Canada’s Fighting Airmen FIVE: BARKER WINS HIS FIRST DECORATION
Commencing the dramatic story of the almost incredible exploits of Lt.-Col. Barker, V. C.
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
THERE is no more dramatic story written in the annals of the Great War than the official record of the almost incredible exploits of Lieutenant-Colonel William George Barker. Of all the thousands from every part of the British Empire who served with the Royal Air Force on its many battle-fronts, only three were officially given credit for having destroyed more enemy machines, and two of these were Canadians. Bishop and Collishaw, Canadians, are officially credited with seventy-two and sixty machines respectively, while McCudden is reported to have brought down between fifty-four and fifty-eight enemy planes. The lesser figure appears in his Victoria Cross citation. Barker is credited officially with the destruction of fifty.
But even such a comparison as that does not convey the full import of Barker’s contribution to the Allied cause, since it was only in the latter part of the war that he became essentially a fighting pilot. His earlier activities embraced practically every phase of the increasingly complex scheme of aerial warfare, and the official citations accompanying the announcement of his numerous decorations tell a wonderful story of bravery and skill in observing, reconnaissance, bombing, artillery co-operation, contact patrol, and photography. All this and the later days of strenuous fighting were only a prelude, however, to that last Homeric battle on October 27, 1918, when he fought nearly sixty German machines, and, in spite of terrible wounds, brought four of them down behind the British line and lived to receive the Victoria Cross for one of the most remarkable deeds of the whole war.
Tall, lean, powerful and erect, Colonel Barker has more of the traditional appearance of the professional soldier than perhaps any of the great airmen of the war, although his military training was only that of the ordinary civilian enlisting in the ranks and going through the customary routine of a unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
His manner of quiet self-possession, his steady glance and keen eyes reflect the determination, quick decision and courage which were the outstanding characteristics of his astonishing career.
A Son of the Prairies
BARKER was born at Dauphin, Manitoba, on November 3, 1894, when his famous wartime confrère, Bishop, was a baby of a few months old at Owen Sound. He continued to live in Dauphin with his family until he moved to Winnipeg shortly before the war. He received the usual public and high school education and doubtless absorbed a valuable measure of that self-confidence and optimism which seem to spring from the very soil of the Prairie Provinces.
Throughout his early life he exhibited a love of shooting, and his subsequent success in the air may partly be accounted for by the experience he gained in handling firearms. Game was plentiful in Manitoba in those days and he not have far to go for deer, moose and elk, while wild duck and prairie chickens were almost too plentiful for keen sport. He was also very active with the rifle associations at Dauphin and later at Winnipeg, and a good part of his available money went into the purchase of ammunition for use at the targets. He developed a deadly accuracy with the service rifle and his scores were filled with frequent “possibles” at the different ranges.
He was also a fearless rider and the sense of balance gained in the saddle probably contributed largely to the ease with which he later learned to fly. In the early days of the war some of the senior officers responsible for the choice of prospective pilots, caused much comment and some amusement because they apparently considered the only qualification required of any man who seemed reasonably sound in wind and limb, was an affirmative answer to the question, “Do you ride?” Knowing this, many a man who scarcely knew a horse’s mane from its tail, but did want above everything else to fly, posed as a finished horseman and justified the misrepresentation by his subsequent record. There may, however, have been much in the theory, as most good horsemen learned to fly very easily.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, Barker and a number of his friends who wished to join a mounted unit went to Brandon and enlisted with the First Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles. There his name appeared for the first time on the records of the fighting forces of the Empire as No. 106074, Private Barker, William George. Thus he began his military career at the foot of the ladder at the age of nineteen.
As a result of his knowledge of firearms he was attached to the machine-gun section where he remained until he left the battalion. He soon displayed the same skill with the cumbersome rapid firing weapons as with a rifle, and quite unconsciously continued his training for the flying corps which had commenced on the rifle ranges of Dauphin and Winnipeg.
After some months of training in the severity of a Manitoba winter, the 1st C.M.R.’s proceeded to England with their horses in the spring of 1915 and spent the summer in camp at Shorneliffe, in Kent. In another mounted unit nearby was Bishop, who was then a lieutenant, and had already decided that he wanted to fly. Barker’s thoughts had not yet turned to the air, however, and on September 22, 1915, he crossed with his battalion to France.
He and all of his battalion suffered a great disappointment before they went to the front. Static warfare having placed very strict limitations on the use of mounted troops, it was decided that all the mounted rifle battalions should go to France dismounted and serve as infantry. The ghastly reality of war was a startling contrast to anticipation in any case, but it was much more striking to men who had visualized their part in battle in the stirring rôle of mounted troops.
