Canada's Fighting Airmen
With sixty victories to his credit, Collishaw ended the war as second ranging British ace
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
FIFTEEN : COLLISHAW—WING COMMANDER
IN JULY, 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were merged in the newly created Royal Air Force, and No. 3 Naval Squadron became No. 203 Squadron, R.A.F. Collishaw retained command of the new squadron with the rank of major. At that time considerably more than half of the pilots in the 203rd Squadron were Canadians, and by the end of the war they all were.
A visitor to the squadrons at the Front was impressed with the striking contrast in uniforms. Those who had been in the Royal Flying Corps wore khaki, while those who had been in the Royal Naval Air Service still wore the dark navy blue. On the other hand the new pilots who came in under the Royal Air Force, wore thë distinctive light blue uniforms which had then been adopted.
Collishaw’s next victories—his forty-eighth and fortyninth—came on July 20. Both his victims that day were D.F.W.’s. The first, which he engaged over Merville, crashed into the canal after a short fight. Only forty minutes later he shot down the second machine at almost exactly the same place. A few days later he added two more during one of the most spectacular exploits of his whole career. His success that day was not a question of chance, but the result of very carefully prepared plans. He and another pilot of his squadron, Captain Rochford, left shortly after four o’clock on the morning of July 22, to attack the German aerodrome at Dorignies. It was still comparatively dark and the visibility was poor, to which was added the fact that the German hangars were painted a dead black. They succeeded however in locating their target without very much difficulty, and as they expected, no machines were yet out at this early hour. They dropped low and bombed the hangars, one of which immediately took fire.
As they swung back to see the results of their attack, the aerodrome was a scene of great activity. Mechanics
had rushed to the burning hangar, and three singleseater Albatrosses were being run out. Five times they dived to attack these machines and the men who were working with them in an effort to get them into the air, and each time they did considerable damage to the machines and wounded many of the men. The whole attack was carried out under the greatest difficulties, as their only light was the flickering illumination from the burning hangar. The fire had now spread, and they could see the living quarters where the German aviators were assembling. These they dispersed, both with machinegun fire and Cooper bombs. At this point a new factor entered into the proceedings, when Collishaw observed one of the enemy’s night-flying bombers returning with full lights on. The German was at a considerable disadvantage, as he was apparently unaware that the British machines were still in the vicinity, and Collishaw could see him clearly by the lights which he carried, while he himself was comparatively invisible in the dull morning light. His> first attack was successful, and the German two-seater crashed to the ground, adding to the scene of confusion by immediately bursting into flames.
Having done all the damage they could at the aerodrome, they turned for home, but a few hundred yards away discovered a horse-drawn transport moving along one of the roads toward the front. This they attacked from about fifty feet, and thewholetransportstampeded Then they attacked some troops at a railroad station
which they passed, many of whom were seen to fall, and finally reached their own aerodrome at 5.45 a.m.
Collishaw returned alone later in the morning to see how much damage had been done to the German aerodrome, and after having satisfied himself of the extent of the destruction had started for home, when he was attacked by three Albatross Scouts. The Germans, thinking he was attempting to escape, pursued him as far as the British lines, but all the time he had been manoeuvring for position, and suddenly turned and attacked the leader. Down it went, completely out of control, and crashed near the River Scarpe. For these daring and successful expeditions, which raised his total to fifty-one, he was awarded his fourth decoration, a bar to the Distinguished Service Order.
London Gazette No. 30913 Air Ministry,
21st September, 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 A BAR TO THE DISTINGUISHEE SERVICE ORDER
Major Raymond Collishaw, D.S.O., D.S.C., D.F.C., (late R.N.A.S.)
A brilliant squadron leader of exceptional daring, who has destroyed.fifty-one enemy machines. Early one morning he, with another pilot, attacked an enemy aerodrome. Seeing three machines brought out of a burning hangar he dived five times, firing bursts at these from a very low altitude, and dropped bombs on the living quarters. He then saw an enemy airplane descending over the aerodrome; he attacked it and drove it down in flames. Later, when returning from a reconnaissance of the damaged hangars, he was attacked by three Albatross Scouts, who pursued him to our lines, when he turned and attacked one, which fell out of control and crashed.
