McElroy was born in Donnybrook, County Dublin, Ireland to Samuel and Ellen McElroy. He enlisted promptly at the outbreak of World War One in August 1914 and was shipped out to France, two months later. He was serving as a corporal in the Motor Cyclist Section of the Royal Engineers, when he was first commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on the 9th of May 1915. Whilst serving in the Royal Irish Regiment, he was severely affected by mustard gas and was sent home to recuperate. He was in Dublin in April 1916, during the Easter Rising and was ordered to help quell the insurrection. McElroy refused to fire on his fellow Irishmen, and was transferred to a southerly garrison away from home. On the 1st of June 1916, Mc Elroy relinquished his commission in the Royal Irish Regiment, when awarded a cadetship at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich from which he graduated on the 28th of February 1917, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
McElroy was promptly seconded to the Royal Flying Corps where he was trained as a pilot at the Central Flying School at Upavon and appointed as Flying Officer on the 28th of June. On the 27th of July his commission was backdated to the 9th of February 1916, and he was promoted to Lieutenant on the 9th of August. On the 15th of August he joined No.40 Squadron RFC where he benefitted from the mentoring of fellow Irishman, Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock. He originally flew a Nieuport 17, but had no success with this aircraft. By the end of 1917, McElroy was flying an S.E.5 and scored his first victory on the 28th of December.
An extremely aggressive dog fighter who ignored often overwhelming odds. McElroy’s score soon grew rapidly. He shot down two German aircraft in January, and by the 18th of February had run his score up to 11. At this point he was appointed a Flight Commander with the temporary rank of Captain and a transfer to No.24 Squadron RFC. He continued to accrue victories in ones and twos. By the 26th of March when he was awarded the Military Cross, he was up to 18 ‘kills’
On the 1st of April 1918, The R.F.C. and the R.N.A.S. merged to become the Royal Air Force, and his Squadron became No.24 Squadron R.A.F. McElroy was injured in a flying accident on the 7th of April, he brushed a treetop while landing. By then he had run up his score to 27. Whilst he was side-lined with his injury, on the 22nd of April he was awarded a bar to his Military Cross. Following his convalescence, McElroy returned to No. 40 Squadron in June, scoring three times on the 26th, 28th and 30th. The latter two victories were over observation balloons. That ran is victory total up to 30.
In July he added to his score almost daily, a third balloon – busting on the 1st, followed by one of the most triumphant months in the history of fighter aviation, adding 17 victims during the month. His run of success was almost curtailed on the 20th by a vibrating engine that entailed him breaking off an attack on a German two-seater and a rough emergency landing that left him with cuts and bruises. There was a farewell luncheon that day for his friend, ‘Noisy’ Lewis; their mutual friend, ‘Mick’ Mannock took him to one side to warn him about the hazards of following a German victim down within range of ground fire. On the 26th of July, his mentor and friend ‘Mick’ Mannock was killed by ground fire, ironically on the same day McElroy received the second bar to his Military Cross. He was one of only ten airmen to receive the second bar.
McElroy’s apparent continued disregard for his own safety when flying and fighting could only result in one end. On the 31st of July 1918, he reported destroying a Hannover ‘C’ for his 47th victory. He then set out again. He failed to return from this flight and was posted missing. Later it was learned that Mc Elroy had been killed by ground fire. He was 25 years old. McElroy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously on the 3rd of August. The bar to this award would arrive later on the 21st of September. The final reckoning for McElroy was 47 victories, this score included 3 observation balloons.
(C) Damian Grange 2021