John MacGregor VC MC* DCM

b. 01/02/1889 Cawdor, Scotland. d. 09/06/1952 Powell River, British Columbia, Canada.

John MacGregor (1889-1952) John MacGregor was born on 11 February 1889 at Cawdor in the County of Nairnshire and was the third child of William and Hanna MacGregor. He was brought up on a croft at Newlands of Urchany and was baptised at Cawdor Free Church. He attended Geddes School, Cawdor School and Nairn Academy when he left full time education in 1907. When he left school, he was apprenticed to Mr George Tolmie of Nairn as a Master Carpenter and Stone Mason. He also joined the Nairn Garrison Artillery.

John MacGregor

In 1908 his father died of a stroke and, as was the custom, the croft was handed on to the eldest son. John was not happy about being beholden to a local laird and had been looking towards Canada as a land of opportunity and wide-open spaces, which suited his personality. On his birthday in 1909 he told his family that it was his intention to emigrate. He booked a passage with Cunard and left Scotland. He travelled to Canada from Liverpool, across the Atlantic to Montreal.

From Montreal he worked his way across Canada utilising his skills as a carpenter, mostly on the burgeoning railroads building trestle bridges, moving west as the work moved west. On his route west he also worked as a cowboy. He then crossed the Rockies, went into America for a short time then returned to Canada in Vancouver where he worked on the construction of the University of British Columbia. Whilst working on the University he found a map of the west coast of Canada and saw how remote the north west region was. In the autumn of 1912 he booked a passage north to Prince Rupert.

On his arrival at Prince Rupert he secured a job at the dry dock, again as a carpenter. He became friends with another worker, Archie MacPhee, who had spent time as a trapper. It was his tales of the backwoods that sent John off at weekends learning from Archie the art of setting traps and fishing. He eventually bought his own equipment and supplies and, in late 1913, he set out by canoe up the Skeena River for the backwoods north east of Prince Rupert.

In the winter of 1914/15 a ranger passed his cabin and told him that Britain had been at war with Germany for six months. He immediately pulled his traps, greased and packed his tools, left a note on the door that he had gone to war, donned his snow shoes and set out cross country to the nearest railway at Terrace. He took food for 7 days. If he didn’t make it in 7 days he would not make it at all. He travelled at night and slept by day, making the over mountain and cross-country journey in 5 days.

When he arrived in Prince Rupert he went to the recruiting office smelling and looking like a tramp. He was thrown out for ‘being unfit for duty in the Canadian army’. He caught the next boat down to Vancouver, cleaned himself up and on 26th March 1915 he took the King’s Shilling. He became 116031 Private John MacGregor of the 11th Canadian Mounted Rifles. Initial training took place in Vancouver, following which the 2nd and 11th Mounted Rifles travelled by train back across Canada and then by ship over the Atlantic to England. The 11th were barracked at Shorncliffe Camp in Folkstone, Kent. By June 1915 the German advance had been halted and the war had become a static affair. Both sides were digging in their trench systems and it was found that cavalry were of little value in these conditions. It was decided that the mounted units would combine with the infantry. On 20th July 1915 John became a trooper with the 2nd Canadian Division. After a short leave with his family in Cawdor they embarked for France on 22nd September 1915. Four days later they were in the front line around Ypres. The Battalion spent the next year in and out of the front line in various locations. The area they were sent to was very flat with the water table close to the surface and, as John described it, “We supped, slogged, shit and slept in deep unrelenting mud”.

On 25th September 1916 John was promoted from Private, straight to Sergeant. He realised it was dead men’s shoes because the battalion had lost so many officers and NCOs. On 16th October 1916 they were pulled out of the Somme area and were sent to what was to become a very familiar phrase in Canadian military history: Vimy Ridge. For his actions on 9th April 1917, John was commissioned in the field to Temp Lieutenant and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Over the next few months the 2nd Battalion moved in and out of the line over a wide front and, just before Christmas 1917, they were moved into the area of Hill 70. On 28th December 1917 at Hill 70 John twice led reconnaissance patrols into No Man’s Land through the snow wearing white sheets as camouflage. He was gaining experience and familiarity of the terrain, which would later prove useful. This was all to gain intelligence for a raid on 12th January 1918. C Company’s lines were 50 yards from the Germans and they often used to shout pleasantries at each other. At 01200hrs, John’s group of 18 Privates, 4 Corporals and a Sergeant set out. So as not to warn the enemy they set out in ones and twos making for a large shell hole to reassemble. They were discovered and came under attack from bombs and rifle fire. John knew it was futile to carry on with the existing plan but did not abandon the assault. He personally amended on the spot the GOC’s orders by changing direction to another part of the line.

Together with the Sergeant and a small party of men they went forward. They laid bathmats over the wire and stormed the trenches while the rest of his party gave covering fire. The German light machine gunner ran away. They bombed and bayoneted right and left and captured two prisoners. They were back in their lines by 0220 hrs. John had been hit in the hand but not seriously. After this action he was given 14 days leave and during that leave was promoted to Temporary Captain. For the reccy and the attack he was awarded the first of his Military Crosses.

In September 1918 the Canadian Divisions were moved to the front area near Cambrai. The Canadian Corps was not given the city but were told to capture the high ground over the Sensée Valley and all three defence lines. This was not to be a short range battle like The Somme or Vimy Ridge but advances were mesured in several miles. All other units agree that, for the Canadian 3rd Division, Cambrai turned out to be the bloodiest engagement of the war with greater losses than The Somme, Vimy Ridge or Passchendaele.

