Canada's Leading Ace with 72 Credited Victories
By Stephen Sherman, Aug. 2001. Updated April 11, 2012.
The combat report reads:
I fired on 7 machines on the aerodrome, some of which had their engines running. One of them took off and I fired 15 rounds at him from close range 60 ft. up and he crashed. A second one taking off, I opened fire and fired 30 rounds at 150 yds, range, he crashed into a tree. Two more were then taking off together.
I climbed and engaged one at [less than] 1,000' finishing my drum, and he crashed 300 yds. from the aerodrome. I changed drums and climbed E.
A fourth H. [Hun or Hostile] A. [Aircraft] came after me and I fired one whole drum into him. He flew away and I then flew [less than] 1,000' under 4 scouts at 5,000' for one mile and turned W. climbing. The aerodrome was armed with one or more machine guns. Machines on the ground were 6 scouts (Albatross type I or II) and one two-seater.
That was Billy Bishop's uncorroborated combat report for June 2, 1917.
For it he was awarded the Victoria Cross and prime spot in the "Controversial Fighter Pilot Claims Hall of Fame." Almost from the date it was filed, Bishop's claim has been viewed skeptically. In Fred Libby's WWI memoir, Horses Don't Fly, he wrote, "God Almighty! Excuse me while I vomit. I have been in this man's flying corps for almost two years. We have waited over the Hun's air field for him to come up and he always does, but it is not that easy....This and other reports by the same pilot are the only ones in almost two years that have ever upset me, because all the RFC boys bend over backwards in reporting their victories. They never make this kind of claim, where there is no chance to confirm...when I think of Albert Ball and his conservative reports, the kid must be amused or disgusted if he knows about this."
The "Bishop Controversy" still rages on World War One Aviation Forums, over eighty years later, here in cyber-space. Remarkable that anyone still cares. Personally, I think his combat report was a work of fiction. I guess we'll never know.
William Avery Bishop was born at Owen Sound, Ontario. When World War One broke out, he joined the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles (or the Mississauge Horse Troop of Toronto). His first winter with the cavalry gave him enough rain, manure, and mud, sohe transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He began his flying career as an observer with Number 21 Squadron, in R.E.8's and B.E.2c's. During these months, he never fired his machine gun. A crash-landing smashed up a knee and he spent some months in the hospital.
On his release in mid 1916, he put in for pilot training. The war was using up fliers at a prodigious rate, and he was accepted. He trained in a Farman, an unforgiving, primitive plane. Prone to airsickness, Bishop survived his training and barely completed his solo requirement. Not a great pilot, he spent the latter part of 1916 flying anti-Zeppelin patrols over England.
Number 60 Squadron
In March, 1917, he was assigned to Number 60 Squadron, a crack fighter outfit. He had the good fortune to meet a Corporal Walter Bourne, who had been Albert Ball's mechanic, and explained some of Ball's tactics to the novice Canadian. From Bourne, Bishop picked up Ball's fastidious concern for ammunition, checking and loading every round that went into his drums and belts. Bishop loved his Nieuport scout, and described it in his autobiography:
... very slender of waist and almost transparent of wing. Airplanes do not thrust their warlike nature upon the casual observer. One has to look twice before definitely locating the gun or guns attached so unobtrusively to the framework, and synchronized, where necessary, to shoot through the whirring propeller in front. The nacelle, or cockpit of the modern machine suggests the pilot house of a palatial private yacht in miniature. It is generally finished in hardwood and there are polished nickel instruments. ... There are ingenious sights for the guns and range-finders for bomb dropping. When he is tucked away in the nacelle, only the pilot's head is visible above the freeboard of the body of the machine. ... Directly in front of the pilot is a little glass windscreen, a sort of half-moon effect.
On his first mission over the trenches, he naturally flew at the tail-end of a flight of six planes, and alternately lagged and overran his mates. The next day he was introduced to anti-aircraft fire, "Archie" in WWI jargon, that tossed his low-flying plane all over the skies.
Bishop was more nearly "normal" than some other high-scoring aces. He was a practical joker. Under the stress of flying, he would get the shakes. He tried, with limited success, to tell himself that it was all a great game.
