Canada’s Fighting Airmen FOUR: BISHOP SCALES THE HEIGHTS
An amazing record: During his last 12 days at the front, Bishop destroyed 25 enemy planes
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
WHEN Bishop rejoined his squadron late in May, 1917, he found a new and exacting task facing the scouts. After the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line the artillery on both sides required continual assistance from the air force in ranging their guns on the vital points within their new zones of fire. This was trying work for the artillery observation machines which were bound to “carry on” in spite of frequent attacks by the scouts and a severe shelling by the anti-aircraft guns whenever they approached the enemy lines. It was also trying work for the scouts.
Owing to the certainty of their being attacked, the observation machines almost invariably flew very low and in groups. To attack them it was necessary for the scouts to dash across the lines through a maze of bursting shells and down to heights which wtre not favorable for their fast machines and where they met the added unpleasantness of machine-gun fire from the ground. This would be repeated several times every morning. It was hard and dangerous work but usually only occupied the mornings, as the sun faced the Germans in the afternoon which made observation difficult.
A Seven to One Duel
V^THEN not attacking the artillery observation * * machines, Bishop was as busy as ever over the lines and destroyed three more of the enemy before the end of May. He was now planning an expedition which he had contemplated for some time, having decided to make a single-handed attack on a German aerodrome at, dawn in the hope of surprising the enemy as they were preparing to take off for the morning’s work. He finally chose June 2 for this extremely hazardous adventure.
He rose before sunrise and just as the first light of dawn w7as brightening the sky, he was speeding over the enemy lines. He flew straight to the aerodrome he had decided to attack but, when he reached it, was disappointed to find no sign of life. He had, however, come too far to give up without an effort and he turned his machine to the south-east in the hope of finding a target. About three miles from the first aerodrome he came to another, but this time the scene was very different. Passing over it at about three hundred feet he saw seven machines out of their hangars with busy groups of mechanics getting them ready for flight. Several of the machines already had their engines running.
He swooped down, raking the length of the aerodrome with his bullets as he passed over. When he turned he saw that one of the enemy was “taxiing” along the ground and about to take off. This was the very chance for which he had waited and often imagined while planning the flight. With his greater speed he was soon immediately above and behind the rising plane and a short burst of fifteen rounds was enough to send it crashing back to the ground. As he turned back toward the aerodrome he found another machine had just taken off. This time he fired thirty rounds at a range of one hundred and fifty yards and the German aeroplane crashed into a tree near the aerodrome. As he turned back again he found two of the machines in the air. He had now lost the advantage of height but he did not hesitate to continue the fight. He attacked one of these machines at a height of 1000 feet, finishing his drum of ammunition into it before it crashed close to its aerodrome. He then placed a fresh drum of ammunition in his gun and attacked the fourth machine finishing the whole drum before he flew away.
During all the time that Bishop had been flying back and forth over the aerodrome he had been subjected to terrific fire from machine-guns on the ground in addition to that which he faced from the machines in the air and his faithful Nieuport was literally riddled with bullets. When he finally turned for home he still was far from safety, for his own aerodrome was a good twenty miles away and his machine and engine had been under a severe strain. For some time he was followed by four enemy scouts which flew directly over him but to his surprise they did not attack and he landed without further incident.
This daring exploit won for Bishop the greatest of all decorations for valor, the Victoria Cross. The significance of this award may be realized when it is remembered that of the sixteen thousand Canadians who served with such distinction in the Royal Air Force or its predecessors, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, only two others, Barker and McLeod, were awarded the V.C. Bishop was the first Canadian airman who wore the dull crimson ribbon which means so much to those who served in France in any branch of the service.
The public announcement of the award, which did not appear until more than two months later, for once lost some of the cold official brevity which characterized most of the British citations for bravery.
“London Gazette No. 30228 11th August, 1917.
“His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officer:—
Captain William Avery Bishop, D.S.O., M.C., Canadian Cavalry and Royal Flying Corps.
“For most conspicuous bravery, determination and skill.
“Captain Bishop, who had been sent out to work independently, flew first of all to an enemy aerodrome; finding no machines about, he flew on to another aerodrome about three miles south-east, which was at least twelve miles the other side of the line. Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground. He attacked these from about fifty feet, and a mechanic, who was starting one of the engines, was seen to fall. One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of sixty feet Captain Bishop fired fifteen rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground.
“A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired thirty rounds at 150 yards range, and it fell into a tree.
“Two more machines then rose from the aerodrome. One of these he engaged at the height of 1,000 feet, emptying the rest of his drum of ammunition. This machine crashed 300 yards from the aerodrome, after which Captain Bishop emptied a whole drum into the fourth hostile machine, and then flew back to his station.
