William George Barker was born on November 3, 1894 in Dauphin, Manitoba. As a boy he wasn't interested in school work and spent most of his free time riding his horse and hunting birds with a shotgun. He had a great interest in shooting as a teenager and spent much of his allowance and earned money on ammunition. He became quite proficient with the service rifle while shooting at a variety of ranges around Dauphin and Winnipeg. His family moved to Winnipeg shortly before the war started. It seemed natural that he join the cavalry in 1914, although his sense of balance on a horse stood him in good stead in the air, as the soon-to-emerge Royal Flying Corps considered good horsemanship a requisite ability for a pilot.
Following basic military training he went overseas in June, 1915 with the First Canadian Mounted Rifles. He had been selected to be a machine gunner at Shorncliffe Military Camp and was sent to the Western Front in France. By this time it had become readily apparent that cavalry was useless in the trench warfare that had developed. The heavily defended lines, with their barbed and razor wire entanglements many meters thick, machine gun posts every few hundred meters and mud did not allow for the use of horses in "gallant" charges upon the enemy lines. Instead, filth, rats, bullets cracking overhead and unceasing artillery bombardments filled his days. Death was dirty and everywhere. The Germans rubbed it in when they found out a cavalry unit faced them, they erected a huge sign that proclaimed "Canadians, where are your horses?". He was horrified at the carnage of the 2nd Battle of Ypres only days after he arrived at the front. Both sides took turns charging each others machine gun-guarded lines and died by the thousands. Between charges they pounded each other with heavy artillery and mortars, and, to make it interesting, they gassed each other. Drowning in shell holes was a real hazard, as was frostbite once winter arrived. One day he sat back and watched in amazement as a Fokker Eindecker shot down an British two-seater reconnaissance plane, probably an RE7. Like many other aces, he decided the best way out of the trenches was to join the Royal Flying Corps. At that time the RFC was in short supply of observers for their reconnaissance squadrons and they were accepting men from the front with minimal qualifications. However, he was rejected. This didn't stop Barker, he reapplied and was accepted at his rank of Corporal. He was provided with six days of training as an observer was given his observers badge and posted to No. 9 Sqdn at Bertangles, France. The training consisted of map reading, aerial photography and communication techniques for artillery spotting. As he was a machine gunner already he skipped that part of his instruction. His proficiency with the machine gun was in high demand in the RFC. No. 9 Sqdn was flying the outdated BE2c reconnaissance airplane over a very active portion of the Western Front. The Germans had just developed a method to fire a machine gun through the propeller of an aircraft and had fitted them to Fokker Eindecker EIIIs. They had a disastrous effect on the British reconnaissance Squadrons flying their sluggish aircraft.
The RFC flew these outdated, and plainly dangerous (to their occupants) aircraft into the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. They were in the thick of the fighting trying to photograph daily developments on the front and acting as aerial artillery spotters. Both of these duties were crucial, and highly dangerous. Almost all of the original crews died or were shot down, except for Barker. He even managed to kill a German pilot in July. A Roland scout (possibly a DI) dove out of the sun onto their six, anticipating an easy kill. Barker swung around and loosed a volley that hit the German in the forehead, killing him. Two weeks later he downed a second Roland scout in flames and was Mentioned in Despatches (the lowest form of recognition in the British military for having done something unusual, and useful, in battle).
In April, 1916 he was officially attached to the RFC, promoted to 2nd Lt. and posted to No. 4 Sqdn as an observer. No. 4 was a Corps Squadron, being attached to the HQ in the sector. Their duties were to conduct reconnaissance of the enemy lines, artillery spotting, bombing, photography, contact patrol and general harassment of the enemy troops. But its most important function was in photo-reconnaissance of the enemy lines. This new form of reconnaissance proved invaluable to the planners in HQ. They could now spot changes in enemy lines, concentrations of troops, artillery emplacements, etc. on a daily basis. This was the real reason for the existance of the RFC. Until late in the war, all of the efforts of the fighting scouts were really in support of the Corps Squadrons carrying out their duties.
Just prior to the July offensive, known as the First Battle of the Somme, Barker was wounded in the thigh, but as it was not very serious he was simply bandaged and sent back to flying. The Somme offensive meant an incredible amount of hazardous duty for the Corps Squadrons, with never ending demands for photographs, artillery spotting and bombing of trouble spots. Barker provided stirling service in this period, with some very dangerous missions spotting enemy troop concentrations from low level and directing artillery fire to their positions. He undoubtedly made a considerable difference to the troops in the sectors that he reconnoitered as his reports broke up several attempted counter-attacks by the Germans. In mid-July he was transferred to No. 15 Squadron and co-operated in battle with the Canadian Corps. He watched from the air as the latest invention of warfare, the tank, was first used during the Battle of Cambrai on Sept. 15. Several days later, Barker and his pilot showed the great quality and determination that veteran members of the RFC had. They were to photograph new German defensive works. Over the German lines they were attacked by a pair of German scouts. Most BE2c pilots would have turned tail and trundled off home, but not Barker's pilot. They fought off the two Albatros DIIs, doing such damage to one that they both fled. They then proceeded to photograph the area and started for their lines when they were intercepted by four more Germans. Again, they fought them with such skill that they drove them off, made it back to their lines in safety and delivered the required photographs. This work and the high quality of his previous work brought him his first decoration, the Military Cross.
