WWI Canadian Ace, Sopwith Triplane Pilot
By Stephen Sherman, Aug. 2001. Updated April 11, 2012.
A native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Raymond Collishaw grew up close to the sea's distinct call, and as a teenager worked as a cabin boy on a Canadian Fisheries Protection Service ship, that plied between British Columbia and Alaska. He served on the Alcedo when it searched the Arctic for Vilhamur Stefansson's Karluk. By age 22, he was First Officer on the Fispa.
When war broke out Ray chose the Royal Naval Air Service, as did many other Canadians at that time.
He qualified as a pilot by January 1916, and spent the next eight months flying naval patrols along the Channel, or spotting for navy guns off Dunkirk. In late August he was transferred to Number 3 Wing of the R.N.A.S. that was billeted at Ochey, a short distance behind the Allied trenches. Here he began to fly Sopwith 1½ Strutters and was part of the famous raid on the Mauser Arms Works at Oberndorf, flying as escort for the bombers. It was during this epic raid that Ray scored his first victory when he downed the future ace Ludwig Hanstein. That was on October 12, and on October 25 he scored a "double" over Luneville.
While ferrying a 1½ Strutter, six Albatroses jumped him; their bullets smashed his instrument panel and goggles, partially blinding him. As he dove for the deck, one of the Albatroses tried to follow him, and crashed into the trees. A second over-ran him, and he shot it down with an accurate burst. Without instruments and barely able to see, he landed at a promising field, only to be greeted by German ground crewmen. He immediately took off again, and managed to locate a French field near Verdun. For this impressive flight, the French awarded him the Croix de Guerre.
In February 1917 he was a member of Number 3 Naval Squadron that was operating with the British Army near the Cambrai front.
Number 10 Naval Squadron
Over the next two months he shot down another enemy plane and he was moved on to become a flight commander with Number 10 Naval Squadron located at Dunkirk, where for a time he did naval reconnaissance and gun-spotting for the Royal Navy. It was during this interval that he downed four more enemy planes.
Number 10 Naval Squadron was next moved down to the British front and both Numbers 8 and 10 Naval squadrons were given the new Sopwith triplane, a machine none of the RFC squadrons liked. They felt that this particular Sopwith was not structurally satisfactory for the heavy air fighting experienced in this section of France, and although it was a fast climber and apparently most maneuverable, it was fitted with but one machine gun. The RNAS boys, however, took to it immediately, and Collishaw personally hand- picked four other Canadian pilots to work with him. They were Flight Sub-lieutenants Ellis Reid of Toronto, J. E. Sharman of Winnipeg, Gerald Nash of Hamilton, and Melville Alexander, also of Toronto. All these pilots were in their early twenties and keen on air fighting.
Collishaw next conceived the idea of painting his flight of triplanes midnight black, a gesture that would not have been tolerated in the R.F.C., but Ray had his way and to add an even more individual touch all five planes were given special names. Collishaw's became Black Maria. Reid flew Black Roger. Sharman's was named Black Death. Nash's was known as Black Sheep, and Alexander's as Black Prince. Obviously, they would have to put on a rare show to justify this individuality.
On the Ypres front where the Von Richthofen Circus was supposed to be supreme, the black triplanes went wild. Four enemy scouts went down before Collishaw's single gun in five days, and all his mates racked up victories. By June 6 Ray had registered his sixteenth success. Then on June 26 the Black Flight sustained its first loss when Lieutenant Nash went down during a melee with the Von Richthofen Circus, but he landed safely in the enemy lines and destroyed his machine before he was captured.
The next day Collishaw went out to look for the Circus, and after scouting around he came upon a formation of gaudily painted Jerries. The four black triplanes searched for a German who had flown a green-striped ship. Collishaw spotted him, and with rare skill cut him away from the Circus formation. The two ships were apparently evenly matched, but Collishaw was the more determined, and while they were circling over Lille, he finally sent the green-striped Albatros crashing down on the old fortifications outside the city. While the other members of Black Flight were downing three more pilots of the Circus they noted a blood-red Albatros flying about 2000 feet above the fighting. This pilot stayed up there and apparently did nothing to help the Circus formation.
The man in the red Albatros may, or may not, have been Von Richthofen, but the pilot who died in the green-striped Albatros was Leutnant Karl Allmenroder, victor in thirty contests, and at the time the second highest ranking ace in Jagdstaffel II. But Ray Collishaw had no fear of any German, ace or neophyte. In the first twelve days of July he added twelve more to his bag, and by July 30 when his score stood at thirty-seven, he was ordered away from the front and sent home on a long leave. Black Flight was disbanded, and the pilots were assigned to other squadrons.
Number 3 Naval Squadron
By mid-November Collishaw was back again, and given command of Number 13 Naval Squadron. By December first he had added to his score by downing two German seaplanes and an L.V.G. two-seater.
Number 203 Squadron
By January, 1918, he had moved over to No 3 Naval Sqn. When the Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918, No 3 Naval Sqn of the RNAS became No 203 Sqn of the RAF. Collishaw was promoted to major and given command of No 203 Sqn, that was flying Sopwith Camels. In the next four months, flying against the best the enemy could put into the skies, Ray accounted for twenty more, ten of which were the vaunted Fokker D-VII. He scored "doubles" on seven occasions, and his decorations now included the D.S.O., D.F.C., and the D.S.C. On October 1 Ray was again taken out of the line and sent to England where, with Billy Bishop, Andy McKeever and other Canadian airmen, plans were being made for a Royal Canadian Air Force.
He finished World War One with 62 victories to his credit, including shared and out-of-control claims. (On a basis comparable with WW2 credits, his score would have been 28.5.)
Unlike most others, Ray stayed with the RAF after the Armistice, and took command of an Allied air unit that went to the aid of the White cause under General Anton I. Denikin who was trying to oust the Bolsheviks from Russia.
It was an ugly war: typhus threatened both sides, civilians were killed wantonly. And an odd war, too. At one point Collishaw and his Camels mercilessly strafed a large Red cavalry unit they caught in the open. Despite Allied help, such as the RAF units, the Red forces steadily pushed the Whites back. Collishaw and his fliers abandoned their planes and barely escaped in an epic train trip. They re-grouped in the Crimea and Ray flew more missions. By the time the British pulled out of the hopeless civil war, he had destroyed two aircraft, two trains, and a gunboat.
When the Russian White Army collapsed in 1920 Collishaw was brought back to England, given a tropical uniform, and sent out to Persia with Number 84 Squadron where the Bolsheviks were menacing a British protectorate. He was still flying Camels, and by April 1921 was in Mesopotamia for service against insurgent Arabs. Here he was raised to the rank of Wing Commander.
World War Two
Collishaw remained with the RAF, and was in action again from 1939 on. Now he was in command of a Fleet Air Arm Fighter Group that swarmed off Royal Navy aircraft carriers. He served all through World War II with distinction but little publicity. This is strange as most Canadians, like Americans, were publicity conscious throughout both world conflicts, but they somehow failed to do justice to the man who did so much for his service over so many years. Many feel he should be awarded the Victoria Cross, even at this late date.
- The Aerodrome
- Heroes of the Sunlit Sky, by Arch Whitehouse, Doubleday, 1967
- The Canvas Falcons, by Stephen Longstreet, Barnes & Noble, 1970