(The Telegraph) Flight Lieutenant Ian MacLennan, who has died aged 94, was one of the last surviving fighter “aces” who engaged in fierce air battles during the Siege of Malta to secure the island’s survival.
MacLennan was a sergeant pilot flying Spitfires with No 401 (RCAF) Squadron in Britain when he crashed an aircraft. At the subsequent reprimand, his flight commander, rather pointedly, commented that “they are looking for volunteers for Malta”.
A few weeks later MacLennan was on board the carrier Eagle in the Mediterranean. On the morning of June 9 1942 he took off with 31 other pilots and headed for the isolated island. Four hours later, with very little fuel remaining, the Spitfires landed at Ta Kali airfield; within minutes, they were airborne with Malta-based pilots to repel a large raid by Luftwaffe bombers.
Before arriving in Malta, MacLennan had not fired his guns in anger – but he had figured out the grim business of shooting down the enemy: “I’d shot at ducks when I was a boy – I knew about deflection.” By the time he left Malta six months later he had become an “ace”, having destroyed seven enemy aircraft and damaging at least another eight.
After damaging a Junkers 88 in July, MacLennan claimed his first success on August 10 when he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 which was escorting a bomber force attacking Luqa airfield. Four days later he shot down an Italian fighter; its pilot was rescued from the sea
With Malta suffering, living conditions for everyone, including pilots, were primitive. They faced relentless attacks, and few fighter pilots were under greater pressure. The intensity peaked on October 11 when “The Last Blitz” began.
MacLennan was in action immediately and damaged two enemy fighters over Grand Harbour. Later that day he intercepted a large force of Junkers 88 bombers as it approached the island. He dived into the formation, set one bomber on fire and shot down a second before attacking a third. He was hit by return fire but pressed on until his ammunition ran out.
On October 16 he was forced to crash land his badly damaged Spitfire but he returned to the battle and, by the end of the month, had accounted for three more fighters and some damaged bombers. He was awarded an immediate DFM for his “great courage and tenacity”. Commissioned, he returned to Britain.
Ian Roy MacLennan was born in Regina, Canada, on April 4 1919. He attended school in Gull Lake, Saskatchewan, and studied engineering at Saskatchewan University before enlisting in the RCAF in October 1940. After training as a pilot he arrived in England in the summer of 1941.
He flew Spitfires on sweeps over France and on May 24 1942 damaged a Focke Wulf 190 off Calais. Shortly afterwards he left for Malta, where he joined No 1435 Flight.
After returning from Malta and a period of rest in Canada, MacLennan joined No 443 (RCAF) Squadron as a flight commander. On June 7 1944, whilst covering the D-Day landings, he was on his third sortie of the day strafing enemy positions when his Spitfire was hit by ground fire and he was forced to crash land on the beach behind enemy lines.
MacLennan was sent to Stalag Luft III. In January 1945 the camp was evacuated as the Soviet army approached. He was in the camp hospital at the time and was put on a train, which headed southwards. Nearing the Austrian border, he and a colleague escaped and hid in farms until they were able to reach the American lines.
For many years he shunned any publicity. But in 2008 a television company flew him to Malta, where he was given a hero’s welcome.
(Times of Malta April 9, 2008, 08:44 by Fiona Galea Debono - photo by Chris Sant Fournier)
Spitfire pilot Ian McLennan is still overwhelmingly emotional when he talks about 1942 in Malta.
He may have gunned down the enemy over the island at the time but he has a problem fighting back the tears as he lucidly recalls the war.
"Even then, I recall it was merciless - destroying cities that were not a menace to Germany. Malta was just being bombed. What for? I can see they should have taken it, being an important strategic country. We all know that. But, instead, they bombed the hell out of it, which did not achieve anything except kill people. Even then I thought: Why? Why were they strafing people?"
Promoted to flight lieutenant of 1435 Squadron during his stay in Malta, he recounts in detail the tactics and strategies adopted by the fighter pilots, hands gesticulating wildly, now and again, portraying a swarm of Spitfires entangled in each other during combat. He explains, for example, what happens "when you run out of ammunition and are in a vulnerable state, with the enemy chasing you right down to the airport" as if it was only yesterday.
When flying, the whole body is concentrating, thinking and looking, he recalls. "It is not so much a question of fear when you are up in the air, engaging in warfare," he says, but qualifies his statement: Fear is not the strongest emotion but it is there - "otherwise there is something wrong with you... You're concentrating and the orders were to get the bombers at all costs!
"We were told all enemy aircraft had to be destroyed before reaching the shores of Malta (bombing them on land was creating too much of a mess), which was a good thing as we felt confident that we must have been winning the war," he recounts.
Mr McLennan has returned to Malta twice since 1942 - once to show the island to his wife and another time when Queen Elizabeth and then President Ċensu Tabone inaugurated the Siege Bell Memorial - a ceremony he described as "emotionally moving, I don't know why... Well, yes," he says, on second thoughts, "It was a victory bell really; the lifting of a siege..." of which he played a "small part".
The fighter pilot remained in Malta from July to December 1942. "I was a young man..." Much time has passed but "it (the experience in Malta) made a big difference to me and my life". He pauses to compose himself: "Even as a young man, I felt it was all wrong to be pounding the hell out of a beautiful place. People were dying..."
He recalls an air raid and an older woman running to the shelter. He could see that she was terrified and tried to catch her to slow her down but "she flew, plunged and died". He recalls the steel rings of that particular shelter and wants to know where it is...
The link to his past is evidently strong and Mr McLennan is reliving it. His Mdina connection is vivid. The pilot only spent one night in the mediaeval city and although all he did was rest and recover, having just landed off HMS Eagle, he still remembers the details and the novelty of the experience of sleeping under a mosquito net in a spacious room. "I was taken into a beautiful place that resembled a nunnery, alone in a lovely bed. I felt tranquil..."
Getting off the aircraft carrier was nerve-wracking, he recalls. "We had no (arrester) hooks so you could not land back and that was it! It is a harrowing one-off experience. Then there was the long flight here; then finding Malta; then Ta' Qali; then to land..."
In 1942, he would wander around Valletta when he was on leave and when the Ohio sailed in, he remembers finding a way to climb up to see her. During his stay in Malta, he has nostalgically retraced his steps to the vantage point.
And there were also a couple of dances they were invited to, "with beautiful Maltese girls, but they were guarded by machine gunners - their mothers and fathers - and they needed them".