(D.S.O. gazetted 11th August, 1917; D.S.C. gazetted 20th July, 1917; D.F.C. gazetted 3rd August, 1918.)
On August 8, the British opened their great offensive at Amiens, and Collishaw, with the other members of his squadron, was continuously engaged attacking troops on the ground, and breaking up enemy counter-attacks. The following day, while doing this work, he encountered a D.F.W. over Hinges. He attacked and fired a long burst at close range. The enemy machine went into a nosedive, and crashed just north of Locon. The next day he added his fifty-third and fiftyfourth.
The new Fokker biplane, which had just appeared, was considerably the best fighting machine which the Germans produced during the whole war, and some of the most severe fighting of his long service came during the remaining weeks at the front.
The 1918 Counter-Offensive
CAN THE evening of August 10 he was on an offensive patrol when he observed a Fokker biplane succeed in shooting down one of the new Sopwith Dolphins which were the latest British fighters. He attacked it just above Bray, and after a short fight the enemy went down out of control and crashed on the south bank of the Somme River. Then he turned and attacked another which had arrived on the scene, and also shot it down. Both these victories were confirmed by the patrol of No. 22 Squadron, which had seen the fight. Once more he had a forced landing, bullets having damaged his motor, but he succeeded in gliding to the landing field of No. 65 Squadron.
On September 5, he shot down his fifty-fifth and fifty-sixth machines. Early in the morning, while flying over Bourlon Wood, he observed a Fokker biplane about to attack a British observation balloon. He dived on the enemy machine and opened fire before it could do any damage to the balloon. A deadly burst at close quarters sent the enemy down in a nosedive behind the British lines. It crashed near Inchy en Artois, and burned on the ground. Later in the day he shot down another Fokker in flames behind the German lines, for his fifty-sixth victory.
It was nearly three weeks before he added another machine to his list, and again he won a double victory. During that time, while the British were rolling up the German divisions in front of them, the
airmen were flying low over the enemy’s troops and contributing by machine guns and bombs to the general confusion of the retreat. On September 24, while on a lowflying patrol far behind the enemy lines, they were attacked by four of the new Fokker biplanes. The Fokker was superior to the Sopwith Camel which Collishaw was flying, but once more it was a case of experience against inexperience. Collishaw and his two companions dived for their own lines as if to escape, the Germans following in hot pursuit. Suddenly they banked sharply, and before the Germans were aware of the manoeuvre, the British machines were above and behind them and had completely reversed the position. In the short fight which followed Collishaw shot down two of the Fokkers for his fifty-seventh and fiftyeighth victories.
Wiping Out An Aerodrome
rT"'WO days later he led his whole squadron on a massed attack against the German aerodrome at Lieu St. Amand. This was one of the largest aerodromes on the front, and the attack was carried out jointly with the 40th Squadron.
Collishaw led his fourteen Camels across the line toward Lieu St. Amand at one o’clock in the afternoon of a bright September day. Each machine carried a number of small bombs, and when the squadron reached the enemy aerodrome, they dropped to a height of fifty feet and bombed all the hangars. Two large hangars at the north end of the aerodrome caught fire and burned fiercely. Another hangar in the southwest corner caught fire, and a fourth in the southeast corner was badly damaged by the explosions. Near it two large living huts took fire, and suddenly a great flame rose as though a gasoline storage tank had been struck. It appeared impossible to the pilots of the two squadrons whose combined efforts caused this destruction that any machines in the hangars could possibly have survived. Collishaw saw about twenty men running from the living quarters toward the town for shelter, and attacked these with machinegun fire, killing many of them. At the same time another officer of the squadron, Lieutenant Woodhouse, attacked a formation of about fifty German cavalry, which he saw moving toward the front on a road nearby, many of the horses and riders being seen to fall under his machine-gun fire,. In the meantime a Fokker biplane had risen from the ground at the western aerodrome, and Collishaw, diving at it as it rose, shot it down in flames. Another Fokker which arrived on the scene was shot down by Captain Breakey of the 203rd Squadron.
