Canada’s Fighting Airmen
ONE: BISHOP—THE ALLIES’ GREATEST ACE
"The four greatest living war aces in the world are Canadians and their combined record surpasses that of any four war pilots from any other country.”
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
ON AUGUST 4, 1914, there were two hundred and seventy-two aeroplanes available to the British army and of these less than one hundred were fit for military service: at the time of the Armistice, after thousands had been destroyed, worn out or become obsolete, there were twenty-two thousand, one hundred and seventy-one, all of them infinitely more powerful, faster, and reliable than the best of those in use at the beginning of the war. In August, 1914, there were less than two hundred and fifty officers in this new service; in November, 1918, there were more than thirty thousand. During the period of this phenomenal expansion the British air forces accounted for more than eight thousand enemy machines; destroyed nearly three hundred enemy balloons; fought more than fifty thousand fights in the air; fired more than twelve million rounds of machine-gun ammunition at enemy targets on the ground; took more than half a million aerial photographs; and in doing all this suffered nearly eighteen thousand casualties.
In this almost incredible story of British achievement, Canadians played a tremendous part. It is true that it
was some time before they joined the Flying Corps in any numbers, due to the apathy of our military authorities toward this new arm of the service, but once their interest was aroused they rushed to the air service in ever-increasing numbers, until by the end of the war one-third of the officers in the Royal Air Force were Canadians.
“The Greatest Air Fighters in the World”
NOR do numbers alone begin to tell the story of Canada’s astonishing share in the war in the air. It must also be measured in terms of the accomplishments of the men who served, for strangely enough the service which Canadians were so slow to adopt was the one in which individually they were destined to play their most conspicuous part.
Canada’s share, individually and collectively, was out of all proportion to her population. Not long after Canadians really took up flying in earnest it became apparent that they were at least the equals of any of the airmen in the war. It is interesting to speculate as to why they displayed such an undoubted superiority in this new service. There must be some explanation for the fact that Canada with about one-tenth of the white population of the Empire should have supplied onethird of the pilots in action with the Royal Air Force at the end of the war, and there must also be some explanation for the individual dominance of Canadians among the British fighting pilots. Perhaps the wide horizons of life in Canada, the atmosphere of optimism, the confidence of individual opportunity, and general adaptability to unexpected tasks, born of life in a still undeveloped country, all contributed to the qualities which so peculiarly fitted Canadians for success in this new and incalculably hazardous adventure. Whatever the reasons may have been, the simple fact remains that without any qualification as to population or otherwise Canadians proved the greatest air fighters in the world.
It is unfortunate that so little is known of their remarkable story. Their exploits should be an inspiration to young Canadians for all time because at the height of their glory these men were mere boys, and what Canadian boys did then forever renders unnecessary the need of seeking beyond the borders of Canada for examples of the highest bravery, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice. The reason why so little is known is not hard to find. John Buchan, the British historian, tells us why in a few words: “The Germans and the French made no secret of their heroes, but rather encouraged the advertisement of their names; but the Royal Flying Corps true to its traditions contented itself with a bare recital of the deed, till an occasional V.C. lifted the veil of anonymity.” The press reports of British air successes never named the individuals engaged.
Opinions differ as to the wisdom of this course, but there is no question about the result It was not until the London Gazette announced in terse official sentences that Captain Albert Ball had destroyed nearly fifty enemy machines that the British public throughout the Empire awoke to the fact that British airmen were the peers of any in the world. Canadians, throughout the war, had no separate unit in the Royal Air Force and Canadians were, therefore, equally ignorant of what their flying men were doing. It was the award of a V.C. which lifted the veil of anonymity from the greatest Canadian pilot.
Canadians read with pride that Captain William Avery Bishop, of Owen Sound, had been awarded the most coveted decoration for valor in the world, the Victoria Cross, “for most conspicuous bravery, determination and skill.” Unknown to most Canadians at home he had already won the Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order for deeds of great bravery. When he attended at Buckingham Palace late in the summer of 191? to be invested with these decorations, the King, in congratulating him upon his successes said that it was the first time he had been able to give all three to one person. It was only then Canadians realized that in the air their men were gaining the same high reputation for courage and determination which they had already earned at Ypres, the Somme and Vimy.
In the course of time Bishop’s record stood beside those of the great British aviators, Ball, McCudden and Mannoch, and finally well above them. As the months of 1918 passed, other Canadians rose to claim a place in this select company. Collishaw, Barker and McLaren were not far behind, and there were many others whose exploits ranked them among the greatest pilots in the war. In spite of such a record there are many who will be surprised to know that the four greatest living war aces in the world are Canadians, and that the combined record of these four Canadians surpasses that of the leading four war pilots, living or dead, of either Germany, France or the United States, as well as that of any other four British pilots.
This may be a somewhat startling declaration to many who have absorbed the fabulous tales of aviators of all nations but our own. The correctness of the statement may, however, be readily demonstrated by a comparative illustration showing the four leading aviators and the number of enemy aeroplanes detroyed in each case. British, French,
American and German military authorities all required satisfactory proof of reported victories before official credit was given. The French official figures are not immediately available except in the case of Guynemeyer, but as he was their leading ace the result is not in doubt.
