Billy Bishop
Went to War


Herb Kugel

"The most important thing in fighting was shooting, next the various tactics in coming into a fight and last of all flying ability itself."(1)

When World War I ended, Air Marshall William Avery "Billy" Bishop had 72 victories to his credit. He had also earned a chest full of medals including England's highest decoration, the Victoria Cross. As an ace Billy was a winner, but he didn't start out that way. He did badly in high school; he was a loner who preferred solitary sports such as swimming, riding and shooting to group sports like hockey. His parents made him wear a suit and tie to school. His clothes, together with his slight lisp, the dancing lessons he was taking and his desire to hang out more with girls than boys made him the victim of many high school taunts. He responded by developing formidable boxing skills and quickly stopped the taunting with his fists, never showing fear. He attacked ferociously in any fight.

In 1911, when he was 17, Billy's parents sent him the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario (Photo 1.) His father knew that the University of Toronto would never accept Billy because of his mediocre high school grades. Billy's RMC academic career was no better than his high school record; it was miserable. He was caught cheating, suspended, and then given a second chance. The suspension in no way improved his academic conduct. He finished his third year thirty-third out of thirty-four (number thirty-four flunked out) and on September 30, 1914, he withdrew from RMC "at his parents request." This phrase was an RMC 'good-speak' catchall that classified every cadet withdrawal except normal graduation, expulsion or complete academic failure. Billy candidly summed up his RMC time:

Photo 1: Portrait of William A. 'Billy" Bishop as a cadet at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario

"I had never given much thought to being a soldier" I will say for my parents that they had not thought much of me as a professional soldier either. But they did think' that a little military discipline at the Royal Military College would do me a lot of good---and I suppose it did."(2)

Billy joined the Canadian army after leaving RMC and embarked for England in June 1915. Before sailing, he proposed to his sweetheart, Margaret Burden. He had met Margaret on a date arranged by his younger sister Louie. Popular with girls, Billy charged Louie five dollars each to date her girl friends. Even though Billy insisted he fell in love with Margaret the moment he met her, he still charged his sister the full five dollars.

The sailing to England was miserable. Billy spent fifteen stormy days at sea in a requisitioned cattle boat on which both men and horses were constantly ill. As Billy succinctly put it, "700 seasick horses are not the most congenial steamer company." When Billy's unit arrived in England, it was immediately sent to Shorncliffe on the coast of Kent, a camp Billy later referred to as "the worst hole in England" because of the continuous rain and mud. In an era when many young men, Billy included, considered war a 'romantic adventure,' there was nothing adventurous in Billy's life, but that would soon change. In July 1915, the Western Front had stalemated into futile but murderous trench warfare and Billy, who was in a cavalry unit, was depressed at the prospect of trench fighting. One day a Nieuport biplane landed briefly on a nearby field, just long enough for the pilot to get his bearings. This was the first plane Billy had ever seen and the sight changed his life. His response was almost poetic:

Photo 2 Billy Bishop in his Royal flying corps Nieuport 17 B1566. 'Billy' is written on the fuselage. 

"...It [the plane] landed if scorning to brush its wings against so sordid a landscape; then away again into the clean gray mists...[My] mind was made up. I knew there was only one place to be...up above the clouds and in the summer sunshine. I was going into battle that way. I would meet the enemy in the air."(3)

Bishop learned that Lord Hugh Cecil at the War Office could arrange transfers to the Royal Flying Corp (RFC.) After recovering from an attack of pneumonia, he went to London, arranged to see Lord Cecil and pressed his desire to become a trainee pilot. Cecil was pleased with Bishop but stated there was a six-month backlog for prospective pilot trainees. However, if Bishop wanted to join the RFC as an observer, a reassignment could be immediately arranged. Bishop wanted to be a pilot but his Commanding Officer urged him to transfer at once. Transferring would get him away from the certainty of trench warfare and move him a step closer to flying. Billy transferred and quickly learned to fly on an Avro 504 (Photo 2.)

"I loved...[the] 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 mountainside. But it was thrilling enough for me in those days."(4)

After completing his training, Billy was assigned to 21 Squadron and posted to the front at St. Omer France in early January 1916. Assigned an antiquated R.E.7 ("Reconnaissance Experimental") aircraft, he spent the next four months in France. The R.E.7 carried a pilot, an observer, a machine gun and a camera. It could barely maintain 70 mph as a top speed and could reach an altitude of only 5000 feet after flying thirty minutes. The plane was an easy target for the German Fokker EIII monoplanes with their forward firing, synchronized machine guns. The helpless craft had to be heavily escorted on its reconnaissance missions, sometimes as many as twelve planes escorting a single R.E.7.

