Canada's Fighting Airmen
Shot down out of control! Capture missed by a hair! Crashed ! His goggles shot from his eyes ! His plane repeatedly riddled ! And still Collishaw kept on flying
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
FOURTEEN : COLLISHAW GETS HIS SQUADRON
COLLISHAW began the month of July, 1917, with twenty-five German machines to his credit, and on July 2 another was added to his list during a general engagement over Poelcapelle, when his flight of black triplanes met a formation of two-seater Aviatiks. Diving at the leading machine he opened fire, but came so close that it was necessary for him to turn sharply away in order to avoid a collision. Having missed the first machine, he attacked the second, which after his first burst of fire, went down out of control. The German machine turned over, went into a spinning nose-dive, and crashed near Poelcapelle Station.
The next day he added another. After several indecisive fights over Courtrai with a German patrol of twenty-one scouts, he succeeded in breaking up the formation, and attacking one of the enemy machines got close enough to rip it to pieces with the stream of bullets from his two guns. It broke up in the air and fell near Menin.
On returning to his aerodrome that afternoon, he learhed that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his outstanding service between June 10 and 24.
The British were at this time preparing for the next step of the Flanders offensive. Day by day, new batteries were brought into position. These required to be ranged by observation machines. This called for everincreasing activity on the part of the scouts, and from dawn until dusk they were almost continuously in the air, protecting their own machines and driving off any German scouts which might attempt to cross the British line. During July, Collishaw added victories to his list with almost monotonous regularity. It is quite impossible in the space available to go into the details of each of these fights, but in reading the brief summary in which the victory seems so simple, it must not be forgotten that he was frequently engaged with pilots from the squadron led by Baron von Richthofen himself, and also that for every decisive victory he probably had at least twenty engagements during which hundreds of rounds would be exchanged, many of which would pass through the wings and bodies of the machines.
A Ceaseless Round of Battle
ON JULY 6 he shot down two more German planes, and raised his total to twenty-nine. The first of these victories came during a patrol which he led across the line at six o’clock in the morning. Just over the trenches he observed an enemy scout firing at one of the British machines which was observing for the artillery. He followed the German down, and before it could reach its quarry he attacked and sent it down completely out of control. This machine was seen by all the members of his patrol to crash near Menin. Later in the day he had one of the bitterest engagements of his career. He was leading his flight of all-black triplanes over Messines when they encountered fifteen of the fast new Albatross biplanes. He and his four companions, who were all Canadians, immediately gave battle and a wild fight followed. The first machine which Collishaw attacked went down in flames near Deulemont, just south of Warneton. This was seen to crash by all the members of his patrol. He then attacked in turn five other enemy scouts, sending each of them down out of control, but all were so busy fighting that none of the other pilots saw any of these machines crash, and Collishaw got official credit only for the first which he had shot down in flames.
On July 7 he raised his total to thirty. At five in the morning his flight of black machines again met some of the red Albatrosses, probably from Richthofen’s squadron. Collishaw closed to within ten yards of the leader before opening fire. His first burst sent the enemy machine down completely out of control, and it crashed just west of Menin.
On July 11 he destroyed another Albatross scout near Moorslede. His patrol had attacked a formation of two-seater Aviatiks, and they were in turn attacked by a large formation of Albatross scouts. Turning sharply, he came up underneath one of the enemy’s machines, and so deadly was his fire that the Albatross went to pieces in the air.
On July 12 he shot down two more and raised his total to thirty-three. Both his victims that day were Albatross scouts.
The first he shot down near Polygon Wood, and the second later in the day near Menin.
A Charmed Life
JT WAS impossible that he could go through so many fights without his machine being seriously hit from time to time, and on July 15 it looked as though his luck had at last deserted him. His miraculous escapes had become a byword in the squadron. Shortly after he arrived in France, during a bombing raid on the Mauser rifle factory, which put that important cog in the German machine out of business for some weeks, he was shot down on the return journey by a Fokker scout and barely succeeded in crossing his own lines before crashing at Nancy.