“Four hostile scouts were about 1000 feet above him for about a mile of his return journey, but they would not attack.
“His machine was very badly shot about by machine-gun fire from the ground.”
The Coming of the S.E.5’s
IT WAS six days later, on the eighth of June, before he won his next victory, although he had been in numerous fights in the meantime. The Germans were employing a new formation which often trapped inexperienced pilots. Six machines would fly together in three layers of two machines each, with perhaps three or four thousand feet between each layer. If either of the lower layers was attacked the machines would dive down and usually catch the enemy, who was most concerned with the fight on hand, completely by surprise. Bishop spotted one of these layer flights and climbed carefully above the top pair getting “on the tail” of one of them before they were aware of any danger. After a few rounds the German went into a spinning nosedive and crashed far below.
All through the summer Bishop was fighting almost every day and sometimes many times a day, but the fights were so similar to those already described that there is no occasion to review them in detail.
From the beginning of the war, superiority in fighting machines had see-sawed from one side to the other. At first the airmen engaged each other with rifles and revolvers. Then some enterprising British observers began strapping machine-guns —usually against orders—on their none too stable craft and for a while were able to make some show of real fighting. When the Germans developed really efficient mountings for their guns, the British had a very poor time until they were similarly equipped. And so on it went. In the latter part of 1916, the British had faster machines and almost drove the Germans from the sky. Early in 1917, however, the tide turned when the Albatrosses were able to show their heels to the Nieuports. In July of 1917 the tide turned once more when the fighting squadrons received the new S.E.5 which was perhaps twenty-five miles an hour faster than the Nieuport.
The 60th Squadron received their new machines in the latter part of July. Like the Albatross they mounted two machineguns which, quite apart from the greater speed, gave them a marked advantage over the Nieuport with its single gun. This inspired added confidence and fighting spirit in the pilots, and Bishop’s victories began to mount even faster than before.
Bishop was undoubtedly one of the greatest aerial marksmen of the war. He was a wonderful shot with a rifle before he took up aviation, and this, with constant practice at the petit Bosche, developed a deadly accuracy which became more and more infallible as the months passed by. It was, therefore, not surprising that he received orders late in August to return to England to act as an instructor at the School of Air Craft Gunnery.
When he returned to England in August, 1917, he already had a remarkable record. He had destroyed fortyseven enemy aeroplanes and several balloons, had driven down many more with which he was not officially credited, as there was no absolute proof of their destruction, had numberless narrow escapes including a fall of 4000 feet with his machine in flames, and wore on his breast the ribbons of the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross—a distinction which had been conferred on no other Canadian hitherto. His record of forty-seven machines also placed him in the forefront of living British airmen, as Ball had been killed in the spring and McCudden had not yet reached the peak of his record of more than fifty.
Yet Another Honor
HORTLY after his return to England, he attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace when King George pinned on his breast the three decorations for bravery which he had won. A week later he was promoted to the rank of major and heard that he had been awarded a bar to the Distinguished Service Order which was equivalent to a second award of the same decoration. The citation accompanying the official announcement indicates that the recommendation for this award was made only a few days before he left France, as at the time of the recommendation he is shown to have destroyed forty-five machines.
“War Office, 26th September, 1917 “His Majesty the King has been pleased to confer the undermentioned reward for gallantry and distinguished service in the field.
“Awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order.
“Captain William Avery Bishop, V.C., D.S.O., M.C., Canadian
Cavalry and Royal Flying Corps.
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when engaging hostile aircraft. His consistent dash and great fearlessness have set a magnificent example to the pilots of his squadron. He has destroyed no fewer than forty-five hostile machines within the past five months, frequently attacking enemy formations single-handed, and on all occasions displaying a fighting spirit and determination to get to close quarters with his opponents, which have earned the admiration of all in contact with him.”
No higher words of praise could possibly be written than the simple declaration by the traditionally conservative War Office that this young Canadian had on all occasions displayed a fighting spirit and determination to get to close quarters with his opponents, which had earned the admiration of all in contact with him.
A few days after his promotion to the rank of Major and the award of the bar to the Distinguished Service Order he received word that he had been granted leave to visit Canada and on September 27 he arrived in Toronto where he received a tumultuous civic welcome.
