The Only German POW To Escape From Canada And Get Back Into The Fight
A POW escaping from captivity has long been one of the most fascinating stories of World War 2. For all the war’s brutality, there seemed to be this complicit understanding in Europe that a captured soldier or airman would do all they could to escape and that was just the game they played.
Certainly, brutal reprisals were common, but when an escapee was captured it almost took on the sense of, “nice try, now back you go.” And while allied POWs tend to get all the Hollywood-style fame for their captivity with movies and television series, there was one German Fighter Ace who actually made his way out of a POW camp in Canada and all the way back to Germany to score 13 additional air to air kills.
This is the story of Franz von Werra and the man who made it back.
A Personality Made for War
Franz von Werra was born in July 1914 to Swiss parents. Growing up, von Werra would demonstrate a boisterous and playboy personality that made him a perfect fit for the role of World War II fighter pilot. In 1936, he joined the Luftwaffe and by 1940, he was fully immersed in the battle for France.
He scored his first victory in May 1940 when he shot down a Hawker Hurricane. He would claim two more bombers before moving on to the Battle of Britain. In one particular battle in August 1940, he claimed a Spitfire and three more Hurricanes as victories along with five more aircraft destroyed on the ground.
Already a fighter Ace, von Werra was starting to gain national attention when he was shot down on September 5, 1940, over Kent. And while it’s not clear whether he was shot down by British pilots or friendly fire, the end result was von Werra crash landing in a field where he was subsequently captured. While it remains to be understood why some POWs embrace their captivity while others attempt to flee at the first sight of opportunity, von Werra would clearly be the latter.
He made his first attempt to escape while on a working detail during the time in which he was held at Maidstone Barracks. This attempt was unsuccessful, and after a period of interrogation, he was sent to POW Camp No. 1 at Grizedale Hall.
He would get his first taste of freedom on October 7th when he jumped over a wall with the help of his fellow German prisoners. For the next five days, von Werra would allude captivity in the English countryside despite a massive search for his whereabouts.
He was found on October 12th completely covered in mud as he attempted to dig a ditch in the ground. He received 21 days of solitary confinement and was sent to No. 13 in Swanwick, Derbyshire. It was here that he would come remarkably close during another escape attempt before being sent to Canada.
Hard to Keep von Werra Around
in December 1940, von Werra and four other POWs had managed to dig a tunnel out of No. 13 and slipped away into the night under the cover of antiaircraft fire and with the aid of their fellow POWs. Somehow they had come into possession of forged documents to aid in their escape. And while the other four POWs were quickly caught, the ingenious von Werra had another plan.
Somehow he had convinced British citizens that he was actually a downed Dutch pilot trying to make his way back to his unit. Remarkably, he made it all the way back to the aerodrome at RAF Hucknall where his plan was almost completed.
When being questioned by a squadron leader who left to check on his story, von Werra quickly ran to the nearest hanger and hopped in a plane after convincing a mechanic he was cleared for flight. When he was found out, he was arrested at gunpoint as he sat in the cockpit attempting to learn the controls of the craft perhaps just moments from freedom. At this point, the British thought that von Werra might be better off in Canada.
Along with many other German POWs, he was ordered to be taken to a POW camp on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Canada. However, von Werra would accept this new challenge and immediately began planning his escape. In January 1941, the United States was still a neutral power. So when the opportunity presented itself, von Werra leaped off of a prisoner train and made his way to the United States.
Making his way across the frozen St. Lawrence River, he arrived in New York State and turned himself over to the police. Not yet at war, the United States simply charged him with entering the country illegally. As a result, he contacted the German Consul who paid his bail and gave him his temporary freedom.
And while the US and Canada were discussing extradition, the German vice-consul took care of his fighter Ace and helped him make his way to Mexico. Once over the border, von Werra would begin the long journey that would take him from Brazil to Spain, to Italy and finally back in Germany in April of 1941.
Back in the Fight
Once back in Germany, von Werra was recognized as a hero by Adolf Hitler for having made his way back to the fight and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Von Werra would eventually be assigned to the Eastern front where he would go on to score 13 additional air to air kills over the skies of Russia.
It seemed von Werra was a man destined for greatness in the war, but a tragic accident would end his storied career.
After his unit returned to Germany in order to rest and re-equip with new aircraft, von Werra’s BF 109F-4 experienced a catastrophic engine failure and crashed into the sea.
His body was never found and he would go down in the history as the only German POW to escape Canada and return to the war. His story would get a little bit of the Hollywood treatment be made into a 1957 film aptly named, The One That Got Away.
Stanisław Skalski (1915 – 2004) was a Polish fighter ace of the Polish Air Force in World War II, later rising to the rank of Brigadier General. Skalski was the top Polish fighter ace of the war and the first Allied fighter ace of the war, credited, according to official lists, with 18 11/12 victories and two probable. Some sources, including Skalski himself, give a number of 22 11/12 victories. In October 1942 he was given command of the Polish Fighting Team (PFT), or so-called “Skalski’s Circus” – a Special Flight consisting of fifteen experienced Polish fighter pilot volunteers. During its two months on operations, the Polish pilots had claimed a total of 26 German and Italian aircraft shot down.
Stanisław Skalski died in Warsaw on 12 November 2004.
The Second World War saw the combatants race to outdo one another in designing, manufacturing, and fielding, ever improved weapons in order to gain an edge over their foes. Nowhere was that rivalry more fierce and marked than in the air, where the technological state of art progressed in leaps and bounds, with steady and rapid improvements in plane designs, metallurgy, and engines that grew in power and efficiency with each passing year. The war saw fighter aircraft progress from piston driven planes at war’s beginning, to the dawn of the jet age by war’s end. Following, in rough chronological order, are ten of the greatest fighter aircraft of that conflict.
Messerschmitt Bf 109
The Messerschmitt Bf 109, officially shortened to Bf 109, was the iconic German fighter of WWII. An argument could be made that the Bf 109 was the most successful fighter platform of the war. Which is not to say that the 109 was the best fighter of the war, but that its design was the most solid and serviceable of WWII.
With initial plans dating back to 1934, first prototype flown in 1935, and the first model entering operational service in 1937 and seeing combat in the Spanish Civil War, the Bf 109 was the only fighter, aside from the Spitfire, that was deployed in front line service at war’s beginning in 1939, and with incremental improvements, remained in front line service, effective and competitive against newer fighters, until war’s end. The prototype that flew in 1935 was the world’s first low wing, retractable wheels, all metal monoplane fighter – a basic design subsequently used by all sides during WWII.
At its most basic, the essence of the Bf 109 was to take the smallest feasible airframe, and attach to it the most powerful engine possible. The design had flaws, such as a cramped cockpit, a poor rear view, and a narrow undercarriage that rendered ground handling hazardous to inexperienced pilots. Moreover, small size translated into limited fuel capacity, reducing its range – which proved problematic during the Battle of Britain, when Bf 109s were typically limited to 15 minutes’ worth of fighting over Britain, before dwindling fuel forced them to disengage and fly back home.
Nonetheless, the basic concept of small airframe married to big engine proved successful, allowing as it did for progressive upgrades as more powerful engines became available, and allowing the Bf 109 to remain competitive throughout the war. The adaptable design allowed the plane to progress from the 109D model in 1939, with a top speed of 320 m.p.h., to the 109K model at war’s end, capable of 452 m.p.h.
Eric Hartman, the war’s top ace with 352 kills, flew the Bf 109. Indeed, the top three aces of the war, with over 900 kills between them, flew 109s, as did the top scoring ace against the Western Allies. In addition to the interceptor and escort role for which it had been originally designed, the 109 was sufficiently adaptable to serve in other roles, including ground attack, and reconnaissance. With nearly 34,000 manufactured between 1936 and 1945, the Bf 109 was the most produced fighter aircraft in history.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
A light and nimble fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was the first carrier based fighter capable of besting its land based opponents, and was Japan’s main fighter of WWII. The Zero’s design sacrificed protection for speed, maneuverability, and long range, on the theory that superior speed and maneuverability were protections in their own right, with long range an added bonus. The A6M came as a shock to Allied pilots when first encountered, because it could outmaneuver every airplane it faced at the time.
