Raymond Collishaw was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia on November 22, 1893. His father was an itinerant miner and had stopped his wanderings in Nanaimo to earn some money coal mining so he could continue to prospect in California. Ray dropped out of grade 8 at age 15 and his father got him a job as a cabin boy on a Canadian Fisheries Protection Service ship. Really he was a junior sailor as they had no need for a cabin boy. He was onboard the Alcedo when it sailed into the Arctic Circle in search of the Stefansson expedition. Unfortunately, for the expedition, they were too late to help the Karluk, it had been crushed by ice and some of the crew were dead. Collishaw applied for and received the British Polar Ribbon. It was not, as some reports have it, for sailing to Antarctica with Robert Scott. The furthest south he got was China. Later, he found out that he was not really eligible for the medal, and he had to remove it from his military tunics. It was a hard, but exciting life and one that taught you obedience to superior officers. He worked for seven years on the west coast, eventually rising to the post of First Officer on board the Fispa, a ship similar to the one shown below.
When WWI started he tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy, however, he heard nothing from them for some time. Having attended a flying meet at Lulu Island near Vancouver, and hearing that the Royal Naval Air Service was hiring, he decided to apply for them instead. He applied in Esquimalt, B.C. and then was sent to Ottawa, Ontario for a final interview. He was enrolled as a Probationary Flight Sub-Lieutenant and would become a full one upon completing a flying course. At his own expense! He then travelled to Toronto to attend the Curtis Flying School, the only flight training school in Canada at the time. The candidates waited a long time to get into the school, throughput was slow and the weather was getting cold and would soon curtail flying. Due to the destitute condition of many of the RNAS "students" the Royal Navy decided to give them basic naval training in Halifax and then ship them to England and have them do their flight training there. He did his basic training on the cruiser HMS Niobe until January, 1916. It was then that he boarded the White Star liner Adriatic for England with a bunch of other Canadians, including Lloyd Breadner, who was to become the RCAF's Air Chief-Marshal in WWII.
He was posted to the naval air station at Redcar for what passed as flight training. Flying in 1916 was very hazardous. He usually flew in a French-made Caudron G.3. It was a crude aircraft that was tricky to fly because of it's use of wing-warping instead of ailerons for banking. Ailerons were not in wide use at the time, but would be within two years. They provided much more control over the banking movements of an aircraft, providing more control and enabling more severe lateral movements. They also trained on the AVRO 504c and a wide variety of other aircraft. The RNAS believed that a broad base of knowledge of aircraft would stand them in better stead than learning a single type.
Despite problems with landings Collishaw soloed with only 8.5 hours of flying time. This was typical of both sides in WWI, when the flight instructors showed a pilot how to get up, and turn the aircraft around and get down and that was about all. Ground instruction consisted of machine gun orientation (mostly I suspect of how to load it and to clear a jam) and map reading. Everything else of use to a pilot in battle had to be learned "on the job". This is one reason for the high loss rate of WWI pilots both in training and in operations, and is likely a major reason why the aces of WWI downed so many aircraft each.
At the time the German Zeppelins were raiding southern England with impunity, and the RNAS pilots were in more danger from irate towns folk than they were from Germans. He was more fortunate than many pilots as John Alcock, who made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic with Arthur Brown in a converted Vickers Vimy bomber, gave him extra attention, making him a better pilot than most of his contemporaries. Even so Collishaw made some serious mistakes. Once while attempting to deliver a note from a mate to a local girl he crashed into a row of outhouses, covering himself in excrement and toilet paper and destroying the plane. The girl was not impressed.
