Canada's Fighting Airmen
“The greatest fighter in the Royal Naval Air Service was a Canadian from British Columbia”
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
UNTIL the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were merged in the Royal Air Force in 1918, the army and navy each operated its own flying service quite independently of the other. Not nearly enough was told during the war of the magnificent work of the Royal Flying Corps until the British public learned through the official announcements accompanying the award of decorations that men like Bishop, Ball, McCudden, Barker, Mamcock and many others were the peers of any airmen in the world. But the reticence of the army in boasting of its airmen was nothing compared with that of the navy. The “Silent Service” followed its traditional policy, and little is known even today of the blue-uniformed j ’ots whose daily vigils over the North Sea and along the Belgian coast played such an important part in overcoming the deadly menace of the submarine. It came, therefore, as a great surprise at the end of the war when it was learned that a pilot whose work had been for most of the war with the naval squadrons stood second only to Bishop among British airmen in the number of enemy machines destroyed, and that René Fonck was the only other Allied aviator who had exceeded his record.
Lieutenant-Colonel Raymond Collishaw, D.S.O. and bar, D.S.C., D.F.C., Croix de Guerre (French), Croix de
Couronne, (Belgian), the greatest fighter in the Royal Naval Air Service, was, like Bishop, a Canadian. He is the true D’Artagnan of British airmen, his whole life being one of continuous adventure. Although only twenty years of age at the outbreak of war he had already been to the Antarctic with one of the Polar expeditions and sailed as second officer on the Alaska run from Victoria at a time when the passengers to and from the Yukon were still a fascinating mixture of success and failure and gave those who came in contact with them a broad experience in human strength and human weakness.
Enlisting in 1915 he fought over the North Sea, flew on raids far into Germany, led one of the greatest fighting squadrons on the Western Front, and survived unscathed, although he was on three occasions shot down.
After the Armistice he commanded a British squadron, fighting with Denekin’s White Army against the Bolsheviki in Russia, and after Denekin’s collapse he
fought in Persia and Mesopotamia before returning to England, where he remained with the Royal Air Force. In 1929 Collishaw proceeded to Palestine with the rank of Wing Commander, taking part in the operations of the Royal Air Force against the fanatical Arabs. He is today by far the most experienced aerial fighter in the world, and has probably destroyed more enemy machines in battle than any other pilot, living or dead, his exploits during nearly fifteen
years of contiguous service at many times surpassing even those a A ributed by Dumas to his amazing hero.
A Son of British Columbia
"DORN at Nanaimo, British Columbia, on November 22, 1893, he was brought up in the atmosphere which surrounds zaj seaport town where great ships come and go. From early boyhood he was at home on the water and spent much of the spare time during his school years sailing and learning navigation. He also hunted and fished, as nearly every man does in that sportsman’s paradise, and his training with the rifle and shotgun laid the first foundation for his later success in the air.
Entering the merchant marine at an early age he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the study of navigation, and as a mere boy was second officer on a boat sailing between Victoria and Skagway, Alaska. Then the opportunity came to join the ill-fated Scott Antarctic Expeditio i which required a sturdy young navigating officer. After a long stay in the South, during which Scott and his companions of the advance party reached the Pole itself only to lose their lives on the way back, he returned safely to British Columbia and is probably the only officer in the Royal Air Force who wears the
all white ribbon of the medal awarded to the members of that expedition.
Protecting the Bombers
"I—ÍE WAS again sailing up and down the Pacific Coast -*• when war broke out. Very soon afterward, he left his ship and proceeded direct to England with the intention of volunteering for naval duty, but upon his arrival there he became interested in aviation and toward the end of 1915 joined the Royal Naval Air Service. Qualifying as a pilot in January, 1916, he saw several months of service patrolling the coast along the English Channel. This arduous work in the heavy weather of the winter and spring months was of great importance, as the airmen maintained a constant watch for submarines and marauding surface craft, but it gave him little opportunity to distinguish himself. Then on August 2, 1916, he was transferred to the 3rd Wing, R.N.A.S., operating in France, and before very long had the chance which every scout pilot sought of meeting the enemy in the air. Patrol work may have been important, it may have demanded skill and courage, but it never satisfied those who had the spirit which made the greatest fighters what they were.
No. 3 Wing was at that time located far to the south of the Western Front behind the French. Their aerodrome at Ochey was nearly two hundred and fifty miles from the Channel, and therefore much farther to the south of the line than any of the squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps. Their work was essentially long-range bombing, and they were located on that part of the front because it placed them at the nearest possible point to the most important munition and railway centre in Germany. Almost daily, the great bombing machines flew hundreds of miles over enemy territory, protected by escorts of fighting scouts. Collishaw was
one of the scout pilots of the Wing, and he had frequent engagements with German machines, but not until October 12th did he have his first decisive encounter. The fighters of the Wing were not free to roam at will as the fighting squadrons did, because their one task was to protect the bombers and stay with them under all circumstances, only fighting when the enemy scouts attacked.
