THE YOUNGEST CANADIAN to receive the Victoria Cross in World War I was a pilot who laughed at danger. Literally. “After getting out of a very tight corner by sheer piloting, with six or seven (German planes) on our tail, he would turn round to me and laugh out loud,” said one lieutenant who served on Alan McLeod’s bomber flights.
McLeod’s finest hour came on March 27, 1918, when the eighteen-year-old pilot and his observer, A. W. Hammond, took on eight German Fokker triplane fighters in northern France. Hammond shot down three enemy planes and received six wounds, and McLeod took five bullets before a German shot the plane’s gasoline tank, igniting the aircraft.
McLeod made a crash landing and braved a machine-gun assault from the Germans while pulling Hammond from the burning wreckage of the plane. Struck by shrapnel from an exploding bomb, the pilot managed to drag his observer to safety before collapsing from what his Victoria Cross citation described as “exhaustion and loss of blood.” When soldiers of the South African Scottish Regiment came across the two bodies, “both smelt terribly of burnt flesh.”
The two survived, and McLeod traveled to London’s Buckingham Palace to receive the Victoria Cross. Back home in Canada, the war hero contracted influenza and died in November of 1918. It’s possible that smoke inhalation during his heroic flight and rescue had weakened his lungs and made him susceptible to the disease.