He received his wings and was posted to 3 Naval Wing, a bomber wing flying Sopwith 1½ Strutters as one-seater bombers and two-seater fighter scouts and from Luxeuil-les-Bains, France. They had been outfitted with special fuel tanks so they had an endurance of 7.5 hours. They were to conduct long-distance bombing raids over Germany. He participated in the first strike on the Mauser Arms Works at Oberndorff, Germany. His duty was as a pilot in a two-seater fighter-scout as cover for bombers. Over 80 aircraft, including 40 1½ Strutters, French Breguet V bombers and Nieuport 11 scouts from the Lafayette Escadrille, participated in the mission. It was a large one by 1916 standards. Unfortunately, the Nieuports did not have the range of the other aircraft and had to turn back before they reached the target, thus exposing the rest of the flight to attacks by German fighters. (This was to be replayed in WWII until fighters were developed that could accompany the bombers to their targets.) Past the Rhine River the armada was intercepted by Albatros DIIs of the Grasshopper Jasta that included future ace, Ernst Udet (seen here later in the war). He claimed his first victory that day, a Breguet V bomber. Collishaw and his gunner shot down the future ace, Ludwig Hanstein. His gunner put bullets into Hanstein's engine and Collishaw followed him down firing at him with his forward Vickers. This was his first victory, but his engine acted up and he barely made it the 200 miles home. The mission was a failure with the loss of 9 aircraft and little damage done to the rifle works. But Naval 3 Wing learned it's lessons. The next week they destroyed the furnaces at a steel works with a much smaller force that got in and out of Germany without being spotted. But in the raid after that one he was shot down, fortunately the aircraft of the time were good gliders. He coasted into Allied France near Nancy and crash landed.
Early winter halted operations until January, 1917. On one, supposedly, easy flight he was ferrying a Sopwith 1½ Strutter to their new base at Ochey without a rear gunner. He accidently strayed over the front and was jumped by six Albatros DIIs. The first hint he had of their presence was tracer bullets slamming into his instrument panel, one hitting his goggles and partially blinding him with glass. In despiration he dove for the trees hoping to lose them. One Albatros followed and crashed, another cut in front of him and presented a point-blank target. Collishaw didn't miss and sent him into the ground with an accurate burst. Now he had to get home without instruments and nearly blinded. He guided his way home by the sun and landed, gratefully, on a field. Men came running to his plane, he thought to help him. That is until he saw a line of Fokkers on the field. He had landed at a German base. Quickly he gunned the motor and took off with Fokkers behind him and clipped two trees at the end of the field. They caught his slower plane and riddled it with bullets, but he managed to lose them in clouds. He was several miles past the front before he realized it and managed to land at a French airfield near Verdun. He stayed several days to have his eyes patched up by a local doctor. The French were so impressed with his feat that they awarded him the Croix de Guerre on April 21, 1917 and the British posted him to an all fighter squadron.
Unfortunately for Ray it was Feb. 1917 and the Allied squadrons on the Western Front were being pulverized during the Arras offensive. Several Naval squadrons were sent to lend a hand. The RFC did not view them as a real benefit, however, as the RNAS had a pretty easy time of flying compared to them. Many RNAS pilots were shocked to find the fighting over the front was continuous, with 3 and 4 flights a day and every one guaranteeing a battle with the Huns. Several times Collishaw found himself alone just as the Albatroses showed up, the rest of the RNAS pilots skipping out with "engine trouble". He flew the Sopwith Pup, a single-gun, underpowered aircraft that was easy to fly and very manoueverable. He brought down an Albatros just after arriving at the front, but then had trouble with his gun freezing up in the frigid air. It wasn't until March that he brought down another aircraft while escorting FE2bs on a spy mission over Cambrai. He shot down the leader of a flight of Halberstadt fighters that were trying to intercept the "Fees". In another mission his goggles were again shot off and his gun jammed so that he had to lean into the slip-stream without eye protection to unjam the gun. He froze his face quite badly and was hospitalized for a month.
