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Albert Ball VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC (14 August 1896 – 7 May 1917) was an English First World War fighter pilot and recipient of the Victoria Cross.
At the time of his death, he was the leading Allied ace with 44 victories, second only to Germany's ace, Manfred Von Richthofen. He was the United Kingdom's fourth scoring ace, behind only Edward Mannock, James McCudden, and George McElroy.
Albert Ball was born in Lenton, Nottingham, at 32 Lenton Boulevard. After a series of moves into a number of intermediate addresses, he grew up at 43 Lenton Road, in a house well enough appointed to be named 'Sedgeley'.
Albert Ball was the son of a successful businessman: his father (Albert Ball, Senior) rose in status from being a plumber to dealing in real estate to becoming both mayor and alderman of Nottingham.
Ball studied at The King's School, Grantham, followed by Trent College from 1909 to 1913, where he showed only average ability, but developed his curiosity for things mechanical. He was in the Officers Training Corps. His best subjects were carpentry, modeling, violin, and photography.
It was no surprise then, that upon his graduation at the age of 17, his father staked him to a start in business as Universal Engineering Works in a building next door to the house of his birth.
Albert Ball was raised by loving and indulgent parents. In his youth, he had his own small hut behind the family house where he tinkered with engines and electrical equipment. He also was raised with a familiarity with pistols and conducted target practice in his family's gardens. He had keen vision, and was a crack shot. He was deeply religious.
During flying service, he was primarily a 'lone-wolf' pilot, carefully stalking his prey from below until he drew close enough to use his top-wing mounted Lewis gun on its Foster mounting to fire upwards into the enemy's fuselage. He attacked heedless of odds. These tactics were in direct contrast to most other aces in the war; doctrine as stated by Oswald Boelcke for the Germans (see Dicta Boelcke), and Edward Mannock for the RFC emphasized swooping attack from above in advantageous situations.
Ball on the ground was also very much a loner, preferring to live in his own hut away from the other squadron members. He spent his off-duty hours tending his small garden and practicing the violin. He was not unsociable, so much as sensitive and shy.
He had a preference for living on the flightline throughout his career. He worked upon his own airplanes, and as a consequence, was often untidy and disheveled. His iconoclasm in dress extended to his habit of flying sans helmet and goggles.
Physically, he was five feet six inches tall and stocky, with black hair, dark eyes, and a girlish complexion.
At the start of World War I, Ball enlisted in the 7th (Robin Hood) Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (The Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment).
By October, 1914, he was a Sergeant, then was commissioned Second Lieutenant the same month. He was assigned to training recruits; his rear echelon assignment irked him. He then transferred to the North Midland Divisional Cyclist Company in at attempt to speed his way into action but remained in England.
While still in England, he took private flying lessons at Hendon, where his interest in engineering found a natural outlet. Beginning in June, 1915, he paid his own way to train as a student at the Ruffy-Baumann School; the school charged 75 to 100 pounds for instruction.
Because he was learning flying on his own private time, he arose at 3 AM to ride his motorcycle to Ruffy-Baumann and snatch a bit of flight time at dawn. His duty day began at 6:45 AM.
On 15 October 1915, he was granted Royal Aero Club Certificate No. 1898, and promptly requested transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. He was considered only an average pilot.
On 23 October 1915, Ball was seconded to No. 9 Reserve Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps and trained at Mousehold Heath aerodrome near Norwich.
In the first week of December, he soloed in a Maurice Farman after standing duty all night. His landing was rough, and his instructor sarcastic about it. Uncharacteristically, Ball's temper took over. He angrily exclaimed he had only fifteen minutes experience in the plane, and that if this was as good of instruction as he was going to get, he would rather return to his old unit. The instructor relented, and Ball then soloed again and landed successfully on five consecutive flights. This rough landing was not the only accident Ball was involved in; he mentioned two others, including one at 120 miles per hour.