A better dogfighter than anything the Allies had at the start of the Pacific War, the Zero’s superior performance, especially in the hands of Japan’s elite naval aviators, exceeded anything the Allies had hitherto expected from the Japanese. In the war’s early days, Japanese naval aviators flying Zeroes achieved a 12:1 kill ratio.
To counter the Zero’s advantages, American pilots adopted team work tactics such as the “Thach Weave” which required pilot pairs to work in tandem, or the “Boom and Zoom”, in which American pilots engaged the Zero only in diving attacks, as the acceleration of their heavier planes in a dive allowed them to flee if the diving attack failed.
While holding considerable advantages in maneuverability and speed, the Zero’s lack of protection for either the pilot or the fuel tanks proved a steadily mounting disadvantage as the war progressed, since the heavier and more rugged American fighters could absorb considerable punishment from Zeroes, while a single machine gun burst from the American plane could disintegrate a Zero.
By 1943, attrition had thinned the ranks of Japan’s elite aviators, and the Japanese Navy’s training pipeline could not produce enough replacements of similar caliber. As a result, there were fewer and fewer Japanese pilots capable of extracting the most out of the Zero’s advantages while minimizing its disadvantages. Which was bad news for the Japanese, as the quality of American aviators was increasing, due to wartime experience as well as an extensive training program that produced capable aviators at a rate Japan could not match. That was exacerbated by the introduction of new American fighters, such as the F4U Corsair and the F6F Hellcat, that were a significant improvement over their predecessors, and proved more than a match for the Zero, with greater firepower, armor, speed, and similar maneuverability.
By 1944 the Zero was obsolescent and rapidly becoming obsolete, but it remained in front line service because the Japanese faced production difficulties in fielding a replacement. From its heyday at war’s beginning when it ruled the skies of the Pacific while flown by elite pilots, A6Ms were reduced by war’s end to flying kamikaze missions under the controls of barely trained novices.
A graceful aircraft whose wide elliptical wings, curves, and rounded components flowed smoothly into each other in an elegant whole, the Supermarine Spitfire was a masterpiece of aerodynamic engineering, and perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing airplane of the WWII. It was considered remarkably easy to handle, and that, combined with its physical appeal and superb performance, turned it into a legend.
Moreover, the Spitfire was remarkably durable. As Spitfire pilot John Vader wrote: “Spitfires have hit the ground, touched the sea, bashed through trees, cut telegraph and high tension wires, collided in the air, been shot to pieces, had rudders and parts of wings fall off, and have yet made safe landings, with or without wheels.”
Designed as a high performance short range interceptor to supplement the Royal Air Force Fighter Command’s mainstay, the Hawker Hurricane, the Spitfire combined lethality with beauty and toughness, and proved a superb defensive fighter in the Battle of Britain, July to October, 1940. During that dark summer, the Spitfire emerged as the iconic symbol of British defiance as that country stood alone against the German juggernaut.
Although the RAF had more Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain than it did Spitfires, the Spitfire’s superior performance resulted in a lower attrition rate and a higher kill to loss ratio. As a result, during German raids on Britain, Spitfire squadrons were generally tasked with engaging Luftwaffe fighters and keeping them occupied, while flights of Hurricanes dove in to savage the now undefended German bombers.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Spitfire came during that fray, when Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, growing frustrated by the inability to crush British resistance, berated a gathering of his exhausted and weary fighter commanders, taking them to task for failing to defeat the enemy despite a numerical superiority over the RAF. When he reportedly asked just what more he could do to speed up victory, one of them replied bitterly: “Give me a squadron of Spitfires!” After the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire began to replace the Hurricane as the backbone of the RAF’s Fighter Command for the remainder of the war.
The plane’s design proved sufficiently rugged and adaptable to permit the use of increasingly powerful engines as the war progressed. That led to a steady increase in the Spitfire’s performance and capabilities throughout the conflict. Aside from machine guns, different versions were equipped with cannons, rockets, or bombs. In addition to its primary role as interceptor, the Spitfire successfully served in other roles, such as fighter-bomber, reconnaissance, and trainer. It was the most produced British aircraft of the war, with over 20,000 manufactured during the conflict.
A low wing fighter powered by a BWW air cooled radial engine, the Focke-Wulf FW-190 was first ordered in 1937, intended as insurance against possible shortages in the liquid cooled Daimler engines that powered the Luftwaffe’s mainstay fighter, the Bf 109. As things turned out, once it was introduced in late 1941, the backup quickly stole the show. The FW-190 proved more rugged than the 109, as its huge radial engine, mounted up front, acted as extra shielding for the pilot, and could absorb far more damage than the Bf 109’s liquid cooled engine and still function. It also proved superior to the 109 in most tasks, except high altitude dog fighting. Thus, the Focke-Wulf ended up replacing the Messerschmitt as Germany’s main fighter, with over 20,000 produced by war’s end.
Maneuverable, and heavily armed with a standard configuration of four 20mm cannon plus two machine guns, the FW-190 proved an excellent airplane, and during the middle war years, was the best air to air fighter, asserting an ascendancy over enemy fighters that lasted until the Spitfire IX restored parity in July, 1942.
However, the Spitfire lacked the range to penetrate deep into Reich territory. Thus, when US Bomber Command entered the fray and began conducting daylight raids into Germany, the FW-190s’ heavy armaments rendered it well suited for the role of bomber destroyer. Wading into the bomber formations, FW-190s inflicted heavy losses and established an ascendancy over German skies that lasted until long range fighter escorts finally became available to shepherd US bombers in 1944.
In addition to fighter duties, the FW-190 platform was well suited to other roles, such as reconnaissance, ground attack, fast light bomber capable of carrying a respectable 4000 bomb load, and when equipped with 37mm cannons, an exceptional tank buster. The FW-190s supremacy over Germany’s skies was first challenged by the appearance of P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts, whose range was extended by the use of drop tanks, enabling them to escort American bombers to those targets in Germany that fell within their enhanced range, and at least part of the way to those targets deeper inside Germany that lay beyond.
The FW-190’s radial engine could not hope to match the turbo supercharged engines of those American fighters at high altitudes, and so FW-190s were forced to retreat deeper into Germany, effectively abandoning those parts within Allied escort fighter range. Alternatively, FW-190s would shadow the bomber formations and wait until the escorting Thunderbolts or Lightnings reached their maximum range and had to turn back, before pouncing on the now undefended bombers.
The appearance of the P-51 Mustang, which had the range to escort US bombers to targets anywhere inside German held territory, put the FW-190 at a permanent disadvantage and ended its ascendancy as a bomber destroyer. The introduction of the liquid cooled FW-190D variant in September of 1944 restored some degree of parity, but by then it was too late. German factories did not produce enough FW-190Ds to go around, and by the time they came out, the Luftwaffe had suffered severe pilot attrition, so there was a shortage of experienced flyers capable of taking full advantage of the FW-190D’s capabilities.
Lockheed P-38 Lightning
With its distinctive twin booms on either side of a central pod containing the cockpit and armaments, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning is one of the most recognizable airplanes of WWII. It was also the only successful twin engine fighter of the war, with over 10,000 produced during the conflict.
The Lightning’s prototype was the world’s fastest airplane when it was first introduced in 1939, and it remained one of the fastest climbers until war’s end. Operationally deployed in 1941, the P-38 saw service in both the European and Pacific theaters, but excelled more in the Pacific, where its long range capabilities were well suited to the vast distances characteristic of that theater.