Upon returning to the front April 26, he was posted to Naval 10 equipped with the new Sopwith Triplane. The triplane was even more agile than the Pup. With three wings it had an incredible rate of climb, better visibility above and a small turning radius. It was slower than the Albatros DIII but in WWI aircraft agility counted for a lot. Its major drawback was the single machine gun, as the Albatroses had two forward firing guns. Even so, the Germans had a nasty surprise with the appearance of the Triplane. Collishaw downed a plane in his first day flying the Triplane in combat. In the next few weeks he downed four more aircraft. Then Naval 10 was moved to Droglandt, near Belgium. Preparations for the Messines offensive were underway and the RFC needed assistance in providing protection for reconnaissance and bombing flights. Collishaw and Naval 10 were facing the cream of the German Army Air Service and would be in the thickest air combat facing Baron von Richthofen's Flying Circus. Collishaw commanded "B" flight solely comprised of five Canadians. The fighters in Naval 10 had painted the cowlings of their Triplanes to identify the various flights in the air. Collishaw's flight had black noses, so, in an effort to boost morale and solidarity they painted the rest of their Triplanes black and added suitable names to each. Collishaw flew "Black Maria", Ellis Reid flew "Black Roger", John Sharman was in "Black Death" and Mel Alexander flew "Black Prince". Thus they became Naval 10s "Black Flight". Within weeks they were the terror of the German Army Air Service.
June 6 was their grandest day. They were flying offensive patrols with 10 Triplanes. Collishaw was leading a patrol when they came across an Albatros 2-seater escorted by 15 Albatros and Halberstadt fighters. In the "fur ball" that ensued Collishaw dropped three Albatroses, Nash downed an Aviatik two-seater and an Albatros, Reid downed a Halberstadt scout, Sharman and Alexander each downed an Albatros. In total the RNAS shot down 10 German aircraft without any losses.
Two days later Collishaw was shot down. He had been in a tight circling fight with an Albatros and was about to fire on it when German bullets from an aircraft behind him smashed into his cockpit. His aircraft fell out of control in a dizzying series of spins, cartwheels, swoops and dives from 16,000 feet. Just before he hit the ground the Triplane pulled nose up and slammed belly down into the ground. English Tommies pulled him from the wreck, dazed but unhurt. In early July Collishaw was promoted to acting Flight Commander.
For his combats in June, 1917 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation reads:
COLLISHAW, Flight Lieutenant Raymond - Distinguished Service Cross - awarded as per London Gazette dated 24 July 1917.
In recognition of his services on various occasions, especially the following:
- On June 1st, 1917, this officer shot down an Albatross scout in flames.
- On June 3rd, 1917, he shot down an Albatross scout in flames.
- On 5th June, 1917, he shot down a two-seater Albatross in flames.
- On the 6th June, 1917, he shot down two Albatross scouts in flames and killed the pilot in third machine.
He has displayed great gallantry and skill in all his combats.
On July 2nd, Collishaw was involved in the air battle that nearly killed Baron von Richthofen. Six FE2bs had been set upon by 30 Albatroses, some from Richthofen's Jasta 11. One FE2b gunner grazed Richthofen's skull with a bullet. The German "Ace of Aces" was lucky to come to before he crashed and managed to land his aircraft. The wound put him out of action for a month. In fine style Collishaw shot down 6 Albatros scouts, Alexander got two and Reid one. Collishaw was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the 2nd highest award for bravery in combat, for his day's work.
In July, he was again shot down. This time, a powerful burst of bullets from a German aircraft broke the wires keeping the two sides of the metal cowling on the aircraft. One side piece flipped off and jammed into his wing struts causing an immediate and rapid, spin. His Triplane began tumbling end-over-end, with the added stress his seat belt snapped and he flew out into space. Frantically, Collishaw grabbed a centre-section strut and hung on for dear life. His arms were being slowly pulled out of their sockets and his hands were losing their grip as he was flung about by the wildly gyrating aircraft. In one of its swoops he was thrown part ways into the cockpit. With strength borne of despiration he hooked a boot around the control column and pushed it forward enough that he could get further into the cockpit By now he could pick out individual trees. With an immense effort he levered himself into the cockpit with his foot and pulled back on the stick. The airplane levelled out somewhat before slamming into the ground and was destroyed, but he walked away unhurt.
