The First World War, fought just over one hundred years ago, saw men fully engaged in a war in the air, shooting each other down at the first opportunity. It had been only a half a dozen years prior that the first known flight in Canada of a heavier-than-air machine, called the Silver Dart, flew across Bras d’Or Lake in Cape Breton, under the watchful eye of Alexander Graham Bell. The famous inventor of the telephone spent his summers in Nova Scotia and took an interest in the creation of a flying machine. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the coming of the First World War advanced the technology of flying a thousandfold.
Much has been written about Billy Bishop, the highest-scoring Canadian pilot in the First World War, and there are some books on William Barker and Raymond Collishaw, two of the other famed Canadian pilots of the war, but none are devoted to three lesser-known Canadian pilots: Alan McLeod, Andrew McKeever, and Donald MacLaren. They were distinctively different from each other. So too were the machines they flew, and their respective roles in the war. McLeod flew reconnaissance and artillery-spotting missions in an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8, McKeever a two-seat Bristol F.2B Fighter, and MacLaren a Sopwith Camel scout (today we would refer to this as a fighter plane). All three of these pilots are brought to life in this book, which explores their courage, exploits, and near-death experiences in the skies above France. These three men achieved greatness in the air and on the ground in an era of suffering and devotion to duty. They answered the call to go to war. They, like many thousands of others, went overseas to fight for the British Empire. It survived — but was very badly battered. The war would end up destroying monarchies across Europe, and completely alter the way that men and women saw the world.
McLeod, McKeever, and MacLaren were remarkable. These three Canadian pilots of the First World War should be recognized for their accomplishments.
As he lay in his hospital bed, with his head and shoulders propped up by extra pillows, Second Lieutenant Alan Arnett McLeod reflected on the events of March 27, 1918, which had brought him here, to the Prince of Wales Hospital in London. He did not think his actions in the sky over the battlefield of France that day were particularly brave. Yes, he had kept his machine under control while it had been shot about by eight enemy triplanes. But the worst part was the bullet to the petrol tank, causing flames to erupt and practically consume the aircraft. He had somehow managed to land his biplane and, while it was still burning, rescue his observer, Lieutenant Hammond, who was unconscious from the loss of blood from his injuries. He felt what he had done that day was the same as any pilot would have done to keep himself and his observer (gunner) alive. He contemplated the praise and attention he was receiving now he was back in England, under the care of the medical staff at the London hospital. He felt he really did not deserve it. He was humbled by it all. The visitors, the flowers brought to his bedside by pretty ladies, the mentions in the press. It was all so unnecessary, he felt.
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On March 21, 1918, six days before Second Lieutenant McLeod was shot down, the Germans began their last big offensive: Operation Michael. Seventy-six German divisions engaged twenty-eight British divisions in the Ypres, Armentières, and Béthune areas of the Western Front. General Ludendorff, commander of the German forces, knew that this offensive was his last chance to bring the Allies to their knees, before overwhelming numbers of American soldiers would arrive at the front.
On March 27, the members of No. 11 Squadron moved to the aerodrome at Fienvillers. However, they were without Andrew Edward McKeever and his observer, Leslie Powell, as they had been withdrawn to Home Establishment, in defence of England, on January 15, 1918. By that time, McKeever had destroyed thirty-one enemy aircraft and Powell, with his rear-facing machine gun, had accounted for nineteen more. From Fienvillers the squadron’s pilots carried out numerous attacks against the advancing enemy infantry. Flying their Bristol Fighters, No. 11 Squadron pilots carried out low-level strafing and bombing runs, harassing the advancing Germans.
From March 15 to April 7, 1918, squadrons of the Royal Air Force fired no less than two-and-a-half million rounds of ammunition, mostly at ground targets, and dropped 34,154 bombs of all sizes.1 One pilot carrying out such missions was Donald Roderick MacLaren, of No. 46 Squadron. On March 27, the same day McLeod was shot down and McKeever was with Home Establishment, Flight Commander MacLaren took off in his Sopwith Camel B9153 with the rest of his flight. It was a clear morning, perfect flying weather. As they were climbing to three thousand feet, MacLaren spotted a German two-seater observation machine flying over British-held territory. MacLaren was first to attack, surprising the German machine. He poured a few rounds into it and saw it dive to the earth. He must have killed the pilot instantly. The poor rear gunner was helpless, and the two-seater toppled downward. It was MacLaren’s thirteenth victory. Don MacLaren had joined 46 Squadron in France on November 23, 1917. He went on to be that squadron’s highest-scoring ace. –This text refers to the paperback edition.