William ‘Billy Bishop: World War I Canadian Ace Fighter Pilot

6/12/2006 • Aviation History

Major William Avery ‘Billy Bishop was in his element for what he knew would probably be the last time in World War I. The powerful roar of his SE-5a’s Wolseley Viper engine filled his ears. Damp wind buffeted his head and face over the short windscreen. Bishop’s keen blue eyes searched all quadrants for what he desperately hoped would be there, but while the heavy drizzle that had started that morning had abated somewhat, he did not actually expect to meet the Hun today.

Bishop was scheduled to leave the aerodrome at Petit Synthe that same day — June 19, 1918 — at noon, less than a month after he had brought his new command, No. 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), known as the Flying Foxes, to northwest France and 14 months after his first successful combat sortie with No. 60 Squadron. Having promised to lend his support to the formation of a proposed Canadian Air Force, he could hardly argue the point when he was recalled to England. But that did not stop him from being mad as hell during his last sortie. He had written to his wife, Margaret, in London: I’ve never been so furious in my life. It makes me livid with rage to be pulled away just as things are getting started.

In less than six months of actual flying time, Bishop had downed 67 enemy planes. He was proud of his success and had relished the game of collecting victories. He was also enjoying the notoriety his victories brought him in Britain as well as at home in Canada. Bishop was by now the top-scoring ace of the British empire, but in his heart he knew this was it, his last combat flight. What he could not have known that morning of June 19 was that history was about to be made.

A few miles over the lines in enemy territory, Bishop dropped out of the clouds to check his position. It was 9:58 a.m. He recognized the landmark of the Ploegsteert Wood, south of Ypres, and he also immediately identified the three aircraft flying away from him to his left at about 300 yards — Pfalz D.IIIa scouts. This solidly constructed German single-seater carried two Spandau guns internally in the front fuselage and had proved to be a steady platform capable of absorbing a great deal of battle damage. It could be dived harder and faster than the Albatros and had played more than a small part in the revival of German air superiority in the early spring of 1918. Three Pfalzes together were not a threat to be taken lightly.

Having spotted Bishop, the German scouts began to turn, and Bishop followed them. By the time he had drawn a bead on one of the three, they had come halfway around the circle. Suddenly they dived on him, guns blazing. Bishop saw the tracers tear through his lower left wingtip as he got in a short burst himself. The three fighters slipped beneath him. Banking to the left to bring his machine to bear again, Bishop took a quick look behind him. Two more Pfalz scouts were diving on him at high speed. His instinctive glance had probably saved his life.

Now time was of the essence. Deciding to make a quick attack on the original three before the other two could enter the fray, Bishop opened fire quickly from what was for him an unusually long range. One of the three aircraft was struck instantly and its pilot killed. It fell away, out of control. The other two began to climb while the two newcomers, still diving and finally in range, opened fired on the SE-5a. Bishop pulled up into a steep turn, and the two German scouts passed beneath him. Then the two that had been climbing toward the cloud layer collided. Both aircraft disintegrated in a shower of wood, metal and fabric.

Turning his attention to the remaining two Pfalzes now climbing toward the safety of the clouds, Bishop sent tracers into one of them at 200 yards, starting the enemy aircraft spiraling toward the ground, only 1,000 feet below. The fifth Pfalz escaped into the clouds.

With the ceiling down to 900 feet, Bishop continued his patrol somewhere between Neuve Eglise and Ploegsteert. He was beginning to think of returning to base when out of the misty drizzle appeared an outline with which he had become very familiar in recent months — a German two-seater. Without being spotted, he slipped into the blind spot beneath and behind the reconnaissance aircraft and, raising his nose, sent a short burst from both guns into its belly. It shuddered, seemed to hesitate in the air and then fell toward the ground. With the pilot struggling desperately to regain control of the aircraft and the observer slumped lifeless in the rear seat, the two-seater smashed into the ground and went up in flames.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Bishop was alone in the sky again. He hardly realized it at the time, but this had indeed been his finest achievement in the air. During his final sortie he had downed five aircraft in the space of 15 minutes. It was a fitting way to end a remarkable combat flying career.

