Billy Bishop

William Avery “Billy” Bishop VC, CB (February 8, 1894 – September 11, 1956) – Canadian World War I ace, officially credited with 72 kills, the highest number for a British Commonwealth fighter pilot.

Billy Bishop was born on February 8, 1894, in Owen Sound, Ontario. He was the second of three children born to William A. and Margaret Bishop. His father, a lawyer and graduate of Osgoode Hall in Toronto, was the Registrar of Grey county. In 1911, at the age of 17, Billy Bishop entered the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario. His parents chose RMC more because his poor marks prevented his attending the University of Toronto than because of any interest in a military career. Bishop failed his first year at RMC in marked contrast to his older brother Worth who had set academic records while he was at RMC.

When World War I broke out in 1914 he left the college and enlisted in the Mississauga Horse Regiment. He was commissioned as an officer but was ill with pneumonia when the regiment was sent overseas. After recovering he transferred to the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles, then stationed in London, Ontario. They left Canada for England on 9 June 1915 on board the requisitioned cattleship Caledonia.

In 1916, frustrated with the mud of the trenches and the lack of action in the cavalry, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer. On 1 September he reported to 21 (Training) Squadron at Netheravon for elementary air instruction. The first aircraft he flew in was the Avro 504. The squadron was soon ordered to France, and on 1 January 1916 it arrived at Boisdinghem airfield, near St Omer equipped with RE7 reconnaissance aircraft. During one flight, he badly injured his knee and spent the summer recuperating in Britain, fortunately missing the Battle of the Somme.

Following his recovery he was accepted for training as a pilot. He reported to Brasenose College, Oxford on 1 October 1916 for initial ground training. In November he moved to the Central Flying School at Upavon on Salisbury plain to begin flight training. He learned to fly in a Maurice Farman “Shorthorn”. After receiving his wings he was attached to 37 (Home Defence) Squadron at Sutton’s Farm, Essex flying the BE2c. He soon requested a transfer to France.

In March 1917, he was posted to 60 Squadron at Filescamp Farm near Arras, flying the Nieuport 17. At the time the average lifespan of a new pilot in that sector was 11 days. Bishop got his first victory on March 25 when he was one of four Nieuports that engaged three Albatross DIII Scouts near St Leger. After that his total increased rapidly. He shot down 25 planes in April alone, winning the Military Cross and a promotion to captain for his participation at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. On April 5 he scored his fifth victory and became an ace.

To celebrate he had the cowling and struts of his plane painted bright blue. This was probably inspired by the red spinners on the plane of Captain Albert Ball the then highest scoring ace. On April 30 Bishop survived an encounter with Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, and in May he won the Distinguished Service Medal for shooting down two planes while being attacked by four others.

On June 2, 1917, he flew a solo mission behind enemy lines to attack a German-held aerodrome, where he shot down three planes that were attacking him and destroyed seven more on the ground. For this feat he was awarded the Victoria Cross, although it has been suggested that he may have embellished his success.

The citation for his VC, published in the London Gazette on 11 August 1917, read:

For most conspicuous bravery, determination, and skill. Captain Bishop, who had been sent out to work independently, flew first of all to an enemy aerodrome; finding no machines about, he flew on to another aerodrome about 3 miles southeast, which was at least 12 miles the other side of the line. Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground. He attacked these from about fifty feet, and a mechanic, who was starting one of the engines, was seen to fall. One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of 60 feet, Captain Bishop fired 15 rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground. A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired 30 rounds at 150 yards range, and it fell into a tree. Two more machines then rose from the aerodrome. One of these he engaged at a height of 1,000 feet, emptying the rest of his drum of ammunition. This machine crashed 300 yards from the aerodrome, after which Captain Bishop emptied a whole drum into the fourth hostile machine, and then flew back to his station. Four hostile scouts were about 1,000 feet above him for about a mile of his return journey, but they would not attack. His machine was very badly shot about by machine-gun fire from the ground.

