High Heroes Of The Great War: Part 7 of 18

January 1, 2005 by Arthur Bishop

ILLUSTRATIONS: Sharif Tarabay

ILLUSTRATIONS: Sharif Tarabay

From top: Victoria Cross recipients Billy Bishop, Alan McLeod and William Barker.

This was appropriately fitting for the deeds of these men and their comrades who provided the inspiration for thousands of youths who flocked to the RCAF to serve. Two of these heroes, Bishop and Barker, started out as cavalrymen before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps. McLeod joined the RFC directly.

William Avery Bishop, the son of an Owen Sound, Ont., lawyer, was born Feb. 8, 1894. He took his early education at Owen Sound Collegiate, then attended the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. At the outbreak of war, he was commissioned in Toronto’s Mississauga Horse, a cavalry unit of the 2nd Cdn. Division. However, while he was recovering from pneumonia, his regiment sailed to England without him.

Dad went overseas in June 1915 after he was transferred to the 7th Battalion of the Cdn. Mounted Rifles. He applied for transfer to the RFC and was accepted as an observer after arriving at Shorncliffe on the Kentish coast.

The son of a doctor, Alan Arnett (Bus) McLeod was born April 20, 1899, at Stonewall, Man., where he was educated at Stonewall Collegiate. At age 16 he tried to join the army, but was refused. When he turned 17 he applied for admission to the cadet wing of the RFC in Toronto and was turned down again because he was under age. But on his 18th birthday, in 1917, he was accepted for pilot training.

William George Barker was born at Dauphin, Man., on Nov. 3, 1894. The son of a blacksmith, he was brought up on a farm and attended Russell Hill High School and Dauphin Collegiate. When war broke out he joined the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles. He went overseas in the spring of 1915 and crossed over to France in September that same year. At the time there was an urgent need in the RFC for observers. Barker applied, but was turned down. Undaunted, he applied a second time and was accepted.

Following a period of training, Bishop became an observer and joined 21 Squadron at Netheravon. He was posted to France in January 1916 and then invalided back to England with a knee injury. Soon he was accepted for pilot training and posted to 37 Home Defence Sqdn. at Sutton Farm in Essex, flying BE12s. On March 17, 1917, he was posted to 60 Sqdn., flying Nieuport 17s. Eight days later, he scored his first victory—an Albatros—while flying as rear man in a formation near Arras, France.

In the fall of 1917, after training on Curtis JN4s at Long Branch, Deseronto and Camp Borden, Ont., McLeod sailed for England where he was posted to 82 Sqdn. at Waddington in Lincolnshire equipped with Armstrong-Whitworth artillery bombers. He was later transferred to 51 Home Defence Sqdn. flying FE2b fighters. Then in November it was back to Armstrong-Whitworths when he was assigned to 2 Sqdn. based at Hesdigneul, France.

At first, the squadron commanding officer was flabbergasted at the sight of the youthful Canadian. “This kid can’t be more than 15,” he lamented. He was soon to learn that few pilots could handle the lumbering Armstrong-Whitworth as adeptly as McLeod. He quickly became recognized as a first-class pilot and an acknowledged expert at gunnery, photography and counter-battery work.

After training as an observer, Barker was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served in France. He was in action engaged in artillery spotting when the very first shots were fired during the Battle of the Somme. Barker was slightly wounded in one of these dangerous missions, but also received his first medal, the Military Cross.

On March 31, Bishop shot down his second enemy plane, one of Manfred von Richthofen’s Flying Circus pilots. Then, on April 7, he scored his third victory. The very next day he brought down three more enemy planes qualifying him as an Ace and earning him the MC.

McLeod made his first flight across enemy lines on Dec. 2, 1917. From then on he went looking for trouble wherever he could find it. On one sortie his aircraft was attacked by a German Albatros. His observer was unable to return the enemy’s fire because his gun jammed. However, McLeod skilfully outmanoeuvred his adversary and brought his machine home all in one piece. It turned out the observer had forgotten to release his gun’s safety catch. Far from angry, McLeod treated it all as a big joke.

On Nov. 16, 1916, Barker was posted to Narborough in England for pilot training and early in January 1917 he rejoined 15 Sqdn. in France as a flight commander. In April he was decorated with a bar to his MC for “conspicuous gallantry and duty.” At the beginning of September he was sent back to Narborough as an instructor, a role distinctly to his disliking. So he made such a nuisance of himself that he was posted as a flight commander to 28 Sqdn. which on Oct. 2 flew its Sopwith Camels to an aerodrome close to St-Omer, France.

Shortly after their arrival, Barker scored his first double victory bringing down two of the new Albatros D5s from the Richthofen Flying Circus on Oct. 16, and was looking forward to his third year in France. However, on Oct. 27 the squadron was transferred to the Italian Front and in November Barker brought his number of aircraft shot down to five, as well as destroying two enemy observation balloons. On Feb. 18, 1918, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and on the following month given a third bar to his MC.

In May 1917, Bishop was awarded the DSO also having—on the 2nd of the month—engaged a total of 23 different enemy aircraft during which he destroyed two of them. During this period, Albert Ball, who at the time was Britain’s leading Ace with 41 enemy planes to his credit, asked Bishop to be a partner in a plan that would involve a dawn attack on a German aerodrome. Bishop agreed to the plan, but suggested it be put on hold until after a leave he was planning to take.

On May 7, 1917, having destroyed two enemy Albatros aircraft that morning to bring his total up to 19, Bishop left for London. Ball was killed in action before anything definite could be organized. By the time my father returned from leave, he had made up his mind to carry out the attack on the aerodrome alone.

On Jan. 14, 1918, McLeod and his observer attacked a German observation balloon. As they approached the target, they flew into the teeth of anti-aircraft shells. Jockeying his plane, McLeod dodged the flak and then climbed above the balloon. He then put his aircraft into a dive like he was flying a fighter.

Pulling up level with the “sausage”, he allowed his observer to rake it with his machine-gun fire. The gas bag exploded in flame and sagged to earth in a deflated heap. As the Armstrong-Whitworth turned away, three German Albatros Scouts gave chase. McLeod turned and twisted the clumsy Armstrong-Whitworth about with the dexterity of a scout pilot to place his observer in a position to take aim at the attackers, which he did, sending one of them spiralling down in flames while the other two shied away.

In July 1918, by which time Barker had destroyed 33 enemy planes and nine observation balloons, he was promoted to major and given command of 139 Sqdn.

Early in September he received orders to take command of an instructional school for fighter pilots at Hounslow. After two weeks’ leave in England he requested permission from the air ministry to spend time on the Western Front to familiarize himself with the current German aerial tactics and experience at first hand their latest aircraft capabilities before taking over his new command.

Permission was not only granted but he was given one of the new Sopwith Snipes, successor to the Camel. By far the most advanced fighter on any front, it had a ceiling of 24,000 feet. He had raised his total of official victories to 46 by the time he received orders on Oct. 27, 1918, to report to Hounslow to take command of his instructional command.

The aforementioned sets the stage for the actions for which Bishop, Barker and McLeod earned their VCs.

On the morning of June 2, 1917, heavy clouds hung over Filescamp Farm at 500 feet, sprinkling the airfield with a light rain. Bishop took off at 3:57 a.m. and as he climbed his Nieuport into the overcast, the drizzle turned to rain and he could barely see through the windshield.

The ceiling over Arras was a little higher, but it was still somewhat misty and this caused him to lose his bearings slightly as he flew southeast of Cambrai, where there were three aerodromes. The farthest to the east was Estourmel. There was no activity there so Bishop flew south then curved back, a route that put him over Esnes where, on a nearby field, he could make out the shadowy shapes of canvas hangars. As he drew near the aerodrome he saw seven Albatros Scouts and an LVG two-seater.

Flying straight across the field he opened fire with his machine-gun. When he reached the edge he pulled up in a climbing turn. In his own words: “Then I heard the rattle of machine-gun fire. I don’t know why, but when I planned the raid, I forgot that the ‘drome would be guarded by machine-guns. They did a nice job of shredding my wing tips.”

One of the Albatroses tried to take off, but he was cold meat. Bishop fired off 15 rounds from 60 yards. The enemy machine side-slipped then crashed. Another Albatros started to roar across the field and Bishop fired at it from 100 yards, but missed. However, the fire so unnerved the German pilot that he crashed into the edge of the field, tearing off the right wings. Bishop fired one last volley into the machine then climbed.

Two more enemy planes started to take off in opposite directions. Bishop had no choice but to fight it out. One of the Albatroses flew away from the field and remained at a safe distance, but the other one made straight for Bishop and took a fast shot. Bishop saw his chance and opened fire. He missed, but the German pilot lost control and spun in. In my father’s own words: “I decided that enough was enough, and was bent on getting the hell out of there.”

That’s when the other Albatros pilot decided to have a go at him. Bishop had used up all his ammunition and had to change drums. He put his nose down and emptied the whole drum at the German plane and the enemy pilot broke off.

On his way home four enemy planes appeared above him. Bishop wrote: “With all my ammunition gone, I was in no mood to tangle with them, so I flew directly underneath them hoping they wouldn’t spot me. They never noticed me and I was able to slip away.”

When he landed, his plane was “an awful mess.” It was covered with bullet holes, but only the canvas was shot up. “I was damn lucky.” In his combat report, Bishop identified the location of his raid as “either Esnes aerodrome or Awoignt.” Noted air historian, Stewart Taylor, confirmed it was Esnes.

On March 27, 1918, the British Army was still reeling from the German advance launched six days earlier on a front 50 miles wide between Arras to the north and St-Quentin to the south. In the air the chief countermeasure was daylight bombing of enemy dispositions and installations. On this misty morning it was in just such a role that 2 Sqdn. found itself.

Flying through thick fog, McLeod and his observer soon became separated from the rest of the formation. McLeod turned his Armstrong-Whitworth around, heading west to find a field where they could put down and collect their bearings. On landing, the tail skid broke off and they had to wait for a tender to arrive to replace it. It was well after lunch by the time they took off again. McLeod steered toward the designated target near Albert close to where the Richthofen Flying Circus was located at Douai.

At 3,000 feet, just under some broken cloud, he and his observer were lining up on their target, a German gun battery, when a red Fokker triplane pounced on them from above. McLeod swung his plane around to give his observer a clear shot and with three bursts he sent it spinning down in flames.

But now through a break in the cumulus they could see seven more triplanes diving down in their direction. One of them came so close McLeod’s observer shot it down at point blank range. But another Fokker swooped up and behind the Armstrong-Whitworth. Bullets pierced the fuel tank and fuselage, wounding both the pilot and observer and setting the bomber on fire.

The observer’s seat was shot out of the plane and he had to climb onto the gun ring. McLeod struggled to get himself out of the cockpit and onto the lower port wing and, by controlling the joy stick from a standing position, put the aircraft into a steep side-slip to blow the flames away from the two airmen. One of the triplane pilots, thinking they were done for, flew so close to the bomber, the observer could see his face. Though one of his arms was badly injured, the observer managed to sight on the enemy plane and shoot it down. But now another Fokker zeroed in on the observer. That enemy plane severely wounded him and struck the two-seater time and time again with his fire. McLeod, meanwhile, manoeuvred his stricken plane down to the ground where it crashed into a shell hole.

Both men were thrown clear, but the blazing wreckage set off eight bombs and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. Neither man was hit by the explosion, but by this time the observer fainted from loss of blood. The next danger they faced was enemy machine-gun fire into no man’s land from German trenches. Though McLeod had been hit five times, he managed to drag his partner to their own lines, but was struck again by an enemy bullet. Finally, he collapsed from exhaustion just as a member of a South African regiment came to the rescue.

On the morning of Oct. 27, 1918, Barker climbed into the cockpit of his Sopwith Snipe all set to fly from France over to Hounslow to take over his new command. But before he left he wanted one last look at the war. He climbed to 15,000 feet and crossed over the lines above the Morinal Forest and promptly shot down a German Rumpler two-seater. However, a Fokker DVII snuck up behind him and with a burst from a Spandau gun shattered Barker’s right thigh.

Barker fainted from pain while his Snipe went into a spin pursued by the enemy pilot. After plunging 2,000 feet, he regained consciousness and turned to meet his attacker who he demolished with a burst of fire. As he headed for his own lines, a gaggle of the Fokker biplanes pounced on him. Fighting nausea he wheeled into the attack and shot down three of them in rapid succession. But in that exchange, a bullet struck him in the left leg. With both legs virtually useless, he passed out again and the Snipe barrelled down rudderless once more.

Fortunately a burst of fresh air revived him. He then levelled out to find himself in the midst of at least 60 enemy fighters. He pulled into a tight turn and then fired at anything that crossed his sights. One more Fokker fell before a bullet struck his left elbow and his arm went limp. He fainted again, lost another 5,000 feet, and then came to surrounded by Fokkers.

With nothing to lose, Barker charged at one of them determined to ram it and take one with him. He was still firing when to his utter surprise the enemy plane disintegrated. Meanwhile, incendiaries ripped into the Snipe’s fuel tank, which miraculously failed to catch fire. Semi-conscious, Barker piled his battered plane into a shell hole just inside the British lines where it nosed over onto its back. Highland troops rushed to the scene and then pulled him from the wreckage. They were amazed he was still alive.

Bishop was officially credited with 72 aerial victories, five of them on his last day in combat in 1918, ranking him the top British ace. After the war, he formed an airline with Barker and when it failed he sold scrap metal in England before going into the oil business in Montreal, Que. During WW II, he became director of recruiting for the RCAF as an air marshal. He died in Palm Beach, Fla., on Sept. 11, 1956, at age 62. He was given a funeral with full military honours in Toronto. In Owen Sound, the house in which he was born was turned into a museum and designated an historic sight. In Winnipeg, Air Command Headquarters was named the Bishop Building and in 1994 a commemorative postage stamp was struck in his honour. His VC and other medals were donated to the Canadian War Museum.

McLeod received his VC from King George V on Sept. 4, 1918. Ironically and tragically, the young lieutenant died two months and two days later, a victim of the Spanish flu that claimed millions of lives worldwide.

Following the war, Barker ventured into commercial aviation with Bishop to form an airline passenger service between Toronto and the Muskoka Lakes. When it folded he rejoined the air force and became the RCAF’s first director and honorary aide-de-camp to the governor general. On March 1, 1930, he was killed in a flying accident at Rockcliffe in Ottawa. He was buried with full military honours at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto.

His VC was donated to the Canadian War Museum in 1983 by his wife, who had remarried.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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