Alan Arnett McLeod, VC, pilot (born 20 April 1899 in Stonewall, MB; died 6 November 1918 in Winnipeg, MB). During the First World War, McLeod was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for his heroic actions during and after an aerial battle with enemy fighters. He died shortly after returning to Canada, a victim of the 1918 influenza pandemic that claimed the lives of millions worldwide, including some 50,000 Canadians.
Alan McLeod was the son of Alexander and Margaret McLeod and lived in the small town of Stonewall, north of Winnipeg. When he was 14, he joined a militia unit, the 34th Fort Garry Horse. He spent the summer of 1913 at a training camp performing menial tasks, but he was happy to be in uniform.
When the First World War began in August 1914, McLeod was too young to remain in the militia. In 1916, he tried to join the cadet wing of the British Royal Flying Corps, which trained pilots in Canada, but was told he had to wait until he was 18. He returned in April 1917 and was accepted for pilot training.
Alan McLeod successfully completed theoretical training in engines, map reading, theory of flight, cross-country flying and wireless telegraphy at No. 4 School of Military Aeronautics at the University of Toronto. He then began pilot training at Long Branch, just west of Toronto. His first flight was on 4 June 1917 on a Curtiss JN4 trainer. He made his first solo flight five days later, after little more than two hours of in-flight instruction. In mid-June, McLeod was posted to Camp Borden for advanced training.
McLeod qualified as a pilot in July 1917 and then attended the School of Aerial Gunnery. On 20 August, Second Lieutenant McLeod sailed from Montreal on the SS Metagama and docked in England on 1 September. On arrival, he had 10 days leave in London, which was subjected to nightly German bombing raids during his stay.
On 14 September, McLeod was posted to No. 82 Squadron at Waddington, Lincolnshire. The squadron flew the Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8, nicknamed the “Big Ack,” a large, lumbering two-seater aircraft (pilot and observer) used overseas and for home defence. After two months, No. 82 Squadron was due to be sent to France, but McLeod still was not old enough to go. (Pilots had to be at least 19 to serve in combat.)
Instead, he was transferred to No. 51 (Home Defence) Squadron at Marham, Norfolk. The squadron flew the F.E.2b, a two-seat fighter, mainly on night patrols over London, searching for German Zeppelins and Gotha bombers. McLeod served with 51 Squadron for two months before being posted to France. A shortage of pilots may have been the reason for this decision, since McLeod was still underage.
On 29 November 1917, Alan McLeod arrived at No. 2 Squadron, stationed at Hesdigneul-lès-Béthune in northeast France. The squadron was equipped with the Big Ack and flew army cooperation missions such as artillery spotting and photographing enemy lines. It was also used on day and night bombing sorties.
McLeod decided to use his bomber as a fighter whenever he could. On several missions behind enemy lines, he and his observer engaged and shot down German aircraft. He received a Mention in Despatches.
Heroism in the Air
On 27 March 1918, Alan McLeod and his observer, Lieutenant Arthur Hammond, were on a bombing mission behind enemy lines. Suddenly, a Fokker fighter appeared out of the clouds slightly below them and only 200 metres away. McLeod manoeuvred his bomber so Hammond could fire at it. After three short bursts from the Lewis gun, the enemy aircraft plummeted to the ground.
As McLeod and Hammond were congratulating each other, eight more Fokkers attacked from different directions. McLeod manoeuvred the bomber, allowing Hammond to fire at the enemy planes in turn. Hammond shot down three of them before another enemy fighter came up under their bomber and fired into its belly, puncturing the fuel tank and starting a fire. Both McLeod and Hammond were wounded.
McLeod climbed out onto the wing and controlled the aircraft from the side of the fuselage with one leg inside the cockpit. By side-slipping steeply, he kept the flames to one side, allowing Hammond to continue firing. (In a side-slip, a plane moves sideways relative to the oncoming airflow.) Although Hammond could use only one arm, he somehow managed to fire at another German fighter as it closed in for the kill. The Fokker fell away. Hammond continued firing all the way to the ground.
By the time McLeod crash-landed the plane in no man’s land, he had been wounded five times and Hammond six. Despite this, McLeod was able to drag his observer away from the burning wreckage just before its remaining bombs and ammunition exploded. German small arms fire wounded McLeod a sixth time as they hid in a shell hole. That night, South African soldiers rescued them and carried them to a medical facility.
On 4 September, McLeod received the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace. His father travelled from Canada to attend the investiture. Hammond received a bar to his Military Cross.
Return to Canada
After his VC presentation, Alan McLeod returned to Canada with his father. He was officially welcomed home in a ceremony at the Winnipeg train station on 30 September 1918, followed by a public reception in Stonewall. He told crowds at both events that he would return to the front. McLeod was still weak from his ordeal, however, and contracted the Spanish flu, a strain of influenza then sweeping the world. He died in the Winnipeg General Hospital on 6 November and was buried in the Old Kildonan Presbyterian cemetery in his hometown. Approximately 50,000 Canadians died during the pandemic, which claimed the lives of millions worldwide.
There are several tributes to McLeod’s courage, including Alan McLeod VC Avenue in his hometown, Stonewall. He was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, Edmonton, Alberta, in 1974. The McLeod Building at CFB Borden, Ontario, houses the Air Force Annex at Base Borden Military Museum, while the Lt. Alan McLeod Building provides quarters for students at 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School, Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. In 2009, the No. 301 (Alan McLeod, V.C.) Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Cadets was established in Stonewall.