William Neil McLean grew up in Calgary, Alberta and was drawn to the Navy at an early age.
At the age of 15, he ran away from home to join the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, England. Life in the Navy proved to be hard work for a young boy, but by the time the Second World War broke out, Neil had become an Ordinary Seaman and was transferred to the Battleship HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean.
It was while onboard the Valiant that he met an amicable Midshipman who would later become the Duke of Edinburgh. He joined Combined Operations in 1941 as a Commando and saw action in several Naval battles. After the war he returned home and attended medical school. He rejoined the Naval Reserves in 1956 as a Surgeon Lieutenant.
Dr. Neil McLean was born on November 21, 1920 in Calgary, Alberta. Neil was drawn to the Navy at an early age and joined the Cadet Corp RCSCC "Undaunted" (Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps) when he was 11 years old. Four years later, his interest in semaphore, Morse code, emergency medicine flourished, and his interested in public school waned dramatically.
Against his patents’ wishes, William decided to join the Royal Navy. In 1935, as a boy of 15, he boarded a train to Montreal, and bought passage on a ship bound for England. He couldn’t have known the world was moving toward war and that he would be swept along with it. It would be eleven years before he saw his family or his country again.
Neil quickly discovered that the life of a Boy Seaman was no picnic. He entered the St. Vincent training facility in Portsmouth, England. For every day he trained, the Royal Navy put a shilling in his bank account. Once a week he got spending money; just enough to buy soap, a stamp (to send a letter home), and enough tea to last a week. Workdays were 24 hours long, seven spent sleeping. Workweeks were seven days long. Once or twice a week there were five hours of free time; shore leave.Days at St. Vincent started at 5:00 am. The first task was climbing over the rigging of a 130 ft. mast (with no safety rope). Next, a cold shower, then a cold breakfast, then it was off to the day’s duties. Neil spoke of these days as “hard work, strict discipline, bad food… but tolerable.”
After graduating from St. Vincent he entered Boy's Sea Training at HMS Drake in Devonport, and then spent time on the Battleship HMS Rodney where he became an Ordinary Seaman. From there it was on to Torpedo Training School at HMS Defiance, then into service aboard the minesweeper HMS Pangbourne.
It was aboard the Pangbourne, in 1939, that William officially ate his last beet. The ship was at sea when food stocks ran out. Nothing remained but tinned beets. So, for three days that’s what the crew ate, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not surprisingly, that particular vegetable never crossed his lips again.
The Second World War
Neil remained aboard the Pangbourne, in Egypt, until the British entered the Second World War. At that point he was quickly transferred to the battleship HMS Valiant where he remained until 1941. While aboard the Valiant he often stood watch with a particular Midshipman. The two had little common as one was from England, the other from Canada. Still, they got along well. That amicable Midshipman, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, would later marry the future Queen Elizabeth II and become the Duke of Edinburgh.
Work aboard the Valiant was exhausting, and sleep was precious. Sailors often commented they could “sleep through anything”. Neil discovered this was true while on leave in Alexandria when he woke in his hotel bed to and found himself covered in ceiling plaster. The windows in his room were blown into shards Neil had managed to sleep through an air raid.
In 1941 Commander McLean was promoted to Petty Officer and assigned to Combined Operations. The Commandos specialized in "beach parties"…landing ahead of the first wave of invaders, clearing the beach, removing mines and underwater obstructions, clearing Allied personnel and equipment from the beachhead, and establishing safe passageways to evacuate the wounded.
During a training exercise in Scotland, an observing senior officer disagreed with the way Neil managed his boat's landing. PO McLean, convinced that he was correct, would not change his method. The observing officer demanded that Neil be transferred out of Combined Ops. His replacement was one of the first men killed at the landing at Normandy on D-Day.
Neil left the Commandos in late 1943 and went on to qualify as a Leading Torpedo Operator. He fired torpedoes, wired torpedoes, and maintained the ship’s electrical system. Like most anti-aircraft Gunner and Torpedo operators of the time, since he never wore ear protection, people had to speak loudly to him for the rest of his life.
During the war William saw action in the North Atlantic, the Norwegian invasion, the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, convoy duty in Malta, the eastern Mediterranean, attacks on Taranto, Barda and Tripoli, and the Battle of Matapan.
After the war ended, Neil was anxious to return to Canada. Positions in the Canadian Navy were scarce, but in February of 1946 he managed to secure a position as an Able Seaman in the RCNVR (Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve). He was demobilised in September 1947, and returned to Calgary.
Anxious to make the most of post-war life, Neil completed three years of high school in 10 months, then enrolled at the University of Alberta. He received a B.Sc., then, in 1954, a medical degree.
Dr. McLean continued military service throughout his studies, as a Corporal in the Calgary Highlanders (1948-53). After medical school, he entered the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp as an acting Captain. In 1956 he rejoined the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve as a Surgeon Lieutenant.
Dr. McLean retired from military service in 1985 with the rank of Surgeon Commander. During his time in the Naval Reserves, Dr. McLean completed the Supervisory Diving Officer's Course, Naval Control of Shipping Course, and the Shallow Water Diving Medical Officer's Course.
At HMCS Tecumseh in Calgary he served as Medical Officer, and in the 1980's he was awarded the Order of Military Merit for his contribution to Canada's peace-time military. He was also a pilot and one of the founding members of the first scuba diving club in Alberta.
Dr. McLean’s first love was the Navy. He became actively involved in the Naval Museum of Alberta. In 1981, when the HMCS Tecumseh was destroyed by fire, Dr. McLean led the first salvage operation.
Dr. McLean never talked much about his battle experience, instead he focused on the most positive aspects of his Naval career; the discipline and decision making skills that persisted throughout his life. One of his fondest decisions was marrying Kelsey Hale, in 1960. Their four children David, Margot, Allison and Andrew carried on his legacy of naval service as Sea Cadets or in Naval Reserve.
Dr. McLean was a full time medical practitioner in Calgary from 1956 until his death in 1996.
A sailor until the end, Dr. McLean was, at his request, buried at sea on August 22, 1997; his ashes committed to the deep from aboard HMCS Calgary.