Canadian pilot and his observer took on 8 enemy aircraft in one dogfight
By Rod Henderson
(Reprinted with permission from “The Maple Leaf”, magazine of the Central Ontario Branch Western Front Association, Volume 38, Fall 2020 issue.)
Major Andrew E. McKeever, the “King of the two-seaters” sits at 10th in the ranking of Canadian aces of the Great War with 31 aerial victories. McKeever was born on 21 August 1894 in Listowel, Ontario. He attended Central Technical School in Toronto and was working as a bank teller at the outbreak of war.
McKeever joined the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, a Toronto militia unit, in October 1915. Some biographies mistakenly indicate that McKeever went overseas and served in France as an infantryman. In fact, he remained in Canada and joined the Royal Flying Corps from Canada in November 1916, sailing for England on the 25th. On 5 December he was appointed to the rank of probationary Second Lieutenant.
His aviation training began in January 1917 at the School for Military Aeronautics at Oxford, England. He received flying instruction at Northolt and graduated as a pilot at Hounslow in late April. On 28 May 1917 he was posted to Number 11 Squadron as they were transitioning from the Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b to the Bristol F2b (image above). This aircraft was typically armed with a forward-firing .303 Vickers machine gun. The F2b carried an observer/gunner in a rear-facing seat immediately behind the pilot. The observer’s position was armed with one or two Lewis guns. This aircraft gained the nickname “Brisfit”.
McKeever’s first victories came less than a month after he joined 11 Sqn. On 26 June he shot down two Albatros D.Vs while flying with Second Lieutenant E. Oake as his observer. This was followed by a three-kill day on 7 July, making him an ace.
McKeever was awarded the Military Cross on 17 September 1917. The citation notes a day in which he single-handedly attacked eight enemy aircraft and the fact that he had downed eight aircraft in a period of three weeks. He steadily racked up more victories over the summer and autumn, scoring three-kill days on 5 August, 28 September and 31 October. His observers accounted for 11 kills with Second Lieutenant Leslie Powell picking up eight of them. McKeever’s squadron-mates nicknamed him “Hawkeye” for his ability to spot enemy aircraft. He was promoted to Captain in late October.
His most distinguished day came on 30 November 1917 with Powell as his observer. That morning McKeever, volunteered for a reconnaissance mission 60 miles from his aerodrome that would take him six miles behind German lines. He took off in a pouring rain with low cloud cover. The sky cleared enough near his target that he was able to complete his observation mission. As he was turning for home, a large explosion caught his attention. A German ammunition dump had exploded and, after flying closer, he could see large numbers of German soldiers trying to get the situation under control. He decided “that it would be a good stunt to fly around close to the ground and sprinkle a few belts of bullets” at them to take “all the heart out of the poor Hun”. As he turned to tell Powell of his next move McKeever noticed four German planes at about 100 yards from his right wing and five more behind him, effectively blocking his escape back to Allied lines.
McKeever made an instant decision to fight. He quickly turned his plane toward the closer group of four, nearly colliding with one while firing his machine gun at it. The German plane went down in flames and McKeever had a clear shot at the next Albatross D.V. Again he fired and the second enemy aircraft went down. At the same time, Powell unleashed his Lewis gun and put a third enemy plane out of action. This exchange of fire happened in no more than 90 seconds and there were three German airplanes falling to the ground simultaneously. The fourth plane of the group broke away and joined the original group of five.
Against all logic, McKeever did not try to escape but instead flew farther into German territory. He turned to face his pursuers and brought down another with a quick burst as he passed through their formation. Powell also accounted for his second kill of the day during this pass. McKeever looked back at Powell to see why had not continued firing his Lewis gun. The expression on Powell’s face told McKeever that Powell’s machine gun was out of action. McKeever turned his Bristol back toward the Germans only to find that his own machine gun was also inoperable. German fire came at the RFC plane from several directions. McKeever decided on a ruse; he flopped his aircraft onto its side and it dropped toward the ground, appearing that he been hit and was falling out of control. The Germans fell for McKeever’s trick and they did not fire again or follow him down. McKeever recovered his aircraft about 20 feet from the ground and remained low, following a road and using trees as cover. Once he was confident that the Germans had left the area he turned for home, avoiding enemy ground fire as he passed over their positions. He arrived safely at his aerodrome with four more victories to his name. McKeever was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for this action.
These would prove to be McKeever’s final kills of the war. His last aerial mission was in the first week of December and he was posted to England in January 1918 where he worked as an instructor for the remainder of the war. His total of 31 victories made him the leading two-seater ace of the First World War. He received the bar to the Military Cross on 18 March 1918.
In August 1918, the Canadian government authorized the formation of the Canadian Air Force, made up of Canadians serving in the Royal Air Force. McKeever was promoted to Major and placed in command of Number 1 Squadron in January 1919. The CAF was disbanded again in early 1920.
McKeever’s secondment to the Canadian Air Force ended on 16 August 1919 and he left the military on 28 August. He returned to Listowel before taking his new job as the general manager of the Mineola, New York airfield. On 3 September he was injured in an automobile accident. The injury did not heal properly and he was moved to Toronto to have a broken bone reset. Complications set in and he passed away on 25 December 1919. [He is buried in Fairview Cemetery, Listowel, Perth County, Ontario.]
Curator’s Note: McKeever wasn’t the only QOR to take to the skies – see Percy Hampton’s profile.