OCTOBER 12, 1916, the bombers of No. 3 Wing crossed the lines heavily loaded for an attack on the Mauser Rifle Factory at Obendorf, nearly one hundred and forty miles from the front. Collishaw piloting a two-seated fighter was one of the escort. They left their aerodrome at dawn before any of the German machines were up and had almost reached Obendorf before six Fokkers overtook them and attacked. Collishaw picked out one of the enemy and flew underneath, giving his observer a perfect shot at the German machine. The tracers could be seen entering the fuselage and he was apparently slightly damaged. Banking sharply and gaining height Collishaw then engaged him with his forward gun and after a short burst had the supreme satisfaction of knowing that he had won his first victory in the air. The Fokker dropped completely out of control and after what seemed an age of waiting,
although it was really only seconds, ended a hopeless mass of wreckage far below. To every pilot the first was always the most important victory. Everyone had to confess feeling considerable anxiety while approaching an enemy machine, for no one ever knew how expert his particular opponent might be, and that was particularly so, until a pilot had proved by actual fighting that he had the peculiar combined shooting and flying sense which was required to operate the forward guns in the fighting machines. These guns were fixed to the fuselage and sighted by bringing the aeroplane itself in line with the target. The trigger was upon the control stick and as the pilot directed his machine he fired whenever he found his sights on the enemy.
This first victory, therefore, brought Collishaw an absolutely new sense of confidence, and no longer feeling himself an unproved fighter he continued the flight with the assurance that he was able to meet the enemy in the air. Reaching
Obendorf the bombers dipped low over the Mauser factory, one by one dropping their heavy bombs. Explosion followed explosion in quick succession and many hits were observed on the factory itself, considerable damage being done. They then turned for home and reached Ochey without losing a machine.
A Surprise Encounter
TT WAS nearly two weeks before Collishaw recorded his next victory. On October 25, he was sent back by motor to Luxeuil, some fifty miles from the front, Continued on page 82 to bring up a new machine. After a short test he started for Ochey, but as he approached Luneville was surprised by six German scouts which dived at him from the clouds. Caught unprepared, he saw his only chance was to dive away from them. Down went the seven machines in a mad race, the twin Spandaus of the Germans streaming lead after their quarry until they reached the level of the trees. Now the enemy had lost the advantage of height and Collishaw turned to attack. The first German machine, after a short exchange of fire, went out of control and crashed headlong into a tree. Freed from his first adversary he attacked another, which he shot down, and the four remaining machines turned for home. He then flew direct to Ochey and landed safely.
This thrilling combat had taken place in the sight of thousands of the French troops, and it won him his first decoration, for on January 24, 1917, it was announced that he had been awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French.
Two days after Christmas, 1916, Collishaw’s flying career very nearly came to an abrupt end while he was escorting the bombers on a raid against the factories at Burbach. On the return journey
he had a desperate encounter with a Fokker, and during a long running fight, in which both machines were badly damaged, his engine was put out of action by machine-gun fire and he barely succeeded in gliding behind his own lines near Nancy when his machine was completely wrecked.
He continued to escort the bombing machines on similar raids until February 1, 1917, when he was transferred to No. 3 Naval Squadron which was then operating near Cambrai more than one hundred and fifty miles to the north. For the next two months he saw considerable fighting but did not succeed in destroying another enemy machine until March 4. That afternoon, while escorting two slowmoving F.E. 2 B.’s which were observing for the British artillery over Hermies, he was attacked by three German scouts. One of the three carried his dive too far and got below Collishaw who in a flash was on his tail, and the first burst of fire sent the German machine spinning to the earth for his fourth victory.
IN APRIL, 1917, he was transferred to No. 10 Naval Squadron at Dunkirk which operated along the coast and with the fleet, and on April 28 had his first serious engagement on this new part of the front. While on patrol that morning he observe^ a British seaplane stranded off the shore near Ostend and circled over it to ward off hostile machines until help could arrive by water. Presently he saw four German scouts diving to attack the seaplane. Diving at almost the same moment he met them on the way down and a running fight followed, during which he singled out one of the enemy and getting just above and behind emptied nearly a whole drum of ammunition into its fuselage. So close had he been and so deadly his fire that the German machine broke up in the air and the wreckage fell on the beach near Ostend. He then turned to attack one of the remaining machines, but they had had enough and flew away. Before long a patrol boat arrived to help the stranded seaplane, which soon after was able to take off unmolested and return safely home.