The next day the RNAS sent him back into the fray, the need for experienced pilots was great and there was no recognition of battle fatigue. Near the end of July the "Black Flight" ran into Richthofen's "Flying Circus", with Nash being shot down by Richthofen's second in command, Karl Allmenroeder. Collishaw had noticed Allmenroeder's green and red plane but hadn't realized that he had shot down Nash. The next day the two flights met again but at long range. Collishaw fired at Allmenroeder mostly as a matter of course, not really expecting to hit him, however he killed Allmenroeder with the burst.
Ray ended his period with Naval 10 at the end of July, 1917. He downed 27 German aircraft during his command of the Black Flight of Naval 10. All-together the Black Flight was responsible for the downing of 87 German airplanes with only two losses (Nash and Sharman). He was granted a three-month leave in Canada to recuperate from combat stress.
In August he was awarded the second highest award for gallantry in action, the Distinguished Service Order:
COLLISHAW, Flight Lieutenant Raymond - Distinguished Service Order - awarded as per London Gazette dated 11 August 1917.
For conspicuous bravery and skill in consistently leading attacks against hostile aircraft. Since the 10th June, 1917, Flight Lieutenant Collishaw has himself brought down four machines completely out of control and driven down two others with their planes shot away. Whilst on an offensive patrol on the morning of the 15th June, 1917, he forced down a hostile scout in a nose dive. Later, on the same day, he drove down one hostile two-seater machine completely out of control. On the 24th June, 1917, he engaged four enemy scouts, driving one down in a spin and another with two of its planes shot away; the latter machine was seen to crash.
On returning to Europe he was posted to Naval 3 flying Sopwith Camel F1s. It was a hot, new fighter plane, tricky to fly without considerable experience. Once mastered it was a dangerous aircraft to the enemy. And it came with two synchronized Vickers machine guns. Posted to St. Pol in northern France, there was little action, even so he downed a Albatros while excorting DH4 bombers. The squadron commander was killed shortly after and Ray Collishaw took over. The action for the RNAS in the north typically consisted of escorting bombers over the German ports of Zeebrugge and Ostende.
Collishaw shone as a squadron commander. Mel Alexander survived the war and remembered Ray Collishaw as a charismatic leader and an inspiration to others. He would fly with new pilots letting them spray lead at enemy two-seaters and then with little effort slipping in and downing the plane. He would slap the newcomer on the back and congratulate them on their first victory. Fortunately, for them, the action on the coast was not like the RFC had on the front lines. Collishaw developed a taste for attacking enemies head-on, firing until the other aircraft fell or swerved away, and then using the Camel's right-hand manoueverability to pounce on their tail. He downed two Pfalz's and two of the new Fokker DVIIs with this technique in two days.
In October, 1917 he was officially "noticed" with a Mention in Despatches for particularly fine work in the air. The flying and fighting kept up throughout the winter of 1917-1918 with brief respites due to poor weather. Much of the combat in the summer of 1918 was strafing German troops. Flying low over the trenches and firing on the troops was exceedingly hazardous, as many rifles and machine guns would bear on the aircraft. Many pilots died in this activity. Ray Collishaw managed to shoot down 4 airplanes and a balloon in August, and five more in September. He led a low level bombing attack with a mixed flight of planes, including Camels, SE5s, and Brisfits, on an airfield at Lieu St. Amand. They set three hangers on fire, and shot down a handful of Fokker pilots, with Collishaw getting two. On the way home they strafed ground troops. As Collishaw put it, "All in all it was a most successful affair". He was awarded the bar to the DFC, indicating a second award of the medal:
COLLISHAW, Major Raymond - Distinguished Flying Cross - awarded as per London Gazette dated 3 August 1918.
This officer is an exceptionally capable and efficient squadron commander, under whose leadership the squadron has maintained a high place in the Army Wing. He has carried out numerous solo patrols and led many offensive patrols, on all occasions engaging the enemy with great bravery and fearlessness. Up to date he has accounted for forty-seven enemy machines, twenty-two in the last twelve months.