He completed the RFC Central Flying School and was awarded his wings on 26 January 1916. On 18 February, he joined No. 13 Squadron RFC at Marieux in France, flying a two-seater B.E.2c on reconnaissance missions. He faced the Fokker Eindecker with its forward firing synchronized machine gun, which is arguably the world's first true fighter plane. At times, Ball managed to pilot the squadron's single seat Bristol Scout, preferring the freedom of independent operations. His aggressive fighting spirit was encouraged by his commanding officer.
It was while flying a B.E.2 that he fought his first combat. On 29 March, he swooped in on a German two-seater. Ball's observer, Lieutenant S. A. Villiers, sitting in the observer's front seat, fired a drum and a half of Lewis ammunition into the German craft. In turn, a second German jumped the British duo, and the two Germans dived away. After this inconclusive skirmish, Ball wrote home in one of his many letters, "I like this job, but nerves do not last long, and you soon want a rest."
In April, 1916, in one of his other numerous letters home, Ball described his idea of a fighter plane 'better than the Fokker'.
On 7 May 1916, Ball was posted to 11 Squadron, flying both F.E.2bs and Nieuport 11 fighters. After his first day's flying with his new unit, he wrote a letter home complaining about fatigue.
Ball was unhappy with the hygiene of his assigned billet in the nearest village. He elected to live in a tent on the flight line. He soon built a hut to replace the tent; he reasoned it was better to be closer to his airplane.
On 16 May, he scored his first aerial victory while flying Bristol Scout no. 5312; he drove down an Albatros C out of control. He then switched to Nieuport no. 5173 for his next four victories, becoming an ace and a balloon buster on 25 June by destroying an observation balloon with phosphor bombs.
On 16 July, Ball went to his commanding officer and requested a few days rest. Instead of a break from flying, he was temporarily assigned back to flying reconnaissance with 8 Squadron in a B.E.2c. He spent from 17 July to 14 August flying recon.
During this tour of duty, Ball undertook an unusual mission. On the evening of 28 July, he flew a French espionage agent across the German lines. Dodging both an attack by three German fighters and anti-aircraft fire, he landed in a deserted field, only to find that the agent refused to deplane.
Ball's twentieth birthday was marked by his promotion to captain and his return to 13 Squadron. Using two Nieuports, no. A134 and no. A201, he ran his total to 11 wins by 22 August; it was this day he scored three victories. He ended the day by fighting 14 Germans about 15 miles behind their lines. With his plane shot about and out of fuel, he managed to straggle back to friendly lines to land.
He then transferred with part of 11 Squadron to No. 60 Squadron RFC in August, taking Nieuport A201 with him. He was assigned to lead A Flight, but had license to fly solo missions. His new commanding officer even assigned him his own personal airplane and maintenance crew. One of the squadron mechanics painted up a non-standard red propeller boss; A-201 became the first of a series of Ball's airplanes to wear such.
By 31 August, he had run his total to 17 wins. The next day, he left A201 behind and went on leave. While he had been in France, his feats had received considerable publicity. He found that his celebrity was such that he could not even walk down the streets of Nottingham without being stopped and congratulated. His adoring public included many young women.
He returned, to the post of Flight Commander, and to immediate success. He scored a morning and an evening victory on 15 September, flying two different Nieuports for the first time. On the evening sortie, he armed his plane with eight Le Prieur rockets on the outer struts, set to fire electrically. He intended to use them on an observation balloon. However, when he spotted three German Roland C.IIs, he broke their formation by salvoing his rockets at them, then picked off one of the confused pilots.
After that, he settled in an improved airplane, Nieuport 17 no. A213. He had it rigged to fly tail-heavy, and had a holster built into the cockpit for the Colt automatic he always toted.