On Nov. 13, 1916 the British finally battered their way into and held the important village of Beaumont Hamel. It had, by this time, been reduced to a pile of rubble. Barker and the rest of the RFC were instructed to maintain a close watch on German activities in the area. On the 15th, Barker and his pilot were flying very low over the Ancre River near the village and spotted a large concentration of German troops apparently massing for a counter-attack on Beaumont Hamel. He located their position on the map and proceeded to send an emergency "zonecall" that had priority over all other artillery calls in the sector. In this way the artillery in an entire sector could be brought to bear on an important target. The area where the German troops were sheltering in mistaken safety, erupted in explosions, throwing mud, men and machinery into the air. The whole area was swept by gunfire for some time. When the smoke cleared the destruction was terrible. A formidable force of 4,000 had been broken with great loss of life. This was pretty much the end of the blood-bath called "the First Battle of the Somme".
Barker was more ambitious than most of the observer corps and he applied for pilot training. He left on Nov. 18, 1916 for Narborough, England. He was accepted into flight school at the beginning of 1917. It seems he was a natural pilot, for he soloed after an incredibly short 55 minutes of dual instruction. Then again, flight instruction in 1916 consisted in showing the novice how to get a plane up, turn it around and get it down again a few times. If they were lucky they received instruction in gunnery ie. how to load a Lewis gun while in the air, and map reading. There was no presentation of aerial tactics, one-on-one dogfighting, evasive manouevers or even how to get out of a spin. It was no wonder that the average life expectancy of a rooky pilot on the Western Front was only 11 days.
Billy Barker (on the right) was posted back to No. 15 Squadron in Jan., 1917, still in northern France, still doing reconnaissance and artillery spotting. Now he sat in the front cockpit of an RE8, rather than the back seat of an BE2c. He also shortly commanded C Flight and was made a Captain. Promotions were fast for the survivors of the air war. The RE8 was a marginal improvement over its predecessor, but not much. It was definately not a match for the Albatros DII or the Halberstadt fighting scouts that swarmed over the front. Never-the-less, Barker shot down an enemy plane in March. He rapidly became known as the best recon pilot on the front. In April, during the Arras Offensive, he earned another Mentioned In Despatches for directing shell fire onto a trench filled with 1,000 German troops. Few made it out alive. Moments after, flying very low, he directed shell fire directly onto two very troublesome long-range artillery guns. His RE8 was badly damaged but he made it back. He earned a bar to his Military Cross and was promoted to Flight Commander. Once, his aircraft was so badly damaged by bullets and shrapnel that he totalled it trying to land, but he and the gunner walked away.
In August, he was wounded by shrapnel in the side of the head. He passed out from rapid blood loss, but came to with his observer pouring liqour down his throat. Pulling up he managed to land the badly damaged aircraft. As the wound wasn't serious he was patched up and returned to the action (he is wounded in the photo with his observer).
In Sept., 1917 he was sent back to England for a bit of a rest by training other pilots. The RFC's technique was to let experienced pilots train the novices. Unfortunately, they provided no method to do so and the training received was much less than adequate for a novice combat pilot. Here, Barker got his first taste of flying in a Sopwith Camel. The fast, temperamental new fighter with the amazing ability to out turn almost any aircraft in the war was a revelation. He renewed his efforts to be posted to a fighter squadron. Finally, after an extremely low pass over the HQ buildings, he was posted to 28 Squadron flying Camels on the Western Front.
His first combat mission as a fighter pilot was on October 20, 1917 as part of an air-cover element for a bombing mission to Rumbeke Aerodrome in support of Camels and French SPADs carrying bombs. The air-cover element was to pounce on any Albatroses that got off the ground to attack the bombers. True to form, a swarm of the new and, quite deadly, Albatros DIIIs came after the Allied aircraft and a 15 minute dogfight ensued. Barker literally shot the wings off of a green Albatros before it was over. A few days later his patrol intercepted a flight of Gotha GIV bombers returning from a bombing raid over England. He shot out one engine on a bomber, but no losses were encurred by either side. The Gothas were big, formidable opponents with considerable defensive gunpower in the nose and both above and below in the rear. They were especially difficult to attack in formation. The best technique was to approach them from directly astern so the rear gunners couldn't hit the pursuing aircraft. It was not a technique for the faint-of-heart. Barker tried several attacks, but had little effect on them. It wouldn't be his last encounter with the massive bombers.
Two days after this incident Barker made ace status by downing two Albatroses. He was leading a flight of six Camels and were strafing a marching line of soldiers in a rainstorm, when they were surprised by a flight of Albatroses. Two Camels immediately spun into the mud and Barker was flying for his life. Bullets shot through his fusilage from the tail up to the cockpit. Turning as tightly as he could he barely cleared a copse of trees and suddenly pulled up into a loop. He leveled off barely a yard from the ground behind the Albatros. A burst into the pilot sent the plane crashing into the ground. Another Albatros got onto his six and Barker repeated the loop and shot down his sixth aircraft. Two days following this encounter he downed his seventh German fighter.
