Portrait of Courage: Alan Arnett McLeod, VC

News Article / June 20, 2017

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In 2017, the Royal Canadian Air Force is marking the 100th anniversary
of the first pilot training conducted by the military in Canada.
The Royal Flying Corps Canada (RFC Canada) was established in Ontario
in late January 1917 to recruit and train Canadians for service
in the RFC during the First World War.

By Major Bill March

In 2017, the Royal Canadian Air Force is marking the 100th anniversary of the first pilot training conducted by the military in Canada. The Royal Flying Corps Canada (RFC Canada) was established in Ontario late January 1917 to recruit and train Canadians for service in the RFC during the First World War.

Perhaps the most well-known graduate of the RFC Canada was Alan Arnett McLeod, from Stonewall, Manitoba, whose family kept a number of the letters he sent home during the war. Like many of his contemporaries, he was anxious to join up and “do his bit” for King and Country.

However, rules were rules. Because he was born on April 20, 1899, McLeod’s first application was denied in a rather terse letter sent from RFC Headquarters in Toronto, Ontario, on March 29, 1917. “If you have read the regulations governing entry…, you will know that you are ineligible for the reason that you are not yet 18 years of age. As soon as you have reached the age of eighteen, advise me of the fact and your application will be considered.”

Less than a month later, the newly-turned-18-year-old was on a train bound for Toronto and the life of a student aviator.

Arriving in Toronto late on April 24, he spent the next day going through a battery of tests courtesy of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. All applicants had to endure this process and McLeod complained to his parents, “Gee, but they put you through some medical exam! You have to pass six doctors, each one a specialist on different parts. There were a lot of fellows turned down. I’m glad I wasn’t.”

The next day he moved into quarters at Burwash Hall, a residence located at the University of Toronto. During the war years much of the university was given over to military and aviation training. The young Manitoban confessed in a letter home that he “…never knew what homesickness was till I got down here, where everyone is strangers to me.” His lot in life was made worse because “…the officers are awful. They are all English and they are all so strict. They never say a kind word from one day’s end to another”. And then there was the timeless lament of all recruits when Cadet McLeod despaired that “the pants in my uniform are too small and I could [fit] into my coat twice, easily, it is so big”. It’s no wonder that, more often than not, he wrote to his family, “Gee, I wish I were home”.

Training soon began in earnest with classes in wireless (radio), map reading, aero engines and myriad subjects that the RFC thought it necessary for airmen to learn. And then there was the drill. Hours and hours of drill. McLeod did not seem to appreciate all of the exercise, noting that “they drill us hard. Just now, I can hardly stand on my feet to-night, they are so sore wearing those big army boots. They were swollen so much this morning I couldn’t get my boots on.” 

Apparently, all of the hard work, studying, and sore feet did not endear the big city to him; he solemnly informed his parents that “everyone told me what a lovely city Toronto was, but I can’t see it. I never saw such a hole in my life before. It is dirty & crowded & nothing nice about it…none of it can compare with old Stonewall.”

Yet he persevered, and in early June he was informed that he would begin his flight training at Long Branch, an airfield in the northern part of the city. As he was getting ready to leave, McLeod received notice that Allan Fraser, a friend from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who had accompanied him to Toronto, had died in an aircraft accident on May 31 in Deseronto, Ontario. Fraser’s instructor was Lieutenant Vernon Castle, a famous ballroom dancer and performer. According to a local newspaper, “…Cadet Fraser was seized with stage fright. He gripped and held the steering wheel rigidly; the machine cleared the flight shed and went straight up in the air. Then it backed up and crashed through the shed. The gasoline tank exploded and set fire to the shed. …Castle was thrown out of the machine…, but Fraser was carried with the machine and burned to a cinder.”

McLeod wrote to his family, “I felt awful about it. I can’t think of anything else.”

On June 4, less than a week after his friend’s death, McLeod had his first flight. It lasted all of 10 minutes. As training progressed, he wrote to his father, “I had a great flight to-day. I raced with a train… I sure think it’s the greatest thing to fly. It’s certainly grand. I just love it, but it makes you awfully tired, so they don’t work us hard. We lie around most of the day.” Five days after his first trip aloft, he soloed with just two hours and 15 minutes in his log book.

Ten days later, he was sent to Borden for advanced training. His arrival at the RFC’s largest airfield in Canada came as a bit of a shock. “I arrived at Camp Borden yesterday. It is an awful hole. I hate it just now, but I guess I’ll get used to it. Say, but it’s lonely here. Just a mass of sand and tents and the Flying Corps have a few buildings but they are full up so we are sleeping in tents without floors. There are 10 of us in a tent. We have no dressers or wash stands. We have to walk about a ¼ of a mile [about 400 meters] to the building to get washed…”

Long days of flying interspersed with lectures followed. At every opportunity, the cadets were sent aloft to gain as much experience as possible, sometimes with interesting results, as McLeod related to his mother on June 22. “I went for a flight about 4:30 this morning and it was very misty. Three other fellows went up, too, and we all got lost. I got back in about ½ hour and landed in a field near the aerodrome and ran [taxied] the machine in. I could hardly see a thing for the mist. All the other 3 fellows landed about 20 miles [32 kilometers] away. One of them crashed his machine…I was thankful when I hit dry land.”

Rather than proceed directly overseas, now-Second Lieutenant McLeod was retained at Borden as an instructor. In a letter home on July 5, he wrote, “I have all my instructor’s tests. They were no cinch. I had to make 4 figure eights in the air at a height of 3,000 feet [about 900 meters] and come down with the engine off and land in the centre of a circle… The next test is a cross country test. You have to make a cross country flight of 100 miles [about 160 kilometers] and make 3 outside landings. I got them all, so I have been given [giving] new fellows instruction. It is quite a job.”

Finally, in August 1918, his opportunity to travel to Europe finally arrived. On August 20, he boarded SS Metagama, bound for England, and wrote to his parents, “…we are all riding first class and have a cabin each. They are rather small, but very comfortable. I think I will enjoy the voyage if I don’t get sea sick…” A little more than a week later, escorted by an anti-submarine destroyer for the last part of the voyage, the ship docked at Bantry Bay, Ireland, and McLeod stepped ashore, where he would build upon the training he had received in Canada on his way to becoming a pilot in the RFC.

Four months after his arrival in England he is sent to France as the pilot of a two-seater, Armstrong-Whitworth FK8 aircraft. Serving with No. 2 Squadron on the Western Front on March 27, 1918, this teenaged aviator will be awarded the Commonwealth’s highest decoration for valour for an act of heroism that would beggar a Hollywood screen writer. Second Lieutenant Alan Arnett McLeod received the Victoria Cross in recognition of his saving the life of his observer, and his own life, even though he was wounded five times and his aircraft was on fire as a result of an attack on his aircraft by eight enemy aircraft.

Yet, in reading his letters home, you quickly come to realize that McLeod is an average teenager – excited by the new adventure that he has embarked upon, but not happy to be away from familiar faces and surroundings. He takes every opportunity to complain about his lot in life, while at the same time excelling in his training. And when called upon, like so many of the young men and women our country turns to in times of crisis, he does the incredible.

Second Lieutenant Alan Arnett McLeod, graduate of the Royal Flying Corps Canada, combat veteran, after taking six months to recover from wounds he received in March, returned to his beloved Stonewall, Manitoba. Weakened by his ordeal, he was stricken with influenza and, surrounded by family and friends, he died on November 6, 1918. He was 19 years of age.

He was the youngest Canadian airman to receive the Victoria Cross during the First World War.

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