Photo 3: Avro 504. The 504 started the war in an unarmed bomber and reconnaissance role but proved underpowered so it was relegated to training and Zeppelin interceptions.

Billy flew in a variety of roles---photoreconnaissance and combat---but described his work as a forward artillery observer in harrowing terms:

"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 the 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..."(5)

The 'Knights of the Air'

When Lt. Oswald Boelcke, Germany's leading ace in 1916, was killed in a midair accident with another German plane, the RFC flew over his grave and dropped a wreath inscribed to "our brave and chivalrous foe." There was chivalry in air combat in those days. The risks were so horrifying-wings could fall off planes and a single bullet could turn a gasoline tank into an inferno-that fliers felt a bond that transcended nationalism. In a tragic sense, they were 'a band of brothers.'

Air combat was intimate. There were personal insignia painted on most planes, so fliers often knew who their foes were. Air duels were compared by the newspapers to combats between armored knights in a medieval romance, but no matter how it was glorified, a pilot's death was often horrible. Pilots would jump out of their planes rather than die in agony being burned alive when their planes caught fire.

The pack parachute had been invented in 1912 but no Allied pilots carried them during the entire war in spite of the fact that spotters in observation balloons were carrying them. Few German pilots carried parachutes at the beginning of the war, though the number increased near the war's end. The Allied excuses for not allowing combat pilots to carry them were criminal: Parachutes could not be made reliable for mass production and if pilots had them they might be tempted to jump out of their plane without fighting. Because of this cruel and senseless attitude, many pilots died horrible and un-necessary deaths.
The other side of chivalry was the appalling loses suffered by the pilots took a terrible toll on the survivors. Nerves were stressed to the breaking point as pilots saw their friends die; pilots exploded in anger over the most trivial of reasons. "One sensed a tangible odor of fear that the wildest drunken parties could not erase." Bizarre behavior became common and some pilots resorted to drinking before and during their flights to muster the courage to go into combat. Stomach ulcers, neuroses and cases of temporary insanity appeared. Billy Bishop, 'the man without fear," as the press hailed him, suffered just as much as any other pilot. He admitted that his hands shook and his mouth went dry at the sight of a German planes and that he began to laugh uncontrollably in situations of danger. If he felt his plane hit, the muscles in his anus contracted, but he somehow could control his terrors while others could not. One RFC officer was confined to quarters for refusing to fly and blew his brains out rather than face a court martial. An entire RFC squadron once flatly refused an order to go up on a dangerous mission. Other pilots aborted their missions after faking engine or armament problems. RFC doctors estimated that half of all airmen became victims of serious neuroses before completing their tour of duty.

Spring of 1916 was not a good time for Billy but his misfortunes probably saved his life. He was severely shaken in a truck accident and was unconscious for two days when a piece of the airplane on which he was working fell on his head. He developed an infected tooth and suffered a knee injury during a heavy landing. Luckily, in May he was sent back to England on sick leave and so was not involved in the June Allied offensive on the Somme valley in which 21 Squadron suffered appalling casualties. While in England, Bishop met a Lady St. Helier, a prominent socialite who Bishop came to call 'Granny,' a lady who knew all the 'right people.' She pulled strings and arranged to have Bishop evacuated back to Canada where he remained for nearly a year. He could have remained permanently because he was diagnosed with a slight heart murmur as well as a serious knee injury. However, Billy wanted to fly and returned to England. In England, he had additional medical problems; the doctors diagnosed him as physically unfit. Lady St. Helier pulled a few more strings and by November 1916, Billy Bishop was learning to fly on an obsolete Maurice Farman Series 11 "Shorthorn." He graduated from "flight school" after completing some four hours of solo flying. Billy was posted to Home Defense 37 Squadron, stationed in Essex. This tour did not result in much action, but Billy experienced his first fight on January 7, 1917, a combat that was inconclusive:

"[...] About noon a Hun seaplane toddled over...I caught up to him at 1000 feet and had a terrific scrap...I must have hit him over and over again but didn't finish him. He hit my machine six times---six times, funny to say, in the propeller."(6)

Billy longed to be a single seat scout pilot and he got his chance. He was posted to 60 Squadron, RFC, which was stationed near Arras, France, and on March 17, he joined the unit. He was joining a scouting unit with a redoubtable reputation and was anxious to show his merit. The squadron normally had eighteen pilots, twenty mechanics, an armorer and other support staff. Billy immediately felt at home with 60 Squadron. Dress was casual; any sort of clothing was acceptable and there were combat trophies and pictures of scantily clad girls everywhere. What made the squadron was its leader, Major Jack Scott whose father figure lead-by-example behavior greatly influenced Bishop as well as the other young pilots under his command. Scott was tenacious, ambitious, and concerned with public relations, something not part of the classic British military tradition, and determined that his unit would be the best in France. He keenly urged his men to engage and shoot down German planes whenever they could, thus improving both their records and that of the squadron.