He would likely have become a top ace on the Western Front if it hadn't been for the Austro-Hungarian offensive at Caporetto, in Italy. The Italians had been hit hard and had been forced back many miles. Over 800,000 Italian troops had been captured and their front was about to collapse. To help the Italians regain their balance, the RFC was ordered to send four squadrons, one Squadron of RE8s and three of Camels, including No. 28 Sqdn, to the Italian Front. The French also sent four Squadrons, mostly SPADs.
To those people who did not fight in Italy, it was considered to be a side show to the main event in western Europe (not to mention in Russia and the middle east). Italy was hardly that. While the aerial fighting was not as intense or on as large a scale as it was over the Western Front, it was equally as deadly. The flights of aircraft used by each side were smaller, primarily because they had fewer aircraft with which to operate. The opponents of the British combat pilots were primarily from Austria-Hungary, who, while very proffient at their trade, were equipped with inferior aircraft to the Germans on the Western Front. Both sides in Italy developed outstanding aces, Barker and Baracca for the British and Italians and Brumowski, Linke-Crawford and Kiss for the Austro-Hungarians.
The British aircraft in Italy were arranged into one Corps Squadron of Airco RE8s doing photo-reconnaissance, bombing, artillery spotting and a multitude of other duties. The three Scout Squadrons (28th, 45th, and 66th) were to provide escorts for the RE8s, to intercept enemy aircraft from entering Allied lines, to shoot down observation balloons, and to carry out offensive patrols behind enemy lines. These were accomplished with good effect by the Camels, as they almost always flew with four 20 pound Cooper bombs under their lower wings, and their twin Vickers machine guns. They were to attack any worthwhile military target: bridges, troops, trucks, guns, trenches, ammo dumps, buildings, etc. in order to make life miserable for the Austro-Hungarians.
Italy was a far cry from the squalid desolation of France. In Italy, the trenches made hardly a mark on the landscape, and had not been in existance long enough to look like the cratered face of the moon. Their new landing field was backed by snow capped Alps, located above the Piave River. The major discomfort was that they had to live in tents. To the north lay a long range of snow-capped mountains, in front of them was the beautiful, bucolic Venetian Plain and 40 miles to the SE lay the Gulf of Venice. More than one British pilot met an untimely end while gazing at the beautiful scenery instead of keeping an eye out for Austrian aircraft.
One British pilot wrote:
"Flying in Italy was a holiday by comparison with that in France. It was a different type of warfare entirely. It was more of a gentleman's war. The scout pilots we encountered in Italy didn't seem to have the same viciousness that we met up with on the Western Front where it was a blood for blood affair. They were not so aggressive in Italy."
Due to the total demoralization of the Italian Regia Aeronautica the Austrians had complete reign of the air when the British and French arrived. Their first task was to let the Austrians know they were there, and that they meant business. Barker opening the aerial killing for the British over Senaglia-Pieve di Soligo. His flight of four Camels was jumped by 12 Albatroses. After 20 minutes of dogfighting Barker ended the skirmish by downing one of their opponents. From his combat log Barker wrote:
"I dived on one and fired about 50 rounds and he went down in a vertical dive. I followed and as he flattened out at 5,000 feet I got a burst of about 80 rounds at close range. His top wing folded back to the fuselage and later the lower wing came off."
Barker quickly became renowned as one of the war's top balloon busters. The observation balloons on both sides were primary targets for fighters. The observation balloons would be situated close enough to the front lines to be able to observe a large area of the enemy's trenches and would report all activity to the local HQ. Obviously, to deny the enemy knowledge of your activities was important, so fighters were ordered to attack balloons as soon as, and wherever, they appeared. At the time highly flammable hydrogen gas was used to inflate the balloons, so they were very vulnerable to tracer bullets coated with flammable phosphorus. For this reason the balloons were given as much ground and air protection as possible. On the ground around the balloon were situated many AA guns and long-range (13mm) machine guns. Close to the balloons there frequently lurked one or two fighters to combat enemy fighters in the air. All together balloon busting was a risky business that killed many aviators on both sides. Barker thought about the typical balloon setup and reasoned that teamwork was essential if one was to avoid the fate of British ace, Albert Ball, killed while attacking a German balloon. On Jan. 24, he and Hudson were supposed to be engaged in "Practice Fighting and Machine Gun Test" as they put in the Squadron log book. However, "while testing guns over the lines we sighted two balloons in a field which we attacked and destroyed in flames. A horse transport column of about 25 vehicles which was passing these balloons was also attacked and stampeded". Hudson's role was to strafe the AA batteries and machine gun posts while Barker went after the balloon. Unfortunately, he got into trouble with the Wing Co. (Lt-Col. Joubert) as there was a standing order against low flying. He could only offer the lame excuse that once he saw the balloons he forgot all about the order.
Once he had the answer to balloons he attacked them relentlessly. On Feb. 12, Barker and Hudson again went out to "test their guns" and turned it into a balloon version of a turkey-shoot. The Wing Co's report stated:
"On approaching the Piave preparatory to testing guns, Capt. Barker observed that thick ground mist made conditions ideal for attacking balloons. He and Lt. Hudson crossed the Piave at Nervesa and flew to Conegliano, then turned E. to Fossamerlo ... where 2 large observation balloons and 3 small ones were closely parked a few feet in the air, the small ones being between the large ones. Capt. Barker and Lt. Hudson attacked the large balloons which caught fire and all five were destroyed. There was no interference from the ground, except desultory and very badly aimed firing from 2 heavy tracer batteries near the balloons. The haze formed a good screen for the machines."