On another occasion when he was flying a new machine to his aerodrome in a heavy fog, he mistook a German aerodrome for one of his own and actually touched his wheels to the ground before he saw black crosses on the machines drawn up along the landing field.
He succeeded in getting into the air when the Germans who had rushed out to take him prisoner were only a few feet away from his landing.
On another occasion his engine was disabled by a machine-gun bullet from the German lines, and he barely managed to reach his own trenches before coming to earth. In his marly fights, thousands of bullets had passed through his machine, and on one occasion his goggles were shattered by enemy fire. But on July 15 he experienced for the first time the unpleasant sensation of going down completely out of control.
During a fight over Polygon Wood with several Pfalz scouts he heard the peculiar flac, flac, flac of bullets hitting his machine, and suddenly realized that he was unable to control its flight. Down he went with practically no control over his machine, and during the ensuing minutes must have gone through an agony of suspense as the machine fell closer and closer to the ground. He could see that he was going to land very close to the trenches, but on which side it was impossible to say. Fortunately, his machine crashed on a very even keel in the British front line trenches, but although it was completely wrecked he was not even bruised.
Going up after that nerve-racking experience must have been a severe test on any man’s spirit, but he crossed the lines again in a new machine at five o’clock the following morning and by six o’clock was once more engaged with enemy fighters far beyond the German line.
On July 17 his all-black flight met a formation of thirty Albatross scouts over Polygon Wood. They were outnumbered six to one, but did not hesitate to give battle. This was probably Richthofen’s new fighting unit, as it was just about that time he organized the famous “Circus”—a combination of several squadrons flying under one leader—in an effort to break the British air supremacy. Shortly after the fight began Collishaw became separated from his companions. In a single-handed fight with three of the enemy machines he was again shot down out of control, and this time crashed into the British trenches just south of St. Julien. Once more he escaped without a scratch.
Wytschaete and Passchendaele
"PATE seemed determined to end his
fighting career, but Collishaw accepted the challenge, and in spite of being shot down twice in three days, he added another victory to his list on July 20. At five o’clock in the morning he was leading his five black machines on an offensive patrol to Roulers, when they were attacked by twenty German scouts. During the general engagement which followed, Collishaw singled out one of the enemy’s machines, and after a short fight sent it down in flames, and it was seen to crash just west of Menin.
On the following day he added another during a general engagement near Passchendaele. Then he finished his fighting for the summer of 1917 with a double victory on July 27. The Germans were aware of the impending attack which was, in fact, only four days away, and following the British lead they sought to demoralize the morale of the British infantry by sending low-flying machines above the infantry, raking them with machine-gun fire. Collishaw with his famous all-black flight was detailed on a special mission to drive off these lowflying machines before they could reach the British lines. Early in the morning they attacked an enemy formation which was approaching the trenches from the direction of Polygon Wood, and after a short fight he broke one up in the air, the wreckage falling into the trenches near St. Julien. Later in the day he attacked another formation over Polygon Wood and killed the pilot of one of the German machines. It went straight down with its engine full on from a height of two thousand feet, crashing at terrific speed in the centre of the wood. These two victories raised his total to thirty-seven, and although Collishaw was still almost unknown outside of his squadron, only one British pilot then at the front had more enemy machines to his credit.
After three more days of heavy fighting, Collishaw saw the next attack of the Flanders battle launched at dawn on July 27 when English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh troops advanced over a wide front north of Wytschaete under a curtain of steel from the British guns, completely breaking the German line which had held the Ypres salient so long in its grip. This was not so spectacular as the attack over Messines ridge on June 7, but it was just as far-reaching in its results, and the scouts were in the air all day shooting at the German infantry on the ground wherever they could be seen, and break-
ing up counter-attacks by bomb and machine-gun fire, before they could be launched.
