A Remembrance Day tribute — young Stonewall man earns Victoria Cross over Western Front

by Bruce Cherney

On display in the Stonewall Legion is a portrait of a very youthful-looking man attired in a First World War uniform. It’s fitting that Lieutenant Alan Arnett McLeod is given a place of prominence in the Legion, since the young man was born in Stonewall and at age 18 became the youngest Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award “For Valour” in the British Empire.

McLeod received six wounds during his VC engagement with enemy aircraft and subsequently spent time recovering in an English hospital before being shipped home for further recuperation. The irony is that, while McLeod had survived harrowing combat above the skies of the Western Front, he succumbed to a then unknown-to-science virus when he returned to the so-called safety of his Stonewall home. He died in Winnipeg General Hospital on the evening of November 6, 1918, just five days before the war ended.

The Spanish Flu pandemic would eventually claim an estimated 50-million people worldwide — mostly  men and women in the prime of their lives — of which 50,000 died in Canada.

The death of the young Canadian hero was greeted with sorrow throughout Manitoba. McLeod’s funeral was held with full military honours at Westminster Church in Winnipeg and was reported the next day in the Manitoba Free Press. Dr. David Christie, who delivered the eulogy, said: “Alan McLeod was the finest flower of chivalry. The old days of knighthood are over, but for the fairest blossom of the spirit of knighthood the world has had to wait for the twentieth century. It is these dauntless boys who have saved civilization ... I saw Alan within a few hours of his death. He faced the last enemy with the same joyous confidence with which he started on what he called the very happiest part of his life. For our children’s children, names like Alan McLeod’s will be written in letters of splendour in the annals of Canada.”

It was then common to refer to the young aviators as “Knights of the Sky,” but this was a romanticized version of the aerial jousting. The grim reality was that death was their constant companion. According to the Royal Air Force’s (the later name of the Royal Flying Corps) official website, the life expectancy of an aviator in 1917 was just two months.

McLeod was born in Stonewall on April 20, 1899, to Dr. Alan and Margaret McLeod. As a youth, McLeod was shy and unassuming with an intense interest in the military.

He enrolled in the 34th Fort Garry Horse in 1913 at age 13. While he was significantly underage, the militia officers accepted the youth as it was peacetime and decided his duties would be mostly non-military — he groomed horses and shoveled out the stables.

When war broke out in 1914, the young lad attempted to immediately join the “great adventure,” but the same officers who had allowed him to serve in peacetime were wise enough to know that wartime service was for the more mature. He was sent home with a riding crop as a souvenir.

Time and again McLeod travelled to Winnipeg trying to enlist and was refused because of his young age accentuated by his diminutive stature. Immediately upon turning 18 — the legal military age — McLeod quit school and travelled to Winnipeg to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps. He was sent to Toronto as a pilot-in-training. 

McLeod was described to have taken to the sky with wild abandon and was a natural pilot. He soloed after only five days and three hours of flying time. He graduated as a pilot from Camp Borden with 50 hours of flying experience.

On August 20, 1917, he was shipped overseas aboard the Matagama as a Lieutenant in the RFC, arriving in London on September 1, 1917. 

Fate intervened when his commanding officer decided that the 18-year-old was too young for “real” combat flying and so McLeod was reassigned to a fighter squadron used for home defence. McLeod piloted a BE12, an antiquated fighter, used to battle Zeppelins which were then bombing London. For two weeks, he served in this capacity, honing his talents in anticipation of serving on the Western Front.

It had been a disastrous year for airmen over the front with losses mounting throughout 1917. It was because of these losses and McLeod lying about his age — he said he was 19 —  that he was able to finagle reassignment to the pilot pool at St. Omer, France.

McLeod’s first aircraft was a two-seat  Armstrong-Whitworth FK8 biplane (two wings) bomber which also doubled as an aerial reconnaissance aircraft. Nicknamed the Ack-W, it was a single-engine aircraft with a top speed of 145 km/h. It had two machine guns with one facing forward on the cowling and another mounted in the rear on a ring for the observer/gunner. Its carrying capacity was 72 kilograms of bombs.