The placement of the Lightning’s machine guns on the plane’s nose was unusual among American fighters of WWII, which relied on wing mounted machine guns instead. While wing mounted guns were calibrated to shoot at crisscrossing trajectories of between 100 to 250 yards, the Lightning’s straight ahead gun arrangement gave it a significantly longer useful range: P-38s were able to reliably deliver effective and aimed concentrated machine gun fire at a range of up to 1000 yards. America’s top two aces of World War II, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, both flew P-38s.
The P-38’s most famous mission was Operation Vengeance, which highlighted its excellence as a long range fighter, and resulted in the death of Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When American codebreakers intercepted and deciphered Japanese signals that he was scheduled to fly from Rabaul to the island of Bougainville on April 18, 1943, a flight of 16 Lightnings was dispatched from Guadalcanal on a 600 mile roundabout trip to intercept and shoot down Yamamoto’s airplane, followed by a 400 mile straight line return flight to Guadalcanal. At the time, only P-38s were capable of making such a 1000 mile round trip.
Skimming the ocean at less than 50 feet above the waves in order to avoid detection, the operation worked like precision clockwork. The P-38s arrived at Bougainville and climbed to altitude just as Yamamoto’s plane and its escorts arrived over the island, reaching the planned interception point within one minute of the admiral. The Lightnings fell upon the Japanese, and Yamamoto’s plane was shot down, along with another transport plane plus two escorting Zeroes, for the loss of one P-38.
Lightnings remained America’s primary long range fighter until the arrival of the P-51 Mustang. Versatile, the P-38 was used not only in the long range fighter role, but also served effectively in reconnaissance, dive bombing and level bombing, as well as ground attack.
A lightened upgrade of previous Yakovlev fighters, the Yak-9 was initially deployed in October of 1942, and saw its first combat soon thereafter during the Battle of Stalingrad. Standard armament was a nose mounted 20mm cannon, plus one or two heavy machine guns. It was used mainly to support ground troops by shielding them from German air attacks, and strafing enemy troops when feasible.
In contrast to what came before, Soviet pilots considered the Yak-9 to be the equal of the German Bf 109 and FW-190 fighters, especially at lower altitudes where the light Yak-9, although inferior to the Germans in armaments, proved their superior in speed and maneuverability and rate of climb, thus allowing it to excel in low level dog fighting. It also proved remarkably durable, able to absorb significant damage and punishment, and still make it back home.
The light fighter’s markedly improved performance over that of its predecessors was instrumental in restoring Soviet pilots’ confidence after the catastrophic losses they had suffered in the first year of the war, caused by poor training and tactics, but more importantly, by inferior airplanes that were no match for the modern fighters flown by the Luftwaffe.
The restoration of its fighter pilots’ confidence in their equipment finally allowed the Red Air Force to begin clawing its way back up and gradually stabilize the situation on the Eastern Front, as the Soviet air arm slowly replaced the marked aerial inferiority exhibited against the Germans with aerial parity, then superiority, and by war’s end, supremacy. After its successful introduction over the skies of Stalingrad, the Yak-9 gradually became the Soviet Union’s main fighter of the war, and by 1944, there were more Yak-9s in service than all other Soviet fighters combined.
As with other fighters that did particularly well in the war, the Yak-9’s success was due in no small to the versatility of its basic design, allowing for steady improvements as the war progressed, and for utilization in a variety of roles. In addition to a defensive fighter, the adaptable Yak-9s were also put to uses such as reconnaissance, long range bomber escorts, nighttime fighters, armed with 37mm or 45mm cannons and used as tank busters, general ground attacks, and when equipped with bomb loads of up to 1000 pounds, the planes could also serve as light bombers. The Yakovlev Yak-9 was the most produced fighter in the history of the Red Air Force, with over 16,000 rolling out of Soviet factories.
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
Nicknamed “The Jug” and exceptionally huge by the standards of WWII, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the heaviest fighter of the conflict. Clocking in at 8 tons when fully loaded in its ground attack role, and 10,000 pounds empty, it was 50 percent heavier than the P-51 Mustang, and nearly twice as heavy as the Spitfire. Notwithstanding its weight, the P-47 was fast, capable of matching the Mustang’s 440 m.p.h. top speed, with one late war variant reaching 473 m.p.h. However, it had shorter range, at 800 miles, than the Mustang’s nearly 1600 miles.
Ironically, the P-47 had initially been conceived of as a light interceptor, but between proposal and prototype, requirements and minds changed, and a heavy fighter emerged. Initial designs called for a small fighter with a liquid cooled engine, but when the Army raised concerns, designers turned to an air cooled, and exceptionally powerful for its day, engine. The powerful engine meant the plane no longer needed to be small, and so its size grew, resulting in a heavy fighter with a respectable range.
While the increased weight reduced the P-47’s rate of climb, that only mattered for an interceptor, and by 1943 when Thunderbolts first saw combat, there was no significant enemy bomber threat that urgently required a fighter with interceptor characteristics. Moreover, the extra weight had its own benefits, increasing the P-47’s durability, and making it faster in the dive – a great asset that enabled Thunderbolts to overtake fleeing enemy fighters, or to break off contact and flee themselves if necessary.
Deployed to Europe in 1942 and seeing its first combat in 1943, the Thunderbolt was utilized primarily in bomber escort duties, and gained a reputation for ruggedness because its robust airframe and air cooled radial engine allowed it to absorb significant combat damage and still bring plane and pilot back home.
The P-47 was gradually phased out from its bomber escort role as the longer ranged P-51 Mustangs began to arrive. The Thunderbolt then found a new niche as a ground attack fighter, in which role it excelled, wreaking havoc on airfields, locomotives, and road traffic. Indeed, when fully loaded in its fighter-bomber configuration, a single P-47 could deliver about half the payload of a B-17 heavy bomber. And when equipped with rockets, a salvo from a P-47 was equivalent to a battery of 155 mm howitzers.
The Thunderbolt was the most used American fighter of the war, with nearly 16,000 manufactured. During its production run, improvements were made, with each modification adding to the P-47’s speed, power, range, and maneuverability. During the final year and a half of the war, P-47s comprised nearly half of all US fighters in groups posted overseas. P-47s flew over half a million sorties, during which they shot down about 4000 enemy airplanes from the skies and destroyed another 3000 on the ground, as well as 6000 armored vehicles, 9000 locomotives, and 86,000 trucks.
Grumman F6F Hellcat
Early in the Pacific War, American naval aviators were shocked upon discovering that their standard fighter, the F4F Wildcat, was outclassed in many ways by the faster, more maneuverable, and longer ranged Japanese Zero. Ameliorative operational procedures and tactics were adopted to counter the Zero’s advantages and play up to the Wildcat’s strengths, but it was clear that such measures were a stopgap, and that what was really needed was a new and improved fighter
Grumman, which had been working on a successor to the F4F prior to America’s entry into the war, sped things up after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and took what became the F6F Hellcat from the experimental stage to operational employment in a mere 18 months. Featuring foldable wings for easier storage in less space, thus allowing aircraft carriers to carry a greater number of fighters, the F6F was faster, more powerful, more maneuverable, and longer ranged than its predecessor, and outclassed the enemy’s Zeroes in every way except maneuverability at low speed. The Hellcat saw its first combat in August of 1943, and proved such so successful that, by 1944, it had become the Navy’s standard carrier based fighter.
12,275 Hellcats were produced during the war, and they were the main platform which the US Navy used to clear the Pacific skies of enemy planes. A versatile and rugged aircraft, F6Fs spearheaded America’s advance across the Pacific, conducting fighter sweeps over enemy airfields, flying combat air patrols to shield the forces below from aerial attack, and performing ground attacks in support of soldiers and Marines.
Standard armament was six .50 caliber machines, but some planes substituted a pair of 20mm canon for two of the machine guns. F6Fs could also carry a pair of 1000 pound bombs, but its most destructive load for ground attacks were half a dozen 5 inch rockets, whose salvoes exceeded a destroyer’s broadside.