This attack also worked flawlessly. The machine gunners were too busy avoiding death themselves to worry about the balloon. Barker sent the balloon earthward a burning wreck. When the circling Albatros attacked Barker's Camel, Hudson jumped in and herded the Austrian into Barker's bullets. Baarker then swooped down on an Austrian staff car and strafed it into a ditch where it flipped over and exploded. For all that it matters, Barker received credit for two kills, Hudson wasn't noted as achieving a kill. But that is the role of wingmen and teamwork in battle is essential.
He and Hudson became a team, flying together whenever possible, each protecting the other during attacks, thereby heralding the tactic of two planes flying as leader and wingman, alternating when the situation demands it. The British finally adoped this tactic several years into WWII and then they copied it from the Germans.
On Christmas Day, 1917 Barker, Hudson and another pilot decided to send seasons greetings to the Austrians at nearby Motta Aerodrome. On a large piece of cardboard they wrote the message "To the Austrian Flying Corps from the English RFC, wishing you a Merry X-Mas". They then proceeded to fly across the field wing-tip to wing-tip firing their incendiary Buckingham bullets into the open doors of the hangers. Soon the planes and hangers were burning fiercely. They swooped around and shot up the air-raid trenches where the mechanics and some of the pilots were trying to hide. They killed 12 and wounded many others. The trio made it back to their base at Istrana and quietly convinced the mechanics to patch the bullet holes, as unauthorized flying had been banned by the British commander.
As the few days around Christmas were traditionally considered to be a truce, this action quite angered the Austrian commander. After a day of drinking and brooding the Austrians headed out on a reprisal attack on Boxing Day. Of course, the pilots were pretty much sodden with alcohol and should have been sleeping it off. Most were still drunk when at 8 AM they were roused to avenge the insult. The Austrians couldn't even maintain position in the air and became dispersed. The British AA gunners spotted them a long ways off and proceeded to fire on them. An eyewitness reported:
"I could hardly believe my eyes. About five miles away, flying at all heights between 500 and 3,000 feet was the most heterogenous collection of aircraft I have ever seen. Making no attempt to keep together, but on the contrary widely scattered, thirty or forty Austrian machines were slowly approaching us ... Every few hundred yards one would drop its bombs and make for home. Finally, about twenty reached the aerodrome and bombed it. After bombing the aerodrome they did not go straight back, but becoming more dispersed they wandered all over the country at about 1,000 feet."
Barker was awakened by the air-raid alarm and the whole squadron jumped to their Camels. A flight of 22 Austrians were mistakenly bombing a nearby airfield when 29 Sqdn and some Italian planes intercepted them. A large melee ensued with the resulting loss of 12 Austrian aircraft, one by Barker. Six enemy machines came down all around Istrana aerodrome. There was no report of any damage done to the aerodrome. As Barker's flight was returning to Istrana they spotted a large formation of aircraft heading their way from the Austrian lines. He climbed up to their altitude and discovered it was a flight of 10 German Gotha bombers. In formation they were very deadly as the Gotha was armed fore and aft with machine guns, with the rear gunner being able to fire from guns in the dorsal position and from a ventral position to protect the belly. The cross-fire from so many machine guns was nearly impenetrable. Barker circled in front of the Gothas and approached the middle of the formation from dead-on at long range. He proceeded to fire on the three leading aircraft from 300 yards, hoping to damage one of them. As they neared he had time for a short burst at close range and then dived under them. One machine was in trouble and swung out of formation with a lame engine. He quickly climbed above it and dove firing at the huge airplane, then flashing by only to pull up and fire into the belly around the pilot, in spite of a spirited defence from the two gunners. The Gotha went into a nose dive and burst into flames before crashing near the Piave River.
One Austrian plane landed on the British field. The RFC pilots expected to capture a wounded pilot but found him out cold from drink. Another captured Austrian was still wearing his formal mess atire under his leather flying garments. They finally got the storey from him about the Christmas Day raid on their airfield and the loss of many aircraft, sheds, mechanics and pilots. Shortly after, the British Commander was informed of the whole incident. Because of the great result of the illicit bombing operation Barker, Hudson and the other pilot were not disciplined for disobeying orders, but they were also not decorated for it, as they would have been had it been an authorized flight. The British ground crews grumbled that they spent a good part of Boxing Day picking up prisoners.
On New Year's Day, 1918 Barker added to his mounting score while escorting RE8 bombers. He trailed the bombers at a higher altitude and noticed an Albatros stalking them. He waited until the German pilot was committed to his attack and then dove down on him. His machine gun bursts surprised the German and sent him tumbling into a mountain side. On Jan 5, 1918 he received word that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Britain's second highest award for valour on the battle field. In early Feb. he downed another Albatros and an Aviatik two-seater, armed reconnaissance plane. His colleague, Cpt. Mitchell described Barker:
"Whilst one could not say he was a good pilot, he certainly made up for this in his shooting. I was his deputy leader and probably knew more about him than anyone else. I have seen enemy machines break up in the air or go down in flames long before I realized they were in range."
