Canada’s Fighting Airmen
Commencing the story of Major Donald MacLaren, conqueror of forty-eight German war planes
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
TEN: FROM FUR TRADER TO FLYING ACE
NO MORE romantic figure emerges from the records of British aviation than that of Major Donald MacLaren, of Vancouver. Leaving a fur-trading post in the Peace River country far north of the railway, he enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps in the spring of 1917, trained as a pilot at Camp Borden in Ontario, reached France late in the same year, and in a few months of brilliant fighting shot down forty-eight German airplanes and six balloons, which placed him sixth among all the thousands of British pilots and fourth among Canadians, in the number of machines destroyed. His rapid transition from fur trader to one of the greatest airmen of the war is an . inspiring story of a Canadian’s achievement of which surprisingly little is known.
He was born in Ottawa on May 28, 1893 and lived there until his family moved to Calgary in 1899. His training for the Royal Flying Corps started two years later when his father gave him a small shotgun and set up a trap beside the river at the back of their house. There the whole family shot at clay pigeons, and Donald soon became an excellent shot. It was not long before he was shooting duck and prairie chickens, and year by year he developed the keen eye and quick judgment which were such an essential part of his later success in the air.
This early training in the use of firearms was a tradition in the MacLaren family. Donald’s grandfather was one of the pioneer Scotch settlers near Pembroke on the banks of the Ottawa, who believed that it was every citizen’s duty to learn the use of firearms as a contribution to public safety, and each of his six sons was carefully trained. Game was abundant, so there was plenty of practice, and all became good shots, particularly Robert James MacLaren, Donald’s father. It was natural, therefore, that Donald should show the results of training under such excellent guidance and develop the skill which later stood him in such good stead.
Off to Keg River Prairie
THE MacLaren family moved to Vancouver in 1911, and in 1912 Donald matriculated and went to McGill University to study electrical. engineering. Early in 1914, however, he was forced to discontinue his studies because of illness, and returned to Vancouver. After he had recuperated he and his only brother Roy went with their father to a place on the Peace River called
Keg River Prairie about two hundred miles north of the nearest railway at Peace River Crossing, and opened a fur-trading post. The Hudson’s Bay Company and Revillon Frères also had trading posts there, but their only other neighbors were Indians of the Cree, Chipewyan, and Slavey tribes. The two boys soon learned the Cree tongue, and four years afterwards in England often amazed their friends by conversing in this strange language.
In those primitive surroundings of which most Canadian boys have read and dreamed, but comparatively few have actually known, Donald lost any evidences of ill health and soon became a sturdy thick-set youth quite equal to the great physical exertions he often faced. As part of their work they covered long distances during the summer by land and water, and in the winter “mushed” with the natives to outlying posts to get furs.
Mail came rarely to Keg River Prairie in those days. The war seemed very remote, and months passed into years without their realizing the extent to which Canada had become involved in the vast conflict. At first, like so many others, they thought it would not last very long. Then, when a year passed, it seemed to them it could not last much longer. 1916 came and the Allies seemed to be sure of success—it was too late now for them to join. In the spring of 1916 Donald went far north with a government party which was surveying the sixth meridian, and when he returned in the autumn found that his brother Roy had in the meantime decided the war might not be over so soon after all and had gone south to enlist.
Donald and his father soon came to the same . decision. It meant a heavy loss, giving up their established business, but the following spring, having sold their interests as best they could, they went south to Vancouver and offered their services. R. J. MacLaren, the father, had the figure of a youth, tall, erect, keen-eyed and fit, but in spite of every effort he was rejected for active service because of his age. He served with the Imperial Munitions Board, however, until the end of the war and did excellent work. Donald enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps, which had established Canadian training camps a short time previously, and .was ordered to report at Camp Borden in Ontario.