Although it did not enter service until the final two years of the conflict, the F6F downed 5156 enemy aircraft. Nicknamed “The Ace Maker” for the seeming ease with which its pilots achieved that status, with 307 Hellcat pilots becoming aces during the war, the plane achieved an enviable 19:1 kill ratio, and accounted for 75 percent of the US Navy’s air to air victories.
North American P-51 Mustang
The North American P-51 Mustang was perhaps the only airplane to seriously rival the Spitfire for the title of most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing fighter of WWII. When it came to performance, however, the Mustang had no serious rival for the title of best fighter of the war, embodying as it did the pinnacle of propeller driven fighter technology, and proving itself a credible match against even the revolutionary Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.
The Mustang was initially designed for the RAF, and the plane that was manufactured in accordance with the British buyers’ specifications, and delivered in October of 1941, was mediocre. Equipped with an underpowered engine, those early Mustangs could not compete on an equal footing with German fighters at high altitude. As such, the RAF’s Fighter Command saw no use for the plane, and it was relegated to tactical reconnaissance and ground attack duties.
It was not until 1943, after the US Eighth Air Force joined the bombing campaign against Germany and suffered horrendous losses during raids deep into Reich territory beyond the range of fighter escorts, that the Mustang got a second look. The front line American fighters at the time, the P-38s and P-47s, had shortcomings as bomber escorts – most important of which was the lack of sufficient range to accompany the bombers all the way to targets deep into Germany. After evaluation, it was determined that the Mustang, if modified to carry additional fuel internally and fitted with external fuel tanks, would have the necessary range to escort the bombers anywhere in the European Theater of Operations.
That fixed half of the problem: transforming the Mustang into a fighter capable of escorting American bombers all the way to targets deep inside Germany. Fixing the other half of the problem – improving the Mustang’s performance so it could beat back German fighters and actually protect the bombers it would now escort – transformed the Mustang into a legend.
What had kept the Mustang mediocre was a mediocre engine that performed poorly at high altitudes. Equipped with that stock engine, the initial Mustangs had a top speed of 390 miles per hour, and an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet – any higher, and their performance suffered. Then a British test pilot had the bright idea of replacing the Mustang’s stock engine with the Rolls Royce engine used in the Spitfire IX, and the results were immediate and dramatic, allowing the Mustang to realize its potential, and transforming it from a mediocrity to the war’s best fighter. From a 390 m.p.h. top speed, the Rolls Royce engined Mustang zoomed to 440 m.p.h. (with later models reaching 490 m.p.h.), and from an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet, the improved Mustang soared to 42,000 feet.
The test results were passed on to the Americans, and converted Mustangs, equipped with the Rolls Royce engine and now designated the P-51B, began rolling out of factories in June of 1943, and by late 1943, P-51s were in place and ready for action in Europe. When they entered action in 1944, the P-51s broke the Luftwaffe’s back.
The Bf 109s had good engines, capable of performing well at the high altitudes in which the bombers flew. But to actually down the rugged B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, the 109s needed to be fitted with heavy armaments. The problem was that putting heavy armaments on the Bf 109s’ light airframe negatively impacted their performance, making them that much more vulnerable to the bombers’ escorting P-51s, which were unencumbered by heavy armaments, and armed and optimized instead for the task of killing fighters.
The FW-190s had it even worse than the 109s when they tried to penetrate the protective screen of P-51s in order to get at the bombers. While the 109s at least had engines that were suited for high altitude dog fighting, the FW-190s did not have even that, and their radial engines were no match for the Mustangs’ Rolls Royce engines at high altitudes. Between that, and the dilemma of needing heavy armaments in order to shoot down heavy bombers, even as those heavy armaments reduced their ability to take on enemy fighters not similarly encumbered, the FW-190s found themselves at a severe disadvantage against the P-51s.
After months of heavy losses to the Mustangs, and unsustainable attrition that bled the German fighter arm white, the Luftwaffe effectively ceded the skies over Germany to the P-51 escorted bombers, shadowing the formations but mostly shying away from contact, pouncing instead on stragglers suffering mechanical malfunctions or damaged by flak.
The P-51s begrudged the Germans even that, and would not allow the once proud Luftwaffe to skulk and scavenge in peace. If the German fighters would not come up to fight them, then they would go down to find and fight the German fighters.
Appointed to command of the Eighth Air Force, Jimmy Doolittle, of Tokyo raid fame, was not content with simply protecting the bombers. Instead, he sought to achieve aerial supremacy over German skies. To do that, he changed the orders that had required escorting fighters to stick with the bombers at all times, and freed them to sweep far ahead of the formations to engage any Germans they could find. Additionally, once the bombers had hit their targets and began their return trip, the P-51s were free to leave the formations and “hit the deck” on their way back home, descending from their high altitudes and engaging any planes they came across, strafing German airfields, attacking trains or road traffic, engaging any targets of opportunity they spotted, and otherwise provoking and daring the Luftwaffe to come out and do something about it. In the runup to the D-Day landings, some P-51 groups were released from bomber escort duties altogether, and unleashed on German airfields instead. Such aggressive tactics finally crippled the Luftwaffe.
The P-51s proved such a success, and were such a marked improvement over the P-38s and P-47s, that by the end of 1944, 14 out of the Eighth Air Force’s 15 fighter groups had switched from Lightnings and Thunderbolts to Mustangs. Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Mustangs came from the Luftwaffe’s chief, Hermann Goering, who reportedly said “I knew the jig was up” when he saw P-51s over Berlin.
Even the arrival of futuristic German airplanes late in the war failed to wrest aerial supremacy from the P-51s. The most formidable of those planes, the Messerschmitt Me 262, was kept in check by a shortage of both fuel and experienced pilots, as well as by the expedients of attacking their airfields and strafing them on the ground, or keeping fighter air patrols near their airfields, and catching them at their most vulnerable when they were taking off or landing.
Messerschmitt Me 262
Flying at 540 miles per hour, and armed with four 30 mm cannon, the Messerschmitt Me 262 was faster and better armed than any other fighter in WWII. Its arrival ushered the dawn of the jet age and revolutionized aerial warfare, but it came too late to stave off Germany’s defeat.
First flown in 1942, technical difficulties, coupled with inadequate support or understanding of its potential by high ranking German leaders, delayed the Me 262’s deployment until 1944. E.g.; Goering thought the war would be won with the planes Germany already possessed, rendering the investment in projects such as the Me 262 superfluous, while Hitler gummed up the works by supporting the development of the jet as a fast bomber rather than an interceptor.
The Me 262 first saw combat with an experimental trial unit in July of 1944, but it was not until November of 1944 that the jet fighter first attacked one of the bomber formations that by then were roaming Germany’s skies at will. Results were mixed, with two escorting P-51s shot down but no bombers, for the loss of one jet fighter and the death of its pilot, an irreplaceable Luftwaffe ace with over 250 kills.
The first Me 262 wing was formed in January of 1945, by which point Allied armies were already on German home soil in both the Eastern and Western fronts. The Me 262 units’ effectiveness was hampered by organizational flaws, a dearth of experienced pilots capable of taking full advantage of the plane’s capabilities, lack of fuel for adequate training, and frequent Allied attacks on their airfields.
It was not until March of 1945 that a glimpse of what might have been was seen, when Luftwaffe general Adolf Galland formed an Me 262 unit comprised of elite and highly experienced pilots. Mounting coordinated large scale jet attacks on the bomber formations, the results were impressive, if too little and too late. In the first such attack, 37 Me 262s took on a formation of over 1000 bombers, protected by over 600 fighter escorts, and shot down twelve bombers and one fighter, for the loss of only 3 jets.
While such a 4:1 kill ratio was impressive, it was a pinprick, and Germany went down to total defeat a few weeks later. But if more Me 262s had been available a year earlier, and had been organized into units staffed with experienced pilots rather than novices as was too often the case, a 4:1 kill rate could have seriously complicated matters for the Allies, and the course of the war, if not its final outcome, might have gone differently.
