War challenged curious farmer, pilot

Military life suited Malcolm McLean’s restless curiosity and need for challenge.

He was farming outside of Dewberry, Alta., in the fall of 1939 when Canada entered the Second World War. Of the first local boys to sign up, he joined the 16/22 Saskatchewan Horse Infantry and took his basic training at Dundurn, Sask.

By December 1940, he had decided to fly and enlisted in Brandon with the RCAF as an aircraftsman 2. Pilot’s training took him to several places across the country after which he ranked leading aircraftsman.

McLean loved flying and was an exceptional pilot.

In Dartmouth, he performed surveillance missions over the Atlantic on anti-submarine patrol, watching for Germany’s U-boats on Canadian shores.

These submarines tried to attack and prevent ships from delivering supplies and men to Europe. Canadian ships had naval convoys as escorts but bombers, like the one McLean flew, patrolled from the air.

In 1942, two newspaper reporters accompanied McLean and his crew to report on a routine, wartime RCAF day in Canada.

Cyril Robinson of the Halifax Daily Star described him as “a heavy-built, likable Albertan” in the June 8 issue.

“For our pilot, Flying Officer Malcolm McLean, 28, of Dewberry, Alta., there was the thrill of passing his thousandth flying hour.”

Robinson described their day, starting at 3 a.m. to attend to a “score of matters” before a 5 a.m. takeoff.

Malcolm McLean, above, saved his crew with his piloting skills. | Hathaway family photo

Parachutes and lunches of bully-beef, chicken and jam sandwiches and apple juice were loaded, along with, among other things, a hamper of carrier pigeons “which will act as silent messengers in the event of an emergency.”

After takeoff, he wrote that Mahoney sets up his desk at our elbow, pulls out his maps, charts, and navigation instruments, dons his earphones for radio direction and sets to work.

“An inter-communications set keeps him in constant touch with (McLean).”

They located the convoy they are ordered to protect, saw that it was travelling safely and continued their patrol over the shoreline. They flew all day without incident, but if they had seen U-boats, it would have been McLean’s job to take the plane into a steep dive called an attack angle, so the two gunners could take aim.

“Mac is feeling justifiably happy about the flight,” reported Robinson.

“One thousand hours and not a damaged aircraft. Guess I better knock on wood,” he joked to the reporter.

McLean’s ability to keep a clear head made him well suited to military combat and he is remembered for remaining calm in a crisis.

In 1942, he was posted to England with the Squadron 407, nicknamed the Demons. His orders entailed hunting U-boats offshore from the Bay of Biscay to Gibraltar.

In a letter to McLean’s sister, crew member and wireless air gunner Ross Hamilton described a life-threatening event in which McLean is remembered for saving both crew and plane.

“We were detailed for a NFE (night flying experience) out over the Solway Firth (a bay in England) to practise homing in on a mine sweeper and feinting a low-level bombing attack.

The navigator had little to do, and hadn’t bothered to keep a plot due to our proximity to base. The radar operator picked up our target ship, which we (identified) with the aldis lamp (a signal lamp), then Mac put the plane into a steep dive and when he pulled out at wave-top height to begin a simulated bomb run, there was a huge explosion in the starboard engine and it was out of action.

“With a lesser pilot at the controls, I am sure we would not have survived. McLean ordered all bombs, depth charges and extra fuel to be jettisoned to lighten the aircraft.

“Our diving momentum provided sufficient airspeed to begin a careful climb on one engine, trying to stay above stalling speed.

“Mac was so cool, calm and collected during all this, that it seemed uncanny, as the co-pilot was close to panic.

“Mac feathered the shattered engine and dowsed the fire with the in-engine extinguishers, and, having lost track of his position during all this, calmly asked the navigator for a course for base. Well, of course he didn’t have one to give, as he hadn’t kept a plot. I was on the radio at the time and Mac called me on the intercom and asked me to send a QDM (code for emergency route home).

“I gave him the course, which the ground station boomed back to me immediately, and we were on our way home. I recall the co-pilot pointing out that the temperature on the one good engine was heating up beyond the red danger indicator. Mac was quite aware of this, and told him he had no choice but to maintain maximum power if we wanted to stay airborne and he would have to take the chance of it blowing up.

“After what seemed an eternity, the lights came on below us (usually off during blackout hours). Our emergency was given priority and they gave us clearance to come straight in and belly land on the grass alongside the runway. Mac didn’t dare try to put the wheels down as the drag could surely have stalled the aircraft and he was barely able to coax enough air speed out of it as it was.

“Mac always pulled off lovely smooth landings and this one was no exception. He sat the old Wimpie (Wellington) down beautifully and only the propellers were damaged as they dug into the grass.

“Mac ordered everyone out and to run like hell in case she blew up from leaking fuel. This we did and I recall stopping to count noses, and there were only five of us — Mac was missing.

“Back to the crash site we ran, got up on the wing, and there was Mac calmly undoing his shoulder harness and getting ready to climb out of the top escape hatch above the pilot’s seat. What had he been doing? He had followed procedure to the letter, shutting down all the many switches and knobs so as to avoid any fire that might have started up from a spark or otherwise.

“Later in the mess hall, we hugged the poor guy half to death. He had saved all our lives and we knew it. We bought him a beer (Mac didn’t drink very much).

“Mac had some paperwork to do with the certified flight instructor the next day, but the CFI also awarded him a nice endorsement in his log book, detailing Mac’s pilot skills and his coolness and leadership in getting his aircraft back.

“Personally, I think he should have gotten the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross). Had it happened on an operational mission. … I am sure he would have been so honoured and rightly so.

“It is very easy to write things about Mac McLean. He was an extraordinary individual and I don’t know of anyone in the entire RCAF who wouldn’t have good things to say about him.

“Most pilots would have feathered the engine, but Mac elected to try to get something of use to him out of it and was able to keep the props turning sporadically, but never fully stopped. In this way, and while the engine wasn’t providing much power, it did serve to help keep that wing up and this spared the good engine from having to do it all.

“He was good at this nursing procedure but it took a hell of a good pilot to be able to use it. But Mac was one hell of a great pilot. He had few peers.”

He returned to Canada in 1946 with his new wife, Marjorie Simmons, a war bride from England. He continued farming at Dewberry, interspersed with flying for the Dew Line at Walnut Creek, California, and Slave Lake, Alta.

He passed away at age 62 Oct. 7, 1976, while travelling to an air force reunion in Winnipeg. He is buried in the Lloydminster Cemetery.

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