Canada’s Fighting Airmen
Recording the spectacular triumphs of Collishaw’s famous all-black triplane squadron
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
THIRTEEN: DUEL BY TRIPLANE
DURING June and July of 1917 Collishaw established one of the most amazing records of the war when in a period of less than two months he destroyed twenty-nine German airplanes. Only Richthofen exceeded this number over the same period. True, in ten days, in 1918, Bishop shot down twenty-five enemy machines, a mark which was never approached by any other pilot; but the fact remains that in day-in-and-day-out fighting, Collishaw’s record stands first among British airmen. And there was an important difference between his victories and those of the German idol. Richthofen only exceeded the Canadian’s total by one, when in March and April of 1917, he was given credit for the destruction of thirty British planes, but of those thirty only eight were fighting scouts while on the other hand twenty-three of Collishaw’s victories were won against fast, well-armed fighting machines. As has already been pointed out, nearly all of Richthofen’s victories were on his own side of the line, whereas Collishaw won most of his far over enemy territory. One waited like a bird of prey for the slowmoving observation and bombing machines; the other sought the fleet fighters wherever they could be found. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that Collishaw’s twenty-nine victories over that two months period represent a much more remarkable fighting record than the thirty for which Richthofen received credit. Yet strangely enough, while the name of one was ringing around the world and had become something of a legend in his own country, the name of the other was scarcely known even to the British army in France.
His Tenth Victory
TOURING that two months of steady destruction he winged his way daily from dawn till dark over that part of Belgium which is known so well to those Canadians who fought in the historic Ypres Salient. On the morning of June 1 he led his flight across the lines above the old St. Eloi craters. Just behind the German trenches they found a two-seater apparently observing for the enemy artillery. Collishaw dived alone to attack and soon was above the slower machine. Flying cautiously to avoid exposing himself too much to the German observer before he was in position to open fire, he presently saw his opening, and closing to within a few yards pulled the trigger only to find that his guns had jammed. Drawing away out of range of the German machine he quickly cleared the stoppages and again attacked. Again they refused to work. Three times the same thing happened.
Then, just as he was clearing his guns for the third time, a fast Albatross triplane dived at him. Turning quickly he came up underneath the attacking machine and found himself in position to fire. He had turned the tables in a matter of seconds, but it was a moment of tense anxiety. Would his guns work: if not, could he get away?
His sights found their mark and he pressed o n t h e
trigger. A chattering roar answered and his first burst finding some vital spot, the Albatross went down in flames and crashed near St. Julien.
This was his tenth victory. The eleventh came only two days later when, with four other machines of his flight, he met five Albatross scouts over Roubaix. Singling out the leader Collishaw attacked, and after fifty rounds it turned over and fell in flames completely out of control, crashing only a few hundred yards away from the spot where his tenth victim had fallen on June 1. June 4 was a busy day. At seven o’clock he led his flight over the lines, and in a few minutes was engaged over Courtrai with four enemy machines, which they succeeded in driving to the ground after a short fight but without any decisive results. After cruising up and down behind the German trenches for two hours without meeting any of the enemy they returned to their aerodrome. At ten o’clock they were up again, and this time had a fight over St. Julien, but although they pursued the Albatrosses far to the east they were unable to shoot any of them down. At two o’clock Collishaw led another offensive patrol, this time farther to the south, and over the city of Lille encountered a large formation of fast Halberstadt scouts. A wild “dog fight” developed, during which Collishaw singled out one of the enemy and shot it down in flames. This was confirmed by the whole flight and w a s given credit for his twelfth victory. Unlucky “thirteen” fell under his deadly fire the next day.
The Germans were by now aware of the impending attack, and observation machines were doing their best to cross the lines to photograph the area behind the trenches and observe for their guns.
Shortly after six o’clock on the morning of the fifth, Collishaw with the other pilots of “B” Flight, which was beginning to acquire something of a reputation found a twoseater Albatross ob-
servation machine just over the lines near Messines. Collishaw dived at the slower machine, which had little chance against his superior speed and skill, but both the pilot and observer put up a game fight, each firing when the fast British machine came within range. Before very long, however, that steady eye, which had sent more than a dozen Germans to their death, had the vital forward part of the fuselage of the Albatross in the centre of the sights, and a vicious stream of lead from the twin Vickers sent it down in flames over the village of Wervicq. Later in the day his flight had a hot fight with six Albatross scouts over Menin, during which he drove one down and it was seen to fall out of control over Poelcapelle, but as it was not actually observed to crash he was only given credit on the records of the squadron for one victory on the fifth.