The Allies, aware of the Me 262’s disruptive potential, devoted considerable resources to contain it. Allied fighters were at a severe disadvantage in taking on the jets at high altitude, as they were significantly faster than any piston driven plane. However, the Me 262s were vulnerable at takeoff and landing, and parked on their airfields they were sitting ducks. So Allied fighters patrolled the vicinity of Me 262 airfields to try and catch them taking off or landing, and bombed them with mounting frequency. Shooting them down might have been difficult, but destroying them on the ground and wrecking the infrastructure needed to send them up in the first place was well within Allied capabilities.
The United States Air Force and Army have seen many skilled, brave, and incredible pilots – men and women willing to fly straight into battle, to face war in the skies. Among all of those heroic fighters, one in particular made his mark in history.
His name was Edward Vernon Rickenbacker.
A fighter ace in World War I, Rickenbacker remains America’s most successful fighter ace of that time with a total of 26 impressive aerial victories. Yet Rickenbacker was so much more than a skilled pilot. His life outside of the military was one of intrigue, excitement, and even dramatic brushes with death.
From government consultant to the head of a U.S. airline, Rickenbacker led a fascinating life – these are five standout facts about this famous ace.
1. Rickenbacker survived 135 brushes with death during his lifetime.
Although he’s best known as “America’s Ace of Aces,” the fighter pilot wasn’t always a smooth operator. In fact, over the course of his lifetime, Rickenbacker faced off with death an astonishing 135 times. Others nicknamed him “the luckiest man alive” because of his frequent brushes with death. Early on in his life, the trend began: Rickenbacker almost died after a run-in with a horse-drawn carriage, a tonsillectomy gone wrong, and even a mine cart crash that nearly crushed him.
Two of his more dramatic experiences made his survival seem even more unlikely; Rickenbacker spent weeks adrift at sea during World War II and survived a deadly plane crash while flying as a passenger in one of his very own airline’s planes. Fortunately, Rickenbacker survived each and every one of these horrific moments and died peacefully at the age of 82
2. Political opinions were problematic for Rickenbacker, who was banned from radio broadcasts at NBC for disagreeing with President Franklin Roosevelt.
During FDR’s terms as president, the pilot and the president clashed over differing opinions frequently and repeatedly. The source of their contention, surprisingly, was Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Although these policies were effective and did get Americans back to work in the midst of the Great Depression, Rickenbacker believed FDR was implementing socialism – and the famed fighter ace refused to stay quiet. He spoke out against President Roosevelt regularly and on public radio, criticizing the New Deal and the President himself.
FDR fought back, though; his administration ordered NBC Radio to forbid Rickenbacker from sharing any anti-Roosevelt opinions on the airwaves. Rickenbacker continued his critical expression, speaking out against another presidential decision to rescind airlines’ existing mail contracts and give the responsibility to U.S. Army Air Corps pilots – he even went as far to call Roosevelt’s decision “legalized murder.”
3. Rickenbacker faced a number of obstacles along his path to becoming a pilot, including his U.S. Army superiors attempting to block his progress.
In order to achieve his historic status as a famed fighter ace, Rickenbacker struggled. He enlisted in the military before WWI even began, so when the U.S. declared war on Germany, Rickenbacker was already in training. By 1917, he was stationed in France as a Sergeant First Class. However, Rickenbacker immediately faced difficult odds: the majority of his fellow pilots-in-training held college degrees. The future ace didn’t, and he struggled to get the permission to fly from his superiors.
The Army believed Rickenbacker wasn’t academically qualified to become a pilot. So, Rickenbacker took a different path and earned the assignment of engineering officer. During his free time, he practiced flying, building his skills. Finally, once Rickenbacker was deemed experienced enough to fly – yet another obstacle appeared. Because he’d become such a fantastic engineer with impressive mechanical skills, once again his superiors attempted to stop his progression to pilot.
It wasn’t until Rickenbacker provided his superiors with a replacement as skilled as he that they allowed him to take a place in the 94th Aero Squadron, an air combat unit.
4. Before his years as a fighter ace, Rickenbacker was a famous race car driver – he was so skilled, he even competed in the Indianapolis 500 four times.
Driving race cars and flying fighter planes may not appear to share many similarities, but the two skills certainly did for Rickenbacker. Before WWI, the ace was known as “Fast Eddie,” a sought after driver known for his expertise and speed on the racetrack. In the early 1900s, Rickenbacker drove for two different racing teams: Maxwell Racing Team and Prest-O-Lite.
He was such a skilled race car driver that he even traveled to London to source information about whether or not American race car manufacturers could develop an even speedier English car. At one point, Rickenbacker even suggested to the U.S. military that race car drivers would make excellent fighter pilot recruits thanks to their high-speed driving capabilities. Years later, Rickenbacker’s racing bug returned, and he purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1927.
5. In the years between World Wars I and II, Rickenbacker founded his own automobile company, producing cars for the American public.
As a former race car driver, it comes as no surprise that Rickenbacker loved cars – yet this incredible ace enjoyed them so much that he founded his very own car company in 1920. Named the Rickenbacker Motor Company, Rickenbacker’s goal was to sell technologically advanced and innovative cars that incorporated the newest auto racing developments.
For nearly a decade, Rickenbacker Motor Company succeeded. In fact, the company’s vehicles were the first to come equipped with a four-wheel brake system. Unfortunately, other car manufacturers didn’t like this advancement and began spreading bad publicity about Rickenbacker’s cars; this forced the company into bankruptcy in 1927. However, the legacy of the company hasn’t disappeared – all vehicles manufactured in the U.S. were eventually required to have four-wheel braking.
German pilot Werner Voss shot down over Western Front
On this day in 1917, the German flying ace Werner Voss is shot down and killed during a dogfight with British pilots in the skies over Belgium, on the Western Front during World War I.
Voss, born in 1887, enlisted as a cavalry soldier in 1914, but soon transferred to the Luftstreitkrafte or German Air Service, where he was posted to the Jasta 2 squadron, commanded by the renowned pilot Oswald Boelcke. After serving as a wingman to Manfred von Richthofen—the ace pilot later known as the Red Baron—Voss quickly established a reputation as a leading pilot in his own right, and a rival to Richthofen. By May 1917, Voss had amassed 28 victories in the air, earning the prestigious Pour le Merite award.
At Richthofen’s request, Voss was attached to his own squadron, Jasta 10—known as the “Flying Circus.” He earned another 14 victories there before September 23, 1917, when he was involved in a dogfight with the renowned British 56 Squadron “B” Flight—including the ace pilots James McCudden and Arthur Rhys Davids—above the Western Front in Belgium. Though Voss skillfully eluded his pursuers for some 10 minutes in his silver-grey Fokker triplane, he was shot down by a British attack and crashed north of Frezenburg. As McCudden later observed: “I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single handed, fought seven of us for ten minutes. I saw him go into a fairly steep dive and so I continued to watch, and then saw the triplane hit the ground and disappear into a thousand fragments, for it seemed to me that it literally went into powder.”
The attack was generally credited to Davids, who also shot down the German pilot Carl Menckhoff when the latter came to Voss’ aid. Menckhoff survived the fight—one of the best-known aerial dogfights of World War I—to lead his own squadron throughout the end of the war. As for Voss, his bravery and skill was celebrated posthumously on both sides of the line. In James McCudden’s words: “His flying is wonderful, his courage magnificent and in my opinion he was the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see.”
See more here https://offtheclothboff.com/category/heros/fighter-aces/
Frederick Robert Gordon McCall (1896-1949) scored 35 confirmed victories as a Canadian air ace during 1918.
Born on 4 December 1896 in Vernon, British Columbia, McCall enlisted with the 175th Overseas Battalion attached to the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in February 1916. Some ten months later McCall was in England as a Sergeant with the battalion.
