For 70 years, students of the First World War have been taught that Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s famed “Red Baron,” was the most deadly fighter pilot of his time. Richthofen shot down 80 enemy aircraft in his flame-red Fokker triplane—before being gunned down himself in 1918. Now a British researcher has concluded that Richthofen may not have been the top gun after all. Instead, the honor may belong to a Canadian:
Nanaimo, B.C.-born Raymond Collishaw. After collecting copies of Collishaw’s combat records from around the world, researcher Timothy Graves concluded that Collishaw may have downed as many as 81 German planes. That would put him well in front of another Canadian fighter ace, the renowned William Avery (Billy)
Bishop. Until now, Collishaw has been largely overlooked by military historians. Said Graves:
“He really deserved more credit.”
Graves, a 37-year-old civilian administrator for the Royal Navy and an amateur military historian, published his findings in the November issue of the British magazine World War II Investigator, a new monthly military history magazine. In the official records, Collishaw is credited with downing 60 enemy planes, compared with 72 for Bishop and 73 for Edward Mannock, who has been widely accepted as the top British ace of the First World War.
But Graves says that Collishaw may not have received credit for all his so-called kills because of rivalry between the two British air services that operated independently for most of the war. Collishaw flew with the Royal Naval Air Service, while Bishop was a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. Before the two services were amalgamated into the Royal Air Force (RAF) in
1918, writes Graves, naval flyers frequently
got less official credit than flying corps pilots. As a result, he says, Bishop was credited with 72 kills even though only 13 of his claimed victories were witnessed by other pilots, compared with 62 for Collishaw that were witnessed. If both pilots were credited with all the victories that they claimed, writes Graves, Collishaw’s score would be 81.5, while Bishop’s would be 74.5.
Graves’s conclusions are likely to reignite a long-running controversy. Supporters of Bishop, who died in 1956, flew to his defence in 1982 when a National Film Board production, The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss, questioned aspects of his war record. In a book published last month entitled Billy Bishop: Canadian Hero, author Dan McCaffery defends the Bishop legend. After studying Bishop’s logbook, British records and German casualty files, McCaffery credits Bishop with 75 confirmed and five unconfirmed victories.
For his part, Graves said that he did not want to detract from Bishop’s achievements—only to do justice to Collishaw, who rose to the rank of air ^ vice-marshal in the RAF ~ during the Second World I War. Collishaw died in u Vancouver in 1976 at the age of 82. But the debate over his ranking among air aces will probably never be settled. Combat records from the First World War were notoriously unreliable, and some historians say that it is futile to try to establish exactly how many planes a pilot shot down. Said Air Commodore Henry Probert, head of Britain’s air historical branch: “The main thing is that at the end of the day, we won the bloody war.” In the meantime, Graves’s research has focused attention on a Canadian hero whose achievements have long been overlooked.
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