The training period was considerably longer than in the days when Bishop, Barker and Collishaw had received their wings after a few weeks instruction. Then the frantic demand for pilots to build up an aerial fighting force where none had existed left little time for detailed training, and if a man showed that he could handle a machine he did not have long to wait before he started for France with the pious hope in the minds of his instructors that he would learn something of fighting before he met too deadly an enemy. In 1917 the demand was still great, but the tremendous enlistment assured a steady supply, and a man must go through months of training no matter how quickly he learned to fly. It was well on in the autumn, therefore, before MacLaren lost the white band of the neophyte from his cap and received his wings. He immediately proceeded to England, spent a short time there learning the latest tricks of aerial warfare, and then, late in November 1917, crossed to France and reported to No. 2 Aviation Supply Depot, popularly known as a “pilot’s pool” from which a pilot might be posted to any squadron at the front. Very soon he was attached to the 46th Squadron, with which he served all the time he was in France, rising within the year from junior subaltern to command the unit.
MacLaren’s first three months at the front were comparatively uneventful. He had arrived during the ominous lull while the German air force was conserving its strength for the opening of the vast Kaiserschlacht which was their final bid for victory. The British fighting squadrons were equipped with the Sopwith Dolphin, Sopwith Camel and S.E. 5, all single-seater machines, which had proved themselves superior to the Albatross and Pfalz scouts then in the hands of the best German squadrons. For this reason, doubtless, and the necessity of building up their strength after the heavy losses of 1917, the enemy carefully avoided combat in the air, and MacLaren flew almost daily over the German lines for months without once meeting a hostile machine. It was not, however, a period of inactivity. Long reconnaissances and bombing raids far behind the enemy lines required physical endurance of a high order during the raw winter months, and although they were not attacked by aircraft the all-too-effi cient German antiaircraft artillery never let them forget the serious nature of their business.
In the Thick of It
IT WAS not until the end of February 1918, less than nine months before the war ended, that MacLaren had his first fight in the air. He was with a patrol of five machines between Arras and Cambrai, when the patrol leader signalled that he had sighted enemy aircraft. MacLaren saw some machines almost a mile away at the same héigh t, but whether they were British or German he could not tell; however, all he had to do for the moment was follow his leader. It was late afternoon, and the sun was directly behind the British machines. They climbed, therefore, keeping the sun behind them, and were almost above the Germans before they were seen. At last he was at close quarters with the enemy, and all his months of training were to stand the test.
“I was flying next to the leader,” MacLaren reported, “and as he dived at one machine I went for another. They were all silver grey and had double tailplanes. When they saw us coming they tried to get away by descending in large curves.” But MacLaren had his man picked out. Down he went and was just about to fire his first rounds in actual fighting, when the enemy banked sharply, and came back directly underneath him. MacLaren brought his nimble Camel around almost at the same moment, and dived again, closing in to less than a hundred yards. As he found the silver-
grey machine in the circle of his sight, he opened fire and could see the tracers from his twin machine guns streaming into the fuselage of the German machine around the pilot’s seat. Having passed over the enemy plane he turned to resume the attack, when he was overjoyed to see his adversary spinning down out of control. But he remembered from his instruction that this might only be a ruse, and went down after him to prevent the possibility of escape. His bullets, however, had found their mark, and with mixed sensations he saw the spinning machine end in a mass of burning wreckage near the Arras-Douai railway. As he climbed again he found that he had lost his patrol, and flew directly back to his own aerodrome with the vitally important first victory to his credit. The long months of training since he left Keg River Prairie had led to that burning mass of wreckage near Douai, and he now knew the sensation of actual battle, and was confident of his ability to meet the enemy in the air.
Then followed a period of increasing activity, as considerable numbers of German machines once more took to the air in preparation for their mighty attack. MacLaren’s first victory was followed quickly by several others, and the unerring accuracy of his fire, developed long before he ever thought of flying, soon established his reputation as one of the best pilots in a very good squadron.