Back in Canada
HIS visit to Canada was scarcely leave in the usual sense of the word. He was continually before the public and his presence in person provided a tremendous stimulus to recruiting for the rapidly growing training-centres of the Royal Flying Corps which had sprung up in Canada in the preceding few months under the direction of the Imperial Munitions Board. Young men and boys, scarcely of military age, saw before them an amiable youth of twenty-three who, after less than six months with a fighting squadron, had risen from Lieutenant to the rank of major, wore on his breast the three premier officers’ decorations for valor, and now had more machines to his credit than any living aviator in the Allied armies, as Guynemeyer had been killed on September 11 after being officially credited with fifty-three victories. They saw before them in life the sort of fanciful hero usually only encountered in books of adventure of the type made popular by G. A. Henty, and they rushed to join this service which gave young men such unbelievable opportunity for promotion and honor.
After spending little more than a week with his family in Owen Sound he visited the Royal Military College at Kingston where he had been a cadet when the war began and naturally received an enthusiastic welcome. Following this he attended several public functions and, on October 14, assisted in launching a great Red Cross Society campaign for funds when he appeared on the platform at Massey Hall, Toronto, with Lord Northcliffe and spoke briefly to the immense gathering which filled the hall. A few days later he was married to Miss Margaret Burden, of Toronto, a niece of Sir John Eaton.
He continued to appear at various gatherings and occasionally to do a little flying which aroused considerable public interest, as people realized that the machine which they saw flying gracefully above them carried the greatest living British aviator. Early in 1918, he returned to England and joined the School of Aircraft Gunnery to which he had been attached. He continued to perform valuable services in an instructional capacity until he again had the chance to demonstrate his extraordinary fighting spirit and deadly marksmanship when he was attached to the 85th Squadron on May 22, 1918, and proceeded to the front for the third time.
The great German offensives of the spring of 1918 were in full swing. The first two attacks of the Kaiserbattle which Ludendorff was confident would bring peace and victory for Germany, had driven the British back from Kemmel on the north and on the Somme. In this mighty battle the air force was taking a heavy share. Once more the observation machines were continually at work registering the guns and this was even more exacting than before, because on one hand the number of guns had increased and on the other hand both sides had far more fighting machines than before. For a while Bishop’s work was part of the general routine which the close co-operation that now existed between the airmen and the land forces imposed upon the scouts, but after the British line became fairly well established and the work of the air force resumed its more normal rôle, he started on a carnival of destruction which has no parallel in the annals of aviation.
Twenty-Five Victories in Twelve Days
HE WAS only in France about four weeks on this final visit to the front and while he had many encounters from the beginning, in the last twelve days he seemed to go fighting mad, and the official citation accompanying the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross tells a story of indomitable courage, fighting spirit and sheer flying skill, beside which even the most daring of the post-war flights seem comparatively uneventful.
“London Gazette No. 30827 3rd August, 1918.
“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
Capt. (temp. Maj.) William Avery BISHOP, V.C., D.S.O., M.C., (formerly Canadian Cavalry).
“A most successful and fearless fighter in the air, whose acts of outstanding bravery have already been recognized by the awards of the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order, Bar to the Distinguished Order and Military Cross.
“For the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross now conferred upon him he has rendered signally valuable services in personally destroying twentyfive enemy machines in twelve days—five of which he destroyed on the last day of his service at the front.
“The total number of machines destroyed by this distinguished officer is seventy-two and his value as a moral factor to the Royal Air Force cannot be overestimated.”
It is difficult to visualize what this brief official summary really means. In twelve days Bishop had destroyed four more machine^ than Rickenbacker, the leading American pilot, did in the whole of his five months at the front. On his last day in France, as many of the enemy fell under his guns as were brought down by the whole of the Royal Flying Corps in the first month of the war. The record of seventy-two machines, which no airman then living had equaled, did not include a very large number which had been driven down but not seen to crash, and there can be no doubt that many of these were also destroyed. Nor did it include several observation balloons brought down in flames. With these facts in mind one understands how full of meaning was the frank official statement that “his value as a moral factor to the Royal Air Force cannot be overestimated.
Perhaps nothing more vividly emphasizes the phenomenal development of aviation during the war than a comparison of the above citation with a quotation from Sir John French’s first official dispatch on September 7, 1914. “I wish particularly to bring to your Lordships’ notice the admirable work done by the Royal Flying Corps under Sir David Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance has been beyond all praise. They have furnished me with most complete and accurate information, which has been of incalculable value in the conduct of operations. Fired at constantly by friend and foe, and not hesitating to fly in every kind of weather, they have remained undaunted throughout. Further, by actually fighting in the air, they have succeeded m destroying five of the enemy’s machines.”
