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"The Four Funerals of Doc McLeod"

A Bizarre Tale of Prisoner of War Misadventure.

Malta. c. July 1943.  Pilots of No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF talk with Squadron Leader (Sqn Ldr) R. Stevens, Commanding Officer, before the next sortie over Sicily.
Left to right: Flight Lieutenant George Barton; Flying Officer Tom Russell; Flight Sergeant (Doc) McLeod [facing sun]; Sqn Ldr Reg Stevens; unidentified, and Pilot Officer John Hooke (right).

Murdo “Doc” McLeod, originally from South Fremantle, Western Australia, flew Kittyhawks with No.3 Squadron RAAF in the 1942 North African Desert campaign, and later from Malta and Sicily in 1943.  [Our website also records a happy road trip to Algiers that he enjoyed after the victory in Africa.]

Several weeks into the Battle of Sicily, on the 3rd of August, 1943, No.3 Squadron's Operations Record Book [page 888] states that Pilot Officer Ian Roediger led four Kittyhawks off at 0950 hours, to strafe the roads in the Randazzo area, near Mount Etna in Sicily.  They attacked over 20 vehicles moving north from Zaffarana; over 50 vehicles moving both ways on the secondary road from Randazzo; and 15+ vehicles between Maletto and Bronte. 

A modern view of the village of Randazzo on the northern slopes of volcanic Mt Etna.

Flight Sergeant McLeod, in Curtiss Kittyhawk IIA FL309, was last seen strafing the road two miles east of Randazzo.  There was intense light anti-aircraft fire from the Giardini area near Mount Etna.  He was presumed by the Squadron to have been hit by flak.

Historians surmise that Doc was indeed shot down by German anti-aircraft fire, and that he must have then been captured by German paratroops.  They evacuated him by clandestine Ju-52 cargo plane to their base (Istres) near Marseilles in France.  Doc was then pressed into labouring on the airfield with hundreds of other slave workers, building up the infrastructure for the arrival of German “secret weapons” (Hs293 anti-ship missiles to be launched by the elite German KG100 bomber unit). 

Fatefully, these German preparations had been discovered by Allied codebreakers.  A huge American B17 air-raid on Istres was launched on 17 August 1943 and Doc was caught in the open.  He was burned by an explosion and wounded in the legs by shrapnel.  He was an unintended victim of Allied “friendly fire”.  

Modern satellite photo of Marseilles International Airport (Istres) in the south of France, showing lines of American bomb craters (brown circles) still visible from 1943. 

This plain is called the Crau (pronounced 'Crow') and is a desolate, hot and barren expanse.  The many small white features on the ground are in fact piles of stones, stacked up (on the orders of the Germans) to prevent Allied gliders landing there.  One can easily see that there was no shelter for workers caught out in the open during a bombing raid. 
One French eye-witness said; "The projectiles used [by the Americans] were high-explosive fragmentation bombs...  I was personally able to judge the horrific penetration capacity of these bombs, characterised by a ground-level spread of shrapnel that churned the earth around the points of impact.  This fact is confirmed by the type of wounds inflicted, which in most cases are confined to the lower body."

The USAAF 2nd Bomb Group recorded:  "This was the Group's first mission to France.  Forty-nine aircraft dropped 69 tons of 20-lb. fragmentation bombs on the Istre LeTube and Group I Airdromes.  Seventy-eight enemy aircraft were destroyed, 20 damaged, 40 gliders destroyed and 16 damaged at the LeTube Field.  There were direct hits on hangars, service facilities and other buildings with many fires started.  At the Group I Airdrome, direct hits were made on installations, many fires started and four enemy aircraft destroyed.  Flak was moderate to intense and fairly accurate, damaging fourteen B-17s and causing the loss of B-17 #42-30388 of the 429th Bomb Squadron.  This aircraft was hit by flak about five minutes before bombs away, caught fire and disintegrated in the air.

According to French records, 34 Madagascan forced workers, 21 French civilian workers, 3 Russian POWs and 3 Italian soldiers were killed on that day.  Satellite photos today reveal the old German aircraft pens and taxi-ways and the many bomb-craters remaining throughout the grounds of what is now the busy  Marseilles International Airport.

A memorial at Istres commemorating the three Soviet POWs killed in the raid, 18 August 1943.

Doc lay wounded in hospital in the regional centre of Avignon for three weeks after the air-raid, until he succumbed to infection on the 11th of September 1943.  

Doc had been given a 9-karat gold ring by his fiancé Kay (monogrammed "MMcL") when he left Australia.  He wore this through all of his adventures, up to the time of his death.  Apparently Doc’s ring was then removed by the Germans and – utterly amazingly – sent back via the Swiss Red Cross to his mother in Perth!  [His fiancé Kay also remained in touch with Doc’s family over her entire lifetime.]

Doc's ring, back in Perth today.

However, this was far from the end of Doc’s story.  He had been buried in Avignon by the Germans on the day of his death - but then an extraordinary chain of events ensued... 

The French populace of Avignon came out in large numbers to place flowers on the grave of the “Allied” casualty.  Bizarrely, the peeved Germans then dug up Doc's body (under cover of darkness!) and re-interred him in the cemetery at Arles, 25km away, at 5am the following morning.  The Germans presumed that the locals in Arles would be less aware of the nature of the grave.  (Ironically, another magnificent show of French veneration for Doc then occurred at Arles, but he was not further disturbed by the Germans.) 

Unfortunately, as a result of the rushed and secretive circumstances of his re-burial at Arles, Doc was thence assumed to be an "American" pilot.  Consequently, once the Americans occupied Arles in August 1944, Doc was again dug up and reburied in an American war cemetery near Marseilles.  

Meanwhile, starting in February 1944, an amazing correspondence had been taking place between the RAAF bureaucracy in Melbourne and the Germans in wartime Berlin, attempting to formally identify whether the man buried in Arles was really the missing Australian McLeod.  The Nazi government collapsed before the matter was clarified.  (Sadly, Doc's grieving mother was given needlessly confusing and speculative information by our bureaucrats on more than one occasion.)  It took years for the correct identification to be established, whereupon poor Doc was dug up one final time and transferred to the Mazargues Commonwealth War Cemetery in Marseilles.

Even then, not everything had been put right.  3SQN Association's research into Doc’s fate revealed that the RAAF Casualty Section in Melbourne had managed to mess up the date carved on his Commonwealth War Grave headstone!  Thankfully, after petitioning Veterans Affairs, this error has now been corrected.  

avender blooming in the beautiful Mazargues War Cemetery, Marseilles.  Doc's final resting place.   [Photo credit: CWGC.]
Doc's family added the following epitaph to his headstone:

Photo of Doc McLeod with his identity disc.

Text by James Oglethorpe, based on Doc's RAAF personnel file and casualty file, available in the National Archives of Australia.
Many thanks to the following European historians who collected vital new evidence relating to Doc's story: 
Ian Stevenson, Paul Mathevet and Enzo Lanconelli. 

A casual moment...

Also thanks to Doc's relative Peter Epps in Perth, for supplying the photos above and also that of Doc's gold ring.


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