When not flying Barker was not exactly a model fighter pilot, and probably not a lot of fun. He didn't drink or smoke, he didn't go carousing in local hot spots with the others, nor did he participate in the mess hall parties and pranks. He was more likely to be found on the aircraft line doing maintenance on his aircraft, cleaning the guns or talking to the mechanics and armourers. He lived to fly and fight, like "Buzz" Beurling, but unlike him, he was very ambitious and a bit conceited. His only "pranks" were played on the Austrians, like his Christmas Day shoot-up of an airfield and his invitation to the Austrian aces to join him and his pilots in aerial combat. In one daring raid, he led the whole squadron down the streets of San Vito al Tagliamento in an attack on the Austrian HQ building. They flew very low, below second storey windows and telephone wires shooting out the windows and doors, then swooping up and pulling around to drop their Cooper bombs on the roof. The raid did no harm to anyone, but it certainly bolstered the Italian's morale.
The British HQ were very impressed with his flying abilities, and began using him for all manner of difficult missions, including dropping Italian spies behind enemy lines from an Italian-made Caproni CA.3 bomber (the type was not identified, but likely was a Ca 3). These flights were very arduous, as they were made at low level, in the dark and without escorts. In at least one incident he and the Squadron adjutant (Cpt. W. Benn) flew resupply missions for one spy who used all of his homing pigeons sending information back to the Italian HQ. More than a single plane would have alerted the Austrian AA gunners. As it was, the approach run over the drop area had to be done with motors at idle to avoid detection. After several unsuccessful attempts at dropping spies behind the lines, Barker and a mechanic rigged up the spy's seat in the front gunner's position with a trap-door. Once into position over the drop zone, Barker would spring the door and the spy would drop out without the need for a courageous leap over the side. It must be remembered that parachutes were hardly used by any airforce and were quite a novelty. There was little guarantee that they would open. So, for a spy to jump out of a moving aircraft, in the dark and relying on a questionable parachute took a lot of courage. Barker, in his usual style, found a way to help them out of the aircraft, where he wanted and when he wanted. His spy dropping flights were so successful that the Italian King awarded him the Silver Medal for Valour, the highest award available to non-Italian combattants.
On April 10 Barker was made a Flight Commander and moved to 66 Squadron. His toll of Austrian aircraft continued to climb. The air war in Italy was rapidly becoming a one-sided fight, with the British and French in the ascendency. On April 17, he shot down an Albatros DIII, and in May he downed 8 Austrian aircraft. One such battle on May 24 against Albatros D-Vs and a Brandenberg "Berg" scout was described in detail:
"Capt. Barker attacked the rear EA, which spun down. Lt. Birks attacked the Berg and after a very short fight EA went down with wings off. This was observed by Capt. Barker. At this time Capt. Barker observed three D.V.'s diving from the S. towards Lts. Birks and Apps, who were engaging the remaining two EA in the valley. Capt. Barker got under the tail of one of these EA unobserved and after firing about 40 rounds EA went down out of control and crashed on some hutments in the valley and burst into flames.... The remaining D.V. of the first three EA was an exceptionally skilful pilot and Lt. Birks fought him for a long time then Lt. Apps joined in the attack. Neither pilot could get EA down so Capt. Barker joined in the fight and got on tail of EA. Capt. Barker fired a short burst at EA who went down out of control and dived vertically into the same hutments where Capt. Barker's first EA burst into flames."
All of this activity in the air made for a very peaceful time for the Corps Squadron aircraft involved in the real work of the RAF, photo and general reconnaissance, artillery spotting and bombing of important targets. Most of the rest of the aerial action was in support of the Corps Squadron activities. Barker was awarded his second bar to the Military Cross for work done in the first two months of 1918, this was equivalent to being awarded the MC three times. His official citation from Sept. 1918 stated:
AWARDED A SECOND BAR TO THE MILITARY CROSS"Captain William George Barker, D.S.O., M.C., Gen. List and R.F.C. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When leading patrols he on one occasion attacked eight hostile machines, himself shooting down two, and on another occasion seven, one of which he shot down. In tow months he himself destroyed four enemy machines and drove down one, and burned two balloons."
In Feb. 1918, the French and British each reduced their Divisions in Italy in anticipation of the German "Ludendorff" offensive that was obviously in preparation for the Western Front. The Italian High Command had planned an offensive for the spring, but when they saw that the Austrians were planning an offensive of their own for late May, they dropped their plans and went to the defensive. Although the Austrians were inferior in manpower, guns, and aircraft, they hoped to collapse the allied front by simultaneous attacks upon the British and French positions along the Asiago-Mount Grappa sector and the Italians along the Piave River. In June, the Austrians were effectively halted from aerial observation by intense patrolling by British and French aircraft along the fronts and to 5 miles behind their lines. Barker was awarded his next decoration, the Croix de Geurre, by the French for the extensive work he did to protect and aid the French aircraft conducting reconnaissance missions.