By this time all the hangars, workshops and living quarters were on fire, so Collishaw re-formed his squadron and led it home. On the way back they were attacked by a formation of fifteen Fokkers and a general engagement then took place among the clouds. During the fight that followed Collishaw shot down one of the Fokkers, which was seen by the whole squadron to crash in flames about two miles west of Lieu St. Amand. Some impression of the damage done may be gathered from the fact that during the attack the 203rd Squadron alone dropped 102 bombs and fired over 7,000 rounds of machine-gun ammunition.
' I 'HESE two victories, which raised Collishaw’s total to sixty, were his last in France. After a few days more of heavy fighting and low-flying attacks on the enemy infantry, he returned to England to take part in the organization of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and was still in England when the Armistice was signed a few weeks later.
During this time in England Collishaw had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and this was the rank he held at the end of the war. He came to Canada on leave late in December. After a short visit to his home, he returned to England for the purpose of bringing out one of the super-Handley-Page machines, with which he intended to attempt a flight of the Atlantic from Newfoundland in April. The machine chosen for the flight was one of the large Handley-Pages, specially built for the squadron commanded by another Canadian, Colonel R. H. Mulock, for the purpose of bombing Berlin. As will be remembered, several of these machines were ready at the end of the war, and only the Armistice saved the German capital from an attack from the air.
To the Russian Front
ALL Collishaw’s plans, however, were ■*changed upon his arrival in England. It was still thought possible that the loyal Russian troops might be reorganized sufficiently to overthrow the Bolshevik regime. Kolchak, at this time, commanded a force in East Russia; Gregoroff commanded another group near Odessa; and in South Russia Dènikin commanded a considerable force which seemed to have the greatest prospect of success. It was decided to send a British squadron to Denikin’s support, and on his arrival in England, Collishaw, who was then twenty-seven, was offered the command.
Collishaw with sixty victories to his credit, stood second only to Bishop among all the British pilots living or dead, and might well have been contented with the work he had already done, but the possibility of further service proved too interesting and he immediately gave up the idea of attempting to fly the Atlantic, and shortly afterward led his new squadron to the South Russian front. It was really more than a squadron which he commanded as there were three flights of fast single-seater scouts, and three flights of D.H.G. bombers of the best pattern. Of sixty-two flying officers under his command, fifty-three were Canadians, so that it might well be considered almost a Canadian unit.
Shortly after his arrival, Collishaw shot down the first machine ever destroyed on the South Russian front. He was somewhat surprised by the skill displayed by his opponent, but upon examination of the wreckage which fell on the bank of the Volga River, discovered that it was a D5 Albatross which had been flown by a German pilot. Evidently the British were not the only airmen who had been led to that front by the spirit of adventure.
A letter to a Toronto friend a short time afterward vividly described the sort of experience through which he and his brother officers were going. “A few days ago,” he wrote, “we were out on a show attacking a flock of Red cavalry, and one of my chaps named Elliott, flying at 500 feet, was shot down about six miles beyond the line. Neither he nor his observer was hurt. The observer kept the
cavalry off with his Lewis gun until the pilot set the machine on fire. Then, carrying the Lewis gun, the two started away, keeping the cavalry at a respectful distance.
“Captain Anderson, another Canadian, landed nearby amid the enemy cavalry, he and his observer scattering them with their machine-gun fire.
“Elliott and his observer then set off to join the second pair, clearing the way with their Lewis gun. The Bolshies immediately surrounded the burning machine just as six Cooper bombs went off in it.