To bring down a machine did not seem to me like killing a man; it was just like destroying a mechanical target, with no human being in it. ... I did not relish the idea of killing Germans, yet, when in combat in the air, it seemed more like any other kind of sport, and to shoot down a machine was very much the same as if one were shooting down clay pigeons.
At one point, he painted three ducks red, white, and blue, but couldn't get them to march in proper order. He was an excellent shot, and after many hours of flying, became a good pilot.
He perfected the game of aerial "chicken," flying right at an enemy plane, refusing to give way before his opponent, and then, at the last instant, he would direct a burst of machine gun fire into the German's engine and bank away.
On one memorable day (in March?), he was flying at 10,000 feet over German lines, when he spotted five enemy planes: three high and two low. He dived after the lower pair; one of them got on his tail and put a bullet through his helmet and another through his windscreen (which Bishop kept for years as a souvenir). Then the other three came after him; as he climbed to meet them, all three oddly backed off, despite their altitude advantage. The lower two planes had also fled. Somehow this lone Canadian pilot had engaged five German planes and chased them from the sky, suffering no damage other than to his flying helmet and windscreen. His CO thought he deserved a rest after this encounter. "Take the afternoon off," he suggested.
Fighter planes in the First World War flew close support of ground forces, very close. One time during the April, 1917 Battle of Arras, the British artillery "creeping barrage" caught Bishop's plane, shooting away a wingtip.
The Red Baron
Bishop was involved in one of the few recorded duels between great aces of the war. In mid-1917, Bishop's squadron had flown a morning patrol. After lunch, he decided to try another; with a little persuading, six squadron mates went along. Within a quarter of an hour their Nieuports had crossed over the German trenches and spotted five Albatroses. As Bishop maneuvered to get behind these, four more red-painted Albatroses appeared - von Richthofen's planes! Bishop met the new challengers and all began firing, twisting, turning, and struggling to gain an advantage.
Richthofen moved out of the melee, setting up a duel with the Canadian ace. Bishop briefly got the Red Baron in his sights, but his gun jammed. Von Richthofen turned, looked around; Bishop unjammed his machine gun and placed several bullets in the fuselage of the red Albatros. But the German ace flew masterfully, twisting, banking, never offering Bishop a clear shot.
When four Sopwith triplanes from an English naval unit appeared, the Germans took off. So did the British. With several bullet holes in his aircraft, Bishop remarked, "Close shave, but a wonderful, soul-stirring fight."
On another day, he went after some German two-seaters, targeting the rear machine. He saw his bullets go through the observer and wondered that some of them didn't also hit the pilot. He could actually see the observer's terror-stricken face. The pilot, too, looked back at back at Bishop's plane, his oncoming doom. A few more rounds, and down went the German ship. Then, other Germans jumped him; he only escaped by hiding in a cloud and diving one mile straight down. The accumulated strain was telling, and he was ordered on leave. But a week in London was all he could take of peace and quiet.
By autumn of 1917, he was the most famous of all Allied aces. He had been credited with forty-seven kills. King George V had pinned on him the M.C., the D.S.O., and the V.C. (the V.C. for his solo raid on the German aerodrome). American and Canadian magazines carried his story. He returned home to Canada to marry his pre-war sweetheart. Apparently, for William Avery Bishop, the war was over.
But he was determined to continue. He returned to England, as CO of a new S.E.5a squadron, Number 85. He personally selected its fliers, including a number of Americans. It was understood that Bishop himself would not fly in combat; he was too valuable to risk.
But he ignored this. He flew and he fought. In just twelve days, he shot down twenty-five German airplanes - an unprecedented feat. But this time, the generals had had enough. Bishop was ordered to London, to help organize the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
In the Second World War, he rose to the rank of Marshal in the RCAF. One of the longest-surviving of the top WWI aces, he died on September 11, 1956.
- Winged Warfare, by Billy Bishop, G.H. Doran Company, 1918 - his wartime memoirs
- The Aerodrome
- Heroes of the Sunlit Sky, by Arch Whitehouse, Doubleday, 1967
- The Canvas Falcons, by Stephen Longstreet, Barnes & Noble, 1970
- Rand McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft: 1914-1980, by Enzio Angelucci, The Military Press, 1983