By Jon Guttman
During the Second World War Canada produced a healthy surfeit of Supermarine Spitfire pilots who distinguished themselves against such redoubtable counterparts as the Messerschmitt Me 109 and the Macchi MC.202. John McElroy stands out in one respect, however, because the last two planes he claimed while flying a Spitfire were Royal Air Force Spitfires.
Born in Port Arthur, Ontario in 1920, John Frederick McElroy had served in the North Battleford Light Infantry and the Rocky Mountain Rangers before entering the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940. Commissioned in September 1941, he was shipped to Britain in November and, after further instruction at an operational training unit (OTU), was posted to No. 54 Squadron RAF in April 1942. In June, however, he embarked on the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle as one of 32 airmen flying Spitfire Mark VCs to the besieged Mediterranean isle of Malta. Pilot Officer McElroy’s Spitfire BR388 damaged its tail during takeoff on June 9, and the consequent crash landing resulted in McElroy being grounded and almost reposted to the Middle East. Finally, though, he was assigned to No. 249 Squadron at Takali airfield on Malta.
By spring 1942, Malta’s situation was critical. General Erwin Rommel had defeated the British Eighth Army at Gazala, had taken Tobruk and was driving on Egypt. Malta remained a thorn in the side of the Axis seaborne supply routes, but its own stocks of aircraft, ammunition, fuel and food were in short supply — the only thing in abundance were aircraft of the Italian Regia Aeronautica and German Luftwaffe, coming almost daily in their effort to neutralize the island. George F. Beurling, Malta’s — and Canada’s — highest-scoring ace of the war, cockily proclaimed it a fighter pilot’s paradise, but its air commander, Air Vice Marshal Hugh P. Lloyd, gravely declared it as “no place for beginners.”
On July 1 the Axis began a series of strikes at Malta’s airfields and the next day McElroy damaged an Me 109 (actually an MC.202), followed on the 4th by a “probable” claim on a Reggiane Re.2001. On the 7th McElroy scored his first confirmed success, shooting down a C.202 while “borrowing” a No. 601 Squadron “Spit,” BR301 UF-S. On the 9th he and Flight Sergeant John D. Rae shared in destroying a Junkers Ju 88A of Kampfgeschwader 77.
The Germans attacked Luqa airbase on July 13, but McElroy, again in BR301, claimed an Me 109 destroyed and another damaged, though they were actually MC.202s of the 151a Squadriglia, 20o Gruppo, 51o Stormo. He and Pilot Officer Leslie W. Watts shared in a probable Me 109 and a second damaged on the 23rd. McElroy damaged an Re.2001 and an Me 109 on the 28th. In August he was dispatched to lead the ferrying in of more replacement Spitfires, taking off from the carrier HMS Furious on the 17th.
By October the tide was turning in both North Africa and the Mediterranean, with Malta holding its own against a final succession of Axis aerial onslaughts. During a fight 15 miles north of Gozo Island on October 10, McElroy, in EP708 “U,” shot an Me 109 off his wingman’s tail and damaged another. His bag on the 12th was an Me 109, probably killing Gefreiter Georg Gunkel of 4th Staffel, Jagdgeschwader 53, and a Ju 88 destroyed and a Messerschmitt damaged, but his own plane was damaged in the fight.
The next day, he downed an Re.2001 and damaged an Me 109. On the 15th he and Flying Officer Leonard Cheek of No. 185 Squadron destroyed a Ju 88A of 3./KG 77 piloted by Unteroffizier Herbert Gross and damaged another, but McElroy was bounced by fighters — possibly credited to Maggiore Luigi Borgogno of the 352a Squadriglia, 20o Gruppo, 51o Stormo. He was slightly wounded in one leg and crash landed at Takali. He damaged a Ju 88 of KG 77 the next day, but again his plane was hit, this time by an Me 109G-2 of I Gruppe, JG 53, and crash-landed.
In spite of this mixed run of luck, McElroy and Pilot Officer Joseph Lowery shared credit for an Me 109 downed five miles north of Grand Harbour on October 22, and he damaged an MC.202 on the 27th. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and promoted to flight lieutenant, he was posted back to Britain. He served as an instructor at 57 OTU until December 5 and, after some leave in Canada, he also did a stint in No. 276 Air-Sea Rescue Squadron and returned to instructing at 56 OTU in July 1943.
In January 1944 McElroy returned to combat with No. 421 Squadron RCAF, participating in the Allied landings at Normandy on June 6. During an encounter with I./JG 27 over Caen on the evening of June 15, he damaged an Me 109G before it escaped into a cloud, but his Spitfire Mark IXB was also shot up and crash-landed in Allied lines (this hit was possibly credited to Oberfähnrich Max Winkler of 1./JG 27). Flying Officer Lorne F. Curry was also killed by Feldwebel Gustav Sturm of 2./JG 27, but No. 421 claimed nine victories in the fight and JG 27 acknowledged the loss of six, with at least three pilots killed.
McElroy downed a Focke-Wulf Fw 190A over Le Merlerault on June 23 and an Me 109 over Caen on the 28th. In July, he was put in command of No. 416 Squadron and shot down an Fw 190 northeast of Alençon on the 27th. On September 30 he and Flight Lieutenant David W. A. Harling shared in the destruction of an Me 109 over Nijmegen, and McElroy received a bar to his DFC in October.
With nine lone and three shared victories to his credit, McElroy returned to Canada and spent the rest of the war on the Pacific Coast. He was released from service on September 24, 1945, but remained in the Auxiliary Air Force as an instructor with No. 422 Squadron.