Bishop ...................... 72
Collishaw ................... 60
Barker ...................... 50
Richthofen, Manfred ......... 80
Richthofen, Lothar .......... 40
Immelman ................... 18
Rickenbacker ...... 21
Lufberry .......... 17
Vaughn ............ 12
Springs ............ 12
Guynemeyer ....... 53
It must not be forgotten that there were other British pilots such as Ball, McCudden, Mannoch and RhysDavies who had a few more or a few less than fifty machines to their credit. With these figures it is not difficult to understand British air supremacy in the closing days of the War.
“Too Near to be Great’’
' I 'HESE words are carved on the wall of the beautiful memorial chamber recently opened in the Parliament Buildings at Ottawa: “They are too near to be great, but our children shall understand when and how our fate was changed and by whose hand.” To those who knew them well these men are, perhaps, “too near to be great,” but already a generation of Canadians is growing up who should be taught with pride that these Canadians, in the greatest war in all history, were more than
equal to the task they faced and in the particular sphere of their war efforts were among the truly great men of the world.
Among the fighting airmen of the Allied armies Bishop stands supreme. There is no reason for false modesty about it. His official record demonstrates this fact to all the world. It is something to be shouted from the housetops; not whispered quietly among ourselves. Perhaps the reason for our silence has been that Bishop is, fortunately, still very much alive. But surely death is not a condition of our honoring bravery. While Canadians of the post-war generation have been reading of the legendary air heroes of France and Germany—to say nothing of the United States, they know little or nothing of our own.
Bishop’s record of seventy-two victories stands well above that of any other Allied airman. Who is there to question it? Ball, the greatest English pilot was killed by Lothar von Richthofen just after his record had passed the fifty mark. Guynemeyer, the French ace of aces, whose name is engraved on the walls of the Pantheon and in the hearts of most living Frenchmen, met his death when his victories had reached fifty-three. Rickenbacker, the leading American, had twenty-one.
Nor was it in total victories alone that Bishop was their superior. On May 25, 1917, Guynemeyer destroyed four machines. In the course of a valedictory delivered after the airman’s death, Paul Deschanel, afterwards President of France, in speaking of this event said: “He surpassed himself and achieved the most memorable of his many victories. He destroyed four of the enemy battleplanes in a single day. This exploit unique in the annals of military aviation, won for him the officers’ cross of the Legion of Honor.” Henri Bordeaux in “Guynemeyer, King of the Air,” referring to the same event said: “Could it be possible? Had Guynemeyer really • succeeded four times? Four machines brought down in one day by one pilot was what no infantryman, gunner, pioneer,territorial, Annamite or Senegalese had ever seen.” Thus did the French regard Guynemeyer’s achievement, and yet within a few months Bishop had not only equalled but surpassed this exploit by bringing down five German machines in a single day.
Bishop was far ahead of any American aviator, although his first fight as a pilot came just a few days before the United States declared war. In fact, his individual total of seventy-two is ten more than the combined total of the four leading Americans.
Richthofen and Bishop
/^\NLY one man challenged Bishop’s record and that was Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Knight of Germany, with eighty victories officially recognized. He was the flower of the German flying corps, the idol of the whole nation and by long odds their greatest ace. Yet without in any way detracting from his record as a great fighter, a sportsman and a gentleman, it is necessary, if the facts are to be understood, to point out the vast difference in the circumstances under which he and Bishop fought. Whereas Richthofen scarcely ever fought alone, Bishop’s greatest successes were achieved in solitary flights. Then, too, nearly all oi the fighting during the time of Richthofen’s and Bishop’s activities was carried on well behind the German lines.
This had two important effects. In the first place, there could not fail to be uncertainty at times as to which pilot had fired the fatal shots when a whole squadron attacked a single machine, pouring thousands of bullets from their twin Spandau guns. Where such doubt existed, it was only natural that the leader of the squadron should receive the credit, particularly when he was as famous as Richthofen had become. In the second place, the fact that nearly all the fighting took place behind the German lines had a very important bearing on the results. If a British machine was forced down for any reason during a fight, it had little chance of reaching its own lines. If it landed in German territory it would be counted as a victory for the
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German officer engaged. A German machine might be forced to land under precisely similar circumstances, but when the fight had been over its own territory it would land well within its own lines. An examination of Richthofen’s record shows several machines forced to land but not destroyed which were counted as victories. On the other hand, Bishop forced many German machines to land on their own side. These were not counted as victories.
This situation was not because of caution on Richthofen’s part or superior bravery on Bishop’s. Each adopted the rôle best suited to the policy dictated by their respective air forces. The air force had replaced the cavalry as the eyes of the army, and it was the definite policy of the British to keep their eyes over the enemy by maintaining the offensive in the air regardless of losses. The situation in 1917 was well described by Gibbons in “The Red Knight of Germany.”