He returned home to Canada in 1917, where he was lauded as a hero and helped boost the morale of the Canadian public, who were growing tired of the war. On 17 October 1917 at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto, he married his longtime fiance Margaret Burden, a granddaughter of Timothy Eaton. Her brother was the ace Henry Burden. After the wedding he was assigned to the British War Mission in Washington DC to help the Americans build an air force. While stationed here he wrote an autobiography entitled Winged Warfare.

Upon his return in April, 1918, he was promoted to major and given command of 85 Squadron, the “Flying Foxes”. This was a newly formed squadron and Bishop was given the freedom to choose many of the pilots. The squadron were equipped with the SE 5a scout and left for Petit Synthe, France on 22 May 1918. Bishop scored his next victory on the 27th followed by two more on the 28th.

The Canadian government was becoming increasing worried about the effect on morale if Bishop were to be killed so, on 18 June, he was ordered to return to England to help organise the new Canadian Flying Corps. Bishop was not pleased with the order coming so soon after his return to France. He wrote his wife: “I’ve never been so furious in my life. It makes me livid with rage to be pulled away just as things are getting started.” The order specified that he was to leave France by noon on the 19th. On the morning of the 19th Bishop decided to have one last solo patrol. In just 15 minutes of combat he added another 5 victories to his total. He shot down 2 Pfalz D.IIIa scouts, caused another two to collide with each other and shot down a German reconnaissance plane.

On 5 August, Bishop was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and was given the post of “Officer Commanding-designate of the Canadian Air Force Section of the General Staff, Headquarters Overseas Military Forces of Canada”. He was onboard ship returning from a reporting visit to Canada when news of the armistace arrived. Bishop was demobilised from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 31 December and returned to Canada.

By the end of the war, he had a total of 72 confirmed air victories as well at three balloon vitories and five unconfirmed victories. This was the highest total for a pilot on the allied side.

After the war he established a short-lived passenger service with fellow ace William Barker. In 1921 Bishop and his family moved to Britain where he was quite successful. In 1928 he was the guest of honour at a gathering of German Air Aces in Berlin, and was made an Honourary Member of the Association. Unfortunately the family’s wealth was wiped out in the crash of 1929 and they had to move back to Canada.

In 1938 he was promoted to Honourary Air Marshal of the Royal Canadian Air Force, placed in charge of recruitment. He was so successful in this role that they had to turn many applicants away. He created a system for training pilots across Canada, and became instrumental in setting up and promoting the Commonwealth Air Training Plan which trained over 55,000 airmen in Canada during the war. In 1942 he appeared as himself in the film Captains of the Clouds, a Hollywood tribute to the RCAF.

Both of Bishop’s children became aircrew. He presented his son Arthur with his wings during World War II, and Arthur would go on to become a Supermarine Spitfire pilot. He presented his daughter, Jackie, with the Wireless Sparks Badge as a radio operator in 1944.

By 1944 the stress of the war had taken a serious toll on Bishop, and he resigned his post in the RCAF to return to private enterprise in Montreal. His son later commented that he looked 70 years old on his 50th birthday in 1944. He remained active in the aviation realm however, predicting a phenomenal growth of commercial aviation in the post-war world. His efforts to bring some organization to the nascent field led to the formation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal. He wrote a second book at this time, Winged Peace.

With the outbreak of the Korean War Bishop again offered to return to his recruitment role, but was in poor health and was politely refused by the RCAF. He died in his sleep on September 11, 1956, while wintering in Palm Beach, Florida. He is burried in Greenwood Cemetery in Owen Sound, Ontario.

His life is depicted in the famous Canadian play, Billy Bishop Goes To War. After years of controversy over Bishop’s record, a television documentary called “The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss” led to an inquiry by the Canadian government in 1985. The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology discredited the documentary, saying it was an unfair and inaccurate portrayal of Bishop.

His decorations include Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order & Bar, Military Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Honor Chevalier, and the Croix de Guerre with palm. He was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in the King’s Birthday Honours List of 1 June 1944.