols in Farman Experimental F.E.2b pusher biplanes with No. 51 (Home Defence) Squadron at Markham, Norfolk, McLeod was assigned to No. 82 Squadron, an army cooperation unit organizing at Waddington, equipped with Armstrong-Whitworth F.K.8s. Designed by Dutch engineer Frederick Koolhoven as a replacement for the Blériot Experimental B.E.2f, the F.K.8 appeared at about the same time as the Royal Aircraft Factory’s Reconnaissance Experimental R.E.8. Stolid but reliable, with dual controls that allowed the observer to fly it if the pilot was incapacitated, the “Big Ack” was generally more popular with reconnaissance crews than the trickier-to-fly “Harry Tate” (R.E.8).
Although McLeod described the F.K.8 as “having the aerodynamics of a cow,” he also noted: “I looped one the other day. I was the second person here to do it, they’re perfectly safe but people didn’t know it, you’d think you were riding in a parlour car they ride so smooth, but I’d much rather fly a smaller machine, they are easier to stunt with.”
Having familiarized himself with the Big Ack, McLeod learned that he would not have to wait for No. 82 Squadron to go operational; on November 29, he was assigned to No. 2 Squadron at Hesdigneul-les-Béthune on the Flanders front. Commanded by Major Wilfred Rippon Snow, No. 2 Squadron had been among the earliest RFC units in France and performed its front-line observation duties with an aggressiveness that McLeod enthusiastically embraced, boasting, “this is the crack squadron of France and anyone who is not up to the mark gets kicked out.”
McLeod flew his first sortie the day after arrival. He spent the next few weeks complaining of cold and boredom until December 19, when he flew an artillery spotting mission with Lieutenant J.O. Comber in F.K.8 B5782 and tersely reported: “Unsuccessful shoot on BY-75 owing to mist. Scrap with 8 Huns, 1 spun away.” In ironic contrast to the dubious nature of the aerial victories later confirmed to McLeod, this “out of control” may have had a definite outcome, because Royal Prussian Jagdstaffel 20 logged the loss of Leutnant Walter Braun, wounded at 1405 hours over Faumont (in No. 2 Squadron’s sector), and dying of his wounds at the Dourges hospital in France the next day.
As things soon turned out, McLeod was just warming up. On January 3, 1918, he fired 100 rounds at German troops along La Bassée’s main street. On the 12th, Major Snow noted, he “attacked and dispersed with machine gun fire from 800 feet the crew of a very troublesome anti-aircraft battery at La Bassée.” On January 14, while artillery spotting with Lieutenant Reginald Key as observer, McLeod crossed the lines under cloud cover, then dived on a kite balloon near Bauvin and fired 100 rounds into it. “This appeared to collapse and was seen to fall rapidly,” Snow reported, and both McLeod and Key were mentioned in dispatches for their feat. On the 16th, McLeod again crossed the lines near La Bassée, spotted an anti-aircraft gun, descended to 50 feet and fired 150 rounds at the crew; one German fell and the rest scattered for cover.
“He has shown keenness in his work,” Snow concluded on McLeod, “and I regard him as a most capable and reliable artillery pilot.” On January 16, Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Gossage, commander of No. 1 Wing to which No. 2 Squadron was attached, responded to Snow’s report by writing, “I desire to submit the name of the undermentioned officer for the immediate award of the Military Cross (MC), for consistent gallantry and devotion to duty.” The application languished for more than two months, then was marked “Cancelled,” most likely because McLeod was being considered for a higher decoration by then.
In March 1918, Key was posted out of the squadron and McLeod was assigned Temporary Lieutenant Arthur William Hammond as his regular observer. The son of Master Mariner Henry Hammond and Alice Kincaid, Hammond was born on August 29, 1890 at Walton on the Hill, Lancashire. He served in the Horse Guards, followed by the Royal Engineers as a temporary second lieutenant in October 1915, before entering the RFC as an observer. On February 18, 1918, Hammond was on a photographic mission with Captain Jack Manning Allport from New South Wales, Australia, when they came under attack by six Pfalz D.IIIs. Coolly manning his Lewis gun, Hammond was credited with shooting down two of their assailants, one in flames. This action took place at La Bassée, while at nearby Armentières No. 2 Squadron lost Lieutenant Alfred Jones Homersham and Captain Sydney Broadbent, both killed in B211 by Bavarian Jasta 23’s Leutnant Max Gossner. Jasta 23b in turn recorded that Leutnant Heinrich Kütt came down wounded, undoubtedly by Hammond. Hammond and Allport were both subsequently awarded the MC for this action and subsequent missions in which “a large number of hostile batteries were photographed, engaged and successfully silenced, as well as some of our long range batteries calibrated on hostile targets.”
