Captain William Barker in Italian Skies II



Major W. G. Barker, VC, with captured Fokker D.VII aircraft at Hounslow Aerodrome.

Barker returned to Italy on 8 March. It was not a happy start. The next day he crashed his favourite Camel, B6313, which he had flown almost exclusively since the previous September in France, scoring all of his victories while flying it. The crash was due to engine failure. Damage to the Camel was extensive: new wings and struts were needed, plus a centre section, rudder bar, a diagonal front fuselage strut and replacement undercarriage. Nevertheless, Barker was deeply and emotionally attached to B6313 – despite the fact that many pilots would have been unhappy to fly a machine whose serial number added up to an unlucky 13, further compounded by the figure of 13 in the number itself – and he may well have waited for the Camel to be repaired before flying operationally again. Whatever the reason, he did not score until ten days after his return, once more flying B6313. Taking off after lunch on 18 March, he shot down an Albatros D.III over Villanova for his twentieth victory, following this with a double victory the next day: an Albatros D.III out of control at Bassiano at 12.45 pm and another destroyed north of Cismon five minutes later, bringing his score to twenty-two, the highest scoring RFC pilot in Italy.

Barker was not to score again for nearly a month. On 18 March, Major Glanville, the Commanding Officer of 28 Squadron, had relinquished command and returned to England. As senior Flight Commander, and by the natural chain of command, Barker had expected that the command of the squadron would pass to him, but a new CO, Major C A Ridley DSO, MC, had arrived from England. Pilots remember that Barker was disappointed and far from happy at being passed over. It is possible that Barker’s resentment also sparked a clash of personalities with his new CO. Whatever the reasons, Barker asked for a transfer to another squadron, and on 10 April he exchanged places with Captain J N Whitlock, the C Flight Commander in 66 Squadron, stationed at San Pietro-in-Gu.

On 17 April, Barker opened his scoring with his new squadron. Flying his Camel, B6313, which he had taken with him on leaving 28 Squadron, he destroyed an Albatros D.III east of Vittorio. Bad weather for the remainder of the month then curtailed the number of patrols that could be flown and it was not until the late evening of 8 May that he scored again – a two-seater destroyed over Annone-Cessalto. Making up for lost time, Barker scored another eight victories in May: five Albatros D.Vs, a Lloyd C type, and another two-seater of an unspecified type, the victory over the last Albatros on 24 May being during the combat between 66 Squadron and Flik 55J, in which the Austro-Hungarian ace, Josef Kiss, was killed.

Barker claimed his next victory on 3 June, destroying a Brandenberg C.I over Fiume-Feltre; following this six days later with two Brandenburg D.I fighters within five minutes of each other, the first at 10.20 am over Levico. By 13 July, two more Brandenberg fighters and two Albatros had fallen under his guns, bringing his victory total to thirty-eight.

Not all Barker’s fighting was in the upper air. As were their contemporaries in France, the Camel squadrons in Italy were also used in a ground attack role. On 15 June, the Austrians launched an offensive along the whole front, from the Adriatic to the Asiago plateau. Low mist hampered RAF support for the hard-pressed ground troops, but 66 Squadron had offensive patrols out from 4.35am. Barker, leading Lieutenants Birks and Bell, bombed targets in the area of Val d’Assa, but by 9.00am the mist had thickened and air operations had to cease. Conditions improved later in the day and the RAF squadrons operated over the Piave front, ground strafing and bombing, Barker leading an attack on two pontoon bridges in the Montello sector. Selecting the bridge which was farthest upstream, he bombed from 50 feet, hitting the bridge in two places. The pontoons broke loose, were caught by the fast current, smashed into the pontoons of the lower bridge and swept it away. The bridges were crowded with Austrian infantry and many of the troops were thrown into the water. Those that managed to get into small boats, or onto islands in the river, were mercilessly machine-gunned by the attacking Camels. Barker and four Camels from 66 Squadron returned again the following day and destroyed another bridge, but seven bridges in the lower stretches of the river were still intact.

It was during June that Barker issued what S F Wise, the Canadian air historian, has called ‘an absurd and vainglorious challenge’. Barker, Birks and McEwan dropped a note on Godega aerodrome, challenging Austria’s leading ace, Godwin Brumowski, with Benno Fiala Ritter von Fernbrugg and Friedrich Navratil, to meet them for an aerial duel. The challenge was worded in an almost formal manner, seasoned with a little sarcasm:

‘Major W G Barker DSO MC, and the officers under his command, present their compliments to Captain Bronmoski (sic), 41 Recon Portobouffole, Ritter von Fiala (sic), 51 Pursuit, Gajarine, Captain Navratil, 3rd Company, and the pilots under their command and request the pleasure and honour of meeting in the air. In order to save Captain Bronmoski, Ritter von Fiala and Captain Navratil, and gentlemen of his party the inconvenience of searching for them, Major Barker and his Officers will bomb Godigo(sic) aerodrome at 10.00 am daily, weather permitting, for the ensuing two weeks.’ The invitation was not taken up.

There was a long period of inactivity in the war on the Italian front from late June until October, but the RAF kept up its offensive policy. On 3 July, a new squadron was formed: 139 Squadron, its personnel drawn from 34 Squadron and drafts from England and France, and equipped with the Bristol F.2b. On 14 July, Barker was promoted to major and given command of the new squadron, and on 15 July he flew B6313 from St Pietro-in-Gu to Villaverla, a twenty-minute flight.

Captain Wedgewood Benn (the father of a future Labour Government minister) was the Intelligence Officer of 14th Wing and was enthusiastic about an Italian idea of landing spies by parachute into enemy occupied Italy to obtain information from the local populace. A Caproni bomber was first chosen as the best aeroplane for the operation, but after tests had shown that the Caproni was unsuitable, a twinengined Savola-Pomillo S.P.4 was finally selected and hangared at Villaverla. On the night of 28 July, Barker and Wedgewood Benn flew a Bristol Fighter over the anticipated route of the drop, and on 8 August, Barker and Benn took off, flew to the designated area and dropped the spy, Alessandro Tandura. The mission was a complete success, and for this and similar missions, Tandura was later awarded the Italian Gold Medal for Valour – the Italian equivalent of the British Victoria Cross. In September, both Barker and Benn were awarded the Italian Silver Cross for Military Valour.

Barker refused to let his new duties and administrative responsibilities as a commanding officer keep him on the ground and out of combat. On 13 July, in quick succession – his combat report states 7.05 and 7.08 am – he shot down a Brandenberg D. I and an Albatros D.V. Flying his Camel on 18 July, accompanied by a Bristol Fighter from his squadron, Barker scored another double. He and Lieutenant G T C May attacked a formation of three enemy scouts escorting a pair of LVG two-seaters. Barker shot down one LVG and he and May shared in the destruction of the other. On 20 July, Barker scored another double. Patrolling with two Bristol Fighters of his squadron, he saw six Albatros D.IIIs over their aerodrome at Motta. Three Italian fighters then appeared and the enemy scouts all dived for the safety of their aerodrome. Barker and the Bristols dived with the enemy scouts, who mistook them for friendly aircraft, pulled out of their dives and formed up on the British machines. Barker turned onto an Albatros which broke up under his fire, then fought another down to ground level, forcing it to crash. Another Albatros was shot down by a Bristol Fighter crew, which was confirmed by Barker. Three days later, Barker shared in the destruction of an Albatros D.V with Lieutenants Walters and Davies, flying a Bristol Fighter. The same day he was awarded a Bar to his DSO.

Although he flew several offensive patrols, Baker scored no further victories in August. In September he had the onerous duty of taking His Royal Highness, Edward, Prince of Wales, for a forty-five-minute flight in the observer’s cockpit of a Bristol Fighter.

Barker was now coming to an end of his service in Italy, scoring his final victories on the front on the 18 September. Patrolling in the morning, at 9.50 am, Barker spotted nine Albatros scouts flying west at 16,000 feet. The odds were not good, but some Italian fighters were in the vicinity and he attempted to get them to attack with him. Only one, a Nieuport with a red fuselage, formed up with Barker. Camel and Nieuport flew a parallel course with the enemy scouts until nearly four miles south of Feltre. It was now 10.20 am and Barker gave the signal to begin their attack. At first it appeared that the enemy pilots were inexperienced. Barker engaged one at 17,000 feet, opening fire at sixty yards, closing to within ten yards for a final burst, sending the Albatros down out of control. The Canadian half rolled away from an attack from two other enemy machines, before firing at another from close range. This machine also fell out of control. Barker was then attacked by a very skilful pilot, who flew head on towards his Camel. Barker broke in a climbing turn at forty yards and got on his opponent’s tail. The Albatros pilot dived away, but Barker followed. No other Albatros attempted to join the combat and Barker closed to within a 100 yards and fired a long burst. The Albatros turned over onto its back, began to smoke, and the enemy pilot took to his parachute – an option not available to the allied pilots. His machine continued down and crashed into the bed of a river, three miles north of Quero. Photographs were later taken of the crash to confirm Barker’s claim.

On 29 September, Barker made his last two flights in his beloved Camel B6313. He had scored all his forty-six victories while flying this Camel: three in France, the remainder in Italy. It had flown a total of 404 hours 10 minutes, of which 326 hours, 30 minutes were on operational sorties – a remarkable number of hours for a First World War fighter – mute testimony to the superb maintenance work of Barker’s ground crew. In the late evening of 29 September, B6313 was dismantled and taken to No.7 Aircraft Park. As a memento of their long partnership, Barker retained the cockpit watch. The following day Wing sent an order for the clock to be returned.

William George Barker, DSO, MC with two Bars; Mentioned in Despatches, finally left Italy on 30 September 1918. His next appointment was the command of a School of Aerial Fighting. Although it was now plain that the end of the war was in sight, Barker was anxious to have one more chance of combat flying. Pointing out that fighter tactics in Italy differed from those in France, he argued that before taking up his new command he should be posted to a squadron in France – to fly a refresher course on the Western front in order to do full justice to his new duties. His request was finally granted, and flying one of the new Sopwith Snipes, the successor to the Camel, he was attached to 201 Squadron for ten days, arriving on 17 October.

Barker flew three offensive patrols from Beugnâtre, 201 Squadron’s base, on 21, 22 and 23 October. To his frustration he saw no enemy aircraft. On 27 October, his tour at an end, Barker took off in his Snipe E8102 to fly back to England. His very nature precluded him from not having one last look at the fighting. He climbed to 21,000 feet over the Forest of Morval and attacked a high flying Rumpler reconnaissance machine, which broke up under his fire. Almost immediately Barker then came under fire from below. The pilot of a Fokker D.VII from a lower formation had climbed until directly underneath the Snipe, hung on his propeller in a near stalling position – a favourite manoeuvre of Fokker D.VII pilots – and opened fire, wounding Barker in his right thigh. Barker threw the Snipe into an evasive spin for 2,000 feet, but on pulling out found himself in the middle of the large Fokker formation. Barker fired at two of these, but they evaded his fire. Barker then switched his attentions to another, firing into it at close range until it went down in flames. He was now surrounded by the remaining enemy machines and wounded again, this time in his left thigh. Barker fainted from the pain of his wound and the Snipe fell into a spin, this time involuntarily. Barker regained consciousness at 15,000 feet only to find that he was again in the middle of another formation of Fokker D.VIIs. Despite his wounds, he got onto the tail of the nearest. His marksmanship, as accurate as ever, sent it down in flames, but yet another of the enemy pilots got onto the tail of the Snipe and wounded Barker again, this time shattering his left elbow. Barker once more lost consciousness with the pain of his wounds and the Snipe again spun, this time falling another 3,000 feet before Barker came to. He was again attacked by the persistent Fokker pilots and the Snipe was badly damaged, its engine smoking. Barker then determined to finish the unequal fight by ramming the nearest of his opponents. He flew straight at the nearest Fokker, firing as he closed the range, and the enemy machine broke up in mid-air, the Snipe taking more damage as Barker flew through the debris. Miraculously, Barker was momentarily in clear air. He dived for the safety of the British front lines, flying under another formation of enemy fighters. Crossing the trenches at tree top height, Barker crashed the Snipe into the barbed wire surrounding an observation balloon site.

One of the witnesses to the fight – the entire action had taken place in full view of thousands of British and Canadian troops – was A G L McNaughton, commanding officer of the Canadian Corps Heavy Artillery, who watched the fight from the vantage point of his headquarters between Bellevue and Valenciennes. ‘The hoarse shout, or rather prolonged roar, which greeted the triumph of the British fighter, and which echoed across the battlefield, was never matched on any other occasion.’

Barker was gently extricated from the wreckage of his Snipe and rushed to hospital in Rouen. Ten days later he was recovered enough to ruefully admit: ‘By Jove. I was a foolish boy, but anyhow, I taught them a lesson. The only thing which bucks me up is to look back and see them going down in flames.’

The Canadian was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in this last fight, receiving the award from King George V on 30 November 1918. The war had been over for nineteen days.

Barker returned to Canada after the war. He was demobbed from the RAF in 1919 and went into civil aviation, forming a partnership with another Canadian VC winner, William Bishop. The enterprise failed and Barker joined the Canadian Air Force, serving with it from 1920 to 1924. He was then involved in various business enterprises until January 1930, when he became Vice-President of The Fairchild Aviation Company of Canada.

On 12 March 1930, William George Barker VC, DSO and Bar, MC and two Bars, CC, Legion d’ Honneur, Croix de Guerre, M.d’Arg., was killed in a flying accident while demonstrating a prototype aeroplane at Rockcliffe Airport, Ottawa. His funeral in Toronto was attended by thousands of mourners.

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