The following day Collishaw was given leave to visit Canada, and he returned home for about two months. Due to the extraordinary secrecy which had surrounded his exploits, scarcely anyone in this country then knew that the young Canadian was already one of the outstanding pilots of the war, and no publicity whatever attended his visit. After a little more than a month spent quietly with his family at Nanaimo, he returned to the front, and on November 21, 1917, was appointed to Command No. 13 Naval Squadron, which was operating from Dunkirk along the coast with the fleet.
Back to the Sea
"LJE MUST have left the famous all-
-*■ black flight with considerable regret, for during the months of June and July alone, while he was building up such an enviable record for himself, the flight of five Canadians whom he commanded brought down the amazing total of eighty-seven German airplanes. The new work, however, gave ample opportunity to display his skill, and the duties of his squadron were of the utmost importance.
The greatly intensified German submarine campaign had become a very serious menace to the British, and units of the Grand Fleet bombarded the two submarine stations of Zeebrugge and Ostend at increasingly frequent intervals. The duties of No. 13 Naval Squadron before and during these bombardments were twofold. It was the duty of the airmen to protect the fleet from attacking airplanes, and also to watch for enemy submarines which could be seen so much more easily from the air than from the ships themselves. Their second duty was to protect the observation machines which controlled the fire of the ships by wireless. These observation machines, flying above the place which was being shelled, directed the fire of the guns on important points of the enemy’s defense, and particularly on the basin at the end of the canal where his submarines lay. A third duty, independent of the operation of the fleet, was to attack by bomb from the air the submarines themselves which lay in harbor and the workshops nearby which were used for repairing them.
Collishaw’s first fight, after assuming command of his new squadron, came on November 30 while escorting the fleet which was bombarding Zeebrugge. Four enemy seaplanes attacked the British observation machine over the Zeebrugge pier, and Collishaw’s flight drove them off, but without any decisive results. Then on December 1 he won his thirty-eighth victory while leading an offensive patrol to Zeebrugge. Just before reaching their objective, they were attacked by three German seaplanes at a height of 4,000 feet. He attacked the leading enemy machine and after a brief fight succeeded in getting on its tail, and a short burst of fire sent it crashing into the water near the famous mole. This was his first victory over the water since May 13, when he had driven another German down in a similar fight over the Ostend Basin. On December 4 he was escorting the fleet again in the bombardment of Ostend when five enemy scouts came out from the shore and flew low over the fleet. Collishaw and his flight immediately pursued them, but were unable to gain any decisive result although they succeeded in chasing them to the shore near Ostend. On December 9 he added his next victory while leading an offensive patrol alcng the coast. He observed an enemy two-seater over Nieuport and succeeded in overtaking it near Middelkerke, where he sent it down in flames. This was his thirty-ninth and last victory for 1917.
“All Guns Jammed”
DURING January, 1918, the weather was bitterly cold, and the raw north winds over the sea made flying particularly unpleasant. How unpleasant these conditions were is well illustrated by an experience which he had in the first week of January. The fleet on this occasion was bombarding Zeebrugge, and his flight was protecting an observation machine which was controlling the fire. Presently a large formation of German scouts appeared and flew as if to attack the observation machine. Collishaw in turn led his flight to attack the German scouts, but when he pulled the trigger to fire his gun he found that it was hopelessly jammed, the oil having become congealed by the severe cold. Before the remainder of his flight could attack, the German machines had turned away, showing little apparent desire to fight. Seeing that he might demoralize his flight if he withdrew to fix his gun, Collishaw remained with them, and each time the German formation returned he led his machines to the attack. For some reason, however, the German machines would not accept battle, and each time as the British flew toward them would turn away. When the bombardment was completed no she * had been exchanged. Landing after their return flight of some thirty miles, Collishaw told the other members of his squadron what had happened to his gun and was amazed to find that every gun in the whole patrol was in the same condition. Each pilot thought that his was the only one so affected and was relying on the others. As it happened, not one of their machines could have returned the fire if any of the Germans had been anxious to fight but their unintentional bluff proved highly successful.
On January 14, during a bombardment of Ostend, Collishaw attacked a seaplane which was flying out toward the fleet and shot it down completely out of control. It crashed on the shore near Ostend.
