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Gordon McGregor page 2

Story by Ross smyth

Bravery and good luck surrounded him. Through a communications foul-up at the big grass airfield at Northolt in September 1940, three squadrons took off simultaneously from different corners of the airport: McGregor’s, the RAF and the Poles all headed toward the centre. “By some miracle, all 36 aircraft avoided one another,” recalls Paul B. Pitcher, a Battle of Britain pilot from Vancouver. “The only casualty was the station commander, who had to be rushed to the officers’ mess for a stiff gin.” McGregor returned from this same operation with a large shell hole in his starboard wing and brushed it off as a routine day.

Affectionately known as “old Gordie”, McGregor soon compiled an official scorecard of five German aircraft destroyed, a half interest in another, seven probables and eight damaged. The discovery in 1976 of a Junkers Ju 88 bomber buried deep in an English bog confirmed another wartime victory to rank him as the top RCAF Battle of Britain ace. “He enjoyed flying so much you couldn’t keep him out of the air,” recalls McNab. “Extremely well liked, he was a determined and natural leader.”

McGregor’s command and administrative abilities resulted in transfer to a safe job as director of air staff at RCAF headquarters in London, an assignment he hated. His brief but urgent epistles to his senior officers secured him a return to operations with the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians in 1942. He rushed to Alaska with a Wing under his command.

McGregor learned early in life that a direct approach got the job done. From Alaska he fought for the interests of his men and informed the higher brass that hand signals had greater range than the radio equipment provided to his pilots in that area of deadly weather hazards. “Brief and to the point, that was Gordon all the way,” says Montrealer Robert Morrow, who succeeded McGregor as commanding officer in the Aleutians. “But there was always a reason for his bluntness. I owe my life to him. When I had to jump from a Kittyhawk over the Bering Sea, I had a dinghy to save me only because McGregor fought like hell to get them.”

Administrative ability complemented his frankness. Recalled from Alaska to England to help plan the invasion of Europe, G/C McGregor brilliantly conceived and executed a movement that earned him the Order of the British Empire. His 83 Group of the Second Tactical Air Force flew cover for the 2nd Army and became the first Allied unit to base itself permanently on the continent after D-Day.

Getting 18 squadrons–15 of which were all-Canadian–operational from hastily bulldozed airstrips within four days involved a transfer of thousands of ground personnel and equipment across the Channel. A total of 216 Spitfires and Typhoons and all their spare parts were flown to six hastily prepared sites, a beautifully executed show.

Back at headquarters in London, McGregor became a marked man, too valuable to remain where he might get hurt. He resisted transfer and stayed at the front as commanding officer of 126 Wing, which became, as one pilot said, “the hottest Wing in the hottest Group in the hottest air force in the hottest war ever known to man.” Their leader built its high esprit de corps as it played hell behind enemy lines, destroying thousands of transports and German tanks. Whenever staff officers turned up on his fields, McGregor hid under his caravan for fear somebody might plan a desk job for him.

One afternoon he stood in the Dutch mud counting Spitfires touching wheels to the runway. When the even dozen were down, McGregor grinned and said, “Everybody’s home. Time to dine.” The dinner proved auspicious. Prince Bernhard invited McGregor, a commander of one of the more forward Allied units, to dine with him in his castle. Upon seeing the war-weary Canadian, the prince asked if there was anything he would like. The reply: “A bath.”

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