Canada’s Fighting Airmen
Another breathless chapter in a record of hair-raising gambles with Death above the clouds
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
XVI : Aces Up !
THE stories of Bishop, Collishaw, Barker and McLaren only begin to tell of the remarkable work done by Canadians in the air during the Great War. Even if we had not their notable records to look upon with pride, and the records of those other brave British pilots like McCudden, Mannock and Ball, we find that we would still have airmen whose victories placed them above those of any of our Allies excepting only France. In the list we find many more Canadians, but it is impossible now to describe their remarkable exploits in anything like the detail which they deserve. It is only intended to refer to a few of them in the hope that it may recall to the Canadian people the dramatic stories of courage and achievement that lie hidden away almost forgotten among the official records.
Next to McLaren came Captain G. E. H. McElroy, of the Fortieth squadron, who had forty-six victories to his credit at the end of the war. Captain McElroy’s career would make an extremely interesting story in itself, but no official information is at present available. It is to be hoped that someone who is in possession of the facts will place them before the Canadian reading public.
The next Canadian, in order of number of machines destroyed, was Captain W. G. Claxton who fought with the Forty-first squadron and destroyed thirty-seven German machines. Captain Claxton was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Bar to the Cross, and was also mentioned in dispatches for his outstanding bravery. The citations accompanying these awards tell in themselves a remarkable story in a very few words. That which appeared in the London Gazette on August 3, 1918, was the public announcement of his first decoration which had been conferred upon him that spring.
London Gazette No. 30,827 Air Ministry, 3rd August, 1918.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to confer the undermentioned reward on Officers of the Royal Air Force, in recognition of gallantry in flying operations against the enemy:
AWARDED THE DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS
Lieut. William Gordon Claxton.
This officer at all times shows fine courage and disregard of danger. He has accounted for six enemy airplanes and one kite balloon, three of the airplanes being destroyed and three driven down out of control. On a recent occasion, having destroyed a hostile balloon, he pursued an enemy scout ten miles and eventually drove it down; he was then attacked by five enemy triplanes and other scouts, but managed to return to our lines, though his machine was riddled with bullets.
The second citation, which appeared in the London Gazette on September 21, tells in the shortest possible space the story of an achievement which has few parallels in the history of aviation.
London Gazette No. 30,913 Air Ministry,
21st September, 1918.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to confer the undermentioned reward on Officers of the Royal Air Force, in recognition of gallantry in flying operations against the enemy:
AWARDED A BAR TO THE DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS
Lieut. William Gordon Claxton, D.F.C.
This officer is conspicuous for his courage in attack. Recently in one day he destroyed six enemy airplanes—four in the morning and two in the evening. In thirteen days he accounted for fourteen machines. His utter disregard of danger inspires all who serve with him.
(D.F.C. gazetted 3rd August, 1918.)
The largest number of enemy machines which Richthofen ever destroyed in one day was four— Bishop destroyed five—yet Claxton’s almost unbelievable feat is officially disposed of in the brief statement that “recently in one day he destroyed six enemy airplanes— four in the morning and two in the evening.”
On November 2, 1918, the London Gazette carried the citation for his next decoration, the Distinguished Service Order.
London Gazette No. 30,989.
2nd November, 1918.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to confer the undermentioned reward on Officers of the Royal Air Force, in recognition of gallantry in flying operations against the enemv:
AWARDED THE DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER Lieut. William Gordon Claxton, D.F.C.
Between the 4th July and 12th August this officer destroyed ten enemy airplanes and one kite balloon, making in all thirty machines and one kite balloon to his credit. Untiring in attack in the air or on the ground, this officer has rendered brilliant service.
In Sir Douglas Haig’s dispatches for November 8, 1918, he was again mentioned for bravery, and before the end of his service had been promoted to the rank of captain and raised his total of victories to thirty-seven.
Captain F. R. McCall
NEXT among the Canadians came Captain Frank R.
McCall, D.S.O., M.C. and Bar, D.F.C. Early in the spring of 1918 he received his first decoration, the Military Cross, which was announced in the London Gazette on March 4. The citation which accompanied it was as follows: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. While observing artillery fire he attacked an enemy scout and destroyed it. He has set a fine example of courage and determination on all occasions and has rendered most valuable service.” McCall was at that time flying a two-seater observation machine built for reconnaissance and photographic work more than for fighting, and the citation which accompanies his next decoration is therefore the more remarkable. On June 22, the London Gazette contained the official notification of the award of a Bar to the Military Cross.