He scored three triples and three individual wins in September with his new plane, ending the month with his tally at 31. By the end of the month, he had told his commanding officer that he had to have a rest, that he was taking unnecessary risks because of his nerves. On October 3, he was sent on leave, en route to a posting on the Home Establishment in England
He had been awarded both the Distinguished Service Order, and a bar for a second award simultaneously, on 26 September, 1916. Now he was withdrawn from combat and fetched back to England. He expected a quiet spell of family leave for rest and recuperation. Instead, he was lionized as a national hero with a reputation as a fearless pilot and expert marksman. A crowd of journalists awaited him on his family's doorstep. In an interview, he mentioned being downed six times.
On 18 November, he was invested with his Military Cross and both DSOs at Buckingham Palace by King George V. A second bar to the DSO followed on the 25th, making him the first triple winner of the DSO. There would be only one more triple award to a flyer in the entire war, to Britain's top ace of all time, Edward Mannock.
Ball was not returned to combat; instead, he was posted to instructional duties in England with 34 (Reserve) Squadron, teaching pilot trainees.
It was during this time in England that he contacted Austin about building his proposed fighter plane. The prototype Austin-Ball A.F.B.1 fighter was fast, at 138 miles per hour top speed. It could climb to 10,000 feet in less than nine minutes. Armament featured a machine gun firing through the propeller hub (thus avoiding synchronization problems between gun and propeller that would plague the SE-5), and a second gun mounted on the top wing in Ball's favored location. All in all, the Austin-Ball was at least comparable to the best British fighter, the RAF S.E.5a, which topped out at 120 miles per hour.
On 19 February, in a tribute from his native city, Albert Ball became only the seventh Honorary Freeman of Nottingham.
On 25 March, while off-duty from this assignment, he met 18-year-old Flora Young. He impulsively invited her to fly with him, and she promptly accepted. They borrowed a leather flying coat for her, and away they went. Upon landing, he chatted lightly with her. That night, in the first of many notes he wrote to her, he admitted his attraction to her. Soon he was spending every spare moment with her. On 5 April, they became engaged; she wore his silver ID wrist bracelet in lieu of an engagement ring.
Inaction chafed Ball. He had already begun agitating for a return to action. He finally wangled a posting to 56 Squadron. This squadron moved to the front in France on 7 April 1917.
He was assigned as flight commander in the new No. 56 Squadron RFC, the first to be equipped with the S.E.5 scout. Ball considered the aeroplane under-developed, and was allowed to retain Nieuport 17 no. B1522 when the squadron went to France. Permission for the Nieuport came from no less a personage than Hugh Trenchard. It was the beginning of a hectic month for Ball. He had been posted to 56 Squadron, slated to serve with them for only a month as a mentor to rookie pilots.
S.E.5 no. A4850, fresh from its packing crates, had been extensively modified for Ball, with the cockpit 'greenhouse' and Vickers machine gun removed and the windscreen lowered to improve speed and performance. He also had a second Lewis machine gun fitted to fire downwards through the floor of the cockpit. A slightly larger fuel tank was also fitted. Ball's aircraft was easy to recognise, since he had a red propeller boss from a German L.V.G. he had shot down fitted to his plane.
However, on 9 April, A4850 was refitted, and the downward firing Lewis gun removed. A small Avro windscreen and a replacement Vickers gun were mounted.
In an 18 April letter to Flora Young, Ball mentioned getting his own hut. He also seemed to have moved his flight into another hut on the flight line.
On the 23rd, Ball was under strict orders to stay over British lines, but still managed to engage the Germans five times in his Nieuport.
Fight number one, using his preferred belly shot, spun out an Albatros; he followed it, firing away, until its impact. It was the first kill for 56 Squadron's tour of duty.
Regaining altitude to 5,000 feet, he tried to dive on a lower flying Albatros two-seater and pop up under its belly as he was wont to do. However, he overshot, and the German gunner put a burst of 15 bullets through the Nieuport's wings and spars. Ball limped the Nieuport home for repairs.
The undaunted Ball returned to battle in a S.E.5. In his third combat of the day, he fired five rounds and his machine gun jammed.