During the period 29th September/3rd October 1918 near Cambrai, France, Captain MacGregor acted with most conspicuous bravery and leadership. He led his company under intense fire, and although wounded, located and put out of action enemy machine-guns which were checking progress, killing four and taking eight prisoners. He then reorganised his command under heavy fire and in the face of stubborn resistance continued the advance. Later, after a personal daylight reconnaissance under heavy fire, he established his company in Neuville St. Remy, thereby greatly assisting the advance into Tilloy. For this action Capt John MacGregor DCM MC was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Just before the end of the war, between 5th and 8th November 1918, through his personal reconnaissances and initiative the bridges over The Honnelle River were secured. His prompt action in seizing the crossings did much towards the final rout of the enemy. For this action, he was awarded a Bar to his MC. At Buckingham Palace on February 26th 1919 His Majesty the King decorated Captain John MacGregor with the Victoria Cross and also a bar to his Military Cross.

The Canadians left for home on 17th March 1919. Back in their homeland there were parades and receptions for the homecoming heroes and John, along with other VC holders, was always in great demand. He was demobilised and struck off the Expeditionary Force Register on 9th April 1919 in Vancouver and arrived back in Prince Rupert on 16th April 1919. He took various jobs but found it hard to adapt to civilian life again. Sometime in 1923, John was walking along one of the timber docks when he heard an explosion from one of the docked ships. The boat was well alight when he reached it so he jumped on deck and with an axe cut the lines and pushed it away from the dock. He then leant over the side and hacked a hole in the side to sink the vessel. His prompt action saved the wooden dock from going up in flames, which would have been disastrous for the local fishing industry. He was very seriously burned and ended up in the local hospital where Nurse Ethel Flower, who was later to become his wife, treated him.

They were married in Vancouver in 1924 but Ethel did not want to return to Prince Rupert. She wanted to settle down in Powell River. The town had a large paper mill and always wanted carpenters. John would also be able to make a fresh, anonymous start, as he hated the publicity of his awards. In July 1925, Ethel, with her new son James, moved into the house that John had built. At that time there was a vicious racket called ‘The Hiring Squeeze’. The hiring bosses would ask for a percentage of pay in exchange for job security. John refused and was subsequently sacked. If it had been known that he was a war hero, it would never have happened but it was John’s decision to stay quiet. He then started working away from home, building the trestle bridges for the railroads and the buildings on hydro-electric schemes.

On 10th September 1939 Canada declared war on Germany. For months nothing happened and John seemingly made little or no effort to rejoin the colours. As a Major in the North Coast British Columbia Regiment, he could hope to be called to active duty but that didn’t occur. Senior officers in reserve units were not wanted. In early June 1940, the phoney war ended with the Blitzkrieg of Belgium, Holland and France. For the allies the news was very serious and John told his family it was not going to be a short affair. The official record states that, on 20th June 1940, John signed an application to join the Canadian Active Service Force. As he held the rank of Major in the 1st North British Columbia Regiment, he signed his application “John MacGregor, Major.” The application was approved and he was appointed to the 2nd Battalion with effect from 1st July 1940. He was appointed company commander of one of the four companies in the 2nd Battalion.

In August 1943 he was sent to Britain for a four month detachment. He was able to meet his eldest son who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Pilot Officer. He was a rear gunner in bombers and been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. They both managed to travel to Nairn where John showed him around his childhood home. John returned to Canada and was discharged from the Army on 11 May 1946. He then set up a block making and gravel business just outside Cranberry, Powell River. By late 1949 he was failing to turn up for work and his youngest son Donald was managing the business.

He was suffering from repeated pains in his stomach so he was sent to the Shaunessy Veterans’ Hospital in Vancouver. The hospital at first thought that there was nothing physically wrong with John so they consigned him to the River View Mental Hospital. At first he wouldn’t go but when he became too sick for his wife to care for him he was admitted. River View did nothing to help and, in December 1950, they discharged him with the diagnosis, ‘Involutional Phychosis’ and his record was marked ‘a malingerer’

His condition worsened and, in January 1951, he was re-admitted to River View. The hospital still took the view there was nothing wrong and he just needed a better outlook on life. He was taken back on by The Powell River Company as a carpenter. He went over to Vancouver Island where he was site working again, building accommodation for lumbermen. For a while his outlook on life did get better but then his condition worsened. When he ate he vomited. There were no doctors on the logging site so he just took pain killers.

On 22nd December 1951 he climbed a ladder to finish a roof when a great, searing pain hit his abdomen and he collapsed. A swelling the size of a grapefruit had slipped out from under his ribcage. The hospital in Alert Bay could do nothing for him but to ease the pain. He was flown out to Vancouver General Hospital where it was discovered that he didn’t have a mental problem. He had cancer. They sewed him up and sent him back home. He was now with the family he had spent so much time apart from.

In June 1952, when Ethel his wife could no longer look after him, he was admitted to Powell River General Hospital. He died eight days later on 9th June 1952. He was laid to rest in Cranberry Lake Cemetery, Powell River, and was piped to his last resting place by the pipe band he had helped to form. Three holders of the Victoria Cross attended his funeral, General George Pearkes VC, Colonel Cyrus Peck VC and Captain Charles Train VC. In 2008 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission supplied a new headstone. His two sons attended the unveiling in wheel chairs. They died months later, only 11 days apart.

John’s medal group comprising of Victoria Cross, Military Cross and Bar, Distinguished Conduct Medal, 1914-18 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, The Victory Medal 1914-19, 1939-45 Star, Voluntary Service Medal Canada and Clasp, 1939-45 War Medal, King George VI Coronation Medal 1937 and Territorial Force Efficiency Decoration are held by the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.





Bill Mullen – Image of the MacGregor VC Grave in Powell River, Canada.

Thomas Stewart – Image of the MacGregor VC Stone in Nairn, Scotland.

Canadian War Museum – Image of the MacGregor VC Medal Group.