Alan Arnett McLeoad was born at the end of April 1899 in Stonewall, Manitoba, establishing his heroic credentials at an early age. As is noted in his biography, he was only nine years old when he ‘removed a trap from the foot of a stray dog, but did not seem to understand why others fussed over his exploit’, exhibiting ‘the same courage, kindness, and modesty that he would later display as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps.’ To this he came via militia training with the 34th (Fort Garry) Horse, which he joined four years after the incident with the dog. So keen was McLeod to support his country in the First World War that a sought to enlist immediately when the war broke out – his age, of course, prevented this. It this took until late April 1917 until he was able to join active service.
McLeod first worked as a night fighter pilot, helping defend London against German air raids. As his biographer notes, however, ‘he really wanted to be at the front’, reporting to 2 Squadron at Hesdigneul-Lès-Béthune, France, on 29 November 1917. As his biographer notes,
McLeod made his first flight over France on 30 Nov. 1917. On 19 December he and his observer, Lieutenant J. O. Comber, had a “Scrap with 8 huns [German Albatros scouts],” claiming that “1 spun away.” Less than a month later, on 14 Jan. 1918, with Lieutenant Reginald Key as his observer, he attacked a kite balloon at Bauvin, sending it down in flames. Such an attack was considered a hazardous act for a fast, manœvrable fighter plane. In a lumbering machine such as an Armstrong Whitworth FK8 it was almost foolhardy. In addition to the balloon, Key destroyed an Albatros. Both men were mentioned in dispatches for this action. On 27 March McLeod and his observer, Lieutenant Arthur Hammond, took off into low clouds with five other planes to assist the Allied armies by bombing and strafing enemy concentrations around Bray-sur-Somme. They put down at a British airfield after the members of the formation “lost each other,” but resumed their mission alone after lunch. McLeod later wrote to his parents, “We went quite a piece over the line and were just going to drop my bombs . . . when all of a sudden a whole flock of Bosch came out of the clouds on us there must have been 8 or 10 anyway, I foolishly stayed to scrap [with] them.” Initially they had some success, claiming three enemy shot down, but the numerical advantage and superior manœuvrability of the Fokker triplanes soon proved too much for them. Their FK8 was hit in a number of places and burst into flames from the fuel tank in front of the cockpit.
As pilots then did not wear parachutes the only chance for them was to fly the aircraft for as long as possible, attempting to land it. As the biography continues,
As it was, they had to ride the aircraft down from at least 2,000 feet as best they could. McLeod managed to side-slip steeply so that most of the flames missed them. When the lire came too close, he swung a leg out of the cockpit. With one foot on the lower left wing and the other on the rudder pedal, he brought the plane towards the Allied lines. Hammond lost the floor of his cockpit in the fire and had to sit on the coaming, with his feet “on the bracing wires at the side of the fuselage.” All the while McLeod kept him in a position to return the enemy’s fire. Despite being wounded six times, Hammond claimed to have shot down three pursuers. Crash-landing in no man’s land within range of enemy fire, McLeod, already hit five times himself, was wounded again by a bomb that went off as he half dragged, half rolled Hammond away from danger. He managed to get him into a shell hole before collapsing from exhaustion and loss of blood. It was some time before South African troops in the closest friendly trench could rescue the flyers and remove them to the reserve trenches.
Eventually McLeod was sent to the Prince of Wales’ Hospital in London for treatment. It was there that he received the news that he had been awarded a Victoria Cross – a piece of news also reported back home in Manitoba, where people were immensely proud of their local hero. McLeod thus became Canada’s youngest winner of the highest award available for gallantry in the British Empire.
Sadly, however, the story did not end well for McLeod: having contracted influenza, he died in early November 1918. As McLeod’s biography concludes very suitably, ‘in his too brief existence, Alan McLeod made only one significant contribution, but what an achievement it was.’
To read McLeod’s full biography, please click here.