It was around the end of May, 1918 that Barker finally met up with one of Austria's famous aces, Franke Linke-Crawford. Flying in a most distinctive black and white chequered Albatros DV, he had been particularly active in harassing British flights and picking off the occasional straggler. One morning, Barker was leading an offensive patrol of Brisfits in his Camel when they met an Austrian formation of 10 machines. They immediately attacked and Barker noticed Linke-Crawford's chequered plane. He singled out the Austrian and dove after him, entering into a twisting, circling dogfight. Short bursts of machine-gun fire occasionally broke the air, but neither ace was hit. Barker found that the Austrian was a superb flyer, but was, at best, a mediocre shot. Even with the agility of the Camel Barker could not hold Linke-Crawford in his sights long enough for a killing burst. Rather than continue a game that his opponent was obviously good at, and not willing to let him go, Barker circled off to about 200 yards, long range for their guns, and came at Linke-Crawford from head on. He began firing as soon as he lined up the Albatros, and could see his tracers hitting the front of it. Linke-Crawford dove sharply and headed home, but Barker whipped the Camel about and dove after him. Just before the Austrian reached ground level Barker caught up to him and put his tracers through the Albatros's gas tank. Linke-Crawford crashed and died in flames just short of his own airfield.
Even a famous ace like Barker did not escape the battles unscathed. In this period he was shot down twice. Once he landed in Lake Garda and had to be rescued with a rowboat, the other time he had to make a forced landing in the foothills. His Camel hit hard, the under-carriage tore off, and it did a flip landing on its back. Landings such as these frequently broke the pilot's neck.
Fortunately, he was not hurt in either incident.
On June 15, the Austrians opened their last offensive in Italy with the usual artillery bombardment along the entire allied front. Much of the artillery fire on the British positions was inaccurate as the Austrians could not register the fall of their shells due to their aircraft being forced from the skies. Barker and the rest of No. 66 Squadron were active bombing troops in the early morning, but had to quit by 09:00 due to fog. All of the RAF planes were shifted to the Piave front, as it became apparent that the Austrians were massing to assault the Italians in force across the Piave River using pontoon bridges. The Camels were each loaded with four 20-lb Cooper bombs and full machine guns to strafe and bomb the bridges and troops. Barker led a strong attack on the pontoon bridges in the Montello sector, he wrote:
"The Montello, owing to its height, dominated the Venetian plain and under its cover [the Austrians] had thrown two pontoon bridges across the river. The leader selected the bridge farthest upstream and individual bombing commenced from about 50 feet. This bridge was quickly broken in two places and the pontoons, caught by the fast current, were immediately dashed against the lower bridge, carrying it away also. When this attack commenced these bridges were crowded with troops which were attacked with machine-gun fire. Many were seen to be in the water. This done, troops on small islands and in row boats were machine-gunned."
All day they were active bombing and strafing. Most did four or five sorties that day. The British dropped 10,000 pounds of bombs and fired some 31,000 bullets that day. The Camels would sweep low over roads in formation three abreast, machine -gunning troop concentrations waiting along roads for the river crossing to clear. The damage they did was appalling. During the night the Austrians rebuilt some of the bridges and repaired others. Renewed air attacks on the 16th were again highly successful. Despite heavy bombing and strafing efforts by the RAF RE8s and Camels there were seven bridges across the Piave by the afternoon. Fortunately, for the allies, a heavy rain started on the 17th and the Piave River rose considerably into a torrent, ripping away the remaining pontoon bridges of the Austrians. Faced with a dismal failure the Austrian high command withdrew from the sector on the 22-23rd of June. The Austrians had also lost 150 of their 200 aircraft. Among the Austrian airmen this period was known as "The Black Weeks".
The following account, published in the Vienna Neue Freie Presse sums up the agony of the Austrians on the Piave:
"In the plain near San Dona and Cap Sile, General Wurm's storm battalions were sent over the Piave River and the canal. From Treviso, General Diaz sent against them the 30th and 27th Corps, and General Croce's corps, newly formed from eighteen-year-old youths. The Austrians thus gallantly won a most important objective; the summit of the Italian hinge position was thrust through by the storming of the Montello. The rolling up of the whole of the Piave front from there appeared possible - indeed certain.
"Suddenly airmen appear. They come down silently from a great height in far reaching volplanes. Now their motors hum again and their machine guns rattle. A hail of steel pelts down on the pontoons, which sink riddled. The guns of the defense bark from the bank and the fragments of their shrapnel endanger the lives of their own men, men whom they wish to protect. One, two, three of the great Caproni bombarding planes descend, shot down on the mud of the Montello. A Nieuport comes down like a torch hurled from heaven - the famous airman, Major Baracca - is a heap of ashes. His list of victories is the same as that of his most victorious Austrian adversary, Captain Brumowsky, who conquered thirty four opponents. Like raging bulldogs, the English advance on their furiously swift Sopwiths against our airmen, engineers, artillery and infantry. Nothing, absolutely nothing, avails. The enemy airmen are too numerous, the enemy's shells too many. Like Sisyphus multiplied a hundredfold the bridge-builders work incessantly; they fall and disappear in the flood without a cry; they launch new pontoons; they think out new methods of transport from bank to bank - nothing helps; absolutely nothing prevails. Six times are the bridges and footways completed, six times are they destroyed.