The young Canadian who would one day become Canada’s ace of aces was born in Owen Sound, a small town in Ontario, on February 8, 1894. Blond, blue-eyed William Avery was the third son in William and Mary Bishop’s family of four children. His father, the Grey County registrar, held conservative views typical of middle-class fathers in the late 19th century. Young Billy became the target of teasing when he was sent to school dressed as a miniature bureaucrat in gray suit and tie, but he quickly learned to stand up for himself — and often for his younger companions. His fists usually did the talking.

Although Billy Bishop did not like team sports such as football and lacrosse, he did enjoy individual pursuits like shooting, riding and swimming. He was handsome, intelligent and charming, but he was always an indifferent student. In fact, he came to hate school, cutting classes in high school to play pool downtown. His teachers rarely succeeded in hiding their low expectations for him. Realizing he would never excel academically, he refused to apply himself to his studies.

Bishop did, however, show great determination to perfect the skills he enjoyed. One of these was shooting. When his father gave him a .22-caliber rifle for Christmas and offered him 25 cents for every squirrel he bagged, Billy — who had a great eye and steady hand — turned his marksmanship into entrepreneurial success at home and throughout his neighborhood. He became a crack shot.

After reading newspaper accounts of the first heavier-than-air flight in Canada (and the British empire) by Canadian John McCurdy in his Silver Dart in 1909, 15-year-old Bishop determined to build his own aircraft. His version of the now famous biplane, crudely constructed from wood, cardboard, wire and strong string, carried him — mostly vertically — from the roof of his family’s Victorian home to crash in a heap on the lawn below. Out of the wreck crawled the irrepressible Billy, slightly injured but not in any way cowed. As it turned out, he would live through many violent landings as a real pilot. In fact, Bishop’s landing skills remained relatively underdeveloped during his whole flying career.

Billy and his younger sister, Louie, were very close. Bribed by Louie to entertain a visiting girlfriend, Bishop secretly checked out the girl he was later to marry through the parlor curtains before agreeing. Margaret Burden, granddaughter of the great Toronto retailer Timothy Eaton, would marry Billy while he was home on leave from the front several years later in 1917. Although he was secretly impressed with Margaret on their first meeting, he charged his sister $5 for his entertainment services.

At age 17, Billy followed his elder brother, Worth, to the Royal Military College (RMC) at Kingston, Ontario, Canada’s equivalent of England’s Sandhurst and America’s West Point. He was following in the footsteps of a brother who had achieved a sterling record there. Having been more or less his own master up to this point in his life, however, the younger Bishop chafed under the strict discipline of the RMC. He also found it hard to accept the standard rough treatment given recruits by upperclassmen. Not surprisingly, his first year at RMC was a flop. His second year went better, but in his third year his resolve deteriorated and things fell apart. Bishop was caught cheating on an exam when he absent-mindedly handed in his crib sheet with his exam paper. He was awaiting word of his punishment, which almost certainly would have been dismissal, when the outbreak of war saved him that embarrassment. Even though his military training was far from complete, he was accepted as an officer in a Toronto militia regiment, the Mississauga Horse. Like future German ace of aces Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, he entered the war as a cavalryman. Before he embarked for England, he proposed to Margaret and she accepted.

As many a military horseman was soon to discover, modern warfare had dramatically reduced the role of the cavalry. The day of the cavalry charge was over. Even reconnaissance on horseback was impossible in the world of trench warfare. The reality, as Bishop soon discovered after arriving in England with his unit — now known as the Canadian Mounted Rifles — was dust and mud, and more dust and mud. He could not decide which was worse.

One rainy day, when Bishop was up to his ankles in mud checking a line of horses, he heard the unmistakable sound of an aircraft engine. Out of the soggy gray sky a nimble scout biplane appeared and set down in a nearby field. The pilot asked directions and then was off, winging his way skyward again. When I turned to slog my way back through the mud, my mind was made up, Bishop later recalled. I was going to meet the enemy in the air.

Bishop completed observer training and, on September 1, 1915, joined No. 21 Squadron Royal Flying Corps (RFC) as a gunner-observer. Since pilot trainees were not needed at the time, he had taken the advice of a friend who told him that, knowing what sort of pilot you’re likely to be, someone else should do the flying.

