Painful Truth: Air aces rode the winds of war

There was no good battlefield in the First World War. From the muck of the Western Front to the chaos of the eastern, from Italy to Africa, there was no such thing as a good war.

But, for the men in the mud, there were certainly places that were less filthy, less rat infested, less miserable. That was what Billy Bishop was thinking by 1915. He was toiling in the trenches of France when he saw a little wood-and-canvas biplane pass overhead.

“I’ll bet you don’t get any mud or horse s**t on you up there,” he said. “If you die, at least it would be a clean death.”

Bishop would go on to become the leading Allied air ace of the war, along with several other Canadians who pioneered a new frontier in both aviation and war.

Bishop is the archetypal Canadian air ace – a young man from Owen Sound, Ontario, a crack shot with keen eyesight but an indifferent pilot.

Less well known are the two men who followed Bishop in the race to become Canada’s top ace: William Barker of Dauphin, Manitoba, and Raymond Collishaw of Nanaimo, B.C.

Barker was similar to Bishop in his strengths and style – he grew up outdoors, spent much of his childhood hunting, and became a crack shot. His flying was not as smooth as it could have been, at least at first.

Barker started in the trenches, a machine gunner, but by 1916 he had transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He flew as an observer – the second man in the plane, who took photos of enemy trenches and troops.

But soon he had downed a plane with his machine gun, and putting him in the pilot’s seat only made him more dangerous.

Barker left the Western Front and flew in Italy, where he tended to go out on his own in his heavily modified Sopwith Camel. On Christmas Day, 1917, he launched an unauthorized raid on a German airfield, and after strafing the planes, tossed out a card reading, “Merry Christmas.”

His final fight was legendary. He was jumped by 15 enemy planes and fought them off as he spiralled down, wounded in his legs, his elbow shattered. He survived to win the Victoria Cross.

Barker would eventually marry Bishop’s cousin and the two would go into business together after the war. Barker died at age 35 in 1930, and was given a massive military funeral in Toronto.

Collishaw was the odd man out in the trio, a former sailor from the coast who joined the Royal Naval Air Service. His official tally of aircraft shot down was 60 – but his men claim it could be higher. He had a tendency to take up new pilots and “help” them shoot down a German, to give the new guy some confidence.

Collishaw was apparently bulletproof. He had his goggles shot off and was unscathed. He accidentally landed at a German airfield in dense fog – and got away before they could pull him out of his plane. He crashed over and over, and walked away from every wreck. Collishaw spent most of his career in ungainly looking Sopwith Triplanes – his flight crew painted them black and named them Black Prince, Black Death, and Collishaw flew Black Maria.

He could have retired to civilian life, but he stayed in the military, and was a senior officer in Egypt when the Second World War broke out. He had under his command a single good airplane, one Hawker Hurricane. So as the Italian army approached from the west, Collishaw moved it back and forth, from base to base, showing it off. The Italians were convinced they faced a whole squadron of aircraft.

In one of his last acts of war in the air, he stalled an army with imaginary planes – the act of a true ace.

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