On the other hand, the Albatross DIIIs  biplanes and Fokker Triplanes (three wings), which had created havoc among Allied flyers in 1917, had a top speed of 175 km/h and 166 km/h, respectively, as well as greater ceilings than the Ack-W. Each aircraft used two forwarded-mounted machine guns synchronized to fire through the airplanes’ propeller. Flying an Albatross, Manfred von Richthofen, the German fighter ace who became known as the “Red Baron,” shot down 21 Allied planes in April 1917 alone. His fame as the nemesis of Allied flyers was further enhanced when he later began piloting an all-red Fokker Triplane.

McLeod flew over the front for the first time on December 17 with Lt. Fred Higgins as his observer. Their job was to spot enemy artillery emplacements and radio back the positions of the emplacements using Morse code. This information was used by Allied artillery to take out the German guns.

Apparently McLeod refused to believe he was flying an awkward bomber and tried to turn it into a fighter whenever possible. Once their observation or bombing runs were finished, McLeod and Higgins took to flying over enemy lines seeking more action. On December 22, they were jumped by German aircraft and their controls were shot out, but they managed to glide safely back to their own lines.

When flying with Lt. Comber as his observer, their aircraft was attacked by three Fokker Triplanes which Comber kept at bay with his rear machine gun. They were then able to get back to Allied airspace where German fighters, as a matter of policy, rarely ventured; this to avoid being shot at from soldiers in the trenches and being captured by the Allies when downed. 

When the Fokker pilots were unwilling to continue their pursuit, McLeod turned his Ack-W around and began firing at the Germans who were surprised that anyone would dare attack so many fighters with a single bomber. McLeod managed to knock one Fokker from the sky during this encounter.

His next air combat involved a German observation balloon floating above Beauvin, nearly eight kilometres behind enemy lines. Plunging through an anti-aircraft barrage, he destroyed the balloon.

“Alan would take on anything,” wrote observer Lt. Reginald Key, “and I was willing to go anywhere with him. I had absolute confidence in him. He was the finest pilot I have ever flown with, devoid of fear, and always merry and bright. We were in many scraps together and often after getting out of a very tight corner by sheer piloting, with six or seven Huns on our tail, he would turn to me and laugh out loud.”

For his exploits as a bomber pilot, he received two weeks of leave in London which nearly proved his undoing. His first experience overseas had been to protect London from Zeppelins, but little did he think that he needed his own protection. While staying at the Savoy, the hotel was hit by bombs from a Zeppelin. McLeod was unhurt, but 49 people were killed and another 127 injured.

When he returned to France, McLeod Lt. A.W. Hammond became his new observer/gunner. They sometimes flew up to three times a day, including forays above enemy lines using their bomber as a fighter. The duo’s daring often resulted in their Ack-W being thoroughly shot up prior to returning to base.

The strength of the team was tested during the latter days of March 1918 at the height of Germany’s last-gasp offensive of the war. The massive attack required all available forces to be thrown into the fray, including every conceivable type of Allied aircraft. Bomber crews were told to strafe and bomb enemy troops and artillery to help stem the tide. It was during one of these bombing runs that McLeod and Hammond would perform their most daring aerial feat.

The two flyers took off with six other aircraft on the morning of March 27 for a bombing mission to Bray-sur-Somme. Heavy fog caused them to lose their bearings, separating the seven aircraft from each other. McLeod and Hammond opted to land at a friendly neighbouring field. The forced landing resulted in damage to their aircraft’s landing gear. While they waited for repairs, the base CO sent up a flight of fighters to test for the presence of Richthofen’s Flying Circus, the bane of Allied flyers. The flight shortly returned to base, citing the weather as being adverse to flying.

McLeod and Hammond were undeterred by low-level clouds and thick fog. When the repairs were completed, they took off to finish their original bombing run. They hadn’t made it very far when a Fokker Triplane appeared slightly below them. Although the German airplane was faster and more manoeuvrable, the element of surprise allowed McLeod to get his airplane into position for Hammond to shoot. Three bursts later from  Hammond’s Lewis gun and the triplane plunged to earth.