His finest day was very much like Billy Bishop's raid on an airfield that earned him the Victoria Cross. Collishaw and Leonard Rochford raided an airfield 15 miles behind enemy lines in Camels each carrying four 25-lb bombs and extra bullets. Rochford swept in low strafing and bombing as Collishaw provided top cover. Once Rochford had shot up the hangers, barracks and mess and lit a large tent on fire, Collishaw swept in and shot up the flight line of Albatroses. Circling up he spotted a large two-seater coming in for a landing, both pilot and observer being very non-observant of the proceedings. He shot the plane down in flames. They returned to home base and Collishaw re-armed with bullets and went back to view the damage. Upon arriving he shot down an Albatros circling above the field, took a look at the damage and headed home. Collishaw received a Distinguished Service Order and Rochford received the DFC for his part.
COLLISHAW, Major Raymond - Bar to Distinguished Service Order - awarded as per London Gazette dated 21 September 1918.
A brilliant squadron leader of exceptional daring who has destroyed 51 enemy machines. Early one morning he, with another pilot, attacked an enemy aerodrome. Seeing three machines brought out of a burning hangar, he dived five times, firing bursts at these from a very low altitude, and dropping bombs on the living quarters. He then saw an enemy aeroplane descending over the aerodrome; he attacked it and drove it down in flames. Later, when returning from a reconnaissance of the damaged hangars, he was attacked by three Albatross scouts who pursued him to our lines, when he turned and attacked one, which fell out of control and crashed.
The war was nearly over, but Collishaw persisted in attacking enemy aircraft, almost getting shot down in October, 1918. Collishaw was given another Mention in Despatches for exceptionally fine work in the air. He was ordered to report to the Air Ministry in London, and three weeks later the Armistice was signed. He was officially credited with 60 kills, however, that doesn't take into account the 8 balloons he shot down. Balloons were frequently more hazardous to attack than fellow aircraft due to the defensive arms and supporting aircraft they had around them, but for some reason they were not credited as an aircraft kill. Collishaw claimed that he downed 81 aircraft and balloons. Had be flown for the RFC this total would have been closer to his credited kills than 60, as the RFC was more lenient in awarding kills to pilots. In the RFC Raymond Collishaw would have been the highest ranked ace of the war, and would undoubtedly have been awarded the Victoria Cross. Many pilots in the RFC were given the VC for efforts less heroic or hazardous than many of Collishaw's, but the RNAS pilots were definately second-class when it came to awards.
He was offered a permanent commission in the RAF following the war and he jumped at the chance as he enjoyed the life style and work. After leave in Canada he was posted to Russia in 1919 as part of the western Allies' intervention in the Russian Revolution on the White Russian side. He lead 10 pilots south to Nororossiiski flying Camels and DH9 two-seater bombers.
At first death from typhus was the greatest hazard as there were no medical supplies, and there was little they could do for typhus anyways. In late August Collishaw went into battle dropping bombs from his Camel on Bolshevik troops crossing the River Volga on rafts. He sank a gunboat and became one of the few aces to sink an enemy vessel.
It was a nasty civil war, with no thought given to the safety of civilians and waged by any means possible. Cavalry charges with Cossaks and Muslims were still held, with Sopwith Camels flying top cover. In one sortie four Camels caught a large troop of Bolshevik cavalry in the open. Their 8 machine guns cut them down without respite, inflicting 1,600 casualties. It stopped only when the aircraft ran out of bullets.
In October he downed his first aircraft in Russia, an Albatros D5 that crashed into the Volga. He downed another a few days later, but then was put out of commission with typhus. Collishaw, as usual, was fortunate in being tended by a homeless Russian countess who likely pulled him through the disease.
Despite all of this the Allies lost in Russia and were forced back. They had to abandon their aircraft and flee with the aristocrats and anti-soviet peasants on an old train. It was nearly their undoing. The Bolsheviks chased them for 500 miles in an armoured train mounting a 9 inch cannon. Civilians along the way tore up track in front of them or fired on the cars as they passed. Typhus ran through the train, dead bodies were simply hurled from the cars. They had to collect snow and firewood for the engine and themselves. At one point a local body of Bolsheviks ran a railroad engine into the train, but failed to derail it. Finally, in January, 1920 they made it to Crimea and relative safety. He admitted in his autobiography that Russia was far more frightening than the Western Front.
Once they were in the Crimea they reassembled their planes and were back in action. Collishaw blew an enemy train off the tracks and damaged a second one with bombs. On the second foray his motor was damaged and he was forced down behind enemy lines. Fortunately, the ground was frozen so he taxied back to his lines. By the time the Allies pulled out of Russia, Ray Collishaw had destroyed 2 planes, 2 trains, a gunboat and a bridge. He also collected three Czarist medals the Order of St.Anne (White Russian), the Order of St.Stanislaus (White Russian) and the Order of St. Vladimir. He was also made an Officer in the Order of the British Empire "for services in Russia".
After arriving back in England he took three months leave and returned to Canada. Following this leave he returned to England in August, 1920 and spent a bit of time at an RAF depot and was then posted to Mesopotamia (Iraq). He took command of No. 30 Sqdn equipped with DH9a's. Iraqi tribes were revolting against central authority under King Faisal and the "British Mandate". The RAF was sent to crush the rebels. As there was no air opposition the entire activity was bombing and strafing rebel positions, troops, villages and stock. For some reason many of the pilots had no compunction about bombing civilian villages, but refused to bomb their livestock. Collishaw thought bombing non-combattants to be dishonourable. The only real danger to the pilots was being forced down in rebel territory due to engine problems. The rebels had little respect for their aerial tormentors and would kill them if they captured them. They all carried papers written in Arabic, Syrian and Turkish called "blood chits". They promised that a substantial reward would be paid to those who helped a downed airman. He spent three years in freezing cold weather with deep snowdrifts in Kurdistan, to temperatures of 130 with no shade, dusty, dysentery, thirst and other equally unpleasant discomforts.
Part of their operations were against more Bolsheviks in North Persia at Kazvin in support of units under Gen. Ironside. As winter set in most of the action consisted on desultory bombing and reconnaissance and the maintenance of communications between the Kazvin base and Baghdad. The planes would take off from airfields made of deep, packed snow (done by camels) and landed in temperatures over 120. By the spring of 1921 the British had had enough and were not prepared to fight any major battles against the Bolsheviks over Kurdistan. His work "in recognition of distinguished services in Iraq in 1921" was noticed with another Mention in Despatches dated October, 1922.
No. 30 Sqdn was then involved, along with 47 and 70 Sqdns, in setting up the Baghdad to Cairo air route to enable easy military access to Mesopotamia and Britain. Also, it was to make Baghdad part of a projected Australia, India, Cairo, Baghdad, London air route that would, of course, be controlled by the British. They worked with two truck crews in identifying landing areas 20 miles apart, preferably near water on flat ground. At one oasis water was required for the aircraft. The water was nearly 80 feet down in the well and no one was stepping forward to descend for it. Collishaw had a rope tied onto himself, and with bucket in hand descended to get the water. By the time he reached the bottom his eyes had adjusted to the dark, and he was horrified to see the walls crawling with large, black scorpions. Quickly he scooped up a bucket of water and rose out of the well. One bucket was all they got. The provision of water was a continual problem. Collishaw thought that they could use the inner tubes from the tires of Handley-Page 0/400 bombers. The concept was to fill an inner tube in a tire with water, and drop it from an aircraft to resupply distant airstrips. They experimented with one such tire weighing 750 pounds. The pilot came in low over the Baghdad airfield in a Handley-Page bomber and released the tire. Travelling at 100 mph the tire hit and rebounded off of the field changing course for the hangers. Everyone dropped or ran like mad away from the tire travelling towards them. It hit a hanger in the side and went through the offices of several flight commanders, out through the other side of the hanger and demolished an aircraft. Needless to say, they went back to delivering water by truck.
By 1923, the RAF was back in Kurdistan and Turkey fighting a breakaway rebellion by Sheik Mamoud, the self proclaimed King of Kurdistan with Turkish backing. A column of 5,000 mounted British troops was sent into Kurdistan and Collishaw went along as RAF Liaison Officer. After six weeks on horseback, and the burning of a number of rebel towns the British withdrew, not really accomplishing anything.