After a landing to clear the gun, he returned to jump five Albatros fighters and sent one down in flames. His fifth battle, shortly thereafter, seemed inconclusive, as the enemy plane landed safely. However, its observer was mortally wounded.
On the 26th, he scored another double flying SE-5 no. A4850, and one more on the 28th, to bring his total to an even three dozen. This last day's fighting left this SE-5 so battered by enemy action that it was dismantled and sent away for repair.
Despite continual problems with jamming guns in the SE-5s, Ball had a hectic week of triumphs to open May. On 1 May, flying a brand new SE-5, no. A8898, he destroyed an Albatros and drove another one down. The next day, he switched to a different SE-5, no. A4855, and doubled again. Then he switched back to A8898, destroying an Albatros D.III fighter on 4 May, and another pair the following day. The latter one of these victims nearly rammed him in a head-on firing pass. Ball flew his seriously damaged plane home in overwrought nervousness.
The squadron armorers and mechanics undertook the repair of the faulty machine gun synchronizer on A8898. Ball had been sporadically flying the Nieuport again, and he was successful with it on 6 May, destroying one more Albatros D.III in an evening flight, for his 44th win.
The heavier battle damage that Ball's airplanes were suffering showed that his German opponents were developing team tactics for fighting. Meanwhile, Ball continued his lone patrols, fortunate to survive.
On the evening of 7 May near Douai, eleven British aircraft from No. 56 Squadron RFC led by Albert Ball encountered German fighters from Jasta 11. A running dogfight in deteriorating visibility resulted, and the aircraft became scattered. Cecil Arthur Lewis was a participant in this fight and described it in his memoir Sagittarius Rising.
Albert Ball was last seen by his fellow pilots pursuing the red Albatros D.III of Lothar von Richthofen. Richthofen landed near Annoeullin with a punctured fuel tank. Ball's squadron-mate Cyril Crowe last saw Ball flying into a dark thundercloud. A German pilot officer on the ground, Lieutenant Hailer, saw Ball's plane fall inverted from the bottom of the cloud with a dead prop, at an altitude of 200 feet; early model SE-5 engines could not run inverted. Hailer and his three companions hurried to the crash site. They saw no bullet holes in the wrecked plane.
A young French woman had pulled Ball from the wreckage, and he died in her arms of injuries suffered in the crash. A German doctor later described a broken back and a crushed chest, along with assorted lesser injuries.
Richtofen was credited by the Germans with shooting Ball down; however there is some doubt as to what happened, especially as Richthofen's claim was for a Sopwith Triplane, not an S.E.5, which was a biplane. Given the amount of propaganda the German high command generated touting the younger von Richthofen, there was probably a high level decision made to credit Ball's death to him.
It is probable that Ball was not shot down at all, but had became disoriented and lost control during the aerial combat, a victim of a form of temporary vertigo that has claimed other pilots since.
It was only at the end of May that the Germans dropped messages within Allied lines announcing that Ball was dead, and had been buried with full military honors.
Ball's confirmed victories were 1 balloon and 28 aircraft destroyed, including five planes in flames. He was also credited with 6 aircraft downed 'out of control', and 9 'forced to land'.
Albert Ball, Sr., bought the French field where his son had died and erected a plain memorial stone on the site of the crash.
In the early 1920s, he built a row of eight homes to house the families of Lenton servicemen killed in action, as a remembrance of his hero son. This homes opened on 7 September 1922, and showed some interesting features. They were designed with ease of use for the elderly. The row was built to evoke an aircraft, with the homes the wings and the central porch reminiscent of a cockpit. The two center homes even had curving doors, windows, and walls to fit the theme. Windows on the row were suggestive of propellers.
There is also a plaque to Ball on the grounds of Nottingham Castle. His Victoria Cross is displayed as part of a display of relics concerning Ball at the Sherwood Foresters Museum (The Castle, Nottingham, England). There is also a statue of him upon the grounds, dedicated in September 1921.