Billy Bishop was Canada's greatest flying ace during the First World War.
Born William Avery Bishop in Owen Sound, Ontario in February 1894, the future First World War Ace exhibited not only a natural talent for individual sports but also a keen hunter’s eye that could take out a squirrel with a single shot from his .22 rifle.
After reading in the newspaper about this new flying machine called an aeroplane, 15 year old Bishop promptly designed his own version and flew it off the roof of his three-storey-home, miraculously surviving the crash.
Bishop enrolled at the Royal Military College, RMC, in Kingston, Ontario in August 1912. The spirited 17 year old cadet found his individualistic approach to life conflicted with RMC rules and discipline but, nevertheless, finished three turbulent years before enlisting in 1914, eager to enter the war before it was all over by Christmas.
Canada didn’t have enough officers to command her growing number of new recruits, and since Bishop had some military training, could ride a horse and shoot, he was immediately inducted as a lieutenant in the Mississauga Horse Regiment.
Illness kept Bishop behind when his unit sailed for England so he was re-assigned to the 14th Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles. After more training he finally made it to England in 1915 sailing on the troop ship SS Caledonia which was later sunk by German submarines off Malta in 1916.
Bishop hated the mud, muck and mire that plagued his Cavalry Camp and decided the only way to fight the war was in the skies as a pilot. So in 1916 Bishop transferred into the Air Force and became a pilot in 1917.
Royal Flying Corps
Billy Bishop transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) as an observer with 21 Squadron as they didn’t need pilots. His job was to take pictures, observe enemy troop movements, drop bombs and direct artillery fire. By January 1916, Bishop was in France flying missions as an observer.
Beset by illness and an injured knee after a bad landing, Bishop was on sick leave in England in May 1916 when a heart murmur was detected. Confined to bed, Bishop ended up back in Canada on indefinite leave. Bishop was lucky. While he was gone, 21 Squadron was decimated during the Battle of the Somme.
Back in England by September 1916, Bishop was determined to be a pilot and was finally pronounced medically fit for training. Remarkably in November 1916, after only 20 hours of flight time, Bishop earned his wings.
Posted to 37 Squadron, Bishop was on home defence duty hunting Zeppelins. He made several attempts to be transferred to the front and finally by March 1917 Bishop was headed to France to join No. 60 Squadron.
By this time in the war, the RFC was in trouble as the Germans were better trained and better equipped and it showed. Life expectancy of an RFC pilot was now only three weeks; for a rookie just eleven days. During March, April and May of 1917, more than 1,200 British machines would be shot down and over a third of the RFC destroyed. It became known as Bloody April.
In April 1917, the nose of Bishop’s Nieuport plane was painted blue; the mark of an ace meaning he had scored five victories or kills. Within one month he scored 14 ½ victories and was made captain. Bishop, known as The Lone Hawk, liked to fly alone hunting for hostile German aircraft. He often flew one or two accompanied patrols a day fitting in another couple of sorties on his own. Most pilots averaged two sorties a day.
Bishop saw aerial combat as sport or game. He is remembered for his energy, drive and boyish enthusiasm for the chase. In his yearning for adventure and excitement he was incessantly driven to increase his score. In a solo dawn raid on a German airfield, Bishop was credited with the destruction of three aircraft for which he received the Victoria Cross.
In five months, Billy Bishop accounted for one third of all aircraft shot down by No. 60 Squadron. This not only inspired young pilots but brought great credit to his squadron. Apparently, German flyers called the Canadian Ace in the blue-nosed plane, Hell’s Handmaiden, and had placed a bounty on his head. This not only inspired young pilots but brought great credit to his squadron.
Called back to England in August 1917, Bishop would not fly for nine months. Bishop was a hero now and the authorities lost no time in using him as a recruitment tool and as a focus of pride within the dominions.
Eager to get back to the front, he returned to England in the New Year to command No. 85 Squadron for which Bishop chose his own flight commanders and pilots. After training, the squadron arrived at the front in late May 1918. No longer the top scoring British ace, Bishop was back to defend his record.
Bishop continued his preference for flying alone and left his flight commanders to take out groups of aircraft. Billy Bishop had come up the hard way and was a highly capable fighter pilot but was never able to reconcile his natural tendency to be a lone hunter with the responsibilities of a squadron commander. In July 1918, No. 85 Squadron was assigned a new commander, who turned them into an efficient fighting force and increased their performance record.
Before Bishop left No. 85 Squadron, his goal, as always, was to increase his own score and he did so spectacularly by shooting down five enemy aircraft on his last patrol. Officially credited with 72 victories, Billy Bishop was the highest scoring Canadian Ace and third highest scoring Allied Air Ace.
This now famous Canadian and leading British Air Ace was decorated by King George V with the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross. Further leave in Canada gave Bishop a chance to get married on October 17, 1918, and to help bolster popular support for the far off war.
In early 1918, Billy Bishop was transferred to London to work with the RAF to create a new Canadian Air Force, but the war was over before it could be organized. Demobilised at the end of 1918, Bishop wrote a book which sold well. He still wanted to fly and formed an airline out of Toronto but it was short-lived. He moved to England with his family and sold scrap metal, returning to Canada to work in the oil business.
In 1931, Bishop was made an honorary Group Captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and campaigned for better air defence in the face of German rearmament. In 1938 he was made an Honorary Air Marshal, and when war was declared in 1939, he was made Director of Recruiting, a task which he threw himself into, to the detriment of his health. After the war, he returned to Montreal and retired in 1952. He died in Florida in his sleep, on September 11, 1956.
Billy Bishop is remembered by Canadians as the top fighter pilot to have flown the skies of the First World War. He was recognized as one of the leading British Empire pilots and claimed a total of 72 air victories, including two observation balloons. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for shooting down three aircraft behind enemy lines and destroying several more on the ground in a lone attack on a German airfield in June 1917.
Generations of young men were inspired to emulate their hero in both World Wars. Many young pilots were awarded their wings by Billy Bishop in the Second World War; one of them, his son, Arthur. His daughter, Jacquie, also received her Wireless Sparks Badge from him, as a radio operator.
Billy Bishop is remembered by Canadians as the top fighter pilot from Canada to fly the skies of the First World War. Generations of young men and boys were inspired to emulate their hero in both World Wars.
Many young pilots were awarded their wings by Billy Bishop in the Second World War; one of them, his son, Arthur. His daughter, Jacquie, also received from him, her Wireless Sparks Badge as a radio operator.
Interesting Facts about pilots in the First World War
- The first British plane was shot down in Aug 1914
- The life expectancy of a pilot in 1917 was three weeks, for a rookie just eleven days
- During 1917, over 2,000 RFC aircrew were killed in action
- Between 1914–1918, over 9,300 aircrew were killed and over 7,000 wounded
- The RFC shot down over 7,000 German aircraft and balloons
- By the end of the war, more aviators were killed learning to fly, than killed in combat
- In April 1918, the Royal Flying Corp became the Royal Air Force