“The German flyers had all the advantage. Their machines were the latest word in aviation. In speed, they could literally fly circles around their adversaries.
“But in spite of this mechanical superiority, the British vill characteristic tenacity, refused to change their offensive policy and continued to carry the war in the air to the enemy’s side of the line. Whereas, during the British superiority in the air in 1916, the German air force had been completely swept from the skies, the turning of the tables did not bring the same results in 1917.
“The severity of the British losses broke all existing records, but they were not allowed to interfere with the orders to ‘carry on’ as usual.”
That was the difference. Richthofen fought practically all of his fights over his own territory; Bishop over that of the enemy. Richthofen had decided that close formations were best in fighting off the continuous British air offensive; Bishop was simply “carrying on” his share, and more than his share, in the offensive scheme. There is, perhaps, good reason for suggesting that Bishop was not only the greatest Allied pilot, but also the greatest individual fighting pilot in the war, but there is no occasion to press the point further. Each performed prodigious feats and each deserves full honor. It is sufficient to say that among the millions of fighting men ranged in two great armies each was the leading aviator on the side with which he fought. Surely that is honor enough for any man.
Richthofen was killed on April 21, 1918, by a Canadian, Roy Brown, but Bishop lived. He took fearful chances, never hesitated to accept battle against the greatest odds and yet he was never even wounded. His was, indeed, a charmed life. Day by day Death hovered over him, stretched out its hand with barking Spandaus and crashing high explosives, and then withdrew. Time and time again he found himself in the midst of a whirling maelstrom of enemy machines, in which a greater danger than the flaming bullets was the chance of a collision such as had cost the life of Richthofen’s teacher, the great Boelcke. Yet when the “dog fight” cleared away, Bishop’s machine, riddled with bullets, would wing its way safely home while a smoking heap of wreckage behind the German lines told the watching armies that the master marksman had won again.
There were several interesting similarities in the stories of Bishop and Richthofen. Both were young men when the war began. Bishop was twenty and Richthofen twenty-two. Both served first in the cavalry, Richthofen as an officer with a Uhlan Regiment, Bishop as an officer with the Mississauga Horse, of Toronto. Both joined the air service as observers before becoming pilots.
Bishop was a cadet of the Royal
Military College at Kingston in 1914. Born at Owen Sound on February 8, 1894, he had passed through the ordinary educational routine of a Canadian boy until he entered the Royal Military College. There was nothing in his early life to suggest that he was soon to become one of the world’s outstanding airmen.
LJE ENLISTED and .proceeded to England with the Mississauga Horse, where fate, in the form of the British War Office, directed this unit to a particularly muddy training-camp. Mud caused the death of many men during the war. Indirectly, it brought death to more than a hundred German airmen because it was mud that persuaded Bishop to join the Flying Corps. Bishop himself has told us the story in “Winged Warfare”:
“We were in England. It had rained for days in torrents, and there was still a drizzle coming down as I set out for a tour of the horse lines.
“Ordinary mud is bad enough, when you have to make your home in it, but the particular brand of mud that infests a cavalry camp has a meaning all its own. Everything was dank, and slimy, and boggy. I had succeeded in getting myself mired to the knees when suddenly from somewhere out of the storm,' appeared a trim little aeroplane.
“It landed hesitatingly in a nearby field as if scorning to brush its wings against so sordid a landscape; then away again up into the clean gray mists.
“How long I stood there gazing into the distance I do not know, but when I turned to slog my way back through the mud, my mind was made up. I knew there was only one place to be on such a day—up above the clouds and in the summer sunshine. I was going into battle that way. I was going to meet the enemy in the air.”
This was in July, 1915. Less than two months before this, Richthofen had transferred to the flying service and was then in training at Cologne. What decided him to change was the dull prospect ahead of the cavalry. Static warfare had limited its use and he and his Uhlans were sent back for duty in the supply service. The motive in each case had a decided similarity.
Bishop applied immediately for his transfer and got it. A few months later he had qualified as an observer and was in France.
He spent four months in action as an observer. During this period he carried out the customary routine of observation, photography and bombing. This four months was in marked contrast with his later experiences, for although he was almost daily over the German lines he did not have a single fight. He was forced to return to England because of an injury to his knee wlien his pilot made a bad landing. He was laid up for several months on account of this—his only injury during the war and not a serious one—and then, his sick leave over, was given his chance to become a pilot.
He spent the winter of 1916-17 in training, going through the usual steps from a ground school up to night flying, during which he served on the Zeppelin patrols. Early in March, 1917, he received instructions to report for a course at a special school where he learned to fly one of the small and extremely fast single-seater fighting machines which had just been developed by the British aircraft designers. A few days later he reported to the headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps for his orders to proceed to France as a pilot. At last he was ready for the great adventure in which he was destined to make so proud a name.
Editor’s Note; This is the first óf a series of articles by Major Drew on Canadian aces of the Great War. The second will follow in an early issue.