With his evident desire to participate in the aerial conflict McCall received a commission as a Lieutenant pilot trainee the following March. Much of the rest of 1917 was spent in pilot’s training: consequently it wasn’t until December that he was assigned to 13 Squadron on the Western Front. His initial duties saw him fly lumbering two-seater R.E.7 aircraft on reconnaissance missions along with fellow airman F.C. Farrington.
In spite of being assigned reconnaissance duties McCall nevertheless scored his first aerial victory while flying the R.E.8, shooting down an enemy German aircraft intent upon downing McCall. Within two months McCall was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” – or, more specifically, for destroying an attacking enemy aircraft while observing artillery fire.
Within two weeks of winning the Military Cross he awarded an accompanying Bar, this time for downing an enemy scout aircraft while engaged on photographic work.
McCall was next transferred to 41 Squadron and given a single-seater S.E.5a aircraft. Four ‘kills’ in May 1918 resulted in the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross. Promoted to Captain McCall remarkably downed five German aircraft in a single day, 30 June – four in the morning and another in the evening. Only two days earlier he had brought down a further four enemy aircraft. By now his tally of confirmed victories ran to 20 aircraft. For his success on 30 June McCall was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
On 17 August, while out flying with William Claxton and another airman, McCall ran into some 40-60 German aircraft. While McCall managed to escape back to Allied lines Claxton was forced to land in enemy territory and was taken prisoner.
Suffering from illness McCall was sent to recuperate initially in England and then back home in Canada. The armistice was announced while he was in Canada. His overall tally of confirmed victories had reached 35, with a probable further two unconfirmed victories.
Following the armistice McCall embarked upon a variety of civil aviation ventures, ranging from stunt flying to management of his own company, McCall Aero Corporation Limited (formed in 1920). With this company McCall flew commercial freight and passengers across Canada. McCall also worked to encourage the formation of Canadian flying clubs in the inter-war years.
With the arrival of the Second World War McCall was recalled to service with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Squadron Leader, based at numerous western Canadian bases.
McCall died on 2 January 1949 in Calgary. He was aged 52.
Canadian Ace – Captain Frederick Robert Gordon McCall who shot down 37 enemy aircraft, seen here probably at the time with No. 41 Squadron RAF (RFC), Arras. February 22 1918.
I fired on 7 machines on the aerodrome, some of which had their engines running. One of them took off and I fired 15 rounds at him from close range 60 ft. up and he crashed. A second one taking off, I opened fire and fired 30 rounds at 150 yds, range, he crashed into a tree. Two more were then taking off together.
I climbed and engaged one at [less than] 1,000′ finishing my drum, and he crashed 300 yds. from the aerodrome. I changed drums and climbed E.
A fourth H. [Hun or Hostile] A. [Aircraft] came after me and I fired one whole drum into him. He flew away and I then flew [less than] 1,000′ under 4 scouts at 5,000′ for one mile and turned W. climbing. The aerodrome was armed with one or more machine guns. Machines on the ground were 6 scouts (Albatross type I or II) and one two-seater.
That was Billy Bishop’s uncorroborated combat report for June 2, 1917.
For it he was awarded the Victoria Cross and prime spot in the “Controversial Fighter Pilot Claims Hall of Fame.”
Major William Avery ‘Billy Bishop was in his element for what he knew would probably be the last time in World War I. The powerful roar of his SE-5a’s Wolseley Viper engine filled his ears. Damp wind buffeted his head and face over the short windscreen. Bishop’s keen blue eyes searched all quadrants for what he desperately hoped would be there, but while the heavy drizzle that had started that morning had abated somewhat, he did not actually expect to meet the Hun today.
Bishop was scheduled to leave the aerodrome at Petit Synthe that same day — June 19, 1918 — at noon, less than a month after he had brought his new command, No. 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), known as the Flying Foxes, to northwest France and 14 months after his first successful combat sortie with No. 60 Squadron. Having promised to lend his support to the formation of a proposed Canadian Air Force, he could hardly argue the point when he was recalled to England. But that did not stop him from being mad as hell during his last sortie. He had written to his wife, Margaret, in London: 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.
In less than six months of actual flying time, Bishop had downed 67 enemy planes. He was proud of his success and had relished the game of collecting victories. He was also enjoying the notoriety his victories brought him in Britain as well as at home in Canada. Bishop was by now the top-scoring ace of the British empire, but in his heart he knew this was it, his last combat flight. What he could not have known that morning of June 19 was that history was about to be made.
A few miles over the lines in enemy territory, Bishop dropped out of the clouds to check his position. It was 9:58 a.m. He recognized the landmark of the Ploegsteert Wood, south of Ypres, and he also immediately identified the three aircraft flying away from him to his left at about 300 yards — Pfalz D.IIIa scouts. This solidly constructed German single-seater carried two Spandau guns internally in the front fuselage and had proved to be a steady platform capable of absorbing a great deal of battle damage. It could be dived harder and faster than the Albatros and had played more than a small part in the revival of German air superiority in the early spring of 1918. Three Pfalzes together were not a threat to be taken lightly.
Having spotted Bishop, the German scouts began to turn, and Bishop followed them. By the time he had drawn a bead on one of the three, they had come halfway around the circle. Suddenly they dived on him, guns blazing. Bishop saw the tracers tear through his lower left wingtip as he got in a short burst himself. The three fighters slipped beneath him. Banking to the left to bring his machine to bear again, Bishop took a quick look behind him. Two more Pfalz scouts were diving on him at high speed. His instinctive glance had probably saved his life.
Now time was of the essence. Deciding to make a quick attack on the original three before the other two could enter the fray, Bishop opened fire quickly from what was for him an unusually long range. One of the three aircraft was struck instantly and its pilot killed. It fell away, out of control. The other two began to climb while the two newcomers, still diving and finally in range, opened fired on the SE-5a. Bishop pulled up into a steep turn, and the two German scouts passed beneath him. Then the two that had been climbing toward the cloud layer collided. Both aircraft disintegrated in a shower of wood, metal and fabric.
Turning his attention to the remaining two Pfalzes now climbing toward the safety of the clouds, Bishop sent tracers into one of them at 200 yards, starting the enemy aircraft spiraling toward the ground, only 1,000 feet below. The fifth Pfalz escaped into the clouds.
With the ceiling down to 900 feet, Bishop continued his patrol somewhere between Neuve Eglise and Ploegsteert. He was beginning to think of returning to base when out of the misty drizzle appeared an outline with which he had become very familiar in recent months — a German two-seater. Without being spotted, he slipped into the blind spot beneath and behind the reconnaissance aircraft and, raising his nose, sent a short burst from both guns into its belly. It shuddered, seemed to hesitate in the air and then fell toward the ground. With the pilot struggling desperately to regain control of the aircraft and the observer slumped lifeless in the rear seat, the two-seater smashed into the ground and went up in flames.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Bishop was alone in the sky again. He hardly realized it at the time, but this had indeed been his finest achievement in the air. During his final sortie he had downed five aircraft in the space of 15 minutes. It was a fitting way to end a remarkable combat flying career.
The young Canadian who would one day become Canada’s ace of aces was born in Owen Sound, a small town in Ontario, on February 8, 1894. Blond, blue-eyed William Avery was the third son in William and Mary Bishop’s family of four children. His father, the Grey County registrar, held conservative views typical of middle-class fathers in the late 19th century. Young Billy became the target of teasing when he was sent to school dressed as a miniature bureaucrat in gray suit and tie, but he quickly learned to stand up for himself — and often for his younger companions. His fists usually did the talking.
Although Billy Bishop did not like team sports such as football and lacrosse, he did enjoy individual pursuits like shooting, riding and swimming. He was handsome, intelligent and charming, but he was always an indifferent student. In fact, he came to hate school, cutting classes in high school to play pool downtown. His teachers rarely succeeded in hiding their low expectations for him. Realizing he would never excel academically, he refused to apply himself to his studies.