London Gazette No. 30,761. War Office,
22nd June, 1918.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the following awards to the undermentioned Officers and Warrant Officers, in recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty in the field:
AWARDED A BAR TO THE MILITARY CROSS
Lieut. Frederick Robert McCall, M.C., Infy., and R.F.C.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Whilst engaged on photographic work, he observed a hostile Scout, on which he dived and fired a burst from his machine-gun. The enemy machine went down in a steep dive out of control. On a later occasion, he engaged two hostile two-seater planes, which immediately turned east. Though a steady rate of fire was kept up against him, he continued the attack, during which the observer of one of the hostile machines collapsed in the cockpit, other observers reporting that this machine crashed to earth in the enemy lines. He has always displayed the greatest gallantry and determination in carrying out his work, and has set a very high example to his squadron.
On August 3, 1918, the London Gazette contained the announcement of two decorations awarded at different times nearly two months before, the actual announcement of the award always being made at the front long before it appeared publicly in the official dispatches. The two citations appearing that day accompanied the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. They read as follows:
This officer has driven down four enemy machines which were seen to crash, and two others out of control. His determination and tenacity in attack is remarkable. On one occasion whilst acting as escort to reconnaissance machines he shot down an enemy machine which attempted to interrupt their work; he was then attacked by three enemy scouts, which, however, he skilfully managed to elude.
A brilliant and gallant officer who has accounted for fourteen enemy machines. On >a recent date he destroyed four during a patrol in the morning, and another in the evening, in each case closing to point-blank range with his opponent. His courage and offensive spirit has inspired all who serve with him.
He was also mentioned in dispatches for bravery on November 8, 1918.
Captain McCall, who served with Captain Claxton in the Forty-first squadron, ended the war with thirty-four victories to his credit.
Since the war he has taken up commercial flying, and is now one of the leading pilots of Western Canada Airways Ltd., with which Major McLaren is actively associated at the coast. Captain McCall flies with the division of Western Canada Airways west of Winnipeg, and is second only to McLaren among the pilots actively engaged in aviation in Canada today in the number of enemy machines destroyed.
Captain Frank G. Quigley, another Canadian pilot, also shot down thirty-four machines, but unfortunately, as in the case of Captain McElroy, there is no record of his fighting career available.
Major A. D. Carter
MAJOR Albert Desbrisay Carter, D.S.O. and Bar, Croix de Guerre, was the next Canadian in order of airplanes destroyed, with thirty-one victories to his credit. Major Carter, whose home was in Pointe de Bute, New Brunswick, served with the infantry before joining the Royal Flying Corps. After qualifying as a pilot he flew for about four months in England with one of the squadrons doing patrol work along the coast, and then proceeded to France on December 29,
1917, where he joined the Nineteenth squadron.
He quickly established a reputation for daring, and before very long began to shoot down German machines with startling regularity, his thirty-one victories being recorded in about seven months service at the front. His first decoration, the Distinguished Service Order, came early in 1918. He not only shot down a great number of enemy machines, but showed at all times unusual determination and courage in attacking enemy troops far behind the German lines, and on these occasions he invariably dropped so low that he literally almost touched them. His first citation for bravery was as follows:
London Gazette No. 30,530.
18 February, 1918.
His Majesty the KING has been pleased to confer the undermentioned reward for gallantry and distinguished service in the field. The acts of gallantry for which the decoration has been awarded will be announced in the London Gazette as early as practicable:
AWARDED THE DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER
Major Albert Desbrisay Carter, Infy., and R.F.C.
The London Gazette of July 18 contained a short citation of the service for which the decoration was conferred. "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He destroyed two enemy airplanes, drove down several others out of control, and on two occasions attacked enemy machines from a low altitude. He showed great keenness and dash as a patrol leader.”
His next decoration, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, was announced on April 15,
Up to the beginning of February he had destroyed eighteen machines, and then began his greatest period of activity during which he continually flew far back into enemy territory in search of targets on the ground. In March, during the opening stages of the great German offensive, he resumed his fighting activities and once more began to add victories to his list.
He was an indefatigable fighter, continually seeking combat, and finally after numerous, almost unbelievable escapes, his machine" was shot down behind the German lines on May 19, 1918.
Those who saw him fall were sure he had been killed, and this was confirmed in their minds when no word was received of his having been taken a prisoner. It was not until December, more than a month after the war ended, that the official report was received of his having been a prisoner of war during the intervening months. He had been seriously injured but eventually recovered completely, and when he returned to England once more resumed his flying.
For his outstanding services during the last three and a half months at the Front before he was brought down, he was awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order. The citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as a fighting pilot.
In three and a half months he destroyed thirteen enemy machines.
He showed the utmost determination, keenness and dash, and his various successful encounters, often against odds, make up a splendid record.
(D.S.O. gazetted 18th February, 1918)
He was also mentioned in dispatches for bravery on three different occasions.
When the Germans delivered the airplanes required under the terms of the Armistice, a large number of the latest pattern of Fokker Fighting Scouts were delivered to the British, and some of these found their way to the Canadian squadron which had been organized in England, and which Carter joined upon his return from Germany. Carter had one of these machines for his own use, and was one of the few pilots of the squadron to fly a Fokker in preference to the British machines.