The Brebiere “Bertha”
AS PART of the plan of attack the Germans moved a number of longrange guns into position on railway mountings early in March. These great guns with tremendous range opened fire on vital points behind the British lines and had a very demoralizing effect. One of these guns which had been shelling the important railway centre, St. Pol, with considerable success, was located by sound-ranging and aerial observation on a railway spur at Brebière.
MacLaren was detailed as one of a patrol of eight, whose task it was to silence this gun. Having loaded their machines with bombs they flew to Brebière, nearly six miles behind the German lines, and had no difficulty in finding the steel monster, which it was quite impossible to conceal. Arriving near the gun they flew very low and the leader guided them in single file over the target, each machine dropping his full load of bombs as he passed over. MacLaren was particularly successful, and made two direct hits on the massive gun mountings, and also blew up some of the tracks on which it was moved. He was so low when he released the bombs that his machine rocked from the-concussions, but he held his course and soon regained his patrol. The raid had been a complete success and that particular gun was out of action permanently.
They climbed rapidly and started for home but had not gone fár when MacLaren saw a German two-seater directly below him, and immediately dived with his throttle wide open. After a short fight he got on the enemy’s tail and after a hundred rounds the German machine went down out of control in a spinning nosedive, and crashed near the outskirts of Douai.
He had by this time lost his companions and started straight for home. The antiaircraft guns now opened on him, and as he climbed to avoid their fire, he very nearly collided with a German observation balloon which was concealed just under a large cloud. This was too good a chance to miss, so he brought his machine around, and fired a long burst of tracers into the bag. Almost instantly a white parachute opened out below the basket as the observer jumped, and when MacLaren again turned for home he saw the gasbag in flames. This was his first balloon.
With a mixed bag of a long-range railway gun, an airplane and a balloon to his credit MacLaren might well have called it an afternoon, but luck seemed to be with him, so he decided to remain a while longer over the German lines in the hope of finding another fight.
He had not long to wait. Just behind the German lines he encountered another two-seater painted a brilliant green. His new adversaries showed plenty of spirit and flying skill. As MacLaren attacked, the green machine dived and zoomed up underneath him, both the pilot and observer in turn getting in good bursts which ripped through the wings dangerously close to his body. MacLaren became more cautious, and soon they were in a mad ring-around-a-rosy blazing away at each other whenever they saw a chance. Their spiral descent had brought them close to the ground, when MacLaren finally got on the enemy’s tail, a short burst of fire disabled the pilot and the German machine crashed near Marquion. After this victory he climbed once more and returned to his aerodrome.
For his exploits in this amazing flight MacLaren received his first decoration, the Military Cross. The official announcement published in the London Gazette in June was as follows:
“London Gazet te Ño. 30761 War Office,
22nd June, 1918.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the following award to the undermentioned officer, in recognition of his gallantry and devotion in the Field:
Awarded the Military Cross
T/2nd Lt. Donald Roderick MacLaren, Gen. List and R.F.C.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On one occasion, when on low bombing work he bombed a long-range enemy gun, 9,000 yards behind the lines, obtaining from a height of 200 feet two direct hits on the gun track and two on the railway track alongside. When returning to our lines he encountered a hostile two-seater machine, which he shot down crashing to earth. He then attacked a balloon, which burst into flames, and finally, observing another enemy two-seater plane, he engaged it and eventually succeeded in crashing it to earth. He has set an example of gallantry and skill to his squadron.”
The March Offensive
A FEW days later the storm broke when on March 21 the German divisions long prepared for the attack were hurled against the British lines. As the German troops advanced, their airplanes appeared again in full force, and the British machines fought day by day from dawn till dusk, and the bombers carried on through the night harrying the enemy troops far back of their lines.
