Date of Birth: October 30, 1893 at Beaver Meadow, Antigonish Co., NS
Parents: Angus and Catherine (MacDonald) MacDonald
Siblings: Sisters Margaret and Mary Isabel; brothers Murdoch, Alexander (Alex F.), John and Donald
Father’s Occupation: Farmer
Marital Status: Single
Enlistment: May 1916
Units: No. 8 Squadron, Royal Navy Air Service; No. 208 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Regimental Service Number: None (commissioned officer)
Rank: Lieutenant (posthumously awarded rank of Captain)
Previous Military Service: None
Next of Kin: Mrs. Catherine MacDonald, Beaver Meadow, Antigonish Co., NS (mother)
Date of Death: May 8, 1918 near Provin, France
Memorial: Arras Flying Services Memorial, Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras, France
Roderick MacDonald, locally known as “Roddie Beaver,” was the oldest of seven children born to Angus and Catherine (MacDonald) MacDonald of Beaver Meadow, Antigonish County. His great-grandfather, John “Ban”, was one of Beaver Meadow’s pioneer settlers. John “Ban” served for several years with the Glengarry Fencible Regiment in the old country. Discharged in 1802, he returned home to find that clan chief Alastair Ronaldson MacDonell was once again evicting his clansmen. In 1803, John “Ban” sailed from Fort William, Scotland with his brother, Hugh, both taking up land at Beaver Meadow later that year. Roderick’s brother, Murdoch, and his family were the last of this MacDonald line to live at “the Beaver,” as most of the family moved elsewhere. Murdoch’s daughters, Claire Grace and Isabel, presently reside in Ottawa, ON and West River respectively.
Roderick’s mother, Catherine, was the daughter of Murdoch “the Ridge” and Mary (Kennedy) MacDonald of Copper Lake, NS, and a sister to Roderick Kennedy (RK) MacDonald, one of Nova Scotia’s pioneer highway builders. Catherine and RK were great-grandchildren of Alexander MacDonald, who came to Nova Scotia in 1816 and settled at Alpine Ridge, near Mabou, NS the following year. Forever after, they were known as “the Ridge” MacDonalds. Alexander and his kin were exceptional people—they were descended from a family that had served as the hereditary bards to the MacDonalds of Keppoch, the branch of the Clan Donald that occupied the Braes of Lochaber, particularly the region drained by the Spean and Roy Rivers.
The first recorded powered flight occurred in 1903, when the Wright brothers flew their famous aircraft. Louis Bèriot completed the first powered crossing of the English Channel in 1909. Therefore, it could only be expected that the aircraft of 1914 were remarkably crude. Pilots flew in cramped cockpits, making it impossible to wear a parachute, even if permitted to do so. In fact, senior commanders forbade their use, fearing they would dilute their pilots’ fighting spirits. In the autumn of 1914, a new recruit to the Royal Flying Corps had a greater chance of being killed during training than in combat. By the time the First World War ended, aircraft had become far more sophisticated and had differentiated into fighters, bombers and long-range bombers.
In April 1912, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) established two wings, Military (Army) and Naval, and operated as a branch of the British Navy. During its first year, it formed the Naval Wing of the joint Royal Flying Corps, but was administered by the Admiralty’s new Air Department. The RNAS possessed 93 aircraft, six airships, two balloons and 727 personnel at war’s outbreak. In August 1915, the RNAS was formally placed under control of the Royal Navy. By the end of the war, the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps had merged with the RNAS to form a new service, the Royal Air Force (RAF), with its own command structure and ranks.
Roderick was known to be mechanically clever and entered the Curtis Aviation School, Toronto, on May 1916, securing first place in a class of 38 candidates. He received his Pilot’s Certificate in September 1916 and departed for England with the rank of Sub-Lieutenant. Upon arrival, Roderick reported to the RNAS base at Crystal Palace, London, where he completed basic RNAS training.
Roderick crossed the English Channel to France in March 1917 and was assigned to the 8th Naval Squadron, which had recently been outfitted with Sopwith Triplanes. In May 1917, he was credited with shooting down three German aircraft in the area of Douai and Willerval—north-east of Arras, France—in the aftermath of Canadian Corps’ victory at Vimy Ridge. Two months later, No. 8 Squadron was re-equipped with Sopwith Camels. Roderick was credited with shooting down two planes near Loos in July and a third near Lens in August. He remained in France until November, when he received two months’ furlough to Canada, in acknowledgment of his splendid service.
In January 1918, Roderick returned to France, once again attached to 8th Naval Squadron. On February 5, he was credited with shooting down a German plane at Pont-à-Vendin, northeast of Lens. Two weeks later, he was promoted to rank of Assistant Flight Lieutenant. On April 1, the RNAS and Royal Flying Corps amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force. As a result, Roderick’s unit was re-designated 208th Squadron, RAF, and he was promoted to rank of Lieutenant (Honorary Captain).
On May 8, 1918, Roderick departed 208th Squadron’s aerodrome on a mission, in the company of two other aircraft. A 208th Squadron comrade later reported that a larger number of German aircraft attacked MacDonald’s patrol. Two of the planes managed to return, while MacDonald’s aircraft and another British plane in the area continued to engage the enemy until both were shot down in flames. The book “Above the Trenches,” a statistical history of the war’s RAF pilots and aircraft, states that at 11:15 a.m., Lt. Roderick MacDonald was “shot down and killed over Provin, France, a small village north-east of Lens.”
Initially, there was some hope that Roderick had landed behind enemy lines and been taken prisoner. It was soon realized, however, that he had made the supreme sacrifice. His remains were never recovered from the battlefield. Roderick’s name is inscribed on the Arras Flying Services Memorial, Faubourg d’Amiens, Arras, France, erected after the war in memory of 990 airmen who were killed in action on the Western Front and have no known grave.