The pace of No. 2 Squadron’s front-line activities dramatically intensified on March 21, when the Germans launched Operation Michael, the first of a series of offensives intended to achieve victory on the Western Front before the American Expeditionary Force arrived in full strength. British units in Flanders were in that first onslaught’s path and aerial activity heated up markedly as the Germans deployed their most experienced Jagdgeschwader (fighter wings) to the sector, including JG.I, Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen’s notorious “Flying Circus.”
On the night of March 26, Major Snow designated seven F.K.8s to bomb the Germans at Bray-sur-Somme, near Albert, the next morning. Fog ruined the mission, however, and McLeod damaged F.K.8 B5773’s landing gear while landing at No. 43 Squadron’s aerodrome at Avesnes-le-Comte. By the time the undercarriage was repaired, all other F.K.8s had returned to base, but McLeod decided to carry out the mission alone. In spite of the fog, McLeod spotted an artillery battery from 5,000 feet in altitude and was about to descend on it when a Fokker Dr.I triplane appeared out of a cloud 200 yards away and attacked. McLeod manoeuvred to give a good shot to Hammond, who fired three bursts and saw the triplane spin down. Just as the two were congratulating each other, another Dr.I dropped out of the cloud, followed by six more. Their tails bore the black and white bands of Jasta 6, a component of the Red Baron’s Flying Circus.
What followed is best summed up in McLeod’s citation:
By great skill and coolness in flying, 2nd Lieutenant McLeod enabled Lieutenant Hammond to fire bursts at each machine in turn, shooting down three of them out of control. Up to this time 2nd Lieutenant McLeod had received five wounds. He was continuing the engagement when a bullet penetrated the petrol tank of his machine, which caught fire. He managed, however, to climb out onto the left bottom plane, controlling his machine from the side of the fuselage, side-slipping steeply, keeping the flames to one side and enabling the observer to fire until the machine reached the ground.
Lieutenant Hammond had been hit six times. Machine crashed in ‘No Man’s Land.’ 2nd Lieutenant McLeod, in spite of his wounds and under very heavy machine gun fire from the enemy lines, dragged Lieutenant Hammond, who was more seriously hit than himself, away from the burning wreckage and the bombs on the machine. 2nd Lieutenant McLeod was then wounded by the explosion of one of the bombs while doing this. He managed to get Lieutenant Hammond to comparative safety before he himself fell, through exhaustion and loss of blood.
Rescued by South African troops, McLeod and Hammond had to wait until nightfall before stretcher-bearers could get them to an aid station. One of the South Africans tried to reassure McLeod, “You will be in Blighty in a few days.”
“That’s just the trouble,” the Canadian replied. “I would like to have a crack at that so-and-so who brought me down.”
Then again, maybe not. In spite of Allied perceptions, Jasta 6 lost no aircraft that day. The member credited with dispatching the F.K.8 in flames, Leutnant Hans Kirschstein, downed a Sopwith Camel of No. 73 Squadron five minutes later for his third victory. He would have 27 and the Orden Pour le Mérite by July 16, when he and Leutnant Johannes Markgraf were killed in the accidental crash of their Hannover CL.III. Thus, both McLeod and Hammond outlived their victor.
Taken to Prince of Wales’ Hospital in London, McLeod was joined by his father — in spite of his letters claiming to be “fit as a fiddle.” He had sufficiently recovered by September 4 to receive the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace, but was too weak to join King George V for luncheon at Windsor Castle afterward. At the end of the month he accompanied his father home to complete his convalescence.
Arthur Hammond lost a leg, but received a bar to his Military Cross and his record of five victories in two combats made him No. 2 Squadron’s sole ace. Invited to Stonewall by McLeod’s family, he settled in Winnipeg, working for the Great West Life Company and served in World War II as an adjutant in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He died in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 22, 1959. Another of McLeod’s observers, Reginald Key, also immigrated, became a citizen and served in the RCAF.
After all he had endured and accomplished, Alan McLeod’s life abruptly ended in ironic anticlimax on November 6, 1918 — the victim of the worldwide influenza epidemic at age 19. Five days later, the armistice brought the Great War to an end. The remains of Canada’s youngest VC recipient reside in the Old Kildonan Presbyterian Cemetery in Greater Winnipeg.