Once more Richthofen’s famous “Circus” ranged the front in gaudy colors, playing havoc with solitary observation machines which strayed in their path. The 46th Squadron frequently met the “Circus” in the ensuing weeks, but always over the German lines, for although they were good fighters they would never give battle except above their own territory. They were destroyers, but destroyers only of those who attacked. They did not carry the offensive against the British in the air, as their comrades were doing on the ground, and in spite of heavy losses the British airmen never lost the initiative, even in the blackest days of the spring of 1918, a fact with a considerable bearing on the ultimate result of the most critical battle of the war.
During those wild days MacLaren added steadily to his list of victories, and in April was promoted to the rank of Captain. Shortly afterwards he had a very close call from anti-aircraft fire.
■ On a bright, clear morning MacLaren and another member of his squadron were scouting in their single-seater Sopwiths over the enemy lines .at a height of 19,030 feet when they saw a formation of seven Pfalz scouts. Manceuvering until the sun was directly behind them, they dived at the Germans, each picking out one of the enemy machines. They opened fire together and the Germans were taken completely by surprise, two of their machines falling under the guns of MacLaren and his companion.
Having lost the element of surprise and the odds being considerably against them, they decided to return to their own lines, and were just above Merville when the anti-aircraft guns found their range, and a very close burst smashed one of the centre struts on MacLaren’s machine and carried away several of the stay wires. Another burst damaged the wing, how badly at the time he could not tell. Flying very carefully he landed safely, and found that the front edge of one of his wings had been completely cut in two by a shell splinter. It was remarkable that the wing had not collapsed, and in all his fighting MacLaren never had a narrower escape.
There were several factors which made April 1918 one of the most dramatic and critical periods of the whole war for the airmen. On the ground the British troops were being driven back under a concentration of more than one hundred divisions against their sixty, and in this retreat many of the squadrons found their aerodromes moving back with alarming rapidity. It said much for their spirit that at no time during the whole war was there more dash shown by the British pilots. Another important factor was the new method of fighting introduced by Richthofen. Knowing that his men could not meet the British in the air in individual combat, he led huge patrols of thirty or more machines up and down the line in an effort to establish the upper hand in the air w ich was so essential to success on the ground. The Germans seemed to realize that the last chance of victory lay before them, and they fought with a ferocity that they had never equalled before.
A “Dog-fight,” First-hand
DAY by day Richthofen’s famous Jagdstaffel II added to its list of victories, and on April 6th MacLaren’s squadron lost one of its best pilots, Captain Sydney Smith, D.S.O., who had a long list of victories to his credit and had fought through many encounters with the “Circus.” On the sixth he was leading a patrol far behind the enemy lines when they were attacked by six Fokkers and, Smith was shot down by Richthofen himself near the Bois de Hamel.
This was a great loss to the squadron, and it became evident that in spite of personal courage and their willingness to accept odds, the British pilots could only meet such tactics by flying in similar formations. Then began a series of massed battles in which ever-increasing numbers of machines engaged, usually ending in a number of smaller fights in which the individual still displayed his skill. MacLaren described one of these great “dogfights” in a letter at the time. Twelve of his own squadron in Camels met seventeen enemy scouts east of the Nieppe Forest at a height of fifteen thousand feet. His own words give a vivid picture of what followed.
“As the Germans saw us above *"*" them they began flying in large circles (as they usually did when they expected to be attacked) and we began diving at them. We had succeeded in shooting down two when another large formation appeared, coming up from La Bassée. We drew out to watch them and climbed higher. At that moment our Archies opened fire, the white bursts of shrapnel appearing thickly among the enemy. We were joined by a formation of S.E. 5’s and some Camels. Then another formation of S.E. 5’s and Bristol fighters drifted along from the south.
It promised to be a real air battle— one of the kind you read about but seldom see. We attacked the first formation of Huns, diving at them, firing a few rounds, climbing away and then diving again.