Bishop did, however, show great determination to perfect the skills he enjoyed. One of these was shooting. When his father gave him a .22-caliber rifle for Christmas and offered him 25 cents for every squirrel he bagged, Billy — who had a great eye and steady hand — turned his marksmanship into entrepreneurial success at home and throughout his neighborhood. He became a crack shot.
After reading newspaper accounts of the first heavier-than-air flight in Canada (and the British empire) by Canadian John McCurdy in his Silver Dart in 1909, 15-year-old Bishop determined to build his own aircraft. His version of the now famous biplane, crudely constructed from wood, cardboard, wire and strong string, carried him — mostly vertically — from the roof of his family’s Victorian home to crash in a heap on the lawn below. Out of the wreck crawled the irrepressible Billy, slightly injured but not in any way cowed. As it turned out, he would live through many violent landings as a real pilot. In fact, Bishop’s landing skills remained relatively underdeveloped during his whole flying career.
Billy and his younger sister, Louie, were very close. Bribed by Louie to entertain a visiting girlfriend, Bishop secretly checked out the girl he was later to marry through the parlor curtains before agreeing. Margaret Burden, granddaughter of the great Toronto retailer Timothy Eaton, would marry Billy while he was home on leave from the front several years later in 1917. Although he was secretly impressed with Margaret on their first meeting, he charged his sister $5 for his entertainment services.
At age 17, Billy followed his elder brother, Worth, to the Royal Military College (RMC) at Kingston, Ontario, Canada’s equivalent of England’s Sandhurst and America’s West Point. He was following in the footsteps of a brother who had achieved a sterling record there. Having been more or less his own master up to this point in his life, however, the younger Bishop chafed under the strict discipline of the RMC. He also found it hard to accept the standard rough treatment given recruits by upperclassmen. Not surprisingly, his first year at RMC was a flop. His second year went better, but in his third year his resolve deteriorated and things fell apart. Bishop was caught cheating on an exam when he absent-mindedly handed in his crib sheet with his exam paper. He was awaiting word of his punishment, which almost certainly would have been dismissal, when the outbreak of war saved him that embarrassment. Even though his military training was far from complete, he was accepted as an officer in a Toronto militia regiment, the Mississauga Horse. Like future German ace of aces Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, he entered the war as a cavalryman. Before he embarked for England, he proposed to Margaret and she accepted.
As many a military horseman was soon to discover, modern warfare had dramatically reduced the role of the cavalry. The day of the cavalry charge was over. Even reconnaissance on horseback was impossible in the world of trench warfare. The reality, as Bishop soon discovered after arriving in England with his unit — now known as the Canadian Mounted Rifles — was dust and mud, and more dust and mud. He could not decide which was worse.
One rainy day, when Bishop was up to his ankles in mud checking a line of horses, he heard the unmistakable sound of an aircraft engine. Out of the soggy gray sky a nimble scout biplane appeared and set down in a nearby field. The pilot asked directions and then was off, winging his way skyward again. When I turned to slog my way back through the mud, my mind was made up, Bishop later recalled. I was going to meet the enemy in the air.
Bishop completed observer training and, on September 1, 1915, joined No. 21 Squadron Royal Flying Corps (RFC) as a gunner-observer. Since pilot trainees were not needed at the time, he had taken the advice of a friend who told him that, knowing what sort of pilot you’re likely to be, someone else should do the flying.
It was less than a dozen years since the first controlled powered flight by Orville Wright. In those early days of World War I, the role of aircraft was generally limited to ground support through aerial observation. Bishop’s training included wireless transmission in Morse code, dropping hand-held bombs, spotting for artillery and aerial photography. He wrote: They teach you what to observe and what not to observe. This is not a joke. If an observer lets his gaze wander to too many non-essentials he cannot do the real observation that is expected of him.
But flying as an observer in what might have been the worst combat aircraft of the war, the underpowered and ungainly Reconnaissance Experimental No. 7, or RE-7, had not really been what he had had in mind when he transferred from the cavalry. Bishop did not like not being in control. He hated being caught in anti-aircraft fire and was once slightly wounded in the forehead by a piece of anti-aircraft shrapnel. It was little more than a bruise, but if it had struck him harder it could have finished him. Bishop soon found his duty with No. 21 Squadron beginning to grind him down. This sort of flying was dangerous and boring at the same time. In four months’ duty as an observer he never got to fire his gun at an enemy plane.
To top it all off, Bishop was proving to be increasingly accident-prone. He was involved in a truck accident, which shook him severely. Then he was struck in the head by a snapped cable while inspecting his aircraft on the ground and remained unconscious for two days. The most serious incident involved an engine failure on takeoff. The RE-7 he was in crashed, and Bishop’s knee was badly injured. As it turned out, however, this was fortune in disguise. While Bishop was in England recuperating, his squadron was almost completely decimated in the Battle of the Somme. The next time he came to the front it would be as a pilot.
When Bishop returned to England on leave, he fell while disembarking from the Channel boat and re-injured his knee. But even though he was suffering from considerable pain as well as severe physical and emotional exhaustion, he was determined to enjoy the pleasures of London. He resisted getting medical attention until the very last day of his leave. The diagnosis included a cracked knee and a heart murmur, and Bishop was confined to bed rest for an indefinite period.In the hospital he met Lady St. Hellier, a fashionably rich and politically influential widow who saw it as her patriotic duty to visit convalescent servicemen. She looked up Bishop after recognizing the family name. On a trip to Ottawa, St. Hellier had met his father, Will, at a social gathering — a chance encounter that would have a lasting effect on Bishop’s flying career.
When Bishop was allowed to leave the hospital, St. Hellier invited him to continue his recuperation at her mansion in London. Their relationship blossomed. He called her Granny, and she began to introduce him in her influential circles as my grandson. His newfound friend spared no effort to help him.
Possibly through her influence, Bishop was granted indefinite home leave in Canada for health reasons. Back in Owen Sound, he quickly recovered. He gave Margaret an engagement ring but decided to put off the wedding until he was more certain of his future prospects in the RFC. He had decided to become a fighter pilot.
By early September 1916, Bishop was back in England. His hopes of becoming a pilot seemed remote, however, as he was repeatedly rejected as medically unfit. To add insult to injury, all his service records had somehow vanished. But Lady St. Hellier pulled strings, and by November 1, 1916, Bishop was ready for his first flying lesson. At that time, so soon after the beginnings of powered flight, pilot training was anything but a well-defined, formal science. Instruction was by older pilots resting from the battle over France and Flanders or by younger pilots with little more experience than the trainees. The instructors were often reluctant to give their charges hands-on experience in the flimsy and marginally airworthy training aircraft. More casualties occurred in training than on actual missions.
But Bishop survived training and soloed. Once finally alone in the cockpit of a Maurice Farman, he felt lonelier than at any other time in his life. Once in the air, I felt better, he wrote to Margaret that night. I flew as straight ahead as I could….Suddenly an awful thought came to me: sooner or later I would have to get that plane down to earth again.Finally, gathering up all his courage, he pancaked the trainer from eight feet up. Bishop was not disappointed at his first landing, however — he was just happy that the ambulance that had sat, engine running, at his takeoff was not needed. Although he would fly 200 times into danger and return safely, the young Canadian’s landings never really improved very much. The Bishop landing would become a little legend in itself.
After joining a home defense squadron in England for advanced flight training, he made good progress, gaining his wings and the freedom he wanted to pursue a lone war against the enemy. Bishop was posted to No. 37 (Home Defense) Squadron east of London, where he accumulated a good deal of night-flying time, patrolling for the bombers and airships that were doing considerable damage in the city. In his two months in No. 37 Squadron, Bishop never engaged any enemy planes, but he became a better and more confident flier.
Anxious to get into the real war, Bishop applied several times for transfer to the Western Front. After an advanced course in single-seat fighters, he received orders to join No. 60 Squadron, which was then based at Filescamp Farm on the eastern part of Le Hameau aerodrome, 12 miles west of Arras, France. Number 60 Squadron was the top British fighter group on the Western Front and the first squadron to be fully equipped with French-made Nieuport scouts. Bishop was impressed. He had never before seen the beautiful little fighter close up. His arrival preceded by only a few days a major British air offensive on the Western Front.