On January 18, he had his last fight over the sea during the war, and on January 23 was appointed commander of No. 3 Naval Squadron, which was a fighting squadron similar to the 210th with which he had fought during the summer of 1917. This squadron, which became the 203rd Squadron of the R.A.F. when the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were combined in the Royal Air Force during the summer of 1918, was one of the bestknown fighting squadrons on the front, and ended the war with the second highest total of enemy machines to its credit.
T-TIS duties as squadron leader restricted his flying considerably, and it was not until June that he destroyed another German machine. During that anxious spring of 1918, when it seemed for a time that Germany might win, he was busy with administrative details and did not cross the lines nearly so often as in the past, but early in the summer he commenced a period of almost continuous fighting which did not end until a few days before the close of the war.
On June 8 he encountered a new type of observation machine known as an L.V.G. He killed the observer with his first burst, then closed in and sent the machine down in a spinning nose-dive. It was seen to crash near Wancourt and he was credited with his forty-first victory. After two more days of heavy fighting he added his forty-second and forty-third on June 11. While on an offensive patrol he met a formation of Pfalz scouts. He attacked and singled out one of the enemy machines. In spite of the great speed of the Pfalz he was able to outmanoeuvre it, and after a short engagement succeeded in shooting
away the wings on one side and it fell in pieces. Sometime later, on the same patrol, he encountered another Pfalz scout and shot it down completely out of control close to the spot where he had destroyed the first one.
Of his forty-three victories to that time it is remarkable to read in the records that so many of his victims broke up in the air. No more dramatic picture can be imagined than that of two machines circling about each other thousands of feet up, the rat-tat-tat of their guns bearing evidence of the deadly nature of their business, when suddenly a wing or some other vital part crumples up or falls away from one of the machines and it drops at frightful speed, crashing to the earth. The frequency with which this occurred in Collishaw’s battles proves, above everything else, the amazing accuracy of his fire. When that steady eye lined the sights on a target, two vicious streams of lead literally tore his enemy to pieces. As with Bishop, Barker, and all the other great Canadian fighters, it was an almost uncanny accuracy with his guns which brought him safely and successfully through so many furious encounters.
In a Death Grip
UNN JUNE 15 he shot down his 44th victim over Ervillers and on June 26 his 45th near Bussy. Both were Fokker scouts, so that very few of his rapidly growing list of victories represented “cold meat” in the form of bombers and observation machines.
On June 30 he dived from the clouds to attack a D.F.W. over Meteren and was in turn attacked by one of the fast Pfalz fighters. He turned his attention to the latter and after a running fight lasting nearly twenty-five minutes shot it down completely out of control.
The next victory, his 47th, came four days later. He started north by himself on the afternoon of July 4 and over Ypres engaged six Fokker biplanes at nearly 20,000 feet without decisive result. Then he flew toward the coast, and as he approached Dixmude saw two D.F.W.’s far below him. He dived and attacked the higher of the two. After a short fight it turned over completely out of control, and fell on the lower machine which was flying to its assistance. The two machines locked together in a death-embrace and crashed behind the trenches far below. Although two had been destroyed he received credit only for the one he shot down.
A FEW days later he received word that he had been awarded a fourth decoration, the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation which appeared in the London Gazette on August 3, 1918, discloses the high esteem in which he was held.
“His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to confer the undermentioned reward on Officers of the Royal Air Force, in recognition of gallantry in flying operations against the enemy:—
Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Major Raymond Collishaw,
“This officer is an exceptionally capable and efficient squadron commander, under whose leadership the squadron has maintained a high place in the Army wing. He has carried out numerous solo patrols and led many offensive patrols, on all occasions engaging the enemy with great bravery and fearlessness. Up to date he has accounted for fortyseven enemy machines, twenty-two in the last twelve months.”
Editor’s Note—This is the third of Major Drew’s articles on Colonel Collishaw. The fourth and concluding article will appear in an early issue.