“I swooped down on an Albatross which was painted white with a red nose and closed with him. He went down in flames and I felt some one shooting at me for all he was worth. From the sound of the bullets I knew he was pretty close so I climbed away to try and get a look at him. Two of my Camels were chasing a Pfalz who tried to avoid them by turning from side to side. They got him, however, and sent him down spinning.
. “There was not time to watch the show for bullets were flying everywhere. Just then two Albatrosses detached themselves from the mess and picked on a little Camel. I went for them and managed to get close to the leading one, which went down. The other got away by diving under his formation.
“In the meantime the Bristolsand the S.E. 5’s were having the time of their lives. One S.E. which had shot down a Hun was being given a ride by three others, but by a quick climbing turn he managed to get the advantage over one of the trio. The Hun, in trying to avoid him, turned slowly and rammed one of his fellows. Both machines were badly smashed, and went down leaving bits of fabric floating behind them.
“The Bristols had managed to split up the German formation and the enemy, thinking he had had enough, drew off and made for home as fast as he could. Our ammunition had been.pretty well used up so we decided to call it a day. We concluded that at the end of the mix-up there must have been nearly 100 machines taking part.”
The grim struggle had its lighter side as well and one day not long afterwards MacLaren had an amusing experience with a solitary German machine. He had flown over alone to attack an observation balloon when he met an enemy two-seater. Diving at the nose of the German machine so that the observer could not swing the rear gun into action he was soon within range. Again his own words give a stirring picture of the incident:
“When he came within range I pressed the trigger. My gun refused to work. I could hear the trigger rattling away and knew that my firing gear was in good order so I reloaded quickly. He was past me but I dived underneath and pulled up at him from there.
“Again I fired. Still no shots would come. I pulled off to one side and felt my ammunition chutes—both belts were broken. It was annoying, to say the least.
“The German was not shooting at me for some reason, so I sidled up to him to see what was the matter. Still he did not shoot. I went a bit closer and could see the observer standing there with his gun pointing up into the air away from me. Suddenly he waved to me and I answered. He moved his-gun up and down as if to say, ‘Mine won’t work either.’ I came very close, and the pilot waved to me. So I returned his greeting and we parted the best of friends.”
The End of Richthofen
ON APRIL 21st the day after he had been credited with his seventy-ninth and eightieth victories, the idol of the German army, Baron Von Richthofen led his “Circus” for the last time. MacLaren had no part in his last fight, but it is worth describing here as it illustrates forcibly the German tactics at the time, and the result was indirectly felt by every squadron at the' front.
Two old R.E. 8’s from No.3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force (the Australians had their own Air Force at that time) were controlling artillery fire near Beaumont Hamel, when they were suddenly attacked by four Fokker triplanes from Richthofen’s squadron, which was patrolling the front and had seen the slow-moving observation machines far below. Four machines were all the Germans thought they needed for the job, but the Australians put up a splendid fight, blazing away from front and rear guns every time a Fokker crossed their sights. The fight was uneven but it was taking too long, and suddenly Richthofen, who was patrolling with the remainder of his “Staffel” some two miles above, led his swarm of Fokkers in a great dive with the intention of finishing the hardpressed R.E. 8’s. There seemed no chance whatever for the plucky Australians.
But almost at the same moment as Richthofen started down, a Canadian Captain, Roy Brown, saw the plight of the R.E. 8’s, who were now fighting at a height of about three thousand feet. Brown was leading a patrol of eight Camels of the 209th Squadron at a height of about 15,000 feet. He saw in an instant that he was vastly outnumbered by the German machines, but he also saw that the two Australian machines were lost if he did not attack. He did not hesitate for a moment, but signalling to the other machines to follow he led them down in a dizzy two-mile dive with his engine wide open.
Richthofen reached the fight only a matter of seconds ahead of Brown. The’ diving Fokkers had scarcely time to open fire when the eight Camels with guns and motors roaring plunged among the twenty-two German machines and the R.E. 8’s were saved. They were no longer the chief concern of the German airmen, and seeing their chance dived for safety behind their own lines.