One day early in 1919 he was stunting with the German machine when his friends on the ground were horrified to see it suddenly go to pieces in the air, hurling its daring pilot to the death which he had so often miraculously escaped while on active service.
Major A. E. McKeever
ANOTHER Canadian pilot who estabfished a remarkable record was Major Andrew Edward McKeever, D.S.O., M.C. and Bar, who had to his credit the largest number of machines shot down by any pilot in a two-seater. His record of thirty victories is remarkable indeed when one remembers that even the best pattern of two-seater machines like the Bristol Fighter, were not nearly so nimble as the small single-seater scouts, and were much more difficult to manoeuvre, being constructed primarily for reconnaissance and photography, rather than for flying.
McKeever, who was born in Listowel, Ontario, on August 21, 1895, was not yet nineteen when the war began. He enlisted shortly afterward, however, and went overseas with the Fifty-eighth Battalion. He soon transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and on December 6, 1916, qualified as a pilot. After some months of service in England he joined the Eleventh squadron in France on May 16, 1917. His duties with this squadron were mainly along reconnaissances and photography. The Bristol Fighters were also used on offensive patrol, and such patrols were particularly important at the time he went to the front, as the British were developing the early stages of the Flanders offensive, which commenced on June 7 with the destruction of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge. Beginning his active service only a few days before that important event, he took part in the massed aerial attack which virtually swept the German airplanes from the sky for the time being, and was busy day by day photographing the country far in the rear of the enemy trenches, and also in attacking German formations over their own fines in order to prevent them from interfering with the British concentration of troops. His first victory came on June 20, 1917, and almost instantly he jumped into prominence as a fighter. On June 21 he shot down another machine, and on June 26 and 27 destroyed his third and fourth victims. On July 10 he shot down three German machines in one day, and on July 11 shot down another, thus accounting for eight in a period of three weeks. This won him his first decoration, the Military Cross, within less than two months of his arrival at the front. The award being cited as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, particularly when on offensive patrol. He attacked eight enemy aircraft single-handed at close range, and by his splendid dash and determination destroyed one and drove five down completely out of control. He had previously shown exceptional fearlessness in attacking the enemy when in superior numbers, and in the space of three weeks he destroyed eight hostile machines, setting a very fine example to his squadron.
This citation tells in the simplest words of the great courage of this young Canadian who throughout his service at the front was continually attacking large enemy formations single-handed. This official record of his fighting, as well as the later statement, shows that he shot down a great number of enemy machines completely out of control, which were not, however, seen by anyone to crash, and so he did not receive official recognition for their destruction. But it is entirely probable that a very large percentage of these machines were completely destroyed, and that his total therefore was much higher than the thirty with which he has been credited.
During August, 1917, he continued his good work, and before the end of the month was awarded a Bar to the Military Cross. This was announced on October 27.
The official statement of the services for which he received this decoration appears on March 18, 1918:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in aerial combats. He has recently destroyed five enemy airplanes and driven down six out of control. On one occasion he encountered five enemy scouts, and drove down two out of control. Later, while leading a patrol, he engaged nine enemy scouts. He destroyed two, drove down one out of control, and dispersed the remainder. His dash and determination have been a fine example to his squadron.
During the autumn he continued to add to his victories, and on September 28 repeated his performance of shooting down three enemy machines in one day.
A Day Out
HIS outstanding day at the front was November 30, 1917. The ghastly Passchendaele battle, in which the Canadians lost so heavily, was drawing to a close, and McKeever and his observer volunteered to do a particularly dangerous reconnaissance far behind the German fines. It was raining and misty, and the clouds hung so low that it was practically impossible to see the ground from above two or three hundred feet. The prospect looked almost hopeless, but Headquarters wished information of enemy activities in certain areas nearly sixty miles away from McKeever’s aerodrome, and McKeever and his observer without hesitation undertook the job.
Setting out in the heavy rain he went up through the thick clouds, steering his course by compass. Having flown above the clouds for about sixty miles, he decided that he was over the spot he wished to reach, and dropped down through them. As he emerged below the clouds he found that the rain had stopped and that he could see the ground clearly from about 1,500 feet. He discovered that he was almost exactly over the place he was seeking and made a careful and valuable reconnaissance of the area without being disturbed. He and his observer, Lieutenant Powell, having finished their work, started for home, when suddenly a great flash filled the misty air some distance in front of them, and McKeever ealized that a German ammunition dump had been struck by a British shell or bomb. Flying to the spot where he had seen the explosion, he found several thousand German soldiers rushing about great piles of burning material in an effort to save as much as possible, and prevent the fire from spreading to adjoining buildings. McKeever was only 1,000 feet up, and had just decided to dive and attack the Germa2n troops with bombs and machine-gun fire, when suddenly nine enemy machines appeared out of the mist, four in front and five behind. Two of these were bright-red two-seaters and the rest were black single-seater scouts. Flying so slowly and with German machines both in front and rear, his position was desperate, but he decided there was no use in attempting to escape, so he instantly swung into the midst of the four machines coming from his right front.
