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William Avery Bishop

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Air Marshal William Avery "Billy" Bishop VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED (8 February 1894 – 11 September 1956) was a Canadian First World War flying ace, officially credited with 72 victories, making him the top Canadian ace, and according to some sources, the top ace of the British Empire.

Bishop was born in Owen Sound, Ontario and was the second of three children born to William A. and Margaret Bishop. His father, a lawyer and graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, was the Registrar of Grey County.

Attending Owen Sound Collegiate, Bishop earned the reputation of a fighter, defending himself and others easily against bullies. He avoided team sports, preferring solitary pursuits such as swimming, horse riding, and shooting. Bishop was less successful at his studies; he would abandon any subject he could not easily master, and was often absent from class.

At 15 Bishop had his first experience with aviation; he built an airplane out of cardboard, wood crates and string, and "flew" off the roof of his three-story house. He was dug, unharmed, out of the wreckage by his sister.

In 1911, at the age of 17, Billy Bishop entered the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario, where his brother Worth had graduated from in 1903. Bishop failed his first year at RMC, having been caught cheating.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Bishop left RMC and joined the Mississauga Horse cavalry regiment. He was commissioned as an officer but was ill with pneumonia when the regiment was sent overseas. After recovering, he was transferred to the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles, a mounted infantry unit, then stationed in London, Ontario. Bishop showed a natural ability with a gun, and excelled on the firing range. His seemingly "super-human" eyesight allowed him to put bullets in a target placed so far away others saw only a dot.

They left Canada for England on 6 June 1915 on board the requisitioned battleship Caledonia. On 21 June, off the coast of Ireland, the ships convoy came under attack by U-boats. Two ships were sunk and 300 Canadians died, but Bishop's ship remained unharmed, arriving in Plymouth Harbour on 23 June.

He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and, as there were no spots available for pilots in the flight school, he chose to be an observer. On 1 September 1915, he reported to 21 (Training) Squadron at Netheravon for elementary air instruction. The first aircraft he trained in was the Avro 504, flown by Roger Neville. Bishop was adept at taking aerial photographs, and was soon in charge of training other observers with the camera.

The squadron was ordered to France in January 1916, it arrived at Boisdinghem airfield, near Saint-Omer equipped with R.E.7 reconnaissance aircraft. Bishop' first combat mission was as an aerial spotter for British artillery. At first, the aircraft would not get airborne until they had offloaded their bombload and machine guns. Bishop and pilot Neville flew over German lines near Boisdinghem and when the German howitzer was found, they relayed co-ordinates to the British, who then bombarded and destroyed the target.

In the following months, Bishop flew on reconnaissance and bombing flights, but never fired his machine guns on an enemy aircraft. During one takeoff in April 1916, Bishop's plane experienced an engine failure, and he badly injured his knee. The injury was aggravated while on leave in London in May 1916, and Bishop was admitted to the hospital in Bryanston Square, London. While there he met and befriended socialite Lady St. Helier, who was a friend to both Winston Churchill and Secretary for Air Lord Hugh Cecil. When his father suffered a small stroke, St. Helier arranged for Bishop to recuperate in Canada, thereby missing the Battle of the Somme.

Bishop returned to England in September 1916, and, with the influence of St. Helier, was accepted for training as a pilot at the Central Flying School, Upavon on Salisbury Plain. His first solo flight was in a Maurice Farman "Shorthorn".

In November, 1916, after receiving his wings, Bishop was attached to No. 37 Squadron RFC at Sutton's Farm, Essex flying the BE.2c. Bishop disliked the flying, at night over London, searching for German Airships, and he soon requested a transfer to France.

On 17 March 1917, arrived at 60 Squadron at Filescamp Farm near Arras, where he would be flying the Nieuport 17 fighter. At that time, the average life expectancy of a new pilot in that sector was 11 days, and German aces were shooting down British aircraft 5 to 1. Bishops first patrol, on 22 March, was less than successful. He had trouble controlling his run-down aircraft, was nearly shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and became separated from his group.

On 24 March 1917, after crash landing his aircraft during a practice flight in front of General John Higgins, Bishop was ordered to return to flight school at Upavon. But before he could leave, Major Alan Scott, new commander of 60 Squadron, convinced Higgins to let him stay until a replacement arrived. The next day Bishop claimed his first victory, when his was one of four Nieuports that engaged three Albatros D.III Scouts near St Leger. Bishop shot down and mortally wounding a Lieutenant Theiler, but his engine failed in the process. He landed in No Man's Land, 300 yards from the German front line. After running to the Allied trenches, Bishop spent the night on the ground in a rainstorm. There Bishop wrote a letter home, starting: "I am writing this from a dugout 300 yards from our front line, after the most exciting adventure of my life." General Higgins personally congratulated Bishop, and rescinded his order to return to flight school.

On 20 March 1917 Bishop was named a flight commander. The next day he scored his second victory. Bishop, in addition to the usual patrols with his squadron comrades, soon flew many unofficial "lone-wolf" missions deep into enemy territory, with the blessing of Major Scott. As a result his total increased rapidly.