Three days later he won his sixth victory while on an offensive patrol behind the German trenches near the coast. Over the important railway junction of Cortemarck, about ten miles behind the lines and fifteen from the coast, his flight encountered a large formation of Albatross scouts. Collishaw singled out one of the enemy, and becoming separated from the rest, engaged in a running fight which ended over Zarren where he shot down the German machine in flames.
On May 2 and May 5 Collishaw accompanied offensive patrols over historic Bruges, where great workshops were established for repairing, refitting and equipping submarines beyond the range of shell fire from the British battleships. Zeebrugge was ten miles away and Ostend fifteen, and submarines moved along the canals to and from these ports safe except from the air. During these patrols he had many fights, as several German squadrons were stationed near Bruges to drive off attacking machines from the all-important submarine base; but although he fired thousands of rounds and had thousands of rounds fired at him nothing decisive occurred during those flights. The squadron did, however, on both occasions succeed in flying low over the submarine basin, dropping many bombs and getting valuable photographs from which they were able from day to day to keep in touch with the enemy’s activity and plan future raids.
His seventh victory came on May 10, when with a flight of five machines he flew up the coast to Ostend, then inland behind the German trenches as far as Dixmude where they met three Halberstadt scouts. The German machines dived east to avoid a fight, but Collishaw overtook one of them after a ten-mile chase near Zarren and shot it down in flames, the wreckage falling only a short distance away from the spot where his sixth victim had gone down ten days before. In each case the fight was clearly seen by his whole flight.
TWO days later he had his second flight over the sea and added another victory to his list. Early on the morning of May 12, his flight of the 10th Naval Squadron received instructions to escort the fleet which was on its way to bombard Zeebrugge. It will be remembered that Zeebrugge was by far the most important German submarine base and from time to time some of the largest ships of the Grand Fleet systematically bombarded the basin and the canal itself where several submarines were usually at anchor. These flights escorting the fleet were of the greatest importance as they not only protected the ships from hostile aircraft, but also were able to detect submarines, which could be seen from the air before they were even near the surface.
It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic picture than that which the naval
airmen saw at such times. Hovering far above the fleet they would see the great ships suddenly belching smoke as they came within range, and then miles away would see the terrifying explosion of the huge twelveand fifteen-inch shells. Immediately puffs of smoke would dot the shore as the land batteries opened fire, and great waterspouts would rise where their shots fell in the sea. During the bombardment on May 12 two German seaplanes attempted to fly over the fleet, but were immediately attacked and driven off. Collishaw pursued one of them down the coast as far as Ostend, the observer in the German seaplane keeping up a steady fire from the rear gun in an effort to hold off the attacking machine until they could land. Down they went lower and lower until only fifty feet above the Ostend Basin and it looked as if the Germans would reach the surface of the water safely when Collishaw succeeded at last in hitting the pilot or damaging his machine and it turned over and crashed headlong into the water.
'"PHIS was his last victory over the sea for nearly seven months. After a few more days of activity with numerous indecisive combats along the coast and behind the trenches he was moved south to Droglandt and attached to the 11th Wing of the Royal Flying Corps. He had already won a reputation as a fighting pilot of unusual skill, and fighters were needed for the scout squadrons which were entrusted with the task of clearing the air of German machines prior to the great British attack on the formidable Messines Ridge which was to be launched on June 7. Troops were being concentrated from Kemmel Hill south to Ploegsteert Wood in tremendous numbers and it was imperative that German airmen should not have an opportunity of observing the feverish activity behind the British lines.
This was Collishaw’s first experience with a scout squadron whose main purpose was fighting. At Ochey, on the Somme, and at Dunkirk his real work was to protect other machines or in some cases the ships of the battle fleet, but now his work was fighting German machines wherever they could be found in the air, and the next two months were the most active of his whole career, no less than twenty-nine enemy planes falling under his guns from May 30 to July 27. He was given command of a flight of the 210 Squadon which was a naval squadron operating with the Royal Flying Corps, and thus had his first real opportunity of displaying the qualities of leadership which so distinguished his service toward the end of the war.
His first fight with the new squadron came on May 30. He was leading his flight of five scouts behind the German lines when they encountered a similar number of hostile aircraft headed for the British side. Collishaw gave the signal to attack and himself picked out the leader. Manoeuvring for position at tremendous speed, neither having the advantage of height, each had several shots at the other machine while they covered miles of territory. At last Collishaw got above the German and after a long burst from his twin Vickers it broke up in the air and the wreckage fell into Messines. This was his ninth victory, and although there were many with more to their credit it gave him a unique record which probably no other pilot at that time shared, for this twenty-three year old Canadian had shot down machines over the sea, on land near the coast, at Messines just to the south of the famous Ypres Salient, on the Somme, and far south almost at the Swiss frontier. Few airmen at any time during the war covered so wide a field.
Editor's Note: This is the first of three articles on Lt.-Col. Collishaw by Major Drew. The second will appear in an early issue.