The Germans had not expected these tactics, and he almost collided with the leader, who made no effort to get out of his way. Before zooming to avoid the collision, McKeever fired a burst of ten rounds, and as he passed above the German machines saw it turn over on its back and fall in a mass of flames.
Not more than a second later he fired another burst at the next machine, which was coming at him head on. The German staggered for a moment in the air, went over sideways and crashed to the ground. At the same moment Powell shot down another, and three enemy machines were actually falling through the air at the same time. The one remaining machine of the four which had appeared in front passed over them and joined the five in the rear.
Instead of running away, McKeever turned to meet the six oncoming machines, and as they approached he got his sight on one of the red two-seaters and shot it down with his first burst. As they passed through the German formation, Powell riddled one of the scouts so badly that it glided away in a damaged condition. Five of the nine machines had now been accounted for, but the four that remained had gained height and came diving at the Bristol Fighter, pouring lead from their Spandaus. As the Germans were above his machine McKeever could not fire his gun, which shot directly ahead through the propeller, and he was amazed to find that Powell was not returning their fire. Looking back he found that his observer’s gun had been hit and was completely useless. He, therefore turned quickly and once more faced the enemy. To his joy he got the leading German machine directly in his sight and pulled the trigger—but nothing happened. Then for the first time he realized that his gun had also been put out of action by one of the enemy’s bullets.
The surviving Germans were shooting from every direction and hundreds of bullets were ripping through their machine, one which cut through his flying boots grazing McKeever’s leg. That was the nearest to a wound that he ever received. Their position could hardly have been worse. Pulling over his control stick sharply he brought his airplane over on its side and dropped straight toward the ground in a side-slip which gave the Germans the impression that they had finally destroyed their plucky opponent. McKeever had been very low when he started to drop, and was not more than twenty feet above the ground when he succeeded in flattening his machine out again.
The Germans had evidently lost sight of the Bristol in the mist and must have decided that he had crashed to the ground.
McKeever found himself beside a row of tall trees bordering a main highway running toward his own line, and he followed these trees for some five miles in order to escape detection as much as possible. Just as they left the road and turned for the trenches they passed over a large German encampment, where they
a were greeted with heavy rifle and machinegun fire. This was repeated again when they crossed the German front line, but although their machine was badly crippled it succeeded in taking them safely back to their own aerodrome and they immediately delivered their extremely valuable report. These four victories, as well as the one which Powell had crippled, were all later confirmed by eyewitnesses and German airmen who were taken prisoners.
A Tragic Ending
"DOTH McKeever and his observer were decorated for their magnificent work on November 30, McKeever being awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Apart from the bravery they had displayed in their fight against such heavy odds, the report of the reconnaissance which they had made before the fight commenced, and which was the purpose of their flight, was of the greatest value, and in itself justified recognition of what they had done. The official announcement of McKeever’s decoration appeared on February 4, 1918.
The services for which the award was made were described in the London Gazette on July 5 as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. While on patrol by himself over the enemy’s lines in very bad weather he encountered two enemy two-seater machines and seven scouts. By skilful manoeuvring he engaged one and destroyed it. As he turned to get back to the lines five of the enemy dived on his tail and his observer engaged and destroyed two of them. After an indecisive combat with two others he attacked and destroyed one of the enemy which had overshot him. He continued the fight with the remainder until he was within twenty feet of the ground, when the enemy machines climbed and left him. He has recently destroyed ten enemy machines and has shown great courage and initiative.
These three victories raised McKeever’s total to twenty-nine. December and January were comparatively quiet months with very little opportunity for fighting on account of the bad weather. He added one more early in January and then on January 26, 1918, was returned to England to take part in training. His work with the training squadron in England was so indispensable that he was not allowed again to return to the front, and he ended the war without further active service. No pilot of any nation, however, had equalled his record of thirty machines destroyed in a two-seater fighter.
Major McKeever returned to Canada early in 1919, and, in view of the executive skill he displayed in training squadrons in England, apart from his proved fighting ability, the future appeared to be particularly bright; but on Christmas Day, 1919, he was driving near Barrie, Ontario, when his car skidded on the icy road and he received injuries from which | he died the following day. It was a tragic ending for an intrepid fighter who had so often faced apparently hopeless odds without receiving a single wound.
Editor’s Note—Major Drew will conclude his series on Canada’s Fighting Airmen in an early issue.