“In the meantime a Red bullet had punctured the gas tank of the rescue machine, so the observer climbed out on the wings, and held both holes on each side of the tank with his thumbs. Elliott and his observer got into the observer’s seat, and away they went, four aboard the machine, and got home safely.”
Later in the same letter, referring to the anger of the Russian aviators on finding British opposite them, he said, “They have dropped pamphlets at different points telling what they are going to do to any British aviators they capture. Crucifixion is one of our threatened fates. But we are not worrying.” Such were the surroundings in which these young Caradians found themselves at a time when the rest of the world had ceased to think of war. Commencing their operations north of the Crimea, where British troops had fought more than half a century before, they moved northwest along the railroad lines, and for a time it seemed that Denikin was likely to succeed.
The experiences of that campaign, so little known to the outside world, formed a dramatic panorama of success and failure. Success continued with them during the long advance to Warsaw itself, and it was only then that the tide of battle turned. Denikin was forced to retreat, and from then on the retreat gradually became a rout, until finally Collishaw and his companions witnessed a ghastly spectacle when thousands upon thousands of refugees lined the shores of the Black Sea, waiting for ships to take them to Constantinople and other southern points. Collishaw had crowded into his year in Russia a great deal more experience than most men have in a lifetime, and he enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of the hardships through which at times they had gone. The most interesting of all was the stay of his squadron in Warsaw, the ancient capital of Poland, where for a time they seemed to be entirely away from the atmosphere of war, and enjoyed the pleasures of ordinary civilian life. During that year, while he covered several thousand miles of Russia, he added many more victories to his list, but no official record is available of the number.
The Persian Campaign
T TPON Denikin’s collapse the Forty' seventh Squadron, which Collishaw commanded in Russia, was withdrawn and he proceeded to Egypt to join the Eightyfourth Squadron, which had instructions to proceed to Persia to fight the Bolsheviks, who were causing trouble there. He took command of the new squadron in Egypt, and in the fall of 1920 they flew across Iraq to India, following very much the same route as is now taken by the great mail liners of the Imperial Airways. From India they proceeded to Mesopotamia. There he and his new comrades of the Eighty-fourth Squadron spent some time at historic Kut-el-Amara, visiting the scene of General Townshend’s unfortunate campaign in 1917. Then they proceeded to fabled Bagdad and spent several days there before leaving for Persia by motor.
Writing to a friend in Toronto, shortly after his arrival, he said, “I was glad when I left Bagdad for Persia. Railroads are not known in Persia, so we had to proceed the six hundred miles by road through wonderful mountains and passes, some of them almost 8,000 feet high. During the winter our army has the greatest difficulty in maintaining the passes in a serviceable working condition, for the whole of our food and campaign resources must enter Persia along the only available artery, and one sees thousands of camels and donkeys and mules slowly winding their weary way, packing a nation’s wherewithal from and to the outside world, along this great highway. Before the British came in, it was only a pack trail—now it is a splendid road.
“Persia is situated at a considerable altitude, and, contrary to popular belief, is a very cold country in winter with much snow, and no fuel of any sort available. We maintain our aerodrome landing field in decent condition by using some 500 camels and 700 horses to trample it down after each snow.”
Conditions in Persia at that time were rather serious, as the Bolsheviks were attempting to penetrate the country from the north. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Persia had become a protectorate of Great Britain, and it was therefore necessary for the British to defend the population from the Russians.
Colonel Collishaw was given full command of the operations of the Royal Air Force in Persia. He stationed his aerodrome at Kalvine on the Caspian Sea. As in Russia, his squadron was equipped with the D.H.9 for bombing, and the reliable Sopwith Camel for scouting and low-flying attacks against the Bolshevik troops.
The winter in Persia was at times extremely unpleasant, and his squadron saw much heavy fighting during which many of their best pilots lost their lives. Their small high-powered fighting machines afforded little space for the pilot’s body, and in winter, with the many
wrappings necessary to protect them from the severe cold while patrolling at, perhaps, 20,000 feet, it was an extremely close fit, and left very little room to move. Added to their other dangers were the serious risks involved in flying frequently among the snow-clad mountains of the northern frontier.
