The Sopwith Pups were still doing respectably against the Albatroses and Halberstadts and the RNAS was giving the RFC valuable help. As an instance, five Pups of its No. 3 Squadron shot down four Halberstadts in a fight on 6th April. The squadron had been formed in November the previous year to meet Trenchard’s request for reinforcement. It was commanded by Squadron Commander Redford “Red” Mulock, who, like the majority of his pilots, was a Canadian. Among these was Raymond Collishaw. He had been posted to Naval Three when the wing to which it belonged had been ordered to transfer its nine best fighter pilots; of whom five were Canadians.
After serving with a squadron that had been escorting bombers on average once a week, Collishaw and the others were “rather jolted by the first few patrols” in their new sector. Having been on operations for some months, held their own against enemy fighters and come to regard flak as routine, they were a trifle over-confident as well as unprepared for the intensity of their new duties: which entailed daily patrols and frequent encounters with Richthofen’s Jasta II. Their offensive patrols were usually flown in formations of four or five aircraft at 12,000 to 16,000 feet, where their guns often froze. They also escorted bombers, and FE2Bs on photo recce. The bombers were often BE2Cs which Collishaw said “could stagger up to 5000 to 8000 feet and cruised at a snail’s pace” and he could not understand “the crass stupidity” of those who kept ordering these machines to be built. One escorting flight flew close to the aeroplanes they were protecting and another flew above. Sometimes a third flight gave top cover. It was difficult to persuade the escorting pilots to stay in formation when attacked: they preferred to break and fight. The enemy always attacked the upper flight first. This became known as the “sacrifice flight”; and, if there were a top cover, that was “super sacrifice flight”. The newest pilots, being considered expendable, were usually given these positions.
There was yet another Sopwith fighter of which the enemy was wary: the Triplane, or “Tripehound”. This had come into service with the RNAS the previous year. On 27th April Collishaw was posted as commander of B Flight to Naval 10, which flew it. Its prime assets were the manoeuvrability and rate of climb imparted by its three wings. It was armed with one, sometimes two, Vickers synchronised with the airscrew. At 10,000 feet, which it could reach in 12 minutes, its speed was 110 m.p.h. Its ceiling was 20,000 feet. Its narrow wings allowed the pilot an excellent view. Richthofen thought it the best Allied fighter during the first six or eight months of 1917.
Collishaw found, to his anger and disgust, that there were pilots on the squadron who “could not, to put it charitably, be depended on. Some of these were merely inept, but others simply did not want to fight.” He quickly found himself abandoned by most of his flight in a fight. The other flight commanders suffered the same desertion. The reason for this cowardice was that when other squadrons had been asked to contribute to the formation of the new No. 10, their commanders had sent those they valued least. Collishaw persuaded his squadron commander to rid himself of the faint-hearted. Most of the replacements, and all the pilots on Collishaw’s flight, were Canadians.
It has been suggested that Collishaw and his pilots decided to paint their Triplanes black all over “because they would look murderous”. The truth is that all the squadron’s aeroplanes had a khaki-green upper wing surface and fuselage, with pale blue on the wings’ undersides. To distinguish the flights when airborne, the CO decided that A Flight’s cowling, top and sides of the fuselage, and wheel discs would be painted red; B Flight’s black; and C Flight’s blue. What Collishaw did suggest was that B Flight should name its aircraft. He called his Black Maria. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Ellis Reid chose Black Roger. John Sharman fancied Black Death. Gerry Nash named his Black Sheep, and Alex Alexander’s was Black Prince.
This touch of flamboyance was justified by B Flight’s performance, as we shall see later. Collishaw scored his first “flamer” when he shot down an Albatros. It “was not at all a pretty sight but there was the comforting thought that it was far better to have happened to him than to me”. But that was on l0th May and we have not done with Bloody April yet.
It was not until 22nd April that 56 Squadron was ready for action. Then, on its first patrol, it shot down four Albatroses, of which one fell to Ball. The pace was at once frenetic and the stress unremitting. On 29th April Ball was already writing to his parents: “I am so very fagged. April 26 evening I attacked four lots of Huns with fire. Brought two down and had to get back without ammunition when dark. Had four fights and got one Hun. In the end all my controls were shot away. But I got back. Simply must close for I am so fagged.” This was hardly the sort of letter that a mother or father would relish receiving. But Ball was not gregarious and his parental tie was uncommonly close. Telling them the truth about the dangers of his life must have been his only outlet to relieve nervous tension.
Mannock was on his first tour at the Front, where he had joined 40 Squadron on 7th April, to fly Nieuports. The immediate impression he made on his new comrades was disastrous. Shyness, added to a social clumsiness that fitted him for the barrack room and sergeants’ mess rather than for the company of officers, and, on top of those handicaps, his eagerness to be informed in detail about his new environment, led him into a performance that presented only the obnoxious facet of his personality. The CO, Major Leonard Tilney, took him to the mess and introduced him to other members of the squadron; most of whom had just landed from a patrol on which Lieutenant Pell, a most popular figure, had been killed. The atmosphere was muted. Mannock was impervious to the melancholia and bumptiously asked everyone how many Huns he had fanned down: a highly offensive inquisition in any circumstances. He then plunged into a dissertation on air fighting and expressed his views on the war in general. To compound his grossness, he had seated himself in the chair usually occupied by Pell. Also, he had been fortunate enough, when training, to acquire more flying hours on tractor types than any of his new companions — who had until recently been flying pushers — had accumulated in their considerably longer service. This did nothing to endear him.
A fellow pilot, recalling Mannock’s seemingly conceited, bombastic self-introduction, recalled: “Apart from that, he was different. His manner, speech and familiarity were not liked. He seemed too cocky for his experience, which was nil. New men usually took their time and listened to the more experienced hands. He was the complete opposite and offered ideas about everything: even the role of scout pilots and what was wrong with our aeroplanes. He seemed a boorish know-all.”
Hubris suffered its classical chastening. After practice firing at a ground target, Mannock expected no difficulty in shooting down the enemy. Six days after his arrival, he flew his first operation, as part of an escort to some FEs. Nervousness caused him to keep mishandling his throttle and losing his place in the formation. He did no better on his next few sorties. His reactions were so slow that he was always the last to go into a fight and was soon suspected of cowardice. Treated coldly, snubbed, he endeavoured to ingratiate himself by chipping into conversations; and, an unforgivable breach of mess custom, expatiating on politics: his left-wing bigotry, of course, exacerbated the transgression against good form.
He was also ridiculed behind his back — the others ignored him — for his persistent gunnery practice. As Ball had always done and McCudden and others of the greatest fighter pilots would emulate, he loaded his ammunition drums himself and spent hours making repeated dives at a ground target at different speeds and from different angles. To his detriment, however, he could not refrain from trumpeting about it and announcing that if he could open fire from twenty yards he would not miss. This provoked further dislike.
On 1st May his flight escorted four 1½ -strutters bombing Douai aerodrome, where Richthofen’s Jasta was based. When he tried to clear his Lewis gun, en route, it jammed. Fearing the squadron’s scorn if he turned back, he flew on armed only with his revolver. He heard machine-gun fire astern, looked round, and saw a yellow-and-green Albatros diving at him. He turned tightly to face it. Talking about it afterwards he said he heard a strange noise above his engine; and realised that he was screaming with anger, which helped his nerves. (If ever a man needed psychiatric help, he seems to have been a prime candidate.) The German, seeing Mannock hurtle at him, broke and turned on another Nieuport. But this brave refusal to be daunted by a hated, despised German did not improve Mannock’s standing with his fellows.
On 7th May he attacked his first balloon. Six Nieuports went five miles behind the enemy lines at fifteen feet, to put into practice a new form of balloon attack perfected by Tilney. He had thought out this low-level approach to outwit the enemy: who were no longer winching down their balloons when attacked, but bringing them to ground much more quickly by passing the cable under a pulley and attaching it to a lorry; which then simply drove off fast. While they scudded through successive belts of ground fire, Lothar von Richthofen, Manfred’s young brother, led five Albatroses up over the balloