Oswald Boelcke, (right) who is regarded as the father of the German fighter air force, shot down Robert Wilson (left), of the 32 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, before inviting him to join him for coffee.
As Hugh Trenchard had maintained from the first, the ‘flying aces’ system would always entail a degree of injustice, not least by implying a monopoly of bravery and skill in the hands of a comparative few. Also, of course, the competitive sports mentality it fostered (which included the amassing of medals) led to endless disputes about the true scores of the ‘winners’, a few of which persist even to this day, fuelled as they sometimes are by ill-concealed nationalist motives. Probably the main figure here is that of the Canadian ace, Billy Bishop, whose total score of seventy-two has been much questioned in the last thirty years, one official historian of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Brereton Greenhous, saying that his true total might actually be twenty-seven. This allegation is founded on the fact that many of Bishop’s victory claims cannot be matched with German records, which are admittedly patchy and not always reliable. Despite many crucially missing documents, surviving British casualty records are generally more complete and accurate than their German counterparts. Above all, the famous engagement for which Bishop won the VC cannot be corroborated from the German side. This action took place at 4.30 in the morning of 2nd June 1917. His award citation, as it appeared in the London Gazette for 11th August, read as follows:
For most conspicuous bravery, determination and skill. Captain Bishop, who had been sent out to work independently, flew first of all to an enemy aerodrome; finding no machines about, he flew on to another aerodrome about 3 miles southeast, which was at least 12 miles the other side of the line. Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground. He attacked these from about fifty feet and a mechanic, who was starting one of the engines, was seen to fall. One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of 60 feet Captain Bishop fired 15 rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground. A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired 30 rounds at 150 yards’ range, and it fell into a tree. Two more machines then rose from the aerodrome. One of these he engaged at a height of 1,000 feet, emptying the rest of his drum of ammunition. This machine crashed 300 yards from the aerodrome, after which Captain Bishop emptied a whole drum of ammunition into the fourth hostile machine, and then flew back to his station. Four hostile scouts were about 1,000 feet above him for about a mile of his return journey, but they would not attack. His machine was very badly shot about by machine-gun fire from the ground.
The problem here is that in theory, at least, it is an inviolable rule that a Victoria Cross is never awarded without the corroborative evidence of independent witnesses (except in the sole case of the Unknown Warrior), and it is sometimes claimed that Bishop’s remains the only VC ever to have been awarded entirely on the recipient’s testimony. It is true that his award citation is essentially identical to the report he himself gave on returning to his airfield. One investigator claims that ‘the evidence, from both British and German sources, shows that there were no aircraft losses in the Jastas of 2 or 6 Armée on 2nd June 1917, and indicates very clearly that the aerodrome attack never took place. There is not a shred of evidence to support Bishop’s claims.’ By contrast the respected American scholar Peter Kilduff, in a definitive and exhaustive new investigation of each of Bishop’s 72 victories published in 2014, sees no reason to doubt that this early morning attack took place precisely as Bishop said it did. Furthermore, he believes that the rest of Bishop’s victories should stand – with exactly the same proviso that attaches to every other top-scoring pilot’s claims, viz. that they would inevitably have been subject to a young man’s occasional economy with the truth and wishful thinking, as well as to the pressures of national propaganda and the inter-unit rivalries of the day. No-one’s scores can ever now be proved with absolute certainty.
But there is another aspect. Unlike Richthofen, Bishop was one of the aces who acted as ‘lone wolves’. Such men of exalted reputation were often pretty much free to come and go as they chose, preferring to hunt alone, and this inevitably made corroborating their victories more difficult even at the time. The implication that anyone whose score is doubtful was probably a liar is an easy cynicism. Bishop and others like him typically flew far more sorties in a given period than the average airman – often twice as many – and there is every reason to suppose that this level of obsessive searching for quarry would have paid off in higher scores. At the very least the sheer courage in spending twice as much time in the air, thereby doubling the chances of disaster, is undeniable.
However, the lingering doubt about Bishop’s award of the VC for his 2nd June sortie remains awkward, and even Kilduff skirts the issue. The awarding of the most prestigious British medal in these anomalous circumstances must naturally prompt the question of whether there might not have been political motives at work here. First it must be said that the awarding of any medal has a political component since the recommendation has to be passed from the unit commander up through the chain of higher command until it is officially ratified, rejected or modified. Some sort of attempt at even-handedness has always to be made: it would be injudicious to allow one particular service, regiment or squadron to receive far more awards than any other. It was yet another of the drawbacks of the ‘ace’ system that once its laurelled heroes had entered a kind of national pantheon, they themselves acquired political significance willy-nilly. It so happens that in Canada by April 1917 popular backing for the war was evaporating. In that month the Canadian House of Commons passed a conscription act that was bitterly divisive. For one thing French Canadians in Québec were stolidly opposed to being forced to fight in yet another European war. Canada had already sacrificed large numbers of its bravest young men on a muddy altar thousands of miles away with no sign of an end in sight. And while British Canada continued to support the Canadian Corps, which had racked up brilliant victories as well as catastrophic casualties, many Canadians were privately opposed to conscription – above all farmers who stood to lose their young farm hands. Thus it is not at all beyond conjecture that a decision was taken at the most senior British level, and almost certainly with the agreement of the King himself, that the Empire’s highest award for bravery would be a very timely morale booster for Canada and make it that much more difficult for the Dominion to slacken its efforts.
The fact is that by 1917 (and regardless of disdainful leading articles in Flying about foreign practices) no military was above using its heroes to its own internal advantage, especially when it came to the various services competing to prise more money out of dwindling national treasuries. This writer has no desire to enter the lists in disputes about any of the aces’ scores. Even if it turned out that none had ever made more than thirty kills they would still be revealed as men of quite outstanding valour and skill, and Billy Bishop is no exception to this. It would just have been far better for his posthumous reputation had he been awarded the medal for cumulative bravery, like Albert Ball. God knows he’d earned it. It was a shame they chose that particular morning’s unwitnessed action for the citation. In any case the VC Bishop was awarded in 1917 turned him overnight into a national hero, to be fêted and celebrated for the rest of his life. Perhaps the most famous Canadian of his generation, he went on to become Air Marshal of the RCAF on the outbreak of the Second World War and died in 1956 at the age of sixty-two, a national hero to the last. Nevertheless, the scholarly wrangles continue to this day over the deeds of his younger self in the skies above France almost a hundred years ago, as they do over those of his peers on both sides.
There are 188 known First World War flying aces listed with twenty and more kills, which of course excludes virtually all the earliest aces like Pégoud with five and over, as well as one of the two greatest pioneers of aerial combat, Max Immelmann, with his fifteen victories – a good example of the inherent bias of a system that only counts gun-notches. Justice has since been done to Oswald Boelcke, who at the time of his death was credited with nineteen victories but has now been granted forty, scholarship having posthumously overcome his modesty. Even among the highest-scoring men some names are more familiar than others, perhaps a reflection of the attention paid to them by the newspapers of the day according to the relative attractiveness of their personalities. Thus the second-ranking ace of the war, René Fonck with seventy-five victories, is arguably less well known outside France than his more sympathetic compatriot Georges Guynemer with fifty-three. Similarly, while many Britons have heard of the RFC’s second, third and fifth highest scorers – respectively Mick Mannock, James McCudden and Albert Ball – fewer are familiar with George McElroy, in the UK’s fourth position with forty-seven victories. But why? Was it because he was Irish-born?
At all events the relative absurdity of the ace system rests in its never making quite clear what was being rewarded other than notches. True, there was always going to be an unusually high standard of airmanship, marksmanship and courage. But as any pilot of the day would have attested, an awful lot depended on sheer luck: on being in the right place at the right time, on a gun not jamming or an engine conking out, on the wind suddenly dropping or a chance hazard like a bird-strike on an opponent’s aircraft at a critical juncture. In addition, as Trenchard rightly thought, the ‘sports’ nature of competitive scoring heavily discounted the astounding daily bravery of men in two-seaters who had to loiter in the sky for hours on end as targets while observing for artillery or taking photographs of enemy positions; of those who ventured far over the lines to the limit of their fuel to drop a few small bombs on a factory or railway junction; or of those sent to fly low-level ‘trench-strafing’ missions in unarmoured machines of wood and canvas with every man on the ground focussing a withering barrage of lead and steel at them from close range. And not only this, but these men did it over and over again, day after day after day until their luck or nerve ran out. The more one reads the histories and accounts and memoirs, the more one realises that, admirable though the aces were, they were emphatically not the only flying heroes. What is more, in terms of the war’s outcome they were a complete irrelevance.