Busy Bugger Billy Bishop and the air aces who shot down the Red Baron in World War I

World War I Canadian air ace Billy Bishop and his Nieuport 17 aircraft, France, 1917. Wikimedia Commons.


World War I

“You have been a busy bugger, haven’t you?” King George V, said on awarding the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award, to Billy (William Avery) Bishop (1894-1956), most famous of Canada’s Wold War I flying aces, July 1917. Canada’s young flying aces, who shot down Germany’s famous Red Baron, almost dominated the war skies.

Bishop is officially credited with destroying 72 German aircraft, exceeded among allied pilots in W only by French aviator Rene Fonck, who shot down 75.

Not all Bishop’s victories were witnessed, and some historians say the total was less than claimed.  Yet there is no doubt that Bishop was one of the top aerial dog fighters, and Canada’s best-known. Ernest Udet, second only to the Red Baron among Germany’s air aces, called Bishop “the greatest English scouting ace.” Other Germans called him “Hell’s Handmaiden.”

In the First World War, Canadians almost dominated the air aces of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, which became the Royal Air Force for the final seven months of the war. Among their victims was Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.

In the final year-and-a-half of the War, Canadians mostly piloted the famed Sopwith Camel, the bi-wing, single-seater, open cockpit, machine gun-mounted crate of wood and canvass, flying at 115 miles per hour, as low as 100 feet above the ground, or as high as 20,000. Bishop’s scouting and fighter aircraft, however, was a French machine, the Nieuport 17, also a bi-wing, single seater.

That British witnesses were not always on the scene of Bishop’s action is not surprising since he often flew lone-wolf missions behind enemy lines. On his return from one flight, a mechanic counted 210 bullet holes in his aircraft.

The son of a Toronto lawyer, Bishop was 18 when he joined a cavalry regiment when war started in 1914. Less than two years later, he was an observer and aerial photographer in a two-seater scouting plane, flying over German lines in France. Injured in a crash, he was out of action for an extended recovery, but a year later he was a trained pilot flying his first Nieuport 17. He crash landed on his first flight but shot down his first enemy aircraft the next day. His rank and his victories climbed. The solo flight that won him the VC (in addition to five other British and two French military awards) was on June 2, 1917, when he attacked a German airfield, reportedly shooting down three aircraft that were taking off to attack him, and destroying several more on the ground.

Two years later. June 19, 1918, Bishop made his last combat flight. He had been ordered to leave France that day for England to organize the new Canadian Flying Corps, and he was more than unhappy about leaving the action. “I’ve never been so furious in my life,” he wrote to his wife. Before leaving for England that day, he took off for one last, early morning flight. In 15 minutes of combat, he shot down three German aircraft and caused two others to crash.

In addition to Bishop, among the best-known First War Canadian air aces were Bill Barker, a farm boy born in a Manitoba log house; Andrew (Hank) McKeever, bank teller; Wilfrid (Wop) May, son of a Manitoba carriage maker; Stan Rosevear, university student; Roy Brown, business school student. They were young, still just 22 to 25 years old at the end of the four-year war.

Stan Rosevear

All except, Rosevear, who didn’t make it to the end. A “very skilful and dashing fighter pilot,” according to the citation that won him the Distinguished Service Cross for a flight in which he shot down four German planes and attacked infantry from a height of 100 feet. In nine months, he won 23 victories. Seven month before the war ended, he was shot down in his Sopwith Camel, and killed. He was 22.

Billy Barker

Barker was the wild colonial boy. A pain in the side of authority, he buzzed London’s Piccadilly Circus with his Sopwith Camel in a display of aerial acrobats. Like Bishop, he disobeyed orders for solo flights behind enemy lines. On one flight, he strafed a German airfield, á la Bishop. In a dog fight with 15 German Fokker aircraft, he shot down four before—wounded three times, bleeding profusely, barely conscious—he safely crash landed back in allied territory and was evacuated to hospital. His left elbow destroyed, he would later fly as a one-armed pilot, but never again as a fighter pilot. He had already shot down 50 enemy aircraft. Still Canada’s most decorated military man, he won a chestful of medals from Britain (including the Victoria Cross), France, and Italy. He was “The deadliest air fighter that ever lived,” claimed his friend Billy Bishop.

Hank Mckeever

After winning his wings, McKeever began piloting Bristol Fighters in April 1917, flying long-range reconnaissance over enemy territory. British newspapers soon dubbed him King of the Two-Seaters, in which the pilot in front and the observer in the rear cockpit each manned machineguns. The Bristol Fighter 2A was said to be the only British two-seater capable of holding its own against the German fighters—but it was a McKeever technique that made it a much more effective fighter. Instead of more or less floating aloft as a shooting platform for the observer and his gun in the rear cockpit, McKeever flew the Bristol like a Sopwith Camel, diving into dogfights, both pilot and observer blazing their guns.

On a solo reconnaissance flight behind enemy lines, McKeever and his observer attacked a pack of nine German fighters, shooting down two. Over a five-month period, they destroyed 31 enemy aircraft.

Posted back to England, McKeever spent the final 11 months of the war training pilots for a putative Canadian Air Force, which didn’t get off the ground until two years after the war.

Death of the red baron

Roy Brown and Wop May were the key figures in the dogfight that killed the Red Baron, Manfred von Richtofen.

Brown was one of the very few British flight commanders who never lost a pilot during combat. That was due in part to his custom of instructing new pilots in his squadron to refrain from dogfights, to fly high above the action, to observe and learn. On patrol on April 21, 1918, Brown’s newest pilot was Wop May. The Sopwith Camels attacked a group of 15 to 20 German triplanes. Wop was not the only novice pilot watching and learning from above the fray. There was also a German fighter, piloted, as it turned out, by Wolfram von Richtofen, cousin of the Red Baron. Wop attacked the new German pilot, chasing him down toward the dogfight, until Wop’s gun jammed. Seeing his cousin chased, the Red Baron chased Wop. Then Brown, seeing Wop chased, chased the Red Baron. In his combat report, Wop wrote:

“…came out with red triplane on my tail, which followed me down to the ground and over the line on my tail all the time got several bursts into me but didn’t hit me. When we got across the line, he was shot down by Capt. Brown. I saw him crash into the side of the hill. Came back with Capt. We found afterwards that the triplane (red) was the famous German airman Baron Richtofen. He was killed.”

Some historians have questioned whether it was Brown who shot and severely wounded Richtofen, causing him to crash. He was also fired on by the machine guns of Australian infantry, who might have hit and wounded him.

With Canadian modesty, Brown wrote in his combat report that the effect of his fight with the Red Baron was “indecisive.” His commanding officer changed that to “decisive,” and Brown was officially recorded as having shot down the Red Baron.

In the post-war years, Wop May became one of the best known of Canada’s bush pilots, flying out of Edmonton into the Northwest Territories. Brown left the RAF in 1919 for a varied career as an accountant; founder of a small, ill-fated airline; editor of Canadian Aviation; an unsuccessful candidate for the Ontario legislature, and finally, a farmer. He died of a heart attack at age 50.

Unfamiliar History—Canada@150.


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