Skip to main content

Canada Ace Spitfire pilot Ian Maclennan defended a besieged Malta

Ian Maclennan is shown after he spent more than three months in Malta in 1942. The stripes on his epaulet show he has been promoted to Flight Lieutenant.


Ian Maclennan was one of the last – if not the last – of the aces who defended the island of Malta in the Siege of 1940 to 1943. He was an RCAF Spitfire pilot on loan to the Royal Air Force, the only defence against the German and Italian forces trying to overwhelm the tiny Mediterranean island from the air and sea.

Malta was key to the German and Italian occupation of North Africa. Without it, the RAF could attack convoys on their way to reinforce the German forces under the command of General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.

Mr. Maclennan, who died Nov. 6 in White Rock, B.C., at 94, arrived on Malta as a Flight Sergeant on July 15, 1942. There was only one way to get there – by plane. He flew his Spitfire off the deck of the British aircraft carrier the Eagle off the coast of Algeria, using a strong wind to lift off.

Story continues below advertisement

"The Royal Navy had provided the Spitfire pilots with one lecture on how to take off and no information on how to land. The pilots en route to Malta were forbidden to attempt a landing back on the Eagle if their engine faltered," Wayne Ralph wrote in his book Aces, Warriors & Wingmen. HMS Eagle was sunk by a German U-boat the next month.

Flight Sergeant Maclennan and other Canadians, including George Beurling, the top Canadian ace of the Second World War, helped defend Malta against flight after flight of German and Italian fighters and bombers. An ace is a pilot who has shot down five aircraft; Mr. Maclennan's score was seven, with a spectacular day as recorded in the notice that went with his Distinguished Flying Medal.

"One day in October 1942, this airman destroyed two of a force of thirty Junkers 88s which attempted to attack Malta. The next day he destroyed a Messerschmitt 109. Flight Sergeant Maclennan has displayed great courage and tenacity. He has destroyed four and damaged several more enemy aircraft."

He said the defenders had many things going for them, including a code from the ground controllers to tell them where enemy aircraft were. It also helped that the enemy had the sun in their eyes.

"Our big advantage was that we had the sun behind us," Mr. Maclennan told an interviewer late in his life. His childhood in Saskatchewan had prepared him to shoot fast-moving objects in the air. "I'd shot at ducks when I was a boy. I knew about deflection."

The island of Malta had little food as few ships got through. Many on the island starved to death, and the airmen lost a lot of weight. Tours of duty in Malta were short because of the danger of malnutrition and related diseases. In a photograph of Mr. Maclennan on Malta in late 1942, his clothes are hanging from him and his hat seems too big.

After the British victory at El Alamein in November, 1942, the pressure was off Malta. Soon afterward, Flight Lieutenant Maclennan – he had been promoted – went on home leave to Canada. He was back in England by early 1943. Flying over the beaches on D-Day plus one, June 7, 1944, his Spitfire was hit and he crash-landed. He was captured and taken to Stalag Luft III prison camp near Berlin.

Story continues below advertisement

At the camp, he suffered from asthma, and when the war was almost over, he was lucky enough to be moved west by train instead of a cold march in January. Eventually, he escaped and hitchhiked to Paris. He arrived back in London on May 8, 1945, the day the war ended.

Mr. Maclennan was not one to romanticize the war or his part in it. Until the end of his life, he could be melancholy remembering the death of his brother, Bruce, in a daylight raid on Berlin in March, 1945. He blamed the recklessness of Arthur (Bomber) Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command, who he felt should never have sent the Lancaster bombers on daylight raids, since they were armed with low calibre guns and were vulnerable to the new German jet, the Me 262, the type of aircraft that shot down his brother's bomber.

After the war, Mr. Maclennan went straight into civilian life, studying architecture at the University of Toronto. None of his fellow students knew he was a war hero, although many were also veterans.

"He and I attended the University of Toronto School of Architecture and graduated together in 1950," Ian Rutherford, himself a navigator in the RCAF, wrote in a letter in May, 2005. "During our time at the U of T, his exploits were completely unknown to me and most of our class although his leadership qualities were quite evident."

At the U of T, Mr. Maclennan was influenced by the dean of architecture, Eric Arthur, and shared his ideals of building affordable housing. First though, he worked for an international architectural firm in New York and then in Caracas. He returned to Canada, and in 1956 became the chief architect of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

"Our goal was to encourage things such as housing design," said Andrew Hazeland, who is 105 years old, and worked closely with Mr. Maclennan. "Ian was a man of great energy and with dynamic qualities."

Story continues below advertisement

Moshe Safdie, the architect of Habitat 67 in Montreal, built for Expo 67, praised the work Mr. Maclennan did for the project.

"Ian Maclennan is one of those men who make Canada tick. Without him, there never would have been a Habitat. He charges into meetings with the fervour of a college debating champion. … He is aggressive, frank, and unlike many civil servants, very outspoken," Mr. Safdie wrote.

Mr. Maclennan became senior vice-president at CMHC. He retired in 1977 and moved to White Rock, B.C. He worked on several architecture-related projects, perhaps the most important as a trustee on the development of Vancouver's Granville Island. Once a blighted industrial area, it is now a successful mix of markets, restaurants and housing. Mr. Maclennan insisted it maintain a touch of its industrial roots, and he is mentioned in a plaque there. He also served as a juror on the Massey Medal Awards for Architecture and was a board member on projects to build housing for special-needs adults.

Mr. Maclennan was a top-level bridge player and a Life Master, scoring points in duplicate bridge tournaments. His other love in retirement was an old Dutch barge he bought with his children on which they sailed the canals of France. He once spent six months in France, some of it docked by the Seine in Paris. He spent time on the barge this year.

His wife, Nina Barry, whom he met in England during the war, died in May of this year. He leaves his daughter, Joss, and his son, Bruce.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter