William Avery "Billy" Bishop

World War I Fighter Ace

Lt. COl. William Avery Bishop

A Short History

William Avery Bishop was born on February 8, 1894, to William and Margaret Bishop of Owen Sound, Ontario. He was the middle child of three. His father was Grey County registrar and a strict Liberal, but he had a conservative attitude to life. Billy had a tough life at school, he was required to wear a suit and tie to school, he had a slight lisp, he preferred swimming and riding to hockey, and lacrosse, and he seemed to prefer the company of girls. This all made him the butt of many jokes and jests. However, he did not tolerate the jests for long. He would never show any fear and attacked like a madman. His fists won him acceptance on the school ground, and his natural talent at individualistic sports gained him the respect of his peers. He was basically a good natured boy, the class clown at Owen Sound Collegiate. His younger sister Louie encouraged him to do better at what ever he attempted. They were very close throughout their lives. He used to charge her money to take out her friends on dates. That is how he met Margaret Burden, a granddaughter of Timothy Eaton, the department store millionaire. He loved her at first site, and determined that he would marry her. However, he still charged Louie $5 for the priviledge of dating Margaret.

In 1911, at age 17, his parents sent him to Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario as his father knew he wouldn’t get into the University of Toronto with his mediocre marks. He wasn’t an academic and found the entrance exam to be hard, despite the aid of a tutor. Life at college was hard as he was expected to do well in studies, to do well in team sports, and to follow instructions without question. His elder brother Worth was known as the highest achieving cadet ever to grace Kingston’s halls. His individualistic personality chaffed at every aspect of the rigid military attitudes. He failed his first year and was allowed to enter the second year of studies only on the basis that he stay longer at college to make up what he missed in the first year. His second year was better and he received good pass marks. The third year, however, was nearly his undoing. He was caught using crib sheets on the May 1914 final exam, actually he handed them in with his paper. A final decision on his expulsion was delayed until the end of summer, but the beginnings of the war cut short his education and eliminated this problem.

"I had never given much thought to being a soldier, even after my parents had sent me to the Royal Military College at Kingston, when I was seventeen years of age. I will say for my parents that they had not thought much of me as a professional soldier either. But they did think, for some reason or other, that a little military discipline at the Royal Military College would do me a lot of good - and I suppose it did."

Due to his prowess on a horse and his military "education", he was quickly commissioned into the Mississauga Horse of Toronto, a cavalry detachment of the 2nd Canadian Division. Fortunately for Bishop, he was hospitalized with pneumonia when his unit left for the war with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The early attempts at charging trenches defended by machine guns was disastrous for the cavalrymen. He was then assigned to the 14th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles, being formed in London, Ontario.

Nearly on the eve of embarking for England Billy proposed to his long time girl friend Margaret Burden, and was accepted. She was one of the granddaughters of Timothy Eaton, the department store millionaire, and was quite a "catch" for him.

The requisitioned cattle ship Caledonia was to take the 14th and their horses to England. Before them were two weeks in the North Atlantic, with stormy weather, sea sick men and horses and German U-Boats.

"Oh what a trip! Fifteen days to reach England! We had 700 horses on board, and 700 seasick horses are not the most congenial steamer company."
Once in England the 14th was sent to Shorncliffe on the Kent coast. Unceasing rain made life miserable in camp as the mud mixed with manure. The war was settling in to a pattern with high casualties from trench warfare. Bishop saw this and became depressed at the prospects of being in a cavalry unit in a trench war. One day in July, 1915 a biplane landed briefly for the pilot to get his bearings in a nearby field.

"We were in England. It had rained for two days in torrents, and there was still a drizzle coming down as I set out for a tour of the horse-lines."

"Ordinary mud is bad enough, when you have to make your home in it, but the particular brand of mud that infests a cavalry camp has a meanness all its own. Everything was dank, and slimy, and boggy. I had succeeded in getting myself mired to the knees when suddenly, from somewhere out of the storm, appeared a trim little aeroplane."

"It landed hesitatingly in a nearby field as if scorning to brush its wings against so sordid a landscape; then away again up into the clean grey mists. How long I stood there gazing into the distance I do not know, but when I turned to slog my way back through the mud my mind was made up. I knew there was only one place to be on such a day - up above the clouds and in the summer sunshine. I was going into the battle that way. I was going to meet the enemy in the air."

He found out from a group of Royal Flying Corps officers that Lord Hugh Cecil at the War Office could arrange transfers to the RFC. But before he could get to see Lord Cecil he again contracted pneumonia and spent time in hospital. Once out he pursued his dream of joining the RFC. On leave he went to London and presented himself to Lord Cecil as a willing trainee pilot. Cecil was impressed with the young man and informed Bishop that he would have at least a six month wait to become a trainee pilot. By that time Bishop would be in the trenchs and lost in the war beurocracy. However, if he wanted to join the RFC as an observer he could transfer immediately. He took the offer back to Shorncliffe with him and discussed it with his CO. He recommended that Bish take it, a bird in the hand was better than a two in the bush. It got him out of the horror of trench warfare and one step closer to flying. He joined the RFC as soon as possible and was transferred to Netheravon, 11 miles north of Salisbury, Wiltshire.

The first aircraft Billy Bishop flew in was the Farman Series 11 "Shorthorn". Its predecessor had an elevator in front of the pilot attached to long extensions of the skids. It looked vaguely like a longhorned cow and was nick-named the "Longhorn". The "Shorthorn" had the elevator in the rear and had no "horns" ergo it was a "Shorthorn". It had started the war as a trainer and reconnaissance aircraft, but it was discovered to be seriously underpowered for any job in France and was relegated to training and Zeppelin interceptions.
M.F. Shorthorn

"I loved those first few flights in an old training bus. I don’t think she made more than fifty miles per hour; and as for climbing, she struggled and shook and gasped like a freight train going up a mountain side. But it was thrilling enough for me in those days, despite the fact that I soon began to envy the pilot who had all the fun of running the machine and could make it do a few lame and decrepit stunts."
Flying O

Upon receiving the "Flying O" badge of an observer, Bishop’s first assignment was to No. 21 Sqdn, RFC, based at Netheravon. The squadron received it’s first "modern" aircraft, the R.E.7 made by the Royal Aircraft Factory. The R.E. stood for "Reconnaisance Experimental". Loaded only with the pilot and observer and a machine gun and camera it could barely maintain 70 mph as a top speed, and could reach an altitude of only 5,000 feet after 30 minutes of flying. The aircraft was a sitting duck for the Fokker EIII monoplanes with their forward firing, synchronised machine gun.
R.A.F. RE7 Fokker EIII

Bishop’s debut with No. 21 Sqdn was not auspicious. The squadron were under the command of Maj. Richey of the General Head Quarters Wing along with No. 12 Sqdn at St. Omer. The two squadrons were to carry out strategic reconnaisance and patrol work for HQ from St. Omer to the North Sea Coast. The fear of attack from Fokkers was so great that a typical sortie included a single B.E.2c reconnaisance machine with 4 R.E. 7s, 3 B.E.2c patrol aircraft, 4 F.E.s and a Bristol scout. In all, twelve airplanes escorted one reconnaisance aircraft.

One of their standard roles was as forward artillery observers. They would locate targets the previous day, and then direct the fall of shells from the air.

"It is no child’s play to circle above a German battery observing for half an hour or more, with the machine tossing about in air, tortured by exploding shells and black shrapnel puffballs coming nearer and nearer to you like the ever-extended finger-tips of some giant hand of death. But it is just part of the never-ceasing war."
And there was photo-reconnaisance of the front.
"Every day there are hundreds of photographs to be taken, so that the British map-makers can trace each detail of the German trench positions and can check any changes in the enemy zone. Information is to be gained at all times by all manner of reconnaisance - some of them carrying you fifty to sixty miles in the enemy country."
Last, but far from least, is the fighting patrol.
"Then, there is the fighting patrol work which goes on all hours. The patrol is not on our side of the line. It is far over the German lines to keep the enemy machines from coming too close even to their own front trenches."

Early spring of 1916 was a rough time for Bishop. He was severely shaken when the truck he was driving collided with another, he was struck unconscious for two days when a piece of his airplane he was working on fell on his head, he had an infected tooth a week later and then suffered a knee injury during a heavy landing. In May he was, luckily, sent back to England on sick leave and so was spared the June allied offensive on the Somme Valley. No. 21 Sqdn suffered heavy casualties in their underpowered, under-gunned aircraft. Odds are, Bishop would likely have died in one of the interminable flights over enemy lines spotting enemy ammunition dumps, train stations or store houses. Altogether, Bishop spent four months as an observer on the front lines. For Bishop the stay in hospital was a turning point, for he met and was befriended by Lady St. Helier, a famous socialite who knew everyone who counted and many who didn’t.

Once out of the hospital, Lady St. Helier offered him a room in her house to rest and recuperate. She managed to pull strings and had Bishop evacuated back to Canada for nearly a year. Bishop could have remained in Canada as he had a slight heart murmur and a bad knee injury. However, he was resolved to becoming a pilot. In Sept., 1916 he returned to England.

A series of medical examinations nearly spelled the end of any flying for Bishop, the doctors repeatedly rejected him as medically unfit. Again, Lady St. Helier came to his rescue and influenced the doctors. Bishop was given a cursory examination and passed for fit. By November, 1916 he was in training at Upavon on Salisbury Plain.

The aircraft Billy Bishop learned to fly in was a Maurice Farman "Shorthorn". The Shorthorn carried it’s crew tandem, the student in front, the pilot behind. It was not all that different from the Wright brother’s airplane. It was useless against the mounting aerial opposition from the Germans, who had a new Fokker Eindecker monoplane, so it had been relegated to pilot training.

Flight instruction consisted of getting into a Shorthorn with dual controls and copying what the pilot did. The machine was too noisy for communication and the concept of ground school was yet to be developed. The instructors were either recuperating from front-line action or were new to flying themselves, so they had no real ideas of how to fly an aircraft in anything other than under ordinary conditions. They did not teach aerial combat manouvers, spin control, or evasive tactics. The novice pilots were on their own. Bishop was a bit of a ham-handed student, but even after crashing a Farman he graduated from "flight school" with about four hours of flying time to his credit and wore the double flying wings of a pilot. He was posted to a Home Defence squadron (No. 37) doing Flying RFC Wingsnight flying in a BE2c as a deterrent to Zeppelins. Bishop spent many hours night flying around southern England mostly improving his flying. Zeppelins had been bombing targets in southern England since 1914, and night patrols were supposed to protect the populace against them. In two months Bishop did not see a single one. If he had it probably wouldn’t have mattered as the Zeppelins learned quickly to fly higher than the ceiling for most British fighters. In Feb. 1917 Bishop was posted to No. 60 Sqdn, RFC stationed near Arras, France. It was the hottest theatre of the war. They had been flying Morane-Saulnier "Bullets" , but had suffered heavy casualties. When Bishop joined them they were flying Nieuport 17s.

Across the trenchs from 60 Sqdn was the famed "Flying Circus" of Baron Manfred von Richthofen. Red Baron The Canadian rookey would face the best fliers in Germany, and highest scoring aces in the world. It looked grim, the average life span of a rookey pilot in the sector was 11 days. There were only some simple orientation flights before he was thrown into the fight. His first dogfight came on March 25, 1917. He was flying "Tail End Charley" the last aircraft of a flight of four, and the most dangerous position (perhaps another reason for the short life span of a rookie). Three Albatros D.IIIs dove on them, one getting onto the rear end of the Sqdn Commander. Bishop dove on the Albatros and placed shots along the fuselage, the Albatros dove away with Bishop following. Near the ground the German pilot pulled out of his faked death dive only to find Bishop still on his tail. Bishop fired from point blank range and the Albatros thundered into the ground. His first fight, his first kill. Most veterans waited a long time before downing another aircraft, if they survived.

The Sqdn Commander, Jack Scott, promoted him to a flight commander, probably in gratitude. This was a serious blunder as Bishop had been in only one fight and had not worked out tactics or had any real experience in combatting Germans in the air. In the next two flights four of his pilots were killed in ambushes, but he was congratulated on the "success" of the flights. High casualties were expected in aerial warfare. This shook him up considerably. He thought about tactics and practiced his shooting on the nearby gunnery range.

He quickly adopted tactics similar to Albert Ball, and many of the air aces since. His tactics were to gain the upper hand through surprise and altitude. Fight with the sun to your back, and don’t give the Hun an even chance. Kill quickly and evade. Circle, and kill again. He perfected the deflection shot, that is, leading the aircraft in front so the bullets and the enemy met in space and time. Billy Bishop also had what every air ace has, an excellent sense of situational awareness. Knowing where you are in relation to the enemy, the ground and allies in four dimensions, and how to exploit the situation to your advantage. No one taught him this, he just had the raw abilities.

He won his first gallantry award, the Military Cross, on April 7, 1917. He pursued an observation balloon to the ground and lit it on fire. An Albatros tried to interfere and he shot it down too. Balloons were tough targets, being well defended by anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and fighters. The next day he single-handed attacked a flight of six Albatroses, knocking down three. By the time April was over (5 weeks after he had arrived at the front) he had defeated 17 aircraft and was the Squadron’s leading Ace. He earned the Distinguished Service Order for his prowess. Only the Red Baron bettered his score, downing 21 British aircraft that month. Bishop’s Squadron faired less well, by far. This was the month they called "Bloody April", they had a loss rate of 105% for the month. Thirteen of the original 18 pilots were shot down, along with 7 of their replacements. But Bishop had become a superb aerial killer and had been promoted to Captain. He wrote to Margaret:

"You have no idea of how bloodthirsty I’ve become and how much pleasure I get in killing Huns"
Bishop and a Nieuport 17

Before going on leave after his first tour as a fighter pilot, Bishop shot down two more Germans, making his score 19. That same day Albert Ball, the leading British ace was killed. Bishop was shook up again, for he and Ball had plotted to make an early morning raid on a German airfield when he got back from leave. But he didn’t forget the plan. Now Bishop was the leading, surviving (an important point) British ace.

Lady St. Helier had the ability to capitalize on her newest protege, Captain William Avery Bishop, M.C., D.S.O. She introduced him to everyone in London society, including Princess Marie Louise, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir. F. Smith, the Attourney General and Bonar Law, the Chancellor of the Exchequor and later Prime Minister of Canada. He stayed until May 22, 1917. His exposure to the hierarchy, and his celebrity status had excited him, and instilled in him a sense of identity and responsibility.

Four days after his return to the front he downed his 20th aircraft, an Albatros and the day after his 21st a lone two-seater Aviatik scout. Shortly after this the Germans changed tactics and had reconnaissance aircraft travel in three’s guarded by plenty of anti-aircraft guns. When the Allies showed up the recon aircraft dived away and the AA guns opened up on the Allies. However, 60 Sqdn was given the task of going after the decoy two-seaters. Bishop complained to Jack Scott about this hazardous duty and proposed going after German aerodromes. Jack Scott didn’t like the idea but agreed to let Bishop do what he wanted.

The Raid on Estourmel Aerodrome
Early in the morning of June 2, 1917 Bishop was up and ready to raid the Germans. He tried to get Willy Fry to come with him, but Fry had a serious hangover from the night’s party and refused to get out of bed. So Bish went alone. He flew over the lines and headed for Cambrai towards the aerodrome he had chosen for his attack. He arrived just as the sun came up and found no activity and no planes at all. The place was deserted. He circled around for a bit thinking and waiting to see if anyone would show up. No one did. He left angry, flying at random trying to find something to shoot up. He was about to head for home when he saw the buildings of another aerodrome to one side. He banked sharply and headed for them. It was Estourmel, the home of Jadgstaffel 5 headed by Staffel Fuhrer Lt. Werner Voss. Seven aircraft, a two-seat Rumpler recon. plane and six Albatros scout aircraft (reported by Bishop to be DIIs, although Voss’s Staffel no longer used the type), were lined up, motors running waiting for the pilots and observer.

Lone Wolf

"Lone Wolf" original painting by Rich Thistle.

Bishop banked and dived, coming in perpendicular to the flight line and fired a 97-round drum of 0.303 bullets into the aircraft, killing one mechanic. Then he pulled off doing a series of slow-speed turns waiting for an Albatros to come up to challenge him. The ground troops got several machine guns into action and nearly hit Bishop. A rookie pilot warming his engine accepted the challenge and took off. But his engine wasn’t fully warmed up and he couldn’t get enough power to take off easily. Bishop swooped around onto his tail and fired dropping the aircraft onto the field. Another Albatros took off and Bishop circled around to his 6 o’clock and fired but missed the pilot. The German swerved and hit a tree, mangling the wings and dropping the aircraft. Neither pilot was injured.

Now his real troubles began. Two Albatroses took off together. Going for the nearest plane he began a circling contest for a firing position. With two opponents this is usually suicide, however, one German pilot stayed out of the action, presumably he thought to give his compatriot the honour of downing the arrogant Brit. The Nieuport was a tighter turner than the DIII and Bishop finally got in a clear shot, dropping the DIII onto the field. He swung head on towards the fourth German and fired the entire drum of 0.303 ammunition at him. missing completely. But this seems to have unnerved the German pilot, he swung away and landed.

Bishop pulled away from Estourmel with a jammed gun, afraid the Germans on the ground would have telephoned nearby Jastas for help. Near the front lines he spotted a flight of DIIIs and stayed immediately beneath them until he could make a run for the front lines. The Germans rarely chased an Allied pilot across the lines. He made his way back to his base. Unharmed and jubilant. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for this audacious action. But he earned the distrust of some of his comrades, they believed he had become too ambitious and may have made up the attack.

There were many rumours and stories spread about his feat that day. One was that French informants behind the German lines confirmed the attack, and reported that the Rumpler was a write-off and the status of the other pilots. This is, as far as anyone can tell, a false story. Another was that a balloon observer spotted the action, but that too was just a story. Bishop’s Face The war was no longer amusing to Bishop, his friends kept dying. He wrote to Margaret:
"I am thoroughly downcast tonight. The Huns got Lloyd today, such a fine fellow too, and one of our best pilots. Sometimes all of this awful fighting makes you wonder if you have a right to call yourself human. My honey, I am so sick of it all, the killing, the war. All I want is home and you."

The closest Bishop came to death was on one routine patrol, he was flying close to the ground when he was hit in the fuel tank by German ground fire. With his plane on fire, he just made it into Allied territory when he crashed into a tree and was suspended upside down. The fire was lapping at his face when it began to rain. The brief storm put out the fire before he was injured. This incident rattled Bishop badly, he admitted in a letter to his father after it

"I find myself shuddering at chances I didn’t think about taking six weeks ago."

85 Sqdn Bishop (front) with 85 Sqdn
He finally got back into action with the new S.E. 5as on May 27, 1918 when he shot down a twin-seater near Passchendaele. The next day he resumed his audacious behaviour by single-handedly attacking a flight of nine Fokker DVIIs and succeeding in downing one of them. Over the next two weeks he downed 17 more airplanes, bringing his total to 70. One of his victories was by wounding and forcing down the German ace Paul Billik with 31 victories. The Canadian government was impressed but fearful that their greatest national hero would get killed in the fierce action over the Western Front. They ordered him home.


"Hunter" original painting by Rich Thistle.

On his last day over the front Bishop probably had his second best day of fighting by downing five planes, although he could be credited with only three. He attacked a group of three Pfalz fighters and was attacked by two more. He quickly shot one down and caused two to crash together. He turned on the other two Pfalz’s and shot down another. Following this action he continued his patrol and came across an LVG two-seater scout and promptly sent it down in flames. He then swooped low over the trenches and assailed the German troops with his remaining bullets. Now he could go home. The war ended shortly after on November 11, 1918.

Following the war he entered into a directionless period of life, travelling with Margaret across the USA and giving lectures where ever possible. But the public soon tired of this. He and Margaret lived for a time on her wealth until another Canadian ace, Billy Barker, approached him about starting an airline together. As the only thing that either of them were good at, that they knew, was flying and shooting down aircraft, they went into business as the Bishop-Barker Company. They flew chartered flights north from Toronto to the Muskoka cottage country for rich folks. They soon went bankrupt as neither was very interested in just flying people.

Another venture they tried was aerial stunting at the Canadian National Exhibition, but they got carried away with themselves and dove recklessly right at the crowds and zoomed 30 feet over the stands. This was nothing for them, but the crowd panicked and stampeded out of the CNE. One woman had a miscarriage. It took while and a lot of talking to quiet down the affair.

He and Margaret then went to England to look for work. With his contacts, and those no doubt of Lady St. Helier, he took to selling an newly patently type of pipe for a French company. Margaret and he had three children while in England. Eventually the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out their paper fortune. This forced them back to Canada, where a friend of his got him a very good position as Director of Sales and Promotions for Frontenac Oil. Oddly enough, he was very good at sales and did very well in the oil business.

When World War II broke out the Canadian government approached Bishop with an enticing offer. Air Marshal in charge of recruitment. They used his glamour as Canada’s premier ace of WWI to draw recruits into the air force. He attacked the job with energy to spare, he was a tireless campaigner for recruiting, being so successful that the airforce turned applicants away. He helped to sell war bonds, conducted many inspection tours and tried to show up at every graduation day to pin on the wings for new pilots. He was fun loving, sometimes to extreme. A few inspections were cancelled due to parties and drunkenness. He even appeared in a Holywood film with Jimmy Cagney playing a disgruntled fighter pilot-trainee. He was so good at conducting reviews that he glanced at his script and winged it for a single take.

For his dedication to Canada and the two wars he fought in and worked through in the service of Canada and the British Empire he was awarded the Commander of the Order of the Bath and the Canadian Efficiency Decoration.

Following WWII he went into semi-retirement. He and Margaret had a very active social life in Montreal. Generally he drank too much, partied too much and took up several hobbies. He tried to enlist in the RCAF for the Korean War but the government turned him down. William Avery Bishop died quietly in his sleep in 1956 while wintering in Florida.

He contributed considerably to the success of the Allied nations in both World Wars. Minister of Air, C.G. Power told him "Your magnificent record in the First Great War fired the imagination of our Canadian aircrews in this war and has inspired them to deeds of courage to rival your own." A great debate has raged over his Victoria Cross action. The basic problem being that he did not prove that he actually conducted the action (the only VC winner not to have done so) and no one saw him do it. The medal was awarded strictly on his say so. Fortunately, or not, there is now no way to prove that he attacked a German airdrome in occupied France on June 2, 1917. The VC will remain his.

His son, William Arthur Bishop enlisted in the RAF as a fighter pilot and survived the war to write books about his father and other military heros. His book The Courage of the Early Morning was a major source of information on Bishop. Other sources include Dan McCaffery’s Air Aces, The Lives and Times of Twelve Canadian Fighter Pilots, the official history of the RCAF vol. 1, and all of those books on technical details of aircraft.

Canadian Aces Home Page

Images From:
"Lone Wolf" and "Hunter" original paintings by permission of the artist, Rich Thistle.
Lt. Col. Bishop - Negative A006318, courtesy of Public Archives of Canada.
Farman "Shorthorn" - Negative 15792 courtesy National Aviation Museum, Canada.
Richthofen - Sanke Card. Public domain.
Bishop in SE5a - courtesy of Public Archives of Canada.
Bishop in front of Nieuport - courtesy of Public Archives of Canada.
85 Sqdn SE5a Aircraft - courtesty of Public Archives of Canada.