Before enemy ground fire claimed his life, “One-hand Mac” shot
down 16.5 German planes in World War II.
Squadron leader James Archibald Findlay MacLachlan of the Royal Air
Force lost his left arm in a dogfight with a Nazi fighter in 1941. Just 16 days
later, he was back in action, sporting a special prosthetic limb and enjoying
his new nickname, “One-hand Mac.”
MacLachlan is not as famous as Sir Douglas Bader, Britain’s storied
“legless ace” who lost both limbs in a pre-war crash. Fitted with
prosthetic legs, he returned to the RAF and destroyed 20 Nazi warplanes in air
combat. Shot down and captured in 1941, Bader survived the war, which ended in
MacLachlan’s artificial arm featured “steel fingers invented
by himself, his mechanic, and his doctor,” the Sydney, Australia,
Morning Herald reported on Oct. 11, 1941. “He has astonished R.A.F.
MacLachlan was 20 years old when he joined the RAF in 1939, the year
World War II began. In July 1941, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for
having piloted light bombers in the Battle of France.
|MacLachlan, alongside his
specially modified Hurricane, received a Distinguished Service Order for his
skill and bravery.
|Image: Wikimedia Commons. Created
by the United Kingdom Government
After France fell in June 1940, he returned with his squadron to
England, where he switched to fighters. He helped defend his country against
Nazi warplanes in the Battle of Britain in August and September. In November,
the RAF dispatched him to Malta to assist British ground and naval forces
fighting to hold the strategic island in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
MacLachlan was an ace with a second DFC on Feb. 16, 1941, when an enemy
Messerschmitt 109 shot down his Hurricane fighter over Malta. MacLachlan
managed to bail out. But his arm was so badly mangled he had to be evacuated to
England where surgeons amputated the limb below the elbow.
“It seemed the finish of a fighting career in which 12 enemy
aircraft had been destroyed, including four in one day,” the Morning
Herald correspondent wrote from London. “MacLachlan, however did not
think so, and by the time his mother in Southampton read his name in a casualty
list — a fortnight later — he was flying again.”
He claimed his return to active service started with a friendly wager,
according to the Australian newspaper. “I bet my nurse that I would be
flying again a fortnight [2 weeks] after being wounded.”
Official records say it was 16 days from operating theatre to cockpit.
Back on his feet, MacLachlan was anxious to see if he could still pilot
a Hurricane. He discovered “that his right hand was good enough to manage
the controls for ordinary flying duties,” the paper said. “He was not
satisfied, but wanted two hands so that he could be a fighting man again.”
MacLachlan huddled with the base physician and an aircraft mechanic. The
trio devised “a robot hand,” according to the Morning
Herald. “Instrument makers improved it until he was able to move
the steel fingers over the fighter controls easily. His reward came when he
received notice from the R.A.F. medical board, ‘fit for flying
In November 1941, the RAF brass named MacLachlan commander of a night
fighter squadron near London. By then, the British were taking the air war to
the enemy over German-occupied France.
MacLachlan flew a Hurricane specially modified as a night fighter. The
plane was painted black and armed with four 20-millimeter cannons.
MacLachlan personalized his flying machine. He had an artist paint his
bloody and bullet-riddled left arm on the nose of the Hurricane. The hand of
the severed limb flashed British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s
famous “v-for-victory” sign.
MacLachlan continued to add to his tally of “kills,” downing
several enemy planes. But his stint as a night fighter pilot ended in the
summer of 1942 when he became a flight instructor.
His skill and bravery as a combat flier did not go unrewarded. He
received a Distinguished Service Order to go with his two DFCs.
Later in 1942, MacLachlan took a break from teaching young Britons to
fly and headed to the United States on a goodwill tour. In 1943, back in
Britain, he started flying the fighter that came to symbolize the close
Anglo-American alliance in World War II: the P-51 Mustang.
The North American Aviation Co. built the first Mustangs for the RAF
before the US entered World War II in 1941. The early models, one of which
MacLachlan flew, came with US-made Allison engines, which did not produce the
speed the RAF wanted. So the British replaced the Allisons with English Rolls
Royce Merlin engines, which powered Hurricanes and Spitfires. The result was a
hybrid — a sleek US airframe and potent British power plant that turned
the Mustang into the best fighter of World War II. Most Mustangs, notably the
later models, flew in the US Army Air Force with Rolls Royce Merlins
manufactured stateside by the Packard Motor Co.
Downed in his Mustang
Meanwhile, MacLachlan was assigned to the RAF Air Fighting Development
Unit, which was testing the Mustang. On June 29, 1943, he and wing commander
Geoffrey Page, another British ace, took off in Mustangs for “some
practical evaluation” of the warplane in combat, said Page’s obituary
in the London Telegraph of Aug. 17, 2000. “With
MacLachlan’s artificial arm clamped to the throttle lever of his
aeroplane, the pair raced over to Paris, where between them they accounted for
six enemy aircraft in 10 minutes.”
The Telegraph quoted Page, who died at 80: “…The
journey home was uneventful. A kindly rainstorm hid us as we slipped safely
over the coast for base and a large tankard of frothing beer.”
At 24 years old, MacLachlan earned a third DFC in July 1943. On July 18,
he returned to France again in his Mustang. This time, enemy ground fire hit
him just as he was crossing the coast.
MacLachlan managed to crash land, but he suffered critical injuries.
Captured by the Nazis, “One-hand Mac,” who also received the Czech
War Cross, died on July 31 and was buried in France. He was officially credited
with destroying 16.5 enemy planes — he shared one “kill” with
another pilot — and damaging three more.