Following the Mesopotamian excursion Collishaw commanded No. 41 Sqdn at Northolt equipped with Armstrong-Whitworth Siskins. From there he attended the RAF Staff College at Andover. He found the College to be run along very unimaginative lines, with little thought given to actual field problems and how commanders in the field overcame them. The Naval Staff couldn't see any need for aircraft that could sink an enemy battleship, that's what they had battleships for. They prepared plans to refight WWI, not the coming (then unrealised) war. From the Staff College he went to command No. 23 Sqdn flying the new Gloster Gamecock. They did a lot of night flying in cooperation with the London AA Squads. One night his Gamecock flipped onto it's back while he was landing it. He was in fine shape, nothing broken or bent, but he was stuck in the plane soaked with fuel. A few feet away there was an airstrip marking flare burning merrily away. He expected to be burned to a crisp at any moment, but help came eventually.
In 1927, Collishaw was posted to a new organization that had developed in response to continuing poor relations with France and the lack of aircraft squadrons in England. He became the Head of the Department for Operations and Intelligence working under Air Marshall Sir John Salmond of the Air Defence of Great Britain. They all assumed that if war came, it would be with France. During this period there was a strong anti-military lobby in the League of Nations. Part of this was a movement to outlaw aerial bombing. Collishaw blamed this activity for limiting England's bombing abilities at the beginning of WWII. By the end of WWI the Handley-Page 0/400 bombers were dropping 1,650 pound bombs, and the H-P 1500 bomber was capable of dropping a 3,360 pounder by the time the war ended. At the beginning of WWII the maximum bomb size carried by English aircraft was a 500 pound bomb.
In July, 1929 Collishaw was sent as Senior RAF Officer aboard HMS Courageous, England's newest and largest aircraft carrier located in Malta. He spent three years aboard the ship. From there he spent three years commanding RAF Station Bircham Newton where No.s 35 and 207 Sqdns were located flying Fairey Gordon light bombers. The only respite he had from boredom was the rare visit from the King and Queen. In 1935, he was finally promoted to Group Captain and was sent to command RAF Station Upper Heyford. After a few months the Italians invaded Ethiopia and the government wanted an experienced commander in the region. He was sent to Sudan to take over No. 5 Wing of the RAF's Middle East Command. The Wing was composed of his old compadre's, Sqdns 35 and 207 still flying Gordon bombers and No. 3 Sqdn flying Bristol Bulldogs. Nothing much came of the British response to the Italian campaign and the Wing was disbanded in 1936. Collishaw, however, took over command of the RAF Station at Heliopolis, Egypt. Here there was a lot to do, especially considering the Nazi and Fascist menace that was growing in Europe. On leave one time, he and his wife took a motor trip from Cairo through Cerenaica (north eastern Libya). He took careful note of military installations along the way (there was only one road) for future reference that was to stand him in good stead.
The next action that Collishaw saw was when WWII started in 1939. He was promoted to Air Commodore and took over as Air Officer Commanding, Egypt Group in charge of RAF units in North Africa. He concentrated on strategy and tactics to neutralize the Italian air force and to gain aerial superiority in North Africa. This was a tough challenge considering that his men were flying outdated Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and Vickers Wellesley bombers.. The day the war started Collishaw's men were off the mark quickly, striking at an Italian airbase destroying 18 aircraft in two days with only three losses. He then turned their efforts to bombing harbours, ships and troops to hold up the reinforcement of North Africa. They sunk the Italian cruiser San Giorgio and blew up an ammo dump.
His pilots were badly outnumbered and outgunned. But he countered these deficiencies with expert advice on aerial tactics, aggressive attacks and trickery. He had only a single modern Hawker Hurricane fighter to use at the front (three others were relegated to training) dubbed "Colly's Battleship". He made the best of it by constantly moving it from base to base and letting the Italians see it. He came up with the idea of making many, single plane attacks on Italian formations to fool the Italians into thinking he had many Hurricanes. The result was that the Italians spread their superior fighters thinly across North Africa, and seriously diluted their strength.
