Captain William Barker in Italian Skies I


On 26 October 1917, the weather in France was bad, with wind and rain, but a flight of three Sopwith Camels from 28 Squadron RFC, Lieutenants Fenton and Hardit Singh Malik led by Canadian, Captain William Barker, were groundstrafing enemy transport and troops near Roulers. Fenton dived to attack a convoy on the Roulers to Staden road, and Barker and Malik were following him down when they were attacked by four Albatros scouts from Jasta 18. Leutnant d.R Paul Strähle and Leutnant Arthur Rahn dived after Malik, leaving Leutnant Otto Schober and Offizierstellvertreter Johannes Klein to engage Barker. Barker made a steep climbing turn, got into position behind the Albatros flown by Schober, and shot it down in flames. Barker then attacked Klein, badly damaging his Albatros and forcing him to land.

Strähle, pursuing Malik, later recorded in his diary: ‘In a tough dogfight lasting over a quarter of an hour, sometimes only a few feet above the ground, I fought the enemy scout as far as Ichteghem where unfortunately I had to break off because my guns jammed. For me this fight was the hottest and most exciting that I had in my whole fighting career. Apart from the good pilot, his machine was faster and more manoeuvrable than mine, to which must be added the low altitude, showers and rain. But for this I might have got him. Once, I thought he would have to land, as he had a long trail of smoke, but it was not to be. I landed on the aerodrome at Ichteghem, where it was raining heavily. They could not tell me whether my adversary had landed. For the whole of the fight I had used full throttle, 1,600rpm, airspeed 125mph. Three times we were down to ground level! His machine had a 5 next to the cockade on the left upper wing.’

Malik, wounded by Strähle’s fire, had fainted and crashed behind the British lines. Barker force landed near Arras and later returned to his aerodrome at Droglandt. Fenton had been wounded in his ground attacks, but had also returned safely to Droglandt.

While Malik was convalescing in hospital he read Barker’s report of the fight. Barker stated that he did not think Malik could have survived the fight with so many enemy scouts on his tail. In his own report, Malik made exactly the same comment about Barker’s chances. ‘The last I saw of Barker (Malik’s report) of Malik (Barker’s report) he was surrounded by Huns, fighting like hell, but I don’t think there was the slightest chance of him getting away.’

Captain Barker was awarded two Albatros scouts from this combat. They were the Canadian’s last victories in France.

William George Barker was born on 3 November 1894 in Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, the twenty-one-year-old Barker enlisted on 1 December into the First Canadian Mounted Rifles at Winnipeg. In June 1915, he sailed for England and was stationed at the Canadian camp at Shorncliffe in Kent. At Shorncliffe, Barker completed a machine gun course and his regiment, having given up its horses, was sent to France.

Like many of his fellow countrymen in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Barker applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. In March 1916, he was accepted, on probation, to fly as an observer under training with 9 Squadron, stationed at Bertangles and equipped with BE2c two-seater reconnaissance machines. After several flights for gunnery practice, Barker flew his first patrol over the lines on 12 March, with Lieutenant H E Van Goethem as his pilot. During the reconnaissance flight, lasting an hour and 45 mins, Barker and his pilot took eighteen photographs. Two enemy aeroplanes were seen, but the BE2c was unsuited for aerial combat and they were not attacked. On return, the photographs were developed and found to be highly successful. After flying another eight patrols with 9 Squadron, Barker was evidentially considered worthy of a permanent posting to the RFC and on 1 April he was struck off the strength of the CEF, commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the RFC, and posted to 4 Squadron, based at Baizieux. Barker flew for three months with 4 Squadron, until on 7 July he was posted again, this time to 15 Squadron. The squadron was based at Marieux, equipped with BE2cs, and it was with his new squadron that Barker had his first fights in the air.

The Battle of the Somme, which opened on 1 July 1916, saw the two-seat aeroplanes of the RFC Corps squadrons hard pressed. As they carried out their daily duties of reconnaissance and spotting for the artillery, they met fierce opposition from the German fighters, and survival depended on their ability to defend themselves against determined and skilful attacks. On 20 July, Barker’s BE2c was attacked by an enemy scout over Miraumont, but Barker, an excellent shot, drove it off. It was the first of several combats in which he was to fight off enemy fighters, and his offensive spirit was beginning to show itself and be commented on. In the 1930s, an ex-ground crew member of 15 Squadron, R H Arnett, wrote a revealing account of Barker’s time in the squadron, both as an observer and later, as a pilot. ‘I remember that it was not long before he was egging on his pilot to such deeds of “daftness” as might be accomplished in our 2cs and 2es.’ One such an occasion of ‘daftness’ was on 16 November 1916, when Barker and his pilot, Captain Pender, not content with machine gunning large numbers of troops in the enemy trenches, also reported by wireless their positions to the artillery. As a result of this and numerous other actions, Barker was recommended for a decoration, and a Military Cross was awarded, gazetted on 10 January 1917: ‘For conspicuous gallantry in action. He flew at a height of 500 feet over the enemy’s lines and brought back most valuable information. On another occasion, after driving off two hostile machines, he carried out an excellent photographic reconnaissance.’

It is obvious that Barker’s potential as an air fighter had been recognised and in late November 1916 he was sent back to England for training as a pilot. He returned to France – and 15 Squadron – on 23 February 1917 and was posted into C Flight. It seems that he was not a good pilot. Arnett remembered him again, but now as a pilot: ‘We still had BE2cs and C Flight did not thank him for wiping off the undercarriages of three of their machines on his first day! I remember that from that time, until we changed over to RE8s, he always flew with a spare undercarriage V strapped on each side of the fuselage and tried hard to carry a spare prop underneath too, but it wasn’t feasible: as we pointed out, it wouldn’t have been much good after the old bus had sat on it.’ Arnett also recalled that Barker specialised in contact patrols and strafing the enemy trenches, getting into – and out of – many tight corners: ‘Later, when we got the RE8s, he was brought down in No-Man’s- Land and pancaked quite safely. He had just stepped out of his seat when a shell came right between the V of the engine cylinders and through the machine from end to end, killing the observer on the way, and bursting just over the tail, without scratching Barker, however.’

Over the next months, Barker was mentioned several times in the official RFC communiqués – Comic Cuts was the derogatory name given to them by the pilots and observers. On 25 April, Barker and his observer, 2nd Lieutenant Goodfellow, zeroed artillery fire onto two hostile gun batteries and over a thousand troops in the enemy trenches. They brought back many valuable photographs and much-needed information, all gathered while flying at only 500 feet and coming under heavy and constant ground fire from rifles and machine guns. On 1 May, working with the 93rd Siege Battery of 5th Army, they destroyed two machine gun post with five direct hits, repeating this the following day by destroying another three posts, continuing with this type of operation throughout the month. On 9 May, Barker was made C Flight Commander and two days later was awarded a Bar to his MC, which was gazetted on 18 July.

Such dangerous work led to the inevitable: on 7 August, Barker was wounded in the head by a shell splinter, which narrowly missed his right eye. Despite this, he continued his work with the squadron until the middle of the month when he was posted to Home Establishment as an instructor.

Many pilots found instructing frustrating work and Barker was no exception. He repeatedly applied for a transfer back to France, preferably with a fighter squadron, backing up his requests by constantly breaking orders which prohibited low flying. In September 1917, his persistence finally paid off and he was posted as a Flight Commander to 28 Squadron, equipped with Sopwith Camels, then working up to strength at Yatesbury before going out to France. Barker had flown Camels while instructing and was impressed by their manoeuvrability after the RE8s of 15 Squadron. On his arrival at his new squadron, Barker was given command of C Flight and issued with Sopwith Camel B6313, flying it for the first time on the evening of 30 September. From this date on, Barker and B6313 were inseparable, forming a partnership unique in the annals of air fighting.

Posted to France on 8 October 1917, 28 Squadron flew into its base at St Omer. Barker wasted no time, flying his first patrol that evening, but his first victory as a fighter pilot was not for another twelve days. On 20 October a combined force of Camels from 28 and 70 Squadrons attacked the enemy aerodrome at Rumbeke, the base of Jasta Boelcke, and Barker shot down an Albatros during the fighting, possibly Leutnant Walter Lange, who was killed. The raid was a complete success: aerodrome buildings were badly damaged and seven enemy aircraft were shot down for the loss of only two 70 Squadron pilots, one killed the other taken prisoner. Barker’s victory was both his first, and the first for his squadron.

Four days later Barker attacked a formation of Gotha bombers over Ypres, firing into the rearmost machine of the formation from a distance of 200 yards. After 150 rounds his guns jammed and Barker broke off the combat, with the enemy machine gliding down from 7,000 feet, its starboard engine stopped. This aircraft was not credited as a victory, being still under control. Two days later, on 24 October, Barker, Malik and Fenton were busy ground strafing when they were attacked by four Albatros from Jasta 18, and Barker claimed two victories, his and 28 Squadron’s last in France.

In late October 1917, with the successful offensives of Austro-German forces pushing the Italian armies back to beyond the River Piave, the war was going badly for the Allies in Italy. Urgent reinforcements were requested and 28 Squadron, with 34 Squadron RFC, was ordered to leave for the Italian front. On 29 October, the squadron moved to Candas and entrained for Italy on 7 November. 34 Squadron had left two days earlier, and while both squadrons were in transit a further three squadrons were ordered to the Italian theatre.

Unlike the Italian ground forces, the fighter pilots of the Italian Air Force were well trained and highly motivated, but as part of the Germans’ reinforcements to the Austro-Hungarian forces, three Jagdstaffeln had been sent from France, plus seven Flieger Abteilung. These units were highly experienced and their presence was soon felt.

28 Squadron arrived at Milan on 12 November, unpacked, reassembled their Camels, and flight tested them in two days. After two moves, the squadron finally settled in at Grossa on 28 November and flew its first patrol the next morning: an escort of three Camels for an RE8 of 34 Squadron on a reconnaissance to Montello. Flying at 10,000 feet, the formation was attacked by five Albatros scouts before it had even crossed the front lines. During the fighting, which lasted for twenty minutes, the enemy fighters were reinforced by another seven. The fighting dropped to 5,000 feet and it was at this lower level that Barker shot the wings off an Albatros, which crashed in the area of Pieve di Soligo, Barker reported that during the first stages of the combat, at 10,000 feet, his Camel was outclassed by the Albatros scouts in respect of both speed and climb, a position only reversed when the fighting had dropped to lower level. These Albatros were most probably Oeffag-built D.IIIs, powered with the 225hp Austro-Daimler engine, more powerful than the 160hp Mercedes of the German built Albatros D.III used in France, which would explain their superior performance to Barker’s Camel.

At 12.45 pm on 3 December, Barker shot an Albatros down in flames north east of Conegliano, destroying a balloon five minutes later over the same area. After seeing the RE8s of 34 Squadron safely back across the lines, Barker, with Lieutenants Cooper and Woltho had crossed the River Paive at low altitude and attacked the balloon. Attacking from a height of only 1,000 feet, Barker fired 40 rounds into the envelope and the balloon was hurriedly winched down. Turning away from the balloon, Barker saw Stanton Woltho was about to be attacked by an Albatros. Barker dived to Woltho’s aid, drove the enemy pilot down to 300 feet and fired a long burst into his machine. The Albatros went vertically down, crashed, and burst into flames, killing Leutnant Franz von Kerssenbrock, the acting Staffelführer of Jasta 39. Barker next turned his attentions to the balloon, which by this time was on the ground, his shooting setting it on fire. He then attacked a large staff car coming east from Conegliano, forcing it off the road to overturn into a ditch.

On Christmas Day 1917, Barker and Lieutenant H B Hudson, a fellow Canadian, from Victoria, attacked the enemy aerodrome at Motta, the base of Flieger Abteilung (A) 204, ten miles behind the enemy lines, shooting up the hangars and damaging four aircraft. As a passing gesture, they dropped a large piece of cardboard inscribed: ‘To the Austrian Flying Corps from the English RFC. Wishing you a Merry Christmas.’

This attack brought a retaliatory raid on the British aerodrome at Istrana the following day. Two RE8s of 34 Squadron were destroyed and hangars badly damaged. An RFC sergeant was killed and there were seven wounded. An Italian hangar was hit and two Hanriot fighter aircraft set on fire, but personnel man-handled the other aircraft out of the blazing hangar and some of the Italian fighter pilots managed to take off to attack the raiders, shooting down four on their own side of the lines and claiming another three on the enemy side. One of the captured Austrian pilots from the raid reported that it had been ordered by their high command at breakfast time, while they were still sleeping off the effects of the Christmas Day celebrations. One of the attackers had not even been refuelled properly and ran out of petrol a few miles from Istrana. The pilot landed safely then promptly fell asleep in his cockpit. He was later woken by the touch of his own pistol – held against his head by an RFC officer.

On 29 December, Barker destroyed a balloon north east of Pieve de Soligo for his seventh victory. He opened 1918 on New Year’s Day, shooting down an Albatros, the enemy machine crashing into the mountainside to the northwest of Vittorio, bursting into flames and rolling down into the valley, killing Offizierstellvertreter Karl Lang of Jasta 1.

It was nearly a month before Barker scored again. He took off with Lieutenant Hudson, ostensibly to practise fighting and machine gun tests, but Barker’s combat report reads:

‘While testing guns over the Lines we sighted two balloons in a field, which we attacked and destroyed in flames. A horse transport column of about 25 vehicles which was passing these balloons was also attacked and stampeded.’

It was obvious that these attacks had been carried out at low level, which was against orders. Lieutenant Colonel Joubert, commanding 14th Wing, demanded an explanation – in writing. Barker’s excuse was that on sighting the balloons he had for the moment forgotten the orders forbidding low flying.

On 2 February, on patrol over Conegliano at 14,000 feet, Barker’s flight spotted five enemy two-seaters escorted by three scouts. In the ensuing attack, Lieutenant C M McEwan, from Manitoba, shot down two of the two-seaters and Barker despatched another before switching his attentions to one of the escorts, a Phönix, which he sent down to crash in a field, killing Feldwebel P A Koritzky of Flik 28. A crowd of enemy troops gathered round the Phönix. Barker dived, set the wreck on fire and scattered the enemy troops.

Three days later an enemy two-seater was reported to be working over the lines at 17,000 feet north of Odense. Barker and Hudson took off and found the two-seater, escorted by two Albatros scouts. Barker shot the left wing off one Albatros, which broke up in mid-air, killing Zugsführer J Schantl of Flik 19d. Barker then fought the two-seater down until it landed in a field and turned over. Hudson had forced the other Albatros down to 200 feet and the pilot crash-landed his damaged fighter.

Bad weather stopped nearly all operational flying for the next few days. Pilots of 28 Squadron became so bored with the inactivity that a sweepstake was organised. The names of all pilots were put into a hat: the pilot who drew the name of the next pilot to score would scoop the jackpot. The following day the weather was no better, with thick mist, but Barker and Hudson, who were convinced that conditions would be better at height, took off and flew to Fossamerlo, where they knew three small, spherical balloons were tethered in a line, close to the ground. At each end of the line was a standard observation balloon. Barker and Hudson destroyed all five balloons. Arriving back at Grossa, Barker asked if balloons counted as victories in the sweep. On being told they did, he dryly commented that whoever had drawn his name should collect his winnings. All five balloons were shared with Hudson.

Shortly after the sweepstake incident, Barker left Italy on a well-earned three weeks’ leave, during which, on 18 February, his award of a DSO was gazetted.

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