Air Vice-Marshal Clifford MacKay McEwen is Canada’s best-known, least-recognized, aviator from the two World Wars. During the 1914-18 conflict, flying as a fighter pilot with both the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force he was awarded the Military Cross, along with a Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar. In the Second World War, as an Air Vice-Marshal, he commanded the Royal Canadian Air Force Bomber Group. This leadership earned him the British high honour Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).
From World War One, McEwen is best-known by aviation historians as a 27 victory Ace for his service with 28 Squadron RFC/RAF in northern Italy. Flying the legendary Sopwith Camel on the wing of Canadian William Barker, McEwen learned his trade well and rose to become that Squadron’s highest scorer.
Remaining in Canadian aviation service throughout the interwar period, he next came to historical prominence when appointed to No.6 Group RCAF in England and led his fifteen–squadron bomber command from teething to fangs.
Born in Griswold, Manitoba in 1896, Clifford McKay McEwen grew up in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, attending the provincial university with plans to become a clergyman. However, as his generation was square in the path of the First World War, he patriotically enlisted to fight for King and Empire. In early 1916 he became a soldier in the 196th (Western Universities) Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force for Europe.
In England and now a Corporal, McEwen was commissioned to 2nd Lieutenant and seconded to the RFC. Proving to have exceptional flying skills he was trained for fighters and sent to 28 Squadron in France during October 1917. That same month, the Italian Army suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of German forces that were bolstering their Austrian allies. Number 28 RFC was ordered to the Italian front and it was over this battleground that McEwen lived up to the Squadron motto: Quicquid Agas Age – Whatsoever You May Do, Do.
In all, McEwen aggressively ‘did’ for 27 enemy aircraft, commencing with an Albatross DIII near Conegliano on the 30th of December and finishing with the destruction of an Albatross DV over the Tagliamento River on the 4th of October 1918. In addition to the MC and DFC & Bar, Italy awarded him their Bronze Medal for Military Valour. His DFC Bar Citation described him as “A brilliant and courageous pilot who has personally destroyed twenty enemy
machines. Exhibiting entire disregard of personal danger, he never hesitates to engage the enemy, however superior in numbers, and never fails to inflict serious casualties. His fine fighter spirit and skillful leadership inspired all who served with him.”
Following the Armistice on November 11th, now Captain McEwen was posted to the new Canadian Air Forces’ Number 1 Squadron in England. Demobilized back to Canada in 1919, he joined the semi-military Air Board with Canadian Commercial Pilot license #73 and became a flying instructor at Camp Borden, Ontario. About this time he acquired the nickname ‘Black Mike’. As he told biographer Arthur Bishop it was “Nothing sinister, I just happen to tan easily.”
When the Royal Canadian Air Force was established in 1924, Black Mike was commissioned a Flight Lieutenant, becoming active in aerial survey operations. His promotion to Squadron Leader came in 1929 and to Wing Commander in 1937. During these interwar years he flew all types of aircraft on strength with the RCAF and attended the RAF Staff College at Cranwell.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, McEwen was a Group Captain in charge of RCAF Station Trenton, Ontario, and heavily involved with the buildup of a wartime air force. Promoted Air Commodore during 1941, he went to No. 1 Group, Eastern Air Command, Newfoundland, engaging in Anti -Submarine Warfare against the German U-boat threat on convoy shipments to a beleaguered Britain. It was during these early days of the Battle of the Atlantic that McEwen grew a reputation as a seriously disciplined leader.
After two years Black Mike was sent to RAF Linton-on- Ouse in England. A Mention In Dispatches several months later states: “This officer was appointed base commander at No. 62 Operational Base in June 1943; since then five squadrons have either formed or converted after movement into the base, Air Commodore McEwen has by his untiring efforts and leadership brought the base to a very high level of operational efficiency. His ability and zeal have been worthy of the highest praise.”