Bishop flew his first patrol in a Nieuport 17 on March 17, 1917. Powered by a 120-hp Le Rhne rotary engine, the Nieuport was armed with a single .303-inch Lewis machine gun on the upper wing firing forward outside the propeller arc. More maneuverable but slower and more lightly armed than its chief opponent, the Albatros D.III, the little sesquiplane (biplane with a very narrow lower wing) was a potent weapon in the hands of several outstanding Allied aces. Its chief proponents included the Englishman Albert Ball, whom Bishop idolized, and Irishman Edward Mick Mannock. The young Canadian’s first sortie lasted two hours, and although the enemy was sighted, No. 60 Squadron’s pilots were unable to engage him.
Three uneventful patrols followed in the days ahead. Then, on the afternoon of March 25, Bishop was involved in his first dogfight. He was flying fourth in a four-ship flight of Nieuports led by No. 60 Squadron’s New Zealander commander, Captain Alan John Lance Scott. Their patrol climbed through low clouds and mist toward St. Leger. In clear air at 9,000 feet they came upon three Albatros D.IIIs. It all happened very quickly. Attaching himself to the tail of an Albatros, Bishop dived on it, firing tracers and seeing his bullets strike the enemy for the first time. The Albatros turned over and seemed to fall out of control. With surprising savvy for a rookie flier, Bishop followed him down through the clouds. He knew that this could be a ruse. Sure enough, the German pilot leveled out, but Bishop was right on his tail. Opening up again with his Lewis gun from almost point-blank range, he aimed at the fuselage near the pilot.
The Albatros fell away again, with Bishop in hot pursuit. This time, following in a 200-mph dive, Bishop was elated to see his first victory completed when the Albatros crashed nose first into a field. But his exaltation turned to desperation when, as he pulled up abruptly from his dive, his engine coughed and died. The Le Rhne had oiled up, and try as he might, Bishop could not get it restarted. He had lost his bearings during the air battle, and when he saw a village in ruins beneath him and heard the ominous rattle of machine-gun fire, he became convinced that he was over enemy territory.
As he pointed the nose of his now silent Nieuport in the direction of what he hoped was friendly territory, Bishop wondered whether his real flying career — just begun — was about to come to an end. The ground came up quickly to meet him. He picked the only clear line he could see among the shell holes and set the little plane down, rolling roughly to a stop. At least he was still alive. Grabbing the only weapon available, his Very pistol flare gun, he leaped down, sprinted to the first available shell hole and dived in head first. In the next tense moments he saw four figures cautiously approaching his position. To his intense relief they were British soldiers. In an instant my whole life outlook changed, he later related in his book Winged Warfare. He soon learned that his landing site had been in German hands only a few hours before.
April 1917 turned out to be Bishop’s month. Bloody April, as it would come to be known, saw the air war intensify to new levels. Bishop’s No. 60 Squadron and Manfred von Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11 faced off across a narrow no man’s land. By April 7, Bishop had earned his first decoration — the Military Cross — for two victories on that day, a balloon and an Albatros D.III. On April 8, Easter Sunday, Bishop scored five times in 40 minutes. When he got back to Filescamp Farm, his mechanic called for a tin of blue paint. Although personal identification on British aircraft was officially frowned upon, it was allowed in a very few instances. Bishop’s idol, Albert Ball, had painted the cowling of his Nieuport red. Now, in his new position of squadron ace, Bishop’s Nieuport Serial No. B1566 would sport a blue cowling. By the end of the month, even though the overall air war in April had been decisively in the Germans’ favor, Bishop had claimed 20 victories.
By now he flew with such joyful disregard that an awed comrade described him as incapable of fear. He was made a flight leader, and within a month of his first operational flight he was given the freedom to fly his own roving missions on his days off in addition to his normal quota of patrols.
Bishop had found himself as a combat pilot. He was driven to succeed, and he counted his victories with pride. His extraordinary skill in deflection shooting probably had everything to do with the hours he had spent shooting squirrels and leaning over a pool table as a youth. Although Bishop was admittedly a heavy-handed pilot, that very characteristic seemed to give him the advantage in a dogfight, since he flew his little Nieuport and later the SE-5 with a certain sense of abandon. A natural tactician, he maintained that surprise was the most important factor for success in an air battle and did not hesitate to disengage when the element of surprise had been lost.
His victories mounted steadily, and by May 31 Bishop had claimed 29, including two balloons. Always searching for any advantage, he determined that the best time to attack a German would be just at dawn, when — catching the aircraft on the ground — he could attack enemy planes singly as they rose to challenge him. Allied pilots who tried the same tactic in World War II had similar success.
Bishop had planned to accompany Albert Ball on just such an early-morning raid, but Ball — at that point the British empire’s leading ace with 44 victories — was killed on May 7. So, early in the morning of June 2, which was supposed to have been his day off from flying, Bishop set out on what would be his most famous sortie. Taking off in his blue-nosed Nieuport 17 just before 4 a.m., Captain William Avery Bishop would go it alone.
Flying in the faint glow of pre-dawn, Bishop found himself slightly disoriented. He had already dived on a German aerodrome, Estourmel, only to find there was no activity there. Disappointed, Bishop continued flying low as he searched for some other target of opportunity. Then, circling at about 300 feet over the hamlet of Esnes, he spied a group of canvas hangars and six Albatros D.IIIs on the ground — some with their engines running — along with one two-seater. Making a strafing pass at 50 feet, Bishop scattered the men on the ground and then withdrew to the airfield’s perimeter as German machine-gun defenses opened up, holing his aircraft in several places. Doing his best to evade their fire, he waited until an Albatros began its takeoff run. Diving on it from behind, Bishop opened fire just as it lifted off the ground. Immediately the Albatros side-slipped and crashed.
Turning sharply, he caught sight of a second machine just off the ground. I opened fire and fired 30 rounds at 150 yards range, Bishop later recalled. He smashed into a tree. Two more enemy planes were taking off in opposite directions. Climbing to 1,000 feet, Bishop engaged one and downed it. The D.III fell to the ground a few hundred feet from the airfield. Changing the drum on his Lewis gun, Bishop expended a whole drum at the fourth Albatros. Luckily, at the moment I finished my ammunition, he also seemed to have had enough of it, said Bishop, as he turned and flew away. I seized my opportunity, climbed again and started for home.
Bishop’s early-morning solo raid won him even greater recognition and notoriety than he had yet received. His tactics were imitated by other fliers as the war progressed. For his June 2 sortie Bishop received the Victoria Cross, the 10th to be awarded to airmen and the first to a Canadian pilot. But fame had its price. In August, with his score at 47, the young Canadian was removed by General Hugh M. Trenchard from operational flying because he was deemed too valuable to lose; he was sent home to Canada to aid in recruitment.
Bishop did not return to active flying until May 22, 1918, when he came back as the leader of newly formed No. 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force, the Flying Foxes. Number 85 was equipped with the new SE-5a — the first British two-gun, single-seat fighter and some say the best and most sophisticated of all British World War I single-seaters. Almost one-third of Bishop’s aerial victories were achieved in the SE-5a in less than a month, raising his total to 72 — with 12 of them scored during his last four days of active flying.
With his final sortie on June 19, 1918, during which he downed five Pfalz scouts within five minutes, Billy Bishop entered the realm of legend. For succeeding generations, names such as Bishop and Richthofen would inspire awe, admiration and imitation. The century of the ace had begun.
Victoria Cross (1917)
Distinguished Service Order with Bar (1917)
Military Cross (1917)
Distinguished Flying Cross (1918)
1914–1915 Star (1918)
British War Medal (1918)
Victory Medal with Mentioned in Dispatches Emblem (1918)