In May 1948 McElroy was living in Vancouver, no longer flying and evidently missing it sorely, when two Jewish acquaintances asked if he knew any flyers willing to fight for the newly founded state of Israel, which had immediately come under attack by five Arab states. McElroy contacted 40 pilots, of whom some went. After the police visited his wife to ask about his activities, McElroy decided to leave Canada and fly for Israel himself. Along the way, he met two fellow volunteers: Clifford Denzel Woodrow Wilson and Joseph “Jack” Doyle.
After making their way to Israel, all three Canucks ended up in No. 101 Squadron, Israel’s sole fighter unit, which since May had been operating Avia S-199s, Czechoslovakian-built Me 109Gs with Junkers Jumo engines that were inferior in performance and less safe to fly then the Daimler-Benz powered originals. On December 18 McElroy and other pilots were sent to purchase and ferry in war surplus Spitfire Mark LF Mark IXs from Czechoslovakia.
On December 30, “Jack” Doyle reported that “Johnny McElroy and I were doing a recce of Bir Hama when I saw two enemy aircraft strafing our troops.” These were two Macchi MC.205Vs — improved versions of the MC.202 — of No. 2 Squadron, Royal Egyptian Air Force (REAF). Elements of the Israeli 9th Regiment had raided their airbase at Bir Hama the previous day, and were in the process of withdrawing when the Macchis attacked.
“I cut into their circuit and shot down the leader,” Doyle continued. “The second one broke and ran with Johnny on his tail. In a short while he finished him off and we returned to base.”
Squadron Leader Mustafa Kemal Abd al Wahib was killed by Doyle, while McElroy killed Flight Lieutenant Khalil Jamad al Din al Arusi. On the same day, the RAF’s 205 Group, based at Fayid in the Suez Canal Zone, received orders to monitor the Israeli offensive in the Negev Desert and pass on the information to United Nations Truce Supervision teams. The first such sortie was flown by six Spitfire LF Mark 18s of No. 208 Squadron RAF, guided to the battlefield by three bomb-armed REAF Spitfire LF Mark IXs.
On January 7, 1949, four Spitfires of No. 208 Squadron were ordered on a tactical reconnaissance of the Israeli–Egyptian frontier, also escorting two deHavilland Mosquitos of No. 13 Squadron, photographing heavy fighting along the Al Auja-Rafah road. Taking off at 1115 hours, the four Spitfires swept over the battle area, unaware that five Spitfires of No. 2 Squadron REAF had just strafed an Israeli armoured column, setting three trucks afire. Two Spits, flown by Flying Officer Geoffrey Cooper and Pilot/III Frank Close, flew toward the column of smoke to investigate and take pictures, only to come under fire from the Israeli troops. Hit in the engine, Close bailed out at 500 feet, caught his foot on his parachute rigging and came down on his head, breaking his jaw.
At that point McElroy arrived at the scene leading Chalmers Goodlin, a newly arrived volunteer with previous service in the RCAF, U.S. Army Air Forces and as a test pilot for the Bell Aircraft Company. Some 3,000 feet below them were two Spitfires, still observing the crash of their comrade. “John took after the one on the left, with guns firing,” recalled “Slick” Goodlin, “while I tried to get into position to shoot at the other.”
“We were right on top of them,” McElroy reported. “They pulled up right in front of us and I blasted one, I guess from about 200 yards, and saw many explosions all around engine and cockpit; I knocked quite a few pieces off his wings.”
Possibly killed by McElroy’s first volley, Pilot/II Ronald Sayers power-dived into a sand dune. “I looked over and saw another aeroplane off about two o’clock to me, just off to my right and slightly below,” McElroy continued. “It wasn’t one of ours, so I just dropped my sights on him — it was 400 yards — and let fly. I got strikes all over him. Right down the fuselage and the engine. I broke off, looked around, but couldn’t see ‘Slick.’”
The first that Flying Officer Timothy McElhaw knew of what was going on was a radio-telephone call of “Look out, there’s one behind you!” The next was the sight of a Spitfire behind him, before being shot down and bailing out. Nearby, Cooper engaged Goodlin in a series of scissors manoeuvres — a mistake, since it conceded the advantage to the slower but nimbler old Mark IX. Goodlin finally got some hits in the cowling and saw his opponent bail out 10 miles south of El Arish.
Wounded in the leg, Cooper was found by Bedouins who turned him over to the Egyptian army, which treated his injuries and put him on a train to Ismailia. McElhaw and Close were picked up by Israelis and eventually sent to Tel Aviv for questioning. Meanwhile, McElroy and Goodlin did victory rolls over their airfield at Hatzor, after which everyone wondered whether there would be retaliation. Britain did not retaliate and suspended reconnaissance flights, but demanded compensation from Israel for the losses in men and equipment, and warned that the Air Ministry would “regard as hostile any Jewish aircraft encountered over Egyptian territory.”
On January 8, certain pilots of No. 101 Squadron sent a message to No. 208: “Sorry about yesterday, but you were on the wrong side of the fence. Come over and have a drink sometime. You will see many familiar faces.”
“I was visited by McElroy whilst I was a POW in Tel Aviv,” Tim McElhaw later said. “I can only recall that we had a perfectly civil conversation, whilst both being on guard not to reveal anything of operational significance; I think he said he had been ‘involved.’”
In March 1949 the Canadians were shipped home. Any concerns McElroy may have had on the consequences of his actions were settled during the Korean War and the concurrent expansion of the RCAF. He rejoined as a flying officer in April 1951, instructed and flew Canadair Sabres with No. 421 Squadron in Europe, and became a flight lieutenant in January 1956. He finally left the RCAF in November 1964 and became a real estate salesman in London, Ontario.
John McLeod, Canada’s only Spitfire ace with Spitfires to his credit, died in Victoria, British Columbia on October 24, 1994.