A centennial salute to courageous, controversial Billy Bishop
March 1917: The First World War I has been grinding on for 31 long months, more than 2 million Allied soldiers are dead, and no end to the carnage is in sight. Manned flight – a new and romantic phenomenon when the war began-has evolved from a way to look behind the enemy lines to providing one more means to fight a dangerous foe. And although aerial combat takes place far above the mud, gas and horrors of the trenches, it is every bit as lethal.
At this point in the conflict, Britain’s air force, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), is providing air support in the Battle of Arras, France. It’s not going well. By the next month-“Bloody April”- new pilots are being downed within days of reporting for duty.
Into this scenario flies a brash 23-year old Canadian, William Avery “Billy” Bishop. He had enlisted as a cavalryman but transferred to the RFC when the stench and filth became too much for him. After flying as an observer, he earned his wings and is now keen to engage “the Hun”- although he has had barely 70 flying hours and no fighter pilot experience.
On March 17, Bishop lands at France’s Filescamp Farm, home base for the RFC’s 60 Squadron. He has a rocky start as a fighter–near misses, narrow escapes–culminating in a crash landing at Filescamp in front of Gen. John Higgins, who is inspecting the squadron. The debacle almost earns Bishop a trip back to England for more training, but before his replacement arrives, he saves himself by downing an enemy aircraft.
Nieuport 17 Scout 1915
This single -seater fighter helped the “Fokker Scourge” of the Eindekker Scout. The improved model 17 entered service in 1916 and proved to be one of the best fighters of the First World War. Built by Soc. Anonyme des Establissements Nieuport, Issyle Milineux; maximum speed 172 km ph; ceiling 5300 metres fully loaded; endurance 2 hours; length 5.9 metres, wing span 8.3 metres; empty weight 374 kgs; armament one machine gun and eight Le Prieur rockets; engine one 110 hp Le Rhone; passenger/cargo 1 pilot.
Bishop quickly learns how to stay alive in the air and successfully attack enemy planes. By April 8, with five “victories” (downed aircraft) to his name, he is, technically, an “ace.” By April 25, his logbook shows 17 victories. He is promoted to captain and awarded the Military Cross. Now, in addition to patrols with a squadron flight, he has a “roving commission” that lets him hunt on his own.
In the early hours of June 2, wearing his flight suit over his pajamas, Bishop pilots his Nieuport 17 up into the drizzly, frigid predawn darkness, flies behind enemy lines, and attacks a German airfield. He destroys or damages four enemy aircraft lifting off to meet him, then escapes back to base. His aircraft is full of bullet holes and missing its machine gun, but the daring act has gained him another handful of victories.
The solo fray exemplifies Bishop’s nature. Barely three months into his stay at Filescamp, he has become known as “the Lone Wolf.” He’s admired by fellow flyers and his superiors and recognized by the enemy, who call him “Hell’s Handmaiden.” The bold aerodrome attack earns Bishop the British Empire’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross.
As the war rages on, Bishop continues flying, destroying or driving down dozens more enemy aircraft. With his eye fixed on becoming the top British ace, Bishop downs 25 opponents in one 12-day stretch, five of them in his final 2 hours as a fighter pilot. When his superiors remove him from active duty in June 1918–lest his luck run out and his death demoralize the public on both sides of the Atlantic–his logbook shows 72 victories, more than any other pilot flying for Britain and its empire.
When the war ends, this total secures him a top spot on the First World War’s list of all flying aces, behind Germany’s “Red Baron” (Baron Manfred von Richthofen) and France’s Rene Fonck. Billy Bishop returns home widely honoured and loved as a bonafide Canadian hero.
WHO WAS THIS FIERCE FLYER?
It seems that he was a lively man of some contradiction. The youngest child of middle-class parents, Billy Bishop was born in 1894 and raised in Owen Sound, Ontario. A middling student, he broke so many rules at the Royal Military College in Kingston that one teacher called him the worst cadet the school has ever seen. By all accounts, Bishop was ambitious but not pompous, often a gregarious extrovert and prankster, and not shy with women- yet he wrote faithfully to and married his childhood sweetheart, Margaret Burden.
A businessman between the wars, Bishop was also engaged by the Canadian government to help create Canada’s national air force. He was appointed air vice marshall of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1936, then honorary air marshall in 1938. An inspiring figure, he travelled ceaselessly to boost RCAF recruitment, and during the Second World War, general morale. Ill health finally forced him to slow down. Billy Bishop died in Florida in 1956 and was given a hero’s funeral in Toronto.
REST WITHOUT PEACE
Some twenty years after his death, Bishop’s character, his lone-wolf tactics, and his flight log began to be re-examined, re-interpreted, and questioned in works of theatre and film and by some historians:
Had Billy Bishop, Canadian hero, accomplished everything that he’d noted in his flight reports-including that amazing aerodrome raid?
Outraged defenders quickly emerged to counter the allegations, and more delving into war records and log books transpired, but . . . the questions can’t be answered.
The results of all the research suggests that some of the enemy planes Bishop recorded as “driven down out of control” may indeed have escaped–seemingly uncontrolled dives being a tactic that German pilots had mastered to deceive Allied pilots. Adding complication to verifying Bishop’s reports, as well, was his modus operandi:
Because he often flew alone, no other pilots were nearby to confirm what he said he saw.
Several authors have attempted to locate German and Allied records as support for Bishop’s tallies, but so many First World War documents were burned or otherwise lost during the Second World War that completing the task has become impossible. It is now unlikely that anyone will know for certain how many planes Billy Bishop destroyed a century ago. But those who have looked closely at the records generally agree that although he did occasionally embellish his successes (certainly in letters home), Billy Bishop’s actions in those unforgiving skies were undeniably those of a brave and highly skilled airman who was a dedicated warrior in the Allied cause.
The Bishop family home in Owen Sound, Ontario, has been a museum since the 1980s: Bishop House.
A restaurant in the Owen Sound Best Western hotel is called “Bishop’s Landing”-code among Bishop’s RFC contemporaries for a bumpy crash landing.
The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa has a section in its permanent exhibits devoted to Bishop. Artefacts displayed include his Victoria Cross and other medals, a machine gun from one of his planes, and the bullet holed windshield from his Nieuport 17, which Bishop brought home from the war. A replica of his Nieuport 17 is also on display.
The airport on Toronto Island was renamed Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport in 2019. A replica of Bishop’s Nieuport 17 hangs in the atrium. The regional airport in Owen Sound is also named for Bishop.
Courtesy: The Legendary Lone Wolf by Sandy Newton ; The Old Farmer’s 2017 Almanac (Canadian Edition)