Their cheers were interrupted when another triplane dove at them, followed by six more. A hasty retreat was in order, but McLeod later wrote to his parents as he lay in an English hospital bed, “I foolishly stayed to scrap with them.

“We jumped up to about five or six thousand feet (1,524 or 1,829 metres) and fought for a while and got three of them down in flames. Then they got us.”

McLeod wrote his parents that he “had a few bullets in me and they were beginning to hurt, when our machine burst into flames ... I put the machine into a dive to try to get to the ground. We stood out on the side of the machine as soon as we got near enough and jumped for the ground.”

It was later revealed that Lt. Hans Kirschstein of Jasta 6 (Jasta was the a German flying squadron) had dived under their bomber and fired into its belly, wounding McLeod three times and Hammond six times. Hammond struggled up as the German came in for the kill. With only one functioning arm, Hammond was able to fire a volley at the Fokker.

By this time, McLeod had five wounds and the fire caused by the puncturing of the Ack-W’s fuel tank forced him out of his cockpit. The VC report outlining his exploits said McLeod controlled “his machine from the side of the fuselage, and by sideslipping steeply kept the flames to one side, thus enabling the observer (Hammond) to continue firing until the ground was reached.

“The observer had been wounded six times when the machine crashed in ‘No Man’s Land’ (the area between the opposing trenches) and 2nd Lieutenant 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 Lieutenant Hammond in comparative safety, before falling himself from exhaustion and loss of blood.”

McLeod and Hammond lay in a shell hole until nightfall when they were rescued by soldiers from the South African Scottish Regiment.

One of the South African rescuers said 60 years later: “Both were burnt and in a bad way. Captain Ward and I cheered them as best we could until dusk (dark) enough for our bearers to carry them back to a dressing station. In order to cheer McLeod I said, ‘You will be a blighty (the term for a wound that takes one from the front) in a few days.’

“He said, ‘That’s just the trouble, I would like to have a crack at that so-and-so that brought me down.’”

Despite his ordeal, when relating the events of that fateful day to his parents, McLeod wrote that he was “mighty sorry to have left France now the fun has begun. If I could, I’d go back today, for we were having loads of fun; beaucoup Huns to scrap with and everything, it was grand.”

McLeod seems not to have had any concept of human vulnerability. His survival from so many wounds probably added to his belief in his own immortality.

McLeod and Hammond were taken by stretcher to a dressing station a couple of kilometres from where they had crashed. “Then we were put in an ambulance and taken to a casualty clearing station at Amiens. It was a Canadian one and some of the doctors and nurses knew Dad ( his father was a doctor).”

McLeod had stops in other medical facilities in France until being shipped across the channel to England. He wrote his parents on April 2, 1918, from a hospital bed in Prince of Wales Hospital in London.

“Please don’t worry,” he wrote. “It would be just like you both, and I’m fit as a fiddle. I believe our escape was one of the most remarkable I ever heard of. Here I am six days after, feeling like a prize fighter, and have just shown one of the fellows in this room that I am one.” 

McLeod said he and his hospital mates engaged in “pillow fights, scraps and all kind of sport,” all of which is a reflection of their still youthful exuberance.

Upon hearing of his son’s wounds and that he would receive the VC, Dr. McLeod journeyed from Canada to England. On April 4, with his father at his side, 19-year-old McLeod received his VC at Buckingham Palace. Because of his weakness, he had to return to hospital while his father attended the luncheon in his honour hosted by King George V at Windsor Castle.

Accompanied by his father, McLeod returned to Stonewall. He died just a few days later from the Spanish Flu. 

McLeod is buried in Old Kildonan Cemetery in Winnipeg. His VC is now on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa which also has the original letter he wrote to his parents on April 2, 1918. The original acrylic painting of McLeod by George Tanner was commissioned by the Heritage Department of Air Command in 1994 and is part of the McLeod Display in the Air Command Museum. A hangar at RCAF Camp Borden, one of eight dating back to the First World War, was named in McLeod’s honour in 2004. 

McLeod was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973.