It was a long cry from that day to the spring of 1918 when Richthofen s mighty circus of some sixty skilled fighters flew in one devastating swarm and it could be recorded that one airman in the face of such a menace had destroyed twenty-five enemy machines in twelve days. The war in the air had changed vastly in those four years. There was little similarity between the fleet, powerful aircraft of 1918 which often engaged each other at 20,000 feet and the first army machines as described by Major J. T. B. McCudden. “About the 22 August, 1914, a strange aeroplane flew over us at about 4,000 feet, and the aerodrome look-out reported it to be a German machine, the first we had seen in the war. We all turned out armed with rifles, and about six machines got ready to go up in pursuit. All the ma-. chines which went up were loaded with, hand-grenades, as the intention then was to bring a hostile aeroplane down by dropping bombs on it.”
Development in aircraft having kept pace fairly evenly on both sides, the ever increasing number of machines with their continual improvements in offensive equipment greatly increased the danger. Bishop’s survival, unscratched, through those wild days of June, 1918, is therefore all the more remarkable.
Bishop was appointed to the staff of the Air Ministry in June, 1918. About this time it was decided to form a separate Canadian branch of the Royal Air Force and with the organization of this force in view he was transferred to Canadian Headquarters on August 5, 1918. Although plans had been completed, the Canadian Air Force did not come into actual existence before the Armistice, and Bishop therefore saw no more service at the front.
In the meantime he had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and on November 2, 1918, the London Gazette contained the following announcement.
“The undermentioned officer of the Royal Air Force has been awarded the Decorations specified, in recognition of distinguished services rendered :—
Conferred by the Government of the French Republic.
Croix de Chevalier, Legion of Honour.
Croix de Guerre with Palm.
“Lieutenant-Colonel William Avery Bishop, V.C., D.S.O., M.C., D.F.C., Canadian Cavalry and Aviation Service.”
Thus when the war ended, Bishop at the age of twenty-four was a LieutenantColonel, and had been awarded practically every decoration for valor conferred by the British and French Governments.
After the war he returned to Canada and in partnership with LieutenantColonel William G. Barker, V.C., D.S.O., M.C., formed one of the first commercial aviation companies in this country. In addition to local flights they established a passenger service between Toronto and Muskoka but the Canadian public was not yet convinced of the security of this form of travel and the results proved disappointing. They discontinued the service and Bishop went to England where he has been in business ever since.
“Unprecedented Examples of Courage”
THIS brief story of Bishop’s career is far from complete but enough has been told to show what vivid pages Bishop and other Canadians wrote into the record of courage and adventure in the greatest of all wars. The official history of the Royal Air Force is not yet written beyond the summer of 1916. When itiscompleted, new facts will doubtless be brought to light and new names added to the select company of Britain’s fighting airmen, but in the meantime it is well that Canadians should know and remember such facts as are available. With a story of courage such as this, and the remarkable records of other native-born Canadians such as Barker, Collishaw, McLaren, McKeever, McLeod and many others, Canadians have a background of great achievement in the air which should be an inspiration for áll time.
Perhaps no finer words have been written of the brave youths of all nations who joined this new fighting service than those of a German, Von Gessler. They are well worth quoting, not only for the splendid sentiment they express, but also as a fitting conclusion to this short history of Bishop’s fighting career, since they show so clearly the international recognition of his high place among the greatest airmen of the war.
“History will provide few examples of greater courage and self-sacrifice than that written into the annals of the World War by the daring spirits of all sides who followed their duties and found their fate in the air. They fought in an element new to war; they accepted and braved dangers unknown before; they were the young, the quick, and the keen of all who fought, and admiration for their deeds is non-partisan.
“Into the strife they brought the high ideal of chivalry. Their solicitude for a fallen foe that had won their admiration was almost the same as for a fallen friend.
Their deeds have won for them the respect of all who admire sterling valor.
“They came from homes of all countries that participated in the struggle. From the French came Fonck, Guynemeyer and Nungesser. From the British came Bishop, Ball and Hawker. From America came Rickenbacker and his comrades who had succeeded him in the French and British services.
“From our own ranks came Immelmann, Boelcke, and Richthofen, and to Germans their names will always remain dear as the names and deeds of French, British, and American flying aces will always stand out in the records of their own countries.
“But bigger than the national fame that these heroes, friend and foe alike, won as patriots to conflicting causes is the growing international recognition of their achievements, not as partisans, but as men who gave to the world new and unprecedented examples of the highest form of physical and moral courage. Respect for human qualities of this high order knows no frontier.”
The sincerity of these words was proved about a year ago when Bishop was the guest of honor at a gathering of German aces in Berlin and was made an honorary member of their association. Germans have been similarly received in London. In each case sincere tribute was paid to the courage and achievements of former enemies. “Respect for human qualities of this high order knows no frontier.”
Editor's Note—And so concludes the story of Bishop. The next phase of Major Drew’s series on “Canada’s Fighting Airmen” will commence in an early issue.