On 8 April, he scored his fifth victory and became an ace. To celebrate, Bishop's mechanic painted the aircraft's nose blue, the mark of an ace. Fellow squadron member Captain Albert Ball, at that time the Empire's highest scoring ace, had had his spinners painted red.

Bishop's no-hold-barred style of flying always had him "at the front of the pack," leading his pilots into battle over hostile territory. Bishop soon realized that this would eventually see him shot down, after one patrol a mechanic counted 210 bullet holes in his plane. His new method of using the surprise attack proved successful; he claimed 12 aircraft in April alone, winning the Military Cross and a promotion to captain for his participation at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The successes of Bishop and his blue-nosed aircraft were noticed on the German side, and they began referring to him as "Hell's Handmaiden". Ernst Udet called him "the greatest English scouting ace" and one Jasta had a bounty on his head.

On 30 April, Bishop survived an encounter with Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.

In May, Bishop won the Distinguished Service Order for shooting down two aircraft while being attacked by four others.

On 2 June 1917, Bishop flew a solo mission behind enemy lines to attack a German-held aerodrome, where he claimed that he shot down three aircraft that were taking off to attack him and destroyed several more on the ground. For this feat, he was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), although it has been suggested that he may have embellished his success. His VC was one of two awarded in violation of the warrant requiring witnesses (the other being the Unknown Soldier), and since the German records have been lost and the archived papers of his VC were lost as well, there is no way of ever knowing if there were any witnesses or not. It was, however, common practice at this time among the RFC and RNAS squadrons to submit kills claimed without requiring confirmation or verification from other witnesses.

In July 60 Squadron received new Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s, a faster more powerful aircraft with better visibility for the pilot.

In August 1917 Bishop passed the late Albert Ball in victories to become (temporarily) the highest scoring ace in the RFC. Soon after he was informed he had won the Victoria Cross for his June attack on the German aerodrome.

He returned home to Canada in 1917, where he was acclaimed 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 fiancée Margaret Burden, a granddaughter of Timothy Eaton. Her brother was the ace Henry John 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 there, he wrote an autobiography entitled Winged Warfare.

Upon his return to England in April 1918, Bishop was promoted to Major and given command of No. 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 was equipped with SE5a scouts and left for Petit Synthe, France on 22 May 1918.

On 27 May, after familiarizing himself with the area and the opposition, Bishop took a solo flight to the Front. He downed a German observation plane in his first combat since August 1917, and followed with two more the next day.

From 30 May to 1 June Bishop downed 6 more aircraft, including German ace Paul Billik, bringing his score to 59 and reclaiming his deadliest RFC/RAF ace title from James McCudden, who had claimed it while Bishop was in Canada, and was now the leading Allied ace.

The Canadian government was becoming increasingly worried about the effect on morale if Bishop were to be killed, so on 18 June, he was ordered to return to England, officially to help organize the new Canadian Flying Corps. Bishop was not pleased with the order coming so soon after his return to France. He wrote to his wife: "I've never been so furious in my life." The order specified that he was to leave France by noon on 19 June. On that morning, Bishop decided to fly one last solo patrol. In just 15 minutes of combat, he added another five victories to his total. He claimed to have downed two Pfalz D.IIIa scouts, caused another two to collide with each other, and shot down a German reconnaissance aircraft.

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 a ship returning from a reporting visit to Canada when news of the armistice arrived. Bishop was discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 31 December and returned to Canada.

By the end of the war, he had claimed some 72 air victories, including two balloons, 52 and two shared "destroyed" with 16 "out of control".

After the war, Bishop established a short-lived passenger air 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 Honorary Member of the Association. However, the family's wealth was wiped out in the crash of 1929 and they had to move back to Canada.

In 1938, Bishop was made an Honorary Air Marshal of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and 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 167,000 airmen in Canada during the Second World 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 aviators. He presented his son, Arthur, with his wings during the Second World War; Arthur would go on to become a Spitfire pilot and participated in the Battle of Britain. He also presented his daughter, Jackie, with a Wireless Sparks Badge as a radio operator in 1944.

By 1944, the stress of the war had taken a serious toll on Bishop's health, 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. Bishop remained active in the aviation realm however, predicting a phenomenal growth of commercial aviation in the postwar 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, advocating international control of global air power.

With the outbreak of the Korean War, Bishop again offered to return to his recruitment role, but he was in poor health and was politely refused by the RCAF.

He died in his sleep on 11 September 1956, while wintering in Palm Beach, Florida. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Owen Sound, Ontario.

After years of controversy over Bishop's record, mainly due to the fact very few of his claimed victories were witnessed by anyone else or could be confirmed from surviving German records, the show 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.

There is a permanent exhibit with information on Bishop at the Grey Roots Museum and Archives, just south of Owen Sound, Bishop's hometown.

See Also


Sources of Information