JUNE 6 was a red letter day for Collishaw. The attack on the Messines-Wytschaete ridge which had dominated the British trenches in the Ypres salient, which lay immediately to the north, since the early days of the war was to be launched the next morning. The Germans knew the attack was coming within the next few days, and as a result the fighting planes of both sides were out in force. Collishaw fought that day from dawn until dark but the triple victory, which made the day an outstanding one for him, came during his first flight over the lines before seven o’clock. Instead of his own flight, he led the whole squadron on an offensive patrol that morning and immediately above the trenches in front of Messines they met a German squadron of Albatross scouts. A pitched battle ensued, and the infantry of both sides gazed up in awe as nearly forty of the fastest fighters of the two armies thundered back and forth above them, while some eighty machine guns roared their message of death. Such massed battles were still a novel sight for the pilots as well as the spectators, as it was not until the next month that Richthofen organized his famous “Circus.”
Each pilot attempted to pick a particular adversary. Collishaw engaged the leader of the German squadron and after a short fight sent him down in flames, the burning wreckage falling into Messines. He turned just in time to see an Albatross diving at one of his own scouts, which was busily engaged some distance below with another of the enemy. Diving steeply with his throttle wide open, he overtook the German machine and poured a stream of tracers into its fuselage. Down it went in flames, the charred wreckage falling behind the British lines near Ploegsteert Wood. He then attacked a third machine and killed the German pilot. The Albatross turned on its back and was observed to crash at the foot of the hill just east of Messines. The other members of his squadron were pressing the fight vigorously, and the surviving German machines dived east to safety, leaving the 210th to continue their patrol.
These three victories raised his total to sixteen, eight having been added in the last eight days, and won for him his second decoration—the Distinguished Service Cross. This was announced on June 11, and published in the London Gazette on July 20 with the following citation:—
London Gazette No. 30194.
20th July, 1917.
The KING has been graciously pleased to give orders for the following appointments to the Distinguished Service Cross: —
Fit. Lieut. Raymond Collishaw, R.N.A.S.
In recognition of his services on various occasions, especially the following:
On 1st June, 1917, this officer shot down an Albatross Scout in flames.
On 3rd June, 1917, he shot down an Albatross Scout in flames.
On 5th June, 1917, he shot down a two-seater Albatross in flames.
On 6th June, 1917, he shot down two Albatross Scouts in flames and killed the pilot in a third.
He displayed great gallantry and skill in all his combats.
It will be noticed that this brief summary omits to mention the machine destroyed on June 4th, but this was included in his later citations.
The Mines at Messines
JUNE 7 was a day which no one on that part of the Western Front could ever forget. It saw one of the most unique and terrifying spectacles in all the history of warfare. For more than a year British engineers had been driving deep mineshafts far behind the German trenches along the whole length of the MessinesWytschaete ridge, but although the Germans were aware that the British were mining under their trenches they were confident that nothing of any importance could be accomplished in the
The ridge was the key. position to the Flanders plain, and was considered of vital importance by both sides. The Germans had made it a veritable fortress and a frontal attack seemed hopeless. Not even the British Tommies who waited for the word to attack along a wide front dreamed of what was to happen. They must have gazed in the darkness at that towering mass and wondered how it was possible that they should succeed.
But at 3.10 a.m. on June 7, the whole top of the long ridge from Messines to Wytschaete was literally blown away by the greatest explosion ever made by man; that powerful defensive system, built along the crest during the preceding two years disappeared with its large garrison in the twinkling of an eye, and where there had been a long series of almost impregnable strong points was now nothing but a series of great blackened pits still smoking from the vast eruption. At the very moment of the explosion hundreds of British guns opened fire, and under the cover of a tremendous bombardment the infantry swept up the face of the hill. By seven o’clock the whole ridge was in the hands of the British, and the infantry were advancing over the level ground beyond.
The mines which had made this success possible were a remarkable demonstration of British technical skill. There were nineteen separate mines containing over one million pounds of the most destructive explosive known to man. The simultaneous discharge of such an enormous mass of ammonal was something without parallel in mining, and no actual experience existed as a guide to what might be expected, yet the results were almost precisely in accordance with the British plans. Some of the individual craters were nearly four hundred and fifty feet across, and what had been above them had simply ceased to exist.
Over such a ghastly spectacle Collishaw led Squadron 210 as soon as there was enough light to take the air. It was to be another day of intense activity for the airmen. Guns were moving forward and must be ranged by observation machines; German troops in the open must be attacked by machine-gun fire; control of the air must be maintained; and all this meant heavy fighting. They were all in the mood for a fight. They had seen the appalling sheet of flame rise above the whole length of the ridge in the darkness of early morning,1 had felt the earth shudder under their feet, knew that their battalions had been at grips with the enemy for more than two hours before it was light enough to fly, and now they were anxious to take their part.
They had not long to wait. The Germans, too, were out in force and near St. Julien they met twelve Albatross scouts, which were immediately engaged. As on the previous day a bitter “dog fight” developed and several machines went down. During the early stages of the fight Collishaw saw that one of the Albatrosses was on the tail of Flight Sub-Lieutenant Nash’s machine and that Nash was making vain efforts to shake him off. Collishaw, realizing his companion’s plight, immediately attacked and shot the German machine down after a brief exchange of fire, the wreckage falling near Menin. He had destroyed his ninth machine in nine days and raised his total to seventeen.
All that day he flew over the German lines with only brief rests but although he had several fights, none after the first was decisive. The attack of June 7 had been unique, but it was only the beginning of the mighty Flanders battle which ended with the capture of Passchendaele ridge by the Canadians in November.
On June 10 he shot down another Albatross for his eighteenth victory. It also crashed near Menin.
The next day he added his nineteenth. Early in the morning, on an offensive patrol over Polygon Wood at 17,000 feet his patrol met a flight of Halberstadt scouts which, with the Albatrosses, were at that time the best of the German fighting planes. After a short flight the Germans flew away, only to return later and give battle again. The two flights met in this way six times, exchanging thousands of rounds but without decisive results. Finally, Collishaw was forced to lead the squadron home to refuel the machines, and replenish their supply of ammunition. Shortly before noon he again led them on an offensive patrol, and in front of Ypres he observed a two-seater German observation machine. This he immediately attacked and it was observed by his whole flight to break up in the air, the pieces falling just behind the enemy trenches.
Four Victims in One Day
ALTHOUGH he had many fights on June 12, 13 and 14, he did not add another to his mounting list of victories until June 15 when he distinguished himself by shooting down four of the enemy in one day.
Early on the morning of June 15 his flight of five machines met five Halberstadt scouts north of St. Julien. He attacked the leader and in a few minutes was close behind his tail and fired fifty rounds, the tracers ripping through the fuselage near the pilot’s seat. Almost immediately the Halberstadt went down completely out ,of control, falling into Messines.
After several n\ore fights during the day he again led his flight on an offensive patrol at five o’clock and encountered twelve Albatross and Halberstadt scouts in the vicinity of Moorslede. Although outnumbered two to one, he attacked without hesitation, and in the general engagement which followed shot away the two right-hand planes of one of the Halberstadts, which fell hopelessly out of control and crashed just behind the German trenches. He then turned and shot down another out of control, which was seen to crash near his second victim. Later, on the same patrol, while returning over Menin, he observed a two-seater Aviatik evidently observing for the German artillery and immediately attacked, shooting it down in flames.
These four victories on June 15 raised his total to twenty-three, fourteen of which had been in the first fifteen days of June. Almost one enemy machine a day was a record of which any pilot might well be proud, and it meant a great deal more fighting than the same number would indicate for a German pilot. The scouts met almost invariably over the German lines, and enemy machines forced down but not destroyed landed safely, whereas British planes with no more wrong with them were forced to land in enemy territory and counted as a victory to the German pilot engaged. Collishaw’s combat reports show a great many machines forced down out of control which were not credited as victories but which, had the situation been reversed and the fighting done over the British lines, would have been decisive in every instance.
The 210th Naval Squadron was becoming almost as famous on the German side of the line as Richthofen’s all-red Albatrosses were on the British. Squadrons like the 43rd, which Ball had commanded up to his death and with which Bishop was rapidly piling up an impressive total of victories, were not conspicuous in themselves, as they adopted no distinctive coloring and were flying Nieuports or S.E. 5’s similar to those used by all the other British scout squadrons. But the 210th were flying an experimental triplane—the only one ever used by the British at the front—which was very similar in appearance to the Albatross triplane then in use and the Fokker which appeared in August. Afterwards these were discarded for the more serviceable Sopwith biplanes, but for the time being they were a marked squadron, conspicuous by the difference in their machines, and in this well-known squadron Collishaw’s was a conspicuous flight.