In the indescribable confusion which followed, with the British outnumbered nearly three to one, the machines came down to with a few hundred feet of the ground. Brown, who had been having a tough time, and had found it necessary to dive out of the fight to get away from two Fokkers which had succeeded in getting on his tail, turned back to find one of the junior subalterns of the squadron, Lieutenant May, being pursued by an all-red Fokker triplane which was firing from less than fifty yards. Brown dived, and a well-directed stream of bullets from his Vickers guns sent the red machine crashing to the ground just behind the British lines. Brown then flew back to his aerodrome where his machine was found to be literally riddled. Brown did not learn until some time later in the day that his all-red victim of the morning had been none other than the mighty Richthofen himself, who had become an almost legendary figure with the Allies as well as the Germans. Today the seat of the machine in which the greatest German airman flew for the last time is to be seen at the Canadian Military Institute at Toronto as mute evidence of Brown’s victory.
A few days later a tribute to Richthofen appeared in Aeroplane published in London, which gives still further proof of the sense of chivalry existing in the opposing air forces:
“Richthofen is dead.
“All airmen will be pleased to hear that he has been put out of action, but there will be no one among them who will not regret the death of such a courageous nobleman.
“Several days ago, a banquet was held in honor of one of our ‘aces.’
In answering the speech made in his honor, he toasted Richthofen, and there was no one who refused to join. Thus Englishmen honored a brave enemy.
“Both airmen are now dead; our celebrated pilot had expressed the hope that he and Richthofen would survive the war so as to exchange experiences in times of peace.
“Anybody would have been proud to have killed Richthofen in action, but every member of the Royal Flying Corps would also have been proud to shake his hand had he fallen into captivity alive.
“It is not true to say that Richthofen personally was credited with all planes shot down by his squadron. The German numbers are mostly exact and are, perhaps, sometimes exaggerated when strategic necessities make this advisable. It must be mentioned, however, that the Germans include army blimps (balloons) in the number of brought-down planes, but even so, Richthofen’s
victories would amount to seventy planes.
“Richthofen was a brave man, a decent adversary, and a true nobleman.
“May he rest in peace!”
Richthofen’s death had a marked effect on the spirit of the German scouts. Although his squadron was only one of so many fighting units, his dynamic personality and continued success had inspired the whole German air force and following his death there appeared to be a gradual lessening of their fighting spirit until just before the opening of the Allied offensive in July.
His Second Decoration
THE revival of the offensive spirit of the German airmen in July came with the arrival in large numbers of a new Fokker biplane, which was the best machine they developed during the war, and in many respects superior to the British machines at that time. Flying in large formations very high—higher often than our pilots could go—they would suddenly sweep down in massed formation on any luckless British machines patrolling alone or in small numbers.
This changed spirit on the part of the Germans marked the beginning of a period of tremendous activity for the British scouts, which continued without cessation until the Armistice. MacLaren now commenced his most active period at the front and his list of victories began to reach an impressive total.
He received his second decoration, a bar to his Military Cross, in July, following official announcement appearing in September:
“London Gazette, No. 30901, September 16, 1918, War Office.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the following Award to the undermentioned Officer in recognition of his gallantry and devotion in the Field:—
Awarded Bar to Military Cross
Captain Donald Roderick MacLaren, M.C., Gen. List, R.A.F.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as a fighting pilot. He has recently destroyed no less than nine enemy machines and proved himself a brilliant fighting pilot against enemy aircraft often far superior in number. He has done magnificent service and set a splendid example to his patrol.
(M.C. gazetted 22nd June, 1918).”
This short official statement tells very little of details, but leaves no doubt that the “brilliant fighting pilot” born in Canada, and trained in Canada, was already recognized by his superiors as possessing skill and courage far above the average.
This is the first of two articles by Major Drew, on Major MacLaren’s exploits in the air. The second will appear in an early issue.