In the late months of 1915, trench warfare had reached its most stagnant point, and there was not even the exhilaration of real fighting to relieve the monotony of alternating periods in the front line, support and reserve. And then with November the Canadians learned what mud could really be—bottomless, endless mud. The time spent in the front line in those wet months was a fairly miserable experience. There was little for the infantry to do but fill sand bags, keep under cover, vainly try to keep dry and hope that the next shell was not headed for their particular part of the trench. The machinegunners at least kept up some measure of activity with occasional bursts of fire over the enemy trenches but even their work was impersonal and desultory.
The Lure of the Air
DURING a particularly unpleasant spell of such enforced inactivity, Barker saw a fight in the air for the first time. As the machines manoeuvred for position far above the trenches, the distant rattle of their machine-guns could be distinctly heard. There at least was action and freedom from the awful filth of the trenches. But even more attractive in Barker’s mind than the opportunity of fighting in a cleaner element was the thought of using a machine-gun on a visible target. What impressed him above everything else was the tremendous amount of ammunition they seemed to fire with no apparent result. Doubtless underestimating the difficulty of obtaining satisfactory results with the crude aerial weapons of 1915, he felt that he could have done much better himself if he once had an enemy machine under the sights of his gun. fiis mind was definitely made up that he was going to fight in the air.
Just at that time there was an urgent need for more observers and an opportunity was given to members of units at the front who had any previous experience which might qualify them for the work, to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Barker immediately applied and waited for results. Before receiving any word of acceptance or refusal he saw another fight—this time between a German and a French machine. There was nothing indecisive about the results on chis occasion, however, for after a few rounds the French machine burst into flames and those below saw the ghastly spectacle of the occupants jumping from their seats and falling for thousands of feet.
Barker’s enthusiasm for the air service had been considerably dampened, and when he received word a few days later that his application had been refused he was more glad than sorry. His active nature, however, began to revolt against the mud and monotony and he applied again, this time with more success, and with the rank of corporal which he had held with his first unit he was attached to the 9th Squadron which was a Corps squadron operating on the Somme.
He learned map reading and the use of the Morse code with the wireless sending set after a very short time with the squadron, and with little further training he started his work as an observer, still with the rank of corporal in the Canadian infantry.
Thus mud had much to do with the making of another great airman. Bishop had transferred from a mounted unit some months before and was also an observer although not yet at the front. Richthofen had left his Uhlans the previous June to become an observer and was at the time in Germany putting the finishing touches on his training as a pilot. There was a marked similarity in the experiences of the three men. Each served with mounted units, each transferred from a reaction to the mud and fighting conditions which deprived them of their horses, each flew first as an observer, and afterward as a pilot with a fighting squadron, and each won practically every award for valor in the gift of their respective countries. But whereas Bishop and Richthofen had started as officers, Barker began as a private and he also saw more actual service in the air than either of the others.
Scout Vs “Hearse”
T) ARKER was not long with the 9th Squadron before he established the reputation for markmanship which never left him. He and his pilot were on a long reconnaissance in German territory in a slow moving old B.E. 2C when they were attacked by a German scout. The odds were decidedly against them but the pilot manoeuvred his cumbersome machine in wide circles in an effort to place Barker in a favorable position to engage their faster opponent. Finally, Barker got the momentary chance for which he had been waiting, and lining the sights of his gun with the same cool precision which had brought up the bull’s-eye spotter so often on the Manitoba ranges, he pulled the trigger and a stream of bullets poured into the German machine just beside the pilot. Down it went completely out of control and in a few moments burst into flames.
Decisive battles were still comparatively rare and this first victory against formidable odds while he was still very much of a novice meant more to Barker and his squadron than several such successes in the later days of the war.
On April 2, 1916, Barker was formally attached to the Royal Flying Corps with the rank of Second-Lieutenant. Up to that time he had been wearing the customary uniform of a Canadian corporal; so he was instructed to proceed to London to get his officer’s uniform and equipment. Five days later he returned to the front and was posted to the 4th Squadron with which he served until the middle of July.
The 4th Squadron was also on the Somme; in fact, practically all his flying in France was in that sector, and he came to know nearly every foot of ground for miles on both sides of the line. From the time he joined the 4th Squadron he commenced a period of intense activity which continued without cessation until the close of the mighty battles of the Somme in the middle of November.
So much has been written of the spectacular work of the scouts and so little of the slower working squadrons that it may be well to describe some of their many duties in order that the full importance of Barker’s service during those arduous months may be better appreciated.