It was less than a dozen years since the first controlled powered flight by Orville Wright. In those early days of World War I, the role of aircraft was generally limited to ground support through aerial observation. Bishop’s training included wireless transmission in Morse code, dropping hand-held bombs, spotting for artillery and aerial photography. He wrote: They teach you what to observe and what not to observe. This is not a joke. If an observer lets his gaze wander to too many non-essentials he cannot do the real observation that is expected of him.

But flying as an observer in what might have been the worst combat aircraft of the war, the underpowered and ungainly Reconnaissance Experimental No. 7, or RE-7, had not really been what he had had in mind when he transferred from the cavalry. Bishop did not like not being in control. He hated being caught in anti-aircraft fire and was once slightly wounded in the forehead by a piece of anti-aircraft shrapnel. It was little more than a bruise, but if it had struck him harder it could have finished him. Bishop soon found his duty with No. 21 Squadron beginning to grind him down. This sort of flying was dangerous and boring at the same time. In four months’ duty as an observer he never got to fire his gun at an enemy plane.

To top it all off, Bishop was proving to be increasingly accident-prone. He was involved in a truck accident, which shook him severely. Then he was struck in the head by a snapped cable while inspecting his aircraft on the ground and remained unconscious for two days. The most serious incident involved an engine failure on takeoff. The RE-7 he was in crashed, and Bishop’s knee was badly injured. As it turned out, however, this was fortune in disguise. While Bishop was in England recuperating, his squadron was almost completely decimated in the Battle of the Somme. The next time he came to the front it would be as a pilot.

When Bishop returned to England on leave, he fell while disembarking from the Channel boat and re-injured his knee. But even though he was suffering from considerable pain as well as severe physical and emotional exhaustion, he was determined to enjoy the pleasures of London. He resisted getting medical attention until the very last day of his leave. The diagnosis included a cracked knee and a heart murmur, and Bishop was confined to bed rest for an indefinite period.In the hospital he met Lady St. Hellier, a fashionably rich and politically influential widow who saw it as her patriotic duty to visit convalescent servicemen. She looked up Bishop after recognizing the family name. On a trip to Ottawa, St. Hellier had met his father, Will, at a social gathering — a chance encounter that would have a lasting effect on Bishop’s flying career.

When Bishop was allowed to leave the hospital, St. Hellier invited him to continue his recuperation at her mansion in London. Their relationship blossomed. He called her Granny, and she began to introduce him in her influential circles as my grandson. His newfound friend spared no effort to help him.

Possibly through her influence, Bishop was granted indefinite home leave in Canada for health reasons. Back in Owen Sound, he quickly recovered. He gave Margaret an engagement ring but decided to put off the wedding until he was more certain of his future prospects in the RFC. He had decided to become a fighter pilot.

By early September 1916, Bishop was back in England. His hopes of becoming a pilot seemed remote, however, as he was repeatedly rejected as medically unfit. To add insult to injury, all his service records had somehow vanished. But Lady St. Hellier pulled strings, and by November 1, 1916, Bishop was ready for his first flying lesson. At that time, so soon after the beginnings of powered flight, pilot training was anything but a well-defined, formal science. Instruction was by older pilots resting from the battle over France and Flanders or by younger pilots with little more experience than the trainees. The instructors were often reluctant to give their charges hands-on experience in the flimsy and marginally airworthy training aircraft. More casualties occurred in training than on actual missions.

But Bishop survived training and soloed. Once finally alone in the cockpit of a Maurice Farman, he felt lonelier than at any other time in his life. Once in the air, I felt better, he wrote to Margaret that night. I flew as straight ahead as I could….Suddenly an awful thought came to me: sooner or later I would have to get that plane down to earth again.Finally, gathering up all his courage, he pancaked the trainer from eight feet up. Bishop was not disappointed at his first landing, however — he was just happy that the ambulance that had sat, engine running, at his takeoff was not needed. Although he would fly 200 times into danger and return safely, the young Canadian’s landings never really improved very much. The Bishop landing would become a little legend in itself.

After joining a home defense squadron in England for advanced flight training, he made good progress, gaining his wings and the freedom he wanted to pursue a lone war against the enemy. Bishop was posted to No. 37 (Home Defense) Squadron east of London, where he accumulated a good deal of night-flying time, patrolling for the bombers and airships that were doing considerable damage in the city. In his two months in No. 37 Squadron, Bishop never engaged any enemy planes, but he became a better and more confident flier.

Anxious to get into the real war, Bishop applied several times for transfer to the Western Front. After an advanced course in single-seat fighters, he received orders to join No. 60 Squadron, which was then based at Filescamp Farm on the eastern part of Le Hameau aerodrome, 12 miles west of Arras, France. Number 60 Squadron was the top British fighter group on the Western Front and the first squadron to be fully equipped with French-made Nieuport scouts. Bishop was impressed. He had never before seen the beautiful little fighter close up. His arrival preceded by only a few days a major British air offensive on the Western Front.

Bishop flew his first patrol in a Nieuport 17 on March 17, 1917. Powered by a 120-hp Le Rhne rotary engine, the Nieuport was armed with a single .303-inch Lewis machine gun on the upper wing firing forward outside the propeller arc. More maneuverable but slower and more lightly armed than its chief opponent, the Albatros D.III, the little sesquiplane (biplane with a very narrow lower wing) was a potent weapon in the hands of several outstanding Allied aces. Its chief proponents included the Englishman Albert Ball, whom Bishop idolized, and Irishman Edward Mick Mannock. The young Canadian’s first sortie lasted two hours, and although the enemy was sighted, No. 60 Squadron’s pilots were unable to engage him.

Three uneventful patrols followed in the days ahead. Then, on the afternoon of March 25, Bishop was involved in his first dogfight. He was flying fourth in a four-ship flight of Nieuports led by No. 60 Squadron’s New Zealander commander, Captain Alan John Lance Scott. Their patrol climbed through low clouds and mist toward St. Leger. In clear air at 9,000 feet they came upon three Albatros D.IIIs. It all happened very quickly. Attaching himself to the tail of an Albatros, Bishop dived on it, firing tracers and seeing his bullets strike the enemy for the first time. The Albatros turned over and seemed to fall out of control. With surprising savvy for a rookie flier, Bishop followed him down through the clouds. He knew that this could be a ruse. Sure enough, the German pilot leveled out, but Bishop was right on his tail. Opening up again with his Lewis gun from almost point-blank range, he aimed at the fuselage near the pilot.

The Albatros fell away again, with Bishop in hot pursuit. This time, following in a 200-mph dive, Bishop was elated to see his first victory completed when the Albatros crashed nose first into a field. But his exaltation turned to desperation when, as he pulled up abruptly from his dive, his engine coughed and died. The Le Rhne had oiled up, and try as he might, Bishop could not get it restarted. He had lost his bearings during the air battle, and when he saw a village in ruins beneath him and heard the ominous rattle of machine-gun fire, he became convinced that he was over enemy territory.

As he pointed the nose of his now silent Nieuport in the direction of what he hoped was friendly territory, Bishop wondered whether his real flying career — just begun — was about to come to an end. The ground came up quickly to meet him. He picked the only clear line he could see among the shell holes and set the little plane down, rolling roughly to a stop. At least he was still alive. Grabbing the only weapon available, his Very pistol flare gun, he leaped down, sprinted to the first available shell hole and dived in head first. In the next tense moments he saw four figures cautiously approaching his position. To his intense relief they were British soldiers. In an instant my whole life outlook changed, he later related in his book Winged Warfare. He soon learned that his landing site had been in German hands only a few hours before.

April 1917 turned out to be Bishop’s month. Bloody April, as it would come to be known, saw the air war intensify to new levels. Bishop’s No. 60 Squadron and Manfred von Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11 faced off across a narrow no man’s land. By April 7, Bishop had earned his first decoration — the Military Cross — for two victories on that day, a balloon and an Albatros D.III. On April 8, Easter Sunday, Bishop scored five times in 40 minutes. When he got back to Filescamp Farm, his mechanic called for a tin of blue paint. Although personal identification on British aircraft was officially frowned upon, it was allowed in a very few instances. Bishop’s idol, Albert Ball, had painted the cowling of his Nieuport red. Now, in his new position of squadron ace, Bishop’s Nieuport Serial No. B1566 would sport a blue cowling. By the end of the month, even though the overall air war in April had been decisively in the Germans’ favor, Bishop had claimed 20 victories.

By now he flew with such joyful disregard that an awed comrade described him as incapable of fear. He was made a flight leader, and within a month of his first operational flight he was given the freedom to fly his own roving missions on his days off in addition to his normal quota of patrols.

Bishop had found himself as a combat pilot. He was driven to succeed, and he counted his victories with pride. His extraordinary skill in deflection shooting probably had everything to do with the hours he had spent shooting squirrels and leaning over a pool table as a youth. Although Bishop was admittedly a heavy-handed pilot, that very characteristic seemed to give him the advantage in a dogfight, since he flew his little Nieuport and later the SE-5 with a certain sense of abandon. A natural tactician, he maintained that surprise was the most important factor for success in an air battle and did not hesitate to disengage when the element of surprise had been lost.

His victories mounted steadily, and by May 31 Bishop had claimed 29, including two balloons. Always searching for any advantage, he determined that the best time to attack a German would be just at dawn, when — catching the aircraft on the ground — he could attack enemy planes singly as they rose to challenge him. Allied pilots who tried the same tactic in World War II had similar success.

Bishop had planned to accompany Albert Ball on just such an early-morning raid, but Ball — at that point the British empire’s leading ace with 44 victories — was killed on May 7. So, early in the morning of June 2, which was supposed to have been his day off from flying, Bishop set out on what would be his most famous sortie. Taking off in his blue-nosed Nieuport 17 just before 4 a.m., Captain William Avery Bishop would go it alone.

Flying in the faint glow of pre-dawn, Bishop found himself slightly disoriented. He had already dived on a German aerodrome, Estourmel, only to find there was no activity there. Disappointed, Bishop continued flying low as he searched for some other target of opportunity. Then, circling at about 300 feet over the hamlet of Esnes, he spied a group of canvas hangars and six Albatros D.IIIs on the ground — some with their engines running — along with one two-seater. Making a strafing pass at 50 feet, Bishop scattered the men on the ground and then withdrew to the airfield’s perimeter as German machine-gun defenses opened up, holing his aircraft in several places. Doing his best to evade their fire, he waited until an Albatros began its takeoff run. Diving on it from behind, Bishop opened fire just as it lifted off the ground. Immediately the Albatros side-slipped and crashed.

Turning sharply, he caught sight of a second machine just off the ground. I opened fire and fired 30 rounds at 150 yards range, Bishop later recalled. He smashed into a tree. Two more enemy planes were taking off in opposite directions. Climbing to 1,000 feet, Bishop engaged one and downed it. The D.III fell to the ground a few hundred feet from the airfield. Changing the drum on his Lewis gun, Bishop expended a whole drum at the fourth Albatros. Luckily, at the moment I finished my ammunition, he also seemed to have had enough of it, said Bishop, as he turned and flew away. I seized my opportunity, climbed again and started for home.

Bishop’s early-morning solo raid won him even greater recognition and notoriety than he had yet received. His tactics were imitated by other fliers as the war progressed. For his June 2 sortie Bishop received the Victoria Cross, the 10th to be awarded to airmen and the first to a Canadian pilot. But fame had its price. In August, with his score at 47, the young Canadian was removed by General Hugh M. Trenchard from operational flying because he was deemed too valuable to lose; he was sent home to Canada to aid in recruitment.

Bishop did not return to active flying until May 22, 1918, when he came back as the leader of newly formed No. 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force, the Flying Foxes. Number 85 was equipped with the new SE-5a — the first British two-gun, single-seat fighter and some say the best and most sophisticated of all British World War I single-seaters. Almost one-third of Bishop’s aerial victories were achieved in the SE-5a in less than a month, raising his total to 72 — with 12 of them scored during his last four days of active flying.

With his final sortie on June 19, 1918, during which he downed five Pfalz scouts within five minutes, Billy Bishop entered the realm of legend. For succeeding generations, names such as Bishop and Richthofen would inspire awe, admiration and imitation. The century of the ace had begun.

This article was written by Rich Thistle and originally published in the May 1999 issue of Aviation History.

For additional reading, try: Winged Warfare, by Lt. Col. William Avery Bishop; The Courage of the Early Morning, by William Arthur Bishop; and William Avery Billy Bishop, by David Baker.

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