During this same period, a strong political move had been made to have Canadian airmen serve together as a united fighting force rather than being deployed individually into Royal Air Force squadrons. To this end, No. 6 Group was formed within RAF Bomber Command as an RCAF entity in January 1943. Its first year had been less than stellar. Based in Yorkshire, the Group had the longest distance to fly to reach the enemy coast. Combat losses were high due to training deficiencies and tactical shortcomings in the growing tempo of taking the war to the enemy until Allied armies could land in Europe. In the words of historian David Bashow, “6 Group was a formation in shock and feeling sorry for itself. In short, it was a unit in need of tough love. Perhaps the most difficult problems to overcome were the significant morale problems generated by the losses themselves…”
In February 1944, McEwen was promoted Air Vice -Marshal and became Air Officer Commanding 6 Group RCAF. Accepted as someone who had proved his mettle in the First World War; he initially dismayed his personnel by implementing a program of arduous and demanding training along with stern discipline. However, Black Mike was no large-mahogany-desk pilot. He led from the front, often accompanying his airmen on difficult enemy targets. Although officially prohibited from flying operationally, a suitably uniformed ‘Sergeant’ McEwen, was known to quietly slip aboard a Berlin -bound Lancaster or Halifax bomber from time to time. The airmen of 6 Group grew to fully appreciate a commander who knew and shared their dangers.
Overall, McEwen was very aware of the pressures endured by his stressed aircrews and overworked ground crews. When not flying himself he never slept during the nights that his Group was operational and would informally meet and greet his returning aviators at their debriefings. Furthermore, in recognition of their outstanding efforts he ordered that base commanders increase their number of submissions for honours and awards. Group Captain Johnnie Fauquier, then leading No. 62 Base, recalled that each squadron was to submit a minimum of ten recommendations monthly in addition to Immediate Action Awards.
By the end of 1944, under McEwen’s able stewardship, 6 Group’s combat loss rate became the lowest of all Groups of heavy bombers – And they also became the most efficient. The AOC Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, RAF, lobbied eloquently (and forcefully) to obtain a knighthood for McEwen’s contribution to the war effort but Canadian regulations forbade the acceptance of titles. In the event, McEwen was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath with King George VI bestowing that decoration on him in February 1945 at Buckingham Palace.
In the months that followed, France named McEwen an Officer of the Legion of Honour with special mention for the efforts of 6 Group during the D- Day invasion and the liberation of their nation. After VE Day, America appointed him a Commander of the Legion of Merit with the words: “His outstanding achievements on the headquarters staff and as the operational commander of the Canadian bomber group, in planning and executing the RCAF’s part in the close cooperation which has existed between the United States Army Air Force and the British air services, and his success in advancing cordial relations between these services have been outstanding characteristics of his fine work. These achievements are a reflection of his effective association with the United States forces in his previous position of Air Officer Commanding No. 1 Group, Eastern Air Command, whose cooperation between the services was the foundation of their success.”
With Germany defeated, Black Mike was appointed to command the bomber group of Tiger Force. Tasked to deploy to the Pacific to assist in the war effort against Japan, this Canadian Force was rendered unnecessary after the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Air Vice-Marshal Clifford MacKay McEwen hung up his military wings in 1946 after an extraordinary thirty-year distinguished career. Taking up residence in Montreal, he continued to contribute to aviation development as managing director of Trans Canada Airlines, forerunner of today’s Air Canada. Black Mike also cared for his wartime charges by championing veterans’ causes and served as national vice-president of the Canadian Legion and as a long time president of the Dominion Council of the Last Post Fund. He died during Canada’s Centennial Year 1967 and was buried at the Last Post’s Field of Honour in Pointe Claire, Quebec. Mike left behind his wife of 40 years and three daughters.
Air Chief Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris opined in his memoires that McEwen had received too little appreciation. In truth, it is the diminishing number of Canadian Veterans who served with him, offshore from their homeland, that best knew Black Mike. He had led them by example – albeit in the guise of a Sergeant Pilot – He was Canada’s highest-ranking airman to have flown in combat during the 1939-45 War.
National recognition first came about in 2003 when the air training base at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, was officially titled Air Vice-Marshal C. M. McEwen Airfield. His name is now known by today’s generation of RCAF Pilots. Next year, 2020, will commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the End of the Second World War. May one respectfully submit that the Nomination of Clifford McKay McEwen to the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame would be a timely recognition of the man and his Bomber Command Veterans.
J.Allan Snowie, Vimy Flight
McEwen Nomination to the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. May 2019