The activities of the corps squadrons, such as the 4th embraced reconnaissance work, artillery observation, bombing, photography, contact patrol and general harassing of enemy troops on the ground. Perhaps the most important function of the air force was its rôle as* the eyes of the army. In the past, cavalry had always been the means of obtaining information concerning the enemy’s movements but trench warfare had put an end to the use of cavalry for that purpose, and aeroplanes, in addition to the advantage of speed and greater vision, had the outstanding advantage of being able to communicate immediately any information they obtained by means of wireless.
Reconnaissance was difficult work and required skill, courage, perseverance and, above everything else, absolute accuracy. It entailed protracted flights over the enemy’s lines subjected to anti-aircraft fire from the ground and the constant threat of attacks by scouts in the air.
Something of importance would be seen on the ground, the observer would locate the spot on his map and then, perhaps, take a photograph of the arena to verify his observation. It was of little use taking observations unless the exact map location could be accurately communicated to headquarters.
Getting Ready For the .Somme
DURING April, May and June of 1916, the British airmen became increasingly active in anticipation of the opening of the Battle of the Somme on July 1. Not only were the observers ranging the hundreds of newly arrived batteries on vital points behind the German line but they were also constantly on the lookout for any new target which might appear. Barker was particularly good at this and found co-operation with the artillery exhilarating work. There was an uncanny feeling of power in directing the fire of mighty guns and seeing the explosion of the shell thousands of feet below responding so mysteriously to the directing instructions which flashed from the wireless key under the observer’s hand.
As July 1 approached, the Royal Flying Corps which had been growing stronger and stronger, began for the first time during the war to dominate the situation. No longer was it a question of give and take as to which side of the line activity lay. Day in and day out, the British airmen “carried on” far beyond the enemy line and trained the fire of the colossal concentration of British guns on the German batteries which were being rushed in to meet the attack for which they were now prepared. Finally, on the day before the opening of the great bombardment the British showed their full stiength in the air when the word went forth to all the squadrons that the German airmen were to be swept from the sky. All along the line on both sides the clumsy looking observation balloons floated at the end of their cables while the observers in each of them controlled artillery fire. So far they had been comparatively immune from attack and their chief concern was long range shell fire. But on this last day before the storm finally broke, the British, in one great unexpected raid, brought nearly every enemy observation balloon on the whole Somme front in flames to the earth. It was a good omen for the test of strength to come, and from that day for many months the British and the French assumed complete mastery of the sky, with all that such means for the land forces in modern warfare.
Just a few days before the opening of the Somme battles Barker was hit for the first time. He had been observing for the artillery and was attacked by a German scout. In the exchange of fire a bullet went through the fleshy part of his leg but did no serious damage, and he and his pilot were able to fight their way safely home without further injury. On landing it was found that the flesh was not badly torn and he did not even leave the squadron but was flying again in time to take part in the British attack on July 1.
During the attacks and counter-attacks of that awful summer, as the British and French drove the Germans back under such a deluge of shells as the world had never hitherto known, a new and vitally important task devolved upon the airmen. This was the contact patrol. From the close of the Battle of the Marne in the autumn of 1914 up to the opening of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, attacks had been on so narrow a front and penetration so shallow that there was rarely any doubt about the position of the opposing troops; but during the summer and autumn of 1916, as the Allies pushed forward it was often found impossible to determine the position of the foremost troops except from the air.
Ingenious methods were devised for indicating to the airmen where the front of the line lay. By flares, smoke puffs, metal reflectors, cloth strips on the ground and other prearranged signals the foremost detachments would show where they were. The observer would then locate their position on the map and send the information to headquarters by wireless. It was very responsible work and called for absolute accuracy, as a mistake either in a map reading or as to the identity of the troops—a mistake easily made in bad weather—might result in the artillery shell-
ing their own men or an infantry formation advancing into an area occupied by the enemy.
Barker would take no chances on his observation during contact patrol. He insisted on his pilot flying low enough for him to distinguish the uniforms, and while it was particularly unhealthy work he earned a reputation for accuracy which assured the reliability of the wireless messages preceded by R32, which was his designating number.
Early in July he was ordered to report on a new enemy position which it was intended to attack. The strength and location of the enemy was of vital importance to the success of the plan. The Germans had been driven back to territory where trees and shrubs were still covered with leaves and they were taking full advantage of the protection from observation which these afforded.