Billy's flying debut with the skittish Nieuport was not spectacular. In his first twelve practice landings, he burst a tire, destroyed a propeller and did mild damage to the fuselage but in no way "smashed up four aircraft" as some of his critics would unfairly claim later. Pilots were in short supply so Billy was not immediately sent back to England for remedial training. He would be allowed to fly until a replacement arrived. Billy's first flight over the trenches was on March 22, 1917; it was nearly his last. Confused and uncertain of himself and flying an old plane, he had trouble keeping up with his flight and was nearly killed in a dogfight. "Grid" Caldwell, his flight leader was far from pleased:

"The Huns almost nailed you. You left formation and a half dozen...came out of the sun after you. They took off when they saw the flight turning back to help you."(7)

Billy, furious at his behavior, promised himself he would do better and he did. He shot down his first enemy plane three days later on March 25. Within a month, he was assigned and flying Nieuport 17 B1566 (Photo 2, Photo 4), which soon became the most famous scout plane of its type ever known. He flew the same plane until the 24th of July 1917, flying a total of 153 hours and 40 minutes without one serious landing difficulty, something few equaled. (At the end of July, 60 Squadron was re-equipped with the new Royal Aircraft Factory's Scout Experimental (S.E.) 5a.

Billy's world completely turned around between March 28 and August 16. On March 28, he led his first patrol, an event that proved completely uneventful. However, the same was not true on March 30, when the inexperienced Billy led his second patrol. His flight was decoyed into a numerically superior German force and his friend Lt. W. P. Garrett was shot down and killed. An explosive bullet from behind struck Frank Bower, another friend. Bower, in a state of severe shock, in extreme pain and with blood pouring from massive abdominal wounds, held his intestines in his body with one hand and flew back to base using his other hand to control the plane. After landing, he managed to walk 40 yards from his plane before collapsing. He died the next day, and the day after that Billy led his third flight, a flight in which he again was caught by a German ambush and in which two of his pilots were killed. Bishop was profoundly shaken by these deaths and vowed to develop tactics that complemented his natural skills. He was not a great pilot but possessed fine eyesight and excellent shooting ability His strategy was to gain the advantage through surprise and altitude. He always tried to attack with the sun at his back, make his kill and quickly get away. He became an expert with the deflection shot, which is firing ahead of a moving target so that his shells would meet the target when it reached a certain point. Billy needed every bit of skill he could muster. During 'Bloody April,' the average life of a British pilot in France was 45 days and 60 Squadron's casualty rate was 105 percent. The squadron registered thirty-five confirmed kills; of these, twelve were credited to Bishop. For most of the pilots, 'Bloody April' was a desperate struggle for survival and holding on to sanity, but for Bishop it was a time for good hunting. . He was not only aggressive but also began to display a personal vendetta against the Germans. In the period between April 7 and August 16, Bishop's record shows him to have shot down 45 German planes, 29 of them while flying his Nieuport 17 B1566. He received the Military Cross (MC) for his actions on April 7, 1917 when he destroyed a German balloon on the ground then shot down a German plane that attacked him. He then received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) on June 18, for attacking three German planes, two of which he shot down, while he was being attacked by four other German planes.

Billy won two additional decorations in August, but the pressures were beginning to tell on him; he was flying three and four patrols a day. The former high school class clown became the squadron clown in an effort to improve morale. Among his pranks, he painted some nearby farm cows red, white and blue, while decorating another group of cows with black Maltese Crosses, the German insignia, and then writing the name of the German ace "Baron von Richthofen" on their flanks. Scott, knowing the pressures his men were under, looked the other way at these and other pranks; most of the Squadron avidly supported Bishop, who they gave the nickname "Our Stunt Merchant."

Photo 4: Billy Bishop after receiving the Victoria Cross. Photo was taken about August 13, 1917. Bishop was credited with 37 kills at the time of this photo.

Whenever they could, Billy and his friends drove three hours to Amiens, to Charlie's Bar and Le Hôtel du Rhin where accommodating ladies could be obtained quite cheaply. Billy developed a contest in which the pilot who charmed a garter from a girl would hang it as a trophy in the squadron mess. Billy won the contest. Although he was a womanizer, he developed a strong wartime romance with a beautiful girl named Ninette.