It was sometime later in June that Barker, Lt. Birks and Lt. "Black Mike" McEwen dropped the following note over Godega Airfield:
"Major Barker, DSO, MC and the Officers under his Command present their compliments to Captain Bronmoski, 41 Recon. Portobouffole, Ritter von Fiala, 51 Pursuit, Gajarine, Captain Navratil, 3rd Company, and the Pilots under their command, and request the pleasure and honour of meeting in the air. In order to save Captain Bronmoski, Ritter von Fiala and Captain Navratil and gentlemen of his party the inconvenience of searching for them, Major Barker and his Officers will bomb Godigo aerodrome at 10-0 a.m. daily, weather permitting, for the ensuing two weeks."
Other than spelling most of the Austrian ace's names incorrectly, it was a silly challenge. The Austrians did not bother to respond to it. Barker, however, lived up to his word, and bombed Godega Airfield every day for two weeks. Godega was the largest and most important enemy aerodrome on the whole front, and that the RAF bombed it daily with impunity and impudence says a lot about British aerial superiority in Italy.
The excellent work done by the one flight of Bristol FE2 "Brisfits" in 66 Squadron prompted the British command to form a new Squadron, almost entirely, of them. This was the birth of No. 139 Squadron, and on July 14, 1918 Barker was promoted to Major and given command of it.
He, however, kept his Camel. Not because he didn't think the Brisfit was a good airplane, on the contrary he found it to be an excellent aircraft and frequently led patrols in one. But, he was an independent sort of fighter pilot and just couldn't give up the Camel.
True to form, No. 139 Squadron was in action the next day, with three of them running into a formation of five Austrians. They downed two of the Austrian aircraft. On the 18th, Barker in his Camel and one of his Brisfits with some others from 66 Sqdn shot down an entire flight of five Austrians. Barker shot down an LVG two-seater in flames, the other Camels downed three others, and the British AA gunners scored on the fifth aircraft. Only two days following this incident, Barker and two Brisfits got in amongst a flight of Austrian aircraft attacking Motta Airfield. For some reason the Austrians took them for their own and did not attack them. Barker downed two Albatros DIIIs and a Brisfit team downed a third. By now Billy Barker had 33 enemy aircraft to his credit and 9 balloons. He was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Service Order, in essence, earning the decoration twice.
Barker flew the Bristol F2 more in August, 1918 as the Prince of Wales, who was attached to the British HQ in Italy that summer, took a keen interest in the activities of the RAF. He arranged for a flight over the front line in the gunner's seat of Barker's Brisfit (seen at left with the Prince beside the Lewis gun). As he wanted to see something of the disposition of enemy troops they flew about 20 miles behind the front to Vittoria. They encountered heavy AA fire on their return, but no Austrian fighters came up to challenge them, which was just as well. The Prince made a number of visits to 139 Sqdn after that. Major Barker continued in his usual style, fighting what Austrians challenged them in the air, and pretty much bombing what they wanted, when they wanted with only AA to contend with.
In Sept., 1918 he was ordered to take command of the fighter pilot training school at Hounslow, England and left Italy. Upon arrival at Hounslow, Barker immediately tried to return to the Western Front. He argued that he couldn't operate a fighter pilot training school without up-to-date knowledge of fighters and tactics on the Western Front. Finally the School brass gave in and provided him with a new fighter, the Sopwith Snipe and sent him on a supposedly short, roving tour of the Front. He had a very successful few weeks in in October, 1918 during the Allied advances. The Germans had new aircraft that were capable of flying higher than the Camels and SE5as, consequently the observers tended to be unobservant at high altitudes. The Snipe, however, was the natural evolution of the Camel and the Dolphin, possessing the best characteristics of both. It had a high ceiling, powerful armament, agility and ease of flying. The Germans were not expecting trouble up at 24,000 feet, and Barker was able to down several twin-seaters whose crews were not sufficiently attentive. His total now stood at 46 German and Austrian aircraft and 9 balloons. Eventually the brass at Hounslow ordered Barker back to their command and he had no choice but to return. On October 27 he sent his belongings on to England and climbed into his Snipe and set off for home. But first he would take a last flight over the Front.
As he climbed into the clear air he spotted a large German aircraft over the lines doing reconnaissance of the area. He couldn't resist and went up after it over La Foret de Mormal. He caught up to it at 22,000 feet and found the crew to be very good. They easily manouevered to keep the rear gunner in position to fire at Barker, and he hit the Snipe several times. Using his deadly accuracy Barker circled away and came back at the plane and shot the gunner dead from 200 yards. Now he closed in for the kill and hit some vital components. The plane broke up and the pilot had a long drop to his death. But Barker made a mistake, like Richthofen and others, he became so involved in the fight that he didn't spot the Fokker DVII biplane climb up behind him. The first he knew about the other German aircraft was when an explosive bullet shattered the femur of his right leg. He immediately banked left, and began a circling fight with the Fokker. They lost considerable height before the Snipe outcircled the Fokker and Barker fired a burst into its gas tank, igniting the whole plane. However, Billy Barker's troubles were just being. He had dropped into the upper Jasta of an entire "circus" made up of nearly 60 Fokkers. They attacked from all sides and directions. The tiny Snipe was being chewed to shreds and he was hit in the left thigh. He fought back valiently, driving down two Fokkers in spins. Fainting from pain and blood loss his airplane fell out of control for several thousand feet. The rushing air revived him, and he halted his fall but he found that he had spun down into the middle Jasta. The fight started all over again, with his Snipe being shot up from all around. In despiration he picked out a nearby Fokker and charged it, firing all the time. Just as he reached the other aircraft it blew apart and fell away. His left elbow was hit by a bullet and shattered. Again he fainted from pain and shock and the Snipe fell into a spin. He fell a long ways this time but eventually came to and managed somehow to pull out of his dive and got onto the tail of a Fokker in the lower level Jasta. He shot it down in flames. He headed for the Allied lines but was intercepted by a German flight. He charged at them and broke up their formation and turned again for the lines. His gas tank was shot away from under his seat and, amazingly, did not catch on fire. He had just enough strength to flip on a small reserve tank of fuel. He headed down as fast as the Snipe would go, nearly out of control and crashed at top speed, flipping the tough, little airplane onto its nose. Members of a Highland regiment pulled him from the wreckage and were amazed to find him alive. Thousands of British soldiers, including Canada's General Andrew McNaughton, had watched the whole fight and were cheering lustily as Barker obviously beat the entire German circus.