The Black Triplanes
"pOLLOWING the lead given by Richthofen in the coloring of his machines, the pilots of “B” flight, who were all Canadians, had painted their triplanes a dead black and had christened them with appropriate names. Its personnel on June 24, 1917, was as follows: Flight Lieutenant Raymond Collishaw, flying “Black Maria,” with twenty-three victories; Flight Sub-Lieutenant Ellis Reid, of Toronto, flying “Black Roger,” with eighteen victories; Flight Sub-Lieutenant J. E. Sharman, flying “Black Death,” with eleven victories; Flight Sub-Lieutenant J. E. Nash, of Hamilton, flying “Black Sheep,” with eight victories; and Flight Sub-Lieutenant M. Alexander, of Toronto, flying “Black Prince,” with six victories. This flight of five young Canadians, all in their early twenties, was one of the most formidable fighting units on the Western Front with a total of sixtysix German planes to their credit. On the same part of the front was Jagdstaffel 11 commanded by Baron Richthofen, and almost daily they met patrols of the brilliantly colored Albatrosses, many of the best German pilots falling in battle under their deadly guns.
On June 24, Collishaw’s flight of black triplanes was escorting two of the new D.H. 4 bombers on a raid, when four of the all-red Albatrosses from Richthofen’s Albatrosses, evidently not seeing the five British machines far above, attacked the bombers. Collishaw gave the signal and down went the black fighters after the red. So intent were the Germans on their expected prey that Collishaw got within twenty-five yards of one of the enemy before opening fire. Then his twin guns poured lead into the red biplane and both of its wings broke off on one side. At the same time it burst into flames and fell, his twenty-first victim, like a great torch into Passchendaele.
C’jN JULY 3 it was announced that he
had been awarded his third decoration—the Distinguished Service Order— for his brilliant fighting between June 10 and 24. The following official announcement appeared in the London Gazette:
London Gazette, No. 30,227.
11th August, 1917.
The KING has been graciously pleased to give orders for the appointment of the undermentioned officer: —
TO BE COMPANION OF THE DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER Flt.-Lieut. Raymond COLLISHAW D.S.C., R.N.A.S.
For conspicuous bravery and skill in successfully leading attacks against hostile aircraft.
Since the 10th June, 1927, Flt.Lieut. Collishaw has himself brought
down four machines completely out of control and driven down two others with their planes shot away.
Whilst on an offensive patrol on the morning of the 15th June, 1917, he forced down a hostile scout in a nose dive. Later, on the same day, he drove down one hostile scout in a nose dive. Later, on the same day, he drove down one hostile two-seater machine completely out of control, one hostile scout in a spin, and a third machine with two of its planes shot away.
On the 24th of June, 1917, he engaged four enemy scouts, driving one down in a spin and another with two of its planes shot away: the latter machine was seen to crash.
A Swift Revenge
^~JN June 26 the all-black quintette suffered its first loss since the new flight had been organized. It was a perfect day for flying and they were looking for trouble when they met Richthofen’s whole squadron. In the fight which followed, the black triplanes became separated and Flight Sub-Lieutenant Nash was attacked by two of the Albatrosses. As it happened, one which was all red carried Baron Von Richthofen himself and the other painted a brilliant green belonged to Lieutenant Karl Allmenroeder, who then stood second to Richthofen in their squadron and had followed his squadron commander’s lead in painting his machine a distinguishing color. After a grim fight Allmenroeder got the upper hand, and a long burst from his Spandaus sent Nash and his “Black Sheep” down to the ground. He crashed near Lille, but by great good luck sustained only very minor injuries and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp. His four companions saw him go down, and until some months later thought he had been killed.
The next afternoon, while Nash lay in a temporary cell waiting to be sent back, he heard the tolling of a near-by church bell. When his guard came in with food he asked him what the bell was tolling for. The guard, who could speak English fairly well, told him that it was the funeral of his late adversary, Lieutenant Allmenroeder, who had been shot down that morning by the leader of the black triplanes over Lille.
Early on the morning of the 27th, Collishaw, Reid, Sharman and Alexander had crossed the lines with more than the ordinary work of the offensive patrol in their minds. They were looking for machines from Richthofen’s squadron and near Courtrai they found them. These were foemen worthy of their steel, and Collishaw chose as his particular opponent the bright green Albatross flown by Allmenroeder, and although it was not until he met Nash again after the war that he learned the identity of his opponent, he soon found that he was fighting someone who knew every trick of the game. Allmenroeder’s victory over Nash before had raised his total to thirty, so each was a seasoned fighter and stood high in the ranks of his country’s flyers. Diving, circling, climbing for position and then diving again, the green triplane and black triplane went through all the movements known to the skilled pilot at tremendous speed, and each in turn roared death at the other more than three miles above the watching troops. Finally, over Lille, Collishaw found his opening and from less than fifty yards his tracers found their mark. Over went the Albatross completely out of control and Collishaw and his companions saw it crash far below. Nash was avenged and Jagdstaffel 11. had lost its second ranking pilot, and Collishaw had won his twentyfifth victory.