A dark side was beginning to show in Billy. He made glib remarks upon seeing the bodies of dead German infantrymen and wrote Margaret:

"You have no idea of how bloodthirsty I've become and how much pleasure I get in Killing Huns."(8)

On another occasion, on February 8, the date of his twenty-third birthday, when a two-seat German Rumpler's Parabellum gun jammed and as the observer struggled to clear the weapon, Bishop coldly closed in to point blank range and raked the two men with fifteen rounds from his Lewis gun. Seeing so many of his friends die in battle may have caused Billy's increasing blood lust. He wept unashamedly at the death of close friends. During a two-day period in April, ten of the squadron's eighteen pilots were killed while Billy drove himself remorselessly. On April 30th, he had eight separate engagements with the enemy in one fight. He destroyed ten German planes and two balloons between April 6, and April 30, in 34 engagements, often flying six or seven hours a day. He viewed hunting enemy planes as a sport and was called "The Lone Hawk" because he sometimes spent two to three hours in the air alone searching for German planes, doing this solo hunting with his squadron leader's permission. Billy's tour of duty ended in August 1917, and he was awarded England's highest order, the Victoria Cross for flying alone and attacking a German airfield some twelve miles behind the lines. When he returned from this attack, his plane had 17 bullet holes in it.

Billy returned to Canada for an extended leave. The war-weary Canadians found a hero in him. He traveled, lectured, and was promoted to major. With Margaret, who was now his wife, he returned to England where he took command of 85 Squadron, nicknamed the "Flying Foxes." He was posted to France in May 1918, and fought at a frenzied pace from the moment he arrived. Between May 27th, and June 18th, he downed 20 German planes. The Canadian government became increasingly concerned that their national hero would be killed and, on June 18th, he was ordered to return to Canada the next day. On the 19th, Bishop went up for "one last look at the war." In fifteen minutes of furious combat, he shot down five German planes. His final count was 70 planes and two balloons destroyed.

Billy was not especially successful after World War I ended until a friend helped him obtain a position as director of sales for a large Canadian oil company, a job in which he did quite well. He proved to be an excellent salesman. When World War II started, the Canadian government offered him the enticing position of Air Marshall in Charge of Recruitment, a job he did very well despite his extreme fun-loving nature and heavy drinking. Billy went into semi-retirement after World War II ended. He developed a very active social life but partied and drank far too much. He tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Korean War but was turned down. He died quietly in his sleep in 1956 at age 62 and was given the largest funeral Canada had seen to that time.

However, Billy's story wasn't over. A debate raged over his being awarded the Victoria Cross. No one saw him attack the German airfield; the medal was awarded only on what he claimed he did. He was the only Victoria Cross winner not to have his deeds witnessed or proved. The Canadian National Film Board released a film about Billy, The Kid Who Couldn't Miss, a 'docudrama' that claimed Billy had falsified many of his exploits. The Canadian Government Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology investigated and completely discredited this film, finding it both unfair and inaccurate.

There are two additional but different bits of information necessary to complete the saga of Billy Bishop. The first is that a musical comedy about Billy, Billy Bishop Goes To War was one of the most successful made-in-Canada musicals ever made. The second item concerns an event took place on September 1, 2001, the day the Billy Bishop Heritage Museum in Own Sound, Ontario was burglarized. One of the items stolen was a small chunk of shrapnel reportedly given to Bishop by Winston Churchill.


Full citations for sources given in the Notes are given in the bibliography.

1. William Bishop.
2. Constable.
3. Brashow, p.103.
4. Constable.
5. Constable.
6. Brashow, p. 104
7. Brashow, p. 106.
8. Constable.



Billy Bishop Museum, William Avery "Billy" Bishop <>

Brashow, David L. Toronto: Knights of the Air: Canadian Fighter Pilots in the First World War, McArthur and Company, 2000

Constable, Miles, William Avery "Billy" Bishop <>

Government of Canada Digital Archives, Billy Bishop, Warrior Knight of the Air, <>

Josephy, Jr., Alvin M. The American Heritage History of Flight. New York: American Heritage Publishing Company, 1962

William Bishop <>



Photo 1: Henry Henderson /National Archives of Canada/ PA-203478
Photo 2: Government of Canada, Canada's Air Force Equipment --- Image gallery
Photo 3: National Archives of Canada /PA-122515
Photo 4: William Rider-Rider/Canada, Dept. of National Defense/National Archives of Canada/PA-001651

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