Not the least interesting of the experiences which fell to the lot of this young Canadian prince of adventurers was his presentation to the Shah of Persia at Teheran, the capital of the country. The visit was surrounded with considerable ceremony, and during their conversation the Shah sat upon the historic peacock throne taken from Delhi many centuries ago.
TN THE King’s New Year’s Honor List published on January the 3rd, 1921, another decoration was added to those which had recognized his bravery in the air. It was announced that he had been created a Commander of the British Empire for his services in the East, and thereafter he was entitled to add the initials C.B.E. to the many others which already followed his name. In February, 1921, he received word that the British expedition in Persia was to be withdrawn. The spirit of these young Britishers is exemplified by a remark made in a letter which he wrote a few days later: “We are all very anxious to have one more last throw at the Bolsheviks before packing up, for unfortunately we are ordered to leave Persia soon and be back in Mesopotamia by April. I am very sorry, for I have enjoyed myself here very much. It does seem a shame to abandon everything we have done, after spending so much time and effort on what we have achieved.”
In April the Eighty-fourth Squadron returned to Mesopotamia, and spent the
scorching summer months, while the temperature ranged between 110 and 130, in fighting the rebellious Arabs. Finally, after three years of adventure in the East, which added to his service in the Great War gave him a total of more than six years of almost continuous active service, he returned to England, where he continued his work in the Royal Air Force with the rank of Wing Commander.
The Near East, 1929
' I 'HE ensuing eight years have seen an amazing increase in the power and efficiency of all types of aircraft. The speed of the small machines has almost doubled, and as the premier fighting pilot in the world still in the service, Collishaw has taken a very active part in the development of tactics suited to the changed conditions.
When the trouble arose between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine during the summer of 1929, the British found it necessary to intervene, and in suppressing the recalcitrant Arab tribes aircraft assumed an important rôle. It was therefore not surprising to learn that Collishaw was again in the East in command of the Fleet Air Arm operating from H. M. Aircraft-carrier Courageous.
When order had been restored in the Holy Land the Courageous visited Constantinople, and for the first time since its creation the Fleet Air Arm held a great pageant for the benefit of a foreign Power. In the morning of October 18th the Courageous, accompanied by the mighty Queen Elizabeth, passed through the Dardanelles which the latter ship had visited under such tragic circumstances fourteen years before, and steamed at full speed into the sea of Marmora.
One wing of thirty machines took part in the pageant. There were nine torpedo
bombers, nine reconnaissance machines and twelve of the small and extremely fast Fairey Flycatchers. One by one they rose from the deck of the Courageous, and passed over the city at tremendous speed, then separating they carried out the most intricate manoeuvres and aerial acrobatics for nearly an hour under the direction of Wing Commander Collishaw.
The closing event was original and very impressive. After diving low over the Golden Horn and flying in a long line past the Queen Elizabeth, from which Admiral Sir Frederick Field, the Commander-in-Chief, was watching the display, the airplanes reassembled some miles from the city and formed a great crescent with one machine representing the star. Thus picturing in the sky the emblem of the Turkish flag they flew over Constantinople in perfect formation and disappeared over the Asiatic shore on their way back to the Courageous. This compliment to Turkey, which Collishaw had devised, and the skill and precision with which the whole pageant had been conducted aroused the greatest enthusiasm among the vast crowd which was watching, and left a memorable impression of British efficiency in the air.
And so we find this modern D’Artagnan still in the midst of adventure, and whether or not he, too, is finally rewarded with the Marshal’s baton, certain it is that we have not yet heard the last of this brilliant young Canadian. With such a background of achievement and experience there is every reason to hope that Wing Commander Collishaw may some day rise to the highest rank in the increasingly important Royal Air Force.
Editor’s Note—This concludes Major Drew’s series onColonel Collishaw. Further articles on Canada’s Fighting Airmen will appear in early issues.