Aviation News Journal
Text by Divan Muller
If Alan McLeod’s wartime actions were shown in a Hollywood movie, it would probably be deemed too farfetched to be realistic. Fierce determination and incredible bravery caused McLeod to be the youngest pilot of World War I to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
Early life and training
Alan Arnett McLeod was born on 23 April 1899 in a little town called Stonewall, Manitoba. He determined at a very young age that he would one day join the military, even joining the local militia’s cavalry at the age of fourteen. World War I broke out in 1914 and McLeod, then a sixteen-year-old, immediately volunteered for service with the army, but his application was denied due to his young age. Having developed an interest in flying, McLeod then eagerly volunteered to serve with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), but he was told to wait until 1917, when he would turn eighteen. Finally, on his eighteenth birthday, McLeod’s application for pilot training with the RFC was approved.
McLeod was sent to Ontario, where he received flight instruction in a Curtiss JN4 biplane. During that time, McLeod frequently wrote letters to his parents, in which he described his experiences. “Well, I was flying for a while this morning again. It was great,” he wrote. “I took complete control of the machine. The lieutenant said that I did really well, so there is some chance that I will become an aviator. I feel as much at home in an aeroplane now as I do in a car.”
A few days later he wrote, “I did my solo flight yesterday. I made a bombing success of it and did really well, but I made up for that this morning. I thought I would try another solo, so I went down to the hangars and told the mechanics to pull out ‘162’, so I went off fine and flew around for a while, but it was so bumpy, I could not stay out. First the machine would dive and then it would nose up, so I thought I had better land. I was up at 3 000 feet and shut off the engine and began to glide for the aerodrome, but for some unknown reason, I misjudged the distance and landed behind the flag instead of in front. I struck hard ground and landed too suddenly. I smashed all the wires on the undercarriage and nearly broke the propeller, but the machine was repaired in about half an hour. Another fellow went up and smashed his machine up pretty well, but was unhurt. After we have completed our solo, we can take a machine and go up any time we like and we do not have to go up unless we want. They never say anything to you for smashing a machine. I guess I will try again this afternoon and make a good landing. This is Sunday, but we have to work all the same, but we never work very hard.”
On another occasion, he wrote about the instructors, saying, “They did not give some of us enough instruction and as a result we broke a few machines by making bad landings. I had a crash yesterday. I did not know the wind had changed and I came down with it, instead of against it and smashed the plane all up, but the commanding officer just laughed and said, ‘that was a fine landing’.”
By August 1917, McLeod had accumulated 43 hours of flying experience and was transferred to London, England, where he received operational training and learned to fly a variety of aircraft types.
In November 1917, McLeod was assigned to a squadron in France, which was equipped with Armstrong Whitworth FK.8 ‘Big Ack’ biplanes. These aircraft were primarily used for reconnaissance and ground attack missions. McLeod’s first sorties included reconnaissance flights, night bombing raids and artillery cooperation missions. Despite the fact that McLeod was not trained as a fighter pilot and the fact that his aircraft was by no means a fighter, he attacked a formation of eight German Albatros fighters in December that year. During that particular flight, McLeod’s observer shot down one of the enemy aircraft. Apparently he had unsuccessfully applied to be transferred to a fighter squadron, so he resorted to flying his lumbering ‘Big Ack’ bomber as if it were a fighter. Reginald Key, one of the observers who occasionally flew with McLeod, said, “Alan would take on anything 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 around to me and laugh out loud.”
During a ground attack mission in January 1918, McLeod flew his bomber in such a way that his observer was able to shoot down an observation balloon and an Albatros fighter. Two months later, during another ground attack mission, McLeod and his newly appointed observer, Arthur Hammond, were just about to drop their bombs, when they noticed an approaching Fokker triplane of the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen’s famous ‘Flying Circus’ squadron. McLeod immediately attacked the fighter, with his observer shooting it down. Suddenly, seven more fighters of the Red Baron’s elite squadron appeared. The astonishing events that happened next were best described in the citation of McLeod’s Victoria Cross, which he was subsequently awarded, “Whilst flying with his observer, attacking hostile formations by bombs and machine gun fire, he was assailed at a height of 5 000 feet by eight enemy triplanes, which dived at him from all directions, firing from their front guns. By skillful manoeuvring he enabled his observer to fire bursts at each machine in turn, shooting three of them down out of control. By this time Lieutenant McLeod had received five wounds and whilst continuing the engagement, a bullet penetrated his petrol tank and set the machine on fire. He then climbed out onto 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 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.”
Britain’s Victoria Cross (VC) was and still is arguably the most difficult medal in the world to be awarded, requiring extreme bravery and selflessness. During World War I, for example, 166 VC recipients died as a result of their actions which led to them being awarded the medal. At the age of eighteen, McLeod was the youngest pilot in World War I to be awarded a VC. At the time, the average age of a VC recipient was 27.
In a letter to McLeod’s mother, observer Arthur Hammond described the event, “We were side slipping and Alan was standing up with one foot on the rudder bar and the other outside on the wing. I was standing on the bracing wires at the side of the fuselage as the bottom of my cockpit had fallen out. As we neared the ground I climbed out on the top wing, so that when we hit the ground I was thrown forward on the ground. I saw Alan jump out of the machine and look for me but he evidently thought that I had fallen out. He came to me and tried to pull me towards our lines.”
McLeod and Hammond were rescued by South African soldiers, who found McLeod unconscious, but with his hands still firmly grasping Hammond’s collar. The safety of his observer was clearly the last thought on McLeod’s mind before he lost consciousness. The South Africans protected the two men in the safety of a trench until nightfall, when they were withdrawn from the frontlines.
“We attended their wounds but could not safely get them away until dusk. Both were burnt and in a bad way,” one of the South Africans later remembered. “In trying to cheer McLeod, I said ‘You will be in Blighty in a few days.’” McLeod replied, “That is just the trouble. I would like to have a crack at that so-and-so that brought me down.”
Other than losing a leg, Hammond made a full recovery, whilst McLeod’s wounds took longer to heal. After being awarded a VC by King George V, McLeod returned to his home in Canada. Sadly, when at last it seemed that he was recovering from his wounds, McLeod contracted influenza and died on 6 November 1918, at the age of nineteen.