In Sept. 1940, the Italians under Gen. Grazziani, finally got organized and started a ponderous offensive from Libya into western Egypt. The British pulled back to their main base, Marsa Matruh, allowing the Italians to capture an airbase at Sidi Barrani. The Italians stopped there until Dec. 1940 to regroup and restock supplies. Collishaw implemented a continual harassment procedure that forced the Italian's into having standing patrols over their forts. This was incredibly wasteful of men, fuel and machines. They should have been on the offensive, and yet were not.
While the Italians were in Sidi Barrani someone in the rear area of Cairo found a large stock of old English anti-personnel mines in a storehouse. Bristol Bombay transport/bombers were used to "bomb" the Italian forts with these 20 lb anti-personnel mines. Each Bombay could carry 200. As the plane circled a fort, one man would arm the AP mine, hand it to another who would then toss it out the fusilage door. They kept this up all night alternating planes and forts. It was reported to have lowered the Italian's morale even further.
Reinforcements arrived in the shape of Vickers Wellington medium bombers and two squadrons of Hurricanes. Collishaw used them to good effect during Operation Compass. It was originally designed by Gens. Wavell and O'Connor as a reconnaissance in force around Sidi Barrani. The RAF was tasked with harassing the Italians and making sure that their reconnaissance and bomber planes did not find out what was going on in the British sector. They were very successful as the Italians were taken completely by surprise by the opening attack of Compass. He even had a Bombay fly back and forth over the tanks moving to the front the day before the attack to cover their noise. The Bombays were very noisy aircraft. With the overwhelming success of the initial days of Compass, Gen. Wavell pushed further into western Egypt and entered Libya. Collishaw's men were extremely busy keeping the Regia Aeronautica at bay and straffing rear areas and lines of communication and retreat. Eventually the British captured Benghazi.
However, the Germans realized they could not afford to lose North Africa so easily and despatched Lt. General Erwin Rommel to retake it. A fact of warfare in North Africa worked alternately in the attackers favour and then in his disfavour. The more successful the attack, the further the enemy was pushed back, the longer became the supply lines for the offense and the shorter became the supply lines for the defense. This is a main reason for Rommel's success in the Libyan desert, and then for the British and American success over him.
In July, 1942 Collishaw was recalled from the desert and was replaced with Air Vice-Marshal Coningham. He was given the a posting in Fighter Command in Scapa Flow, Scotland. This was considered to be a "peaceful" posting where aviators could unwind from long periods of front line duty. Certainly Collishaw needed it. By this time the Luftwaffe had other problems in Europe and did not bother with raiding Scapa Flow. Ray Collishaw was retired from the RAF in July, 1943 with the rank of Air Vice-Marshal, this was not a unanimous decision, as in his autobiography he used the term "was retired from the RAF". It isn't likely that this old warrior would have voluntarily retired in the middle of a war. Still he soldiered on as a regional air liaison officer with the civil defence organization until the end of the war. Following the war he returned to British Columbia as part owner of a mine near Barkerville. He finally settled down to a good, and finally, peaceful life. He died in West Vancouver in 1975 at the age of 82.
The early war in North Africa was possibly his finest hour. Ray Collishaw was a man of incredible courage and daring, he applied his knowledge of aerial fighting intelligently and made significant contributions to the Allied efforts in both world wars. He was Canada's most exciting, and one of it's least known, aerial aces and a real hero. He is honored in Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame.
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Images From: Collishaw 1: Canadian DND Photo. Ship: Collishaw and Dodds. Air Command. Droglandt Airfield: Canadian DND Photo. Collishaw seated: Udet and Allmenroeder: Aircraft of the German Army Air Service. Hurricanes and San Giorgio Burning: Liddell Hart, Ed. World War II An Illustrated History.
: Bombay bomber:
Collishaw in Tobruk: Collishaw and Dodds. Air Command.