He remained unconscious for several days in No. 8 General Hospital in Rouen. He received congratulatory telegrams from the King, the Prince of Wales, and Lord Hamilton in Italy. On November 20, 1918 he was awarded the Victoria Cross and was again inundated with congratulations, from Prime Minister Borden, the Canadian General Staff and the one that meant the most to him, from Lt-Col. Billy Bishop. By January, 1919 he was moved to England to convalesce. His wounds were very serious, and the broken bones in his thighs never really healed well, keeping him in constant pain, and a semi-cripple. While in Rouen he wrote the following letter home:
In the late spring he again was given the honour of flying the Prince of Wales. He was still using canes and had his arm in a sling, but they took up Sopwith's new two-seater Dove and stunted for half an hour over London. He was then promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Air Force. His aircraft was reconstructed and photographed (below), and was later transferred to Canada for permanent display at the National War Museum in Ottawa.
Later in that year he returned to Canada and with Billy Bishop formed the Bishop and Barker Company, flying Martinsyde two-seaters and HS2L's from Toronto's Island Airport to the Muskoka country north of Toronto. Unfortunately for them both, the endeavour did not pay off and they were forced to sell their aircraft to pay debts. They were also involved in a highly questionable incident where he and Bishop were hired to do stunt flying over Toronto harbour at the Canadian National Exhibition. They decided to give the audience a real thrill and buzzed the stands. The crowd panicked and stampeded out of the stands, and one woman apparently miscarried her unborn child. They were forced to forgo their fee to pay damages.
In 1920, Barker joined the newly formed Royal Canadian Air Force and was sent to England as liaison officer with the Air Ministry. While in England he participated in the RAF project to choose flying routes throughout the middle east. This was the same project that Raymond Collishaw worked on. Barker flew for several months between Iraq and Palestine.
In 1924, he returned to Canada and resigned from the RCAF to develop the fledgling tobacco industry in Norfolk County, Ontario. He and his wife lived in the village of Lynedoch near Simcoe. A serious bout of pneumonia in the spring of 1929 forced him to sell his tobacco interests in order to recuperate and avoid a loss of income. By the fall he had recovered and had several attractive offers from aviation companies. He accepted one from a local Canadian company, and in Jan. 1930 became the president of Fairchild Aviation Corporation of Canada headquartered in Montreal. In March of that year Fairchild was demonstrating their newest two-seater aircraft to the Department of National Defence. Before the formal tests with the military in presence, Barker decided to take the aircraft "up for a flip". He took off from Rockcliffe Aerodrome, just outside Ottawa (now the home of the National Air Museum) in the untried aircraft. After some 10 minutes he returned to the airstrip flying at full throttle very low. Just over the aerodrome he pulled up into a steep climb and rose to nearly 200 feet before the engine seemed to stall. He levelled out briefly but then flipped over and crashed nose-first into the field. He was killed instantly.
There had been no indication that the engine was faulty, it was capable of climbing well, although it is possible that he had put it into too high a climb. But Barker was an excellent pilot, and should have known, or at least respected, the capabilities of the plane. Other people have suggested that he committed suicide, as his years after the war were filled with constant pain, debilitation, and depression. He missed the hard and fast life of combat, as did Bishop and Beurling. It is impossible to know just what happened at Rockcliffe that afternoon. It really doesn't matter.
William Barker was an excellent pilot, a fearless combat pilot, and a dedicated leader and trainer of the men under his command. He was everything that a Squadron Leader should have been. His participation in WWI definately contributed in a major way to the defeat of the Germans. He developed combat tactics that were revived and used in WWII, first by the Germans and later by the Allies, and he pioneered ground-to-air combat. William Barker was an ace and hero, par excellance.
Wayne Ralph has published an excellent book on William Barkers life titled Barker VC. I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Canadian fliers. It is available from any decent bookstore, or check your library.
S.F. Wise. Canadian Airmen and the First World War. The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Volume 1. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. 1980
W. Ralph. BARKER VC (Grub Street, London, 1999) - distributed in Canada by Vanwell Publishers in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Lt.-Col. G. Drew. Canada's Fighting Airmen. 1930.