Barker found it impossible at the usual height to see anything of the enemy, let alone estimate his strength. He signalled to his pilot to go lower and finally they came down within a few hundred feet of the ground where they were subjected to a withering rifle and machine-gun fire. He found that the woods and hedges were much more heavily held than anticipated and were bristling with machine-guns. As he flew back and forth over the enemy his machine was literally riddled with bullets, but once he was fully satisfied, they flew safely back and he reported what he had seen. The artillery immediately swept the German position with shell fire and the advance met with very little opposition. But for the accuracy of his observation the attacking battalion would have been quite unprepared and would probably have been annihilated by the hidden machine-guns.
On July 18 he was transferred from the 4th to the 15th Squadron, with which he served continuously until he went to Italy fifteen months later. The 15th Squadron was also a Corps squadron and there was no change in the nature of his work. On August 27 he formally qualified as an observer and became entitled to wear the observer’s insignia on the breast of his tunic which consisted of an 0 with one wing attached which distinguished him from the pilots who wore double wings. This qualification meant nothing in particular, as he had been observing then for eight months, which was longer than the average service at the front of either pilots or observers.
By this time the Canadian Divisions were beginning to arrive at the Somme from the famous Y pres front, and exchange the mud of Flanders for the appalling devastation of the Somme battlefields which the summer had left strewn with a dreadful litter of human bodies and shattered material. By the middle of September they were all in position ready to jump off in one of the greatest of the Somme battles.
He Joins His Own
(~JN SEPTEMBER 15, 1916, Barker co-operated in battle for the first time with Canadian troops. With excitement and pride he saw his countrymen in their first attack on the Somme sweep over the ground he knew so well, capturing Courcelette and Mouquet Farm. On the very left of the Canadian Corps he saw his old battalion, the 1st C.M.R., advance successfully in the first line of the Canadian attack to their objective beyond Mouquet Farm.
Not only for Barker and the Canadian Corps, but for the whole British army, September 15 was a red letter day. On that eventful morning the mysterious tanks waddled out of the low lying mist for the first time into the vision of the fighting men. There had been vague rumors about them which even the enemy had heard, but no one at the front had the slightest conception of what they were really like, and when they came they spread terror in their path and new confidence in our men. Flying high above the smoke and dust of battle Barker saw these slow mobile forts make their cumbersome way through wire and over trenches, breaking down one defense after another until one of them at last found its way far behind the German lines into the village of Fiers. While doing his usual work of contact patrol and observation a panorama unfolded itself before him of one of the most significant developments in modern warfare which only the airmen were privileged to see in one broad picture. It was a sight which those who flew that day will never forget.
A Persistent Photographer
A FEW days later he was detailed to photograph some new defensive works upon which the Germans had been particularly active. Such photographs were of the greatest importance. Upon being developed and printed, they showed the most minute detail from which experts were able to determine the exact nature of the works and plot its position on the map. These were then handed to artillery officers who with the co-operation of aerial observers proceeded to destroy what the enemy had built.
Before Barker and his pilot had been able to take the necessary photographs they were attacked by two enemy scouts. In spite of the tremendous advantage which the fast scouts had over their slow machine, they did not turn back but assumed the offensive and were able to make things so uncomfortable for the Germans that eventually they flew away. Barker then took the photographs and started for home.
Their fighting, however, had only started. Before reaching their own lines they were attacked by four more scouts which dived one after the other, pouring bullets from their fixed guns. Once more Barker showed his marksmanship and while he did not succeed in bringing any of them down, his bullets were doing so much damage that the scouts turned and left them to get safely home.
With the odds so much against them in the first fight they would have been quite justified in turning for home without attempting to take the photographs but it was typical of the high spirit of the Royal Flying Corps that Barker and his pilot should accept the odds and fight for their right to stay over German territory as long as they liked. Such a spirit and its results in observation gave our troops and particularly the artillery an inestimable advantage over the Germans at that time. The photographs turned out to be extremely valuable.
This exploit, added to his consistent good work for many months, brought Barker his first of many decorations, the Military Cross. This was officially announced over three months later with typical brevity.
London Gazette 29898, 10th January, 1917.
His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to confer the Military Cross on the undermentioned officer in recognition of his gallantry and devotion to duty in the Field:—
Temporary 2nd Lieutenant William George Barker, General List and R.F.C.
For conspicuous gallantry in action. He flew at a height of 500 feet over the enemy’s lines, and brought back most valuable information. On another occasion, after driving off two hostile machines he carried out an excellent photographic reconnaissance.
Editor’s Note—Major Drew will continue the story of Barker’s extraordinary career in the air force in an early issue of MacLean’s.