Billy Bishop and beyond

Canada produced some of the greatest World War 1 aces

  • Oct. 14, 2014 7:00 a.m.
Billy Bishop

Billy Bishop

Nelson Wyatt/Canadian Press

For a country with a small population, Canada was well-represented among the ranks of the deadliest air aces of the First World War.

Two Canadians — Billy Bishop and Raymond Collishaw — are among the top 10 scorers overall. Three of the 10 are Germans, with Manfred von Richthofen, the fabled Red Baron, leading everyone with 80 victories.

Dozens of other Canadians became aces, with five or more victories. Other notable Canadians include Donald MacLaren, William Barker and Roy Brown. Brown is known mainly for the controversy surrounding his downing of Richthofen. Canada insists Brown fired the fatal shots. Australia says some of their infantry felled the ace by shooting from the ground.

Most of these pilots were barely out of their teens.

Bishop looms the largest of Canada’s aces, with books, plays and a few controversial films about him. After the first war, he was instrumental in founding the Royal Canadian Air Force and was put in charge of recruitment to swell the RCAF’s ranks during the Second World War.

He would end the First World War with the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest honour for valour and 72 aerial victories.

“Billy Bishop was a man absolutely without fear,” was how Eddie Rickenbacker, one of the United States’ greatest First World War aces, summed him up in “Billy Bishop: The Courage of the Early Morning,” by Bishop’s son, Arthur. “I think he’s the only man I have ever met who was incapable of fear.”

Bishop was one of three Canadian airmen to win the Victoria Cross during the First World War. The other two were Barker, the most decorated Canadian serviceman and Alan McLeod, a 19-year-old pilot who fought off an attack by several German planes before crashing and then dragging his wounded gunner to safety despite his own injuries.

Known as “The Lone Hawk” for his preference for solo missions, the Owen Sound, Ont.-born Bishop was Canada’s highest-scoring ace and the third highest overall of the war.

The Royal Flying Corps officer — there was no RCAF when the war started so Canadians joined the British service — was awarded his Victoria Cross for a single-handed attack on a German airfield at Arras on June 2, 1917. He also won the Distinguished Flying Cross for shooting down 25 of the enemy in 12 days.

“He has become a kind of mythical figure,” Diana Bishop, the ace’s granddaughter, said in a telephone interview. She was three years old when Bishop died in 1956 but says he remained a “wonderful, friendly ghost that haunted our house” even after he was gone.

“I would say he’s probably been the biggest influence in my life, without a doubt — and I didn’t even know him,” said the former journalist. “It was my journey to have him as a grandfather and I couldn’t be prouder. But I’m also proud of my dad.”

Billy Bishop’s son Arthur was also a fighter pilot with the RCAF in the Second World War as well as a journalist and noted author.

Although impressed with her grandfather’s service, Diana Bishop’s recollections of him are more personal than the average Canadian.

“He wasn’t a great business person and he was a prankster and all those things,” Diana Bishop says with a hint of a smile in her voice.

She said he was someone who tried to make “a lot more fun” for the family.

Diana Bishop cited pranks her grandfather pulled such as holding a backwards dinner party, where dessert came first and all the other courses came in reverse order. Even the servants walked backward. Other times he’d show up at home with blocks of soap or ice and get everyone involved in carving projects.

“He brought home instruments to play at one point so that everybody would learn to play the clarinet or violin,” she said. “He was always doing little projects like that. He loved to entertain.”

Diana Bishop acknowledged that her grandfather was also a controversial figure and some filmmakers and authors have taken issue with his service record.

“I think in the end people will remember, honestly, he was the first of a breed to do combat in the air,” she said, adding it took extraordinary courage to go up in flimsy machines with the engines spitting oil in their faces and people shooting at them.

“My grandfather, he was young and he was bold and he was brash, all of those things,” she said. “In the end, he did what he did.”

Others also had notable careers.

Collishaw, who shot down 60 enemy aircraft as well as eight observation balloons, joined the Royal Naval Air Service after being rejected by the Royal Canadian Navy. Leading the so-called “Black Flight” squadron, he was the first pilot to claim six kills in one day.

The native of Nanaimo, B.C., stayed with the air force after the war, served in Russia in 1919 and attained the rank of air vice-marshal in the Second World War after distinguished service in North Africa. He retired from the Royal Air Force in 1943 and died in Vancouver in 1975.

Roger Gunn, in his book “Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight,” wrote that while Collishaw wasn’t the most brilliant of student pilots, he persevered.

Among his many accomplishments, he participated in the Allies’ first real attempt at strategic bombing, on a factory in Germany in 1916.

“Raymond Collishaw had many close encounters with death during his lengthy and successful career and he survived them all,” Gunn wrote. “His bravery in combat was recognized many times with the award of decorations and praise and, in short, his legacy should not be as forgotten by Canadians as it has become.”

MacLaren, who was a fur trader before joining the RFC in 1917, scored an impressive 54 kills before his flying career was ended by a broken leg incurred while wrestling with a friend in October 1918. Another of those who helped found the RCAF, the Ottawa-born MacLaren had a career in civil aviation after the war and died in 1989 at the age of 94.

Barker, who was Canada’s most decorated war hero, was involved in one of the first war’s most famous dogfights in October 1918 when he went up against 15 German fighters all by himself and was wounded three times. Despite passing out from his injuries twice, he shot down three of the enemy and drove the rest off before crashing.

He notched 50 kills overall, starting in 1916 when he was an observer-gunner. The overwhelming majority were claimed as a pilot, including 46 in the same Sopwith Camel aircraft.

After the war, he started an unsuccessful airline with Bishop — Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes Ltd., and then joined the RCAF in 1922. He resigned in 1924. Barker then worked in the tobacco industry and was the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs before dying in a plane crash while demonstrating a new airplane for the RCAF in 1930. He was 35.