|B Flight RFC No 7 Squadron 1918|
|The Raid on Haubourdin Airfield|
The British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the primary air arm of the United Kingdom during World War One. The other air arm was the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) belonging, obviously, to the Royal Navy. This was, mind you, before there was such a thing as an aircraft carrier.
On the first of April 1918, the RFC and the RNAS merged to create the Royal Air Force (RAF) which we are familiar with from World War Two and, of course, down to today. Both services (pre-April 1918) produced a number of outstanding aviators from throughout the British Commonwealth. Here are some of my favorites.
|Air Marshal William Avery "Billy" Bishop|
72 Aerial Victories
1894 - 1956
The top scoring RFC pilot was, oddly enough, Canadian.
In November 1916 after receiving his wings, Bishop was attached to No. 37 Squadron RFC at Sutton's Farm, Essex flying the BE.2c. Bishop disliked the flying at night over London, searching for German airships, and he soon requested a transfer to France.
On 17 March 1917, Bishop arrived at 60 Squadron at Filescamp Farm near Arras, where he flew the Nieuport 17 fighter. At that time, the average life expectancy of a new pilot in that sector was 11 days, and German aces were shooting down British aircraft 5 to 1. Bishop's first patrol on 22 March was less than successful. He had trouble controlling his run-down aircraft, was nearly shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and became separated from his group. On 24 March, after crash landing his aircraft during a practice flight in front of General John Higgins, Bishop was ordered to return to flight school at Upavon. But before he could leave, Major Alan Scott, new commander of 60 Squadron, convinced Higgins to let him stay until a replacement arrived. The next day Bishop claimed his first victory when his was one of four Nieuports that engaged three Albatros D.III Scouts near St Leger. Bishop shot down and mortally wounded a Leutnant Theiller, (although Shores (1991) has 12-kill ace Theiller as being killed vs 70 Squadron Sopwiths on 24 March; therefore this claim does not match with known losses) but his engine failed in the process. He landed in No Man's Land 300 yards from the German front line. After running to the Allied trenches, Bishop spent the night on the ground in a rainstorm. There Bishop wrote a letter home, starting:"I am writing this from a dugout 300 yards from our front line, after the most exciting adventure of my life." General Higgins personally congratulated Bishop, and rescinded his order to return to flight school. On 30 March 1917, Bishop was named a flight commander. The next day he scored his second victory. Bishop, in addition to the usual patrols with his squadron comrades, soon flew many unofficial "lone-wolf" missions deep into enemy territory, with the blessing of Major Scott. As a result, his total of enemy aircraft shot down increased rapidly. On 8 April he scored his fifth victory and became an ace. To celebrate, Bishop's mechanic painted the aircraft's nose blue, the mark of an ace. Former 60 Squadron member Captain Albert Ball, at that time the Empire's highest scoring ace, had had a red spinner fitted.
Bishop's no-hold-barred style of flying always had him "at the front of the pack," leading his pilots into battle over hostile territory. Bishop soon realized that this could eventually see him shot down; after one patrol, a mechanic counted 210 bullet holes in his aircraft. His new method of using the surprise attack proved successful; he claimed 12 aircraft in April alone, winning the Military Cross and a promotion to Captain for his participation at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The successes of Bishop and his blue-nosed aircraft were noticed on the German side, and they began referring to him as "Hell's Handmaiden". Ernst Udet called him "the greatest English scouting ace" and one Jasta had a bounty on his head.
On 30 April, Bishop survived an encounter with Jasta 11 and Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. In May, Bishop won the Distinguished Service Order for shooting down two aircraft while being attacked by four others.
On 2 June 1917, Bishop flew a solo mission behind enemy lines to attack a German-held aerodrome, where he claimed that he shot down three aircraft that were taking off to attack him and destroyed several more on the ground. For this feat, he was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), although it has been suggested that he may have embellished his success. His VC was one of two awarded in violation of the warrant requiring witnesses (the other being the Unknown Soldier), and since the German records have been lost and the archived papers relating to the VC were lost as well, there is no way of confirming whether there were any witnesses. It seemed to be common practice at this time to allow Bishop to claim victories without requiring confirmation or verification from other witnesses.
In July, 60 Squadron received new Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s, a faster more powerful aircraft with better pilot visibility. In August 1917 Bishop passed the late Albert Ball in victories to become (temporarily) the highest scoring ace in the RFC and the third top ace of WW1, second only to René Fonck and third to the Red Baron. Soon after he was informed he had won the Victoria Cross for his June attack on the German aerodrome.
|Billy Bishop in the Cockpit of His SE-5a|
|Air Vice Marshal Raymond Collishaw|
61 Aerial Victories
1893 - 1976
The man tied for second place on the aces list for the Commonwealth is, again Canadian.
Air Vice Marshal Raymond Collishaw CB, DSO & Bar, OBE, DSC, DFC, RAF (22 November 1893 – 28 September 1976) was a distinguished Canadian fighter pilot, squadron leader, and commanding officer who served in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and later the Royal Air Force. He was the highest scoring RNAS flying ace and the second highest scoring Canadian pilot of the First World War. He was noted as a great leader in the air, leading many of his own formations into battle. As a member of the RAF during the Second World War, he commanded No. 204 Group (which later became the Desert Air Force) in North Africa.
Collishaw's first recorded victory came while he was flying escort on the Wing's first large-scale raid into Germany, on October 12th, 1916. The raid was against the Mauser Rifle Factory at Oberndorf, Germany. The bombers had nearly reached their target when they were attacked by six German Fokkers. Collishaw got into position to allow his observer to fire on one, and he evidently damaged it. Lt. Collishaw then turned, gained height, and fired a burst with the front gun. The Fokker dived out of control, and, according to the British crews, crashed to the ground, a total wreck. According to the German authorities, they lost no aircraft during the engagement, but it was not unheard of for combatants to attribute their losses to accident rather than enemy action.
|Major Edward "Mick" Mannock|
61 Aerial Victories
1887 - 1918
Killed in Action at 31 Years Old
Major Edward Corringham "Mick" Mannock VC DSO MC (24 May 1887 – 26 July 1918) was a British First World War flying ace. Mannock was probably born in Ireland, but of English and Scottish parentage.
Mannock went into combat on the Western Front on three separate combat tours. Although initially a social misfit suspected of cowardice in his first assignment to 40 Squadron, he began to accumulate victories. He took on the highly hazardous task of balloon busting for his first aerial victory, and by dogged concentration on his gunnery skills, tallied 15 victories by the end of his first combat tour.
After two months back in England, he returned to France as a Flight Commander in the fledgling 74 Squadron. He amassed 36 more victories between 12 April and 17 June 1918. He also gained a reputation for ruthless hatred of his German adversaries, delighting in burning them to death. He became phobic about burning to death in midair. The stresses of combat began to tell on him. He also became ill with a lingering case of influenza. When ordered home on leave in June, he wept.
He returned as Officer Commanding of 85 Squadron in July 1918; he would score nine more victories that month. By now, his phobias had spread to include excessive tidiness. He also had presentiments of his coming end. Just days after warning fellow ace George McElroy about the deadly hazards of flying low into ground fire, Mannock did just that on 26 July 1918. His fighter plane was set on fire, and he was killed in action.
He was one of the world's first theorists of aviation tactics, and was renowned for his prudent but aggressive leadership in the air. By the time he rose to command of 85 Squadron, his subordinates boasted that he never lost a wingman.
Mannock won the Military Cross twice, was one of the rare three-time winners of the Distinguished Service Order, and would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He is regarded as one of the greatest fighter pilots of the war.
|Major James Thomas Byford "Mac" McCudden|
58 Aerial Victories
1895 - 1918
Dead at 23 Years Old
James Thomas Byford McCudden VC, DSO & Bar, MC & Bar, MM (28 March 1895 – 9 July 1918) was an English recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valor in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. With his six British medals and one French one, McCudden received more medals for gallantry than any other airman of British nationality serving in the First World War. He was also one of the longest serving, having joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1913. McCudden's story is all the more remarkable as he rose through the RFC ranks (from Air Mechanic to Major) during the war to become one of the most decorated and honored soldiers of the conflict. At his death he had amassed 57 victories, making him the seventh highest scoring ace of World War I.
He was killed in a simple accident, of a type more typical of beginner pilots than someone of his experience and proven skill.
McCudden was one of the first truly 'professional' airmen, who applied a scientific approach to air combat. McCudden took great pains over his guns, aircraft, and tactics, dismissing choices of last resort such as deliberately crashing a plane into the enemy.
Using his knowledge as a mechanic, he tuned his aircraft to give it an additional 4000 ft altitude ceiling. This resulted in him specialising in carefully stalking high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, leading to an unsurpassed total of captured enemy aircraft (21 fell within Allied lines). Some of these stalking techniques are described in McCudden's autobiography, entitled "Flying Fury - Five Years In the RFC".
|Captain Albert Ball|
44 Aerial Victories
1896 - 1917
Killed in Action at 20 Years Old
|Captain Ball's Nieuport 17|
On the evening of 7 May 1917, near Douai, 11 British aircraft from No. 56 Squadron led by Ball in an S.E.5 encountered German fighters from Jasta 11. A running dogfight in deteriorating visibility resulted, and the aircraft became scattered. Cecil Arthur Lewis, a participant in this fight, described it in his memoir Sagittarius Rising. Ball was last seen by fellow pilots pursuing the red Albatros D.III of the Red Baron's younger brother, Lothar von Richthofen, who eventually landed near Annoeullin with a punctured fuel tank. Cyril Crowe observed Ball flying into a dark thundercloud. A German pilot officer on the ground, Lieutenant Hailer, then saw Ball's plane falling upside-down from the bottom of the cloud, at an altitude of 200 feet (61 m), with a dead prop. Brothers Franz and Carl Hailer and the other two men in their party were from a German reconnaissance unit, Flieger-Abteilung A292. Franz Hailer noted, "It was leaving a cloud of black smoke ... caused by oil leaking into the cylinders." The engine had to be inverted for this to happen. The Hispano engine was known to flood its inlet manifold with fuel when upside down and then quit running. Franz Hailer and his three companions hurried to the crash site. Ball was already dead when they arrived. The four German airmen agreed that the crashed craft had suffered no battle damage. No bullet wounds were found on Ball's body, even though Hailer went through Ball's clothing to find identification. Hailer also took Ball to a field hospital. A German doctor subsequently described a broken back and a crushed chest, along with fractured limbs.
The Germans credited Richthofen with shooting down Ball; however there is some doubt as to what happened, especially as Richthofen's claim was for a Sopwith Triplane, not an S.E.5, which was a biplane. Given the amount of propaganda the German high command generated touting the younger Richthofen, a high-level decision may have been taken to attribute Ball's death to him. It is probable that Ball was not shot down at all, but had become disoriented and lost control during his final combat, the victim of a form of temporary vertigo that has claimed other pilots. Ball's squadron harbored hopes that he was a prisoner of war, and the British government officially listed him as "missing" on 18 May. There was much speculation in the press; in France, the Havas news agency reported: "Albert Ball, the star of aviators ... has been missing since the 7th May. Is he a prisoner or has he been killed? If he is dead, he died fighting for his forty-fifth victory." It was only at the end of the month that the Germans dropped messages behind Allied lines announcing that Ball was dead, and had been buried in Annoeullin with full military honours two days after he crashed. Over the grave of the man they dubbed "the English Richthofen", the Germans erected a cross bearing the inscription In Luftkampf gefallen für sein Vaterland Engl. Flieger Hauptmann Albert Ball, Royal Flying Corps ("Fallen in air combat for his fatherland English pilot Captain Albert Ball").
Ball's death was reported worldwide in the press. He was lauded as the "wonder boy of the Flying Corps" in Britain's Weekly Dispatch, the "'Ace' of English 'Aces'" in Portugal, the "heroe aviador" in South America, and the "super-airman" in France. On 7 June 1917, the London Gazette announced that he had received the Croix de Chevalier, Legion d'Honneur from the French government. The following day, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions from 25 April to 6 May 1917. On 10 June 1917, a memorial service was held for Ball in the centre of Nottingham at St Mary's Church, with large crowds paying tribute as the procession of mourners passed by. Among those attending were Ball's father Albert, Sr. and brother Cyril, now also a pilot in the RFC; his mother Harriett, overwhelmed with grief, was not present. Ball was posthumously promoted to captain on 15 June. His Victoria Cross was presented to his parents by King George V on 22 July 1917. The following year he was awarded a special medal by the Aero Club of America.
In 1918, Walter A. Briscoe and H. Russell Stannard released a seminal biography, Captain Ball VC, reprinting many of Ball's letters and prefaced with encomiums by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, and Major General Sir Hugh Trenchard. Lloyd George wrote that "What he says in one of his letters, 'I hate this game, but it is the only thing one must do just now', represents, I believe, the conviction of those vast armies who, realising what is at stake, have risked all and endured all that liberty may be saved". Haig spoke of Ball's "unrivalled courage" and his "example and incentive to those who have taken up his work". In Trenchard's opinion, Ball had "a wonderfully well-balanced brain, and his loss to the Flying Corps was the greatest loss it could sustain at that time".Captain Ball is one of my favorite aces, I had a model of his SE-5A as a young boy. That aircraft has always been a favorite. (Yes, Pungo has one, see below.)
In the book proper, Briscoe and Stannard quote Ball's most notable opponent, Manfred von Richthofen. The Red Baron, who believed in his younger brother's victory award, considered Ball "by far the best English flying man". Elsewhere in the book, an unidentified Royal Flying Corps pilot who flew with Ball in his last engagement, was quoted as saying, "I see they have given him the V.C. Of course he won it a dozen times over—the whole squadron knows that." The authors themselves described the story of Ball's life as that of "a young knight of gentle manner who learnt to fly and to kill at a time when all the world was killing ... saddened by the great tragedy that had come into the world and made him a terrible instrument of Death".
|The Last Flight of Captain Ball|
by Norman G. Arnold
WWI Postcard Illustration
|Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Rodney Park|
20 Aerial Victories
1892 - 1975
For during the Battle of Britain, Sir Keith commanded No. 11 Group of RAF Fighter Command, the lads with responsibilities for this area of England -
That's right, London and the area of England immediately across from France. Where the bulk of the Luftwaffe's attacks fell. That story was told here (and of course many other places as well, in books and in film).
He also commanded the air defenses of Malta during the bitter struggle for air superiority over that vital piece of real estate. So he was a hero in two world wars, very impressive accomplishments!
One of my heroes as well!
|Air Chief Marshal Park during WWII|
The Victoria Cross
|The Victoria Cross|
The United Kingdom's Highest Military Decoration
Awarded for Valor in the "Face of the Enemy"
Equivalent to the Medal of Honor
|Your Humble Scribe and one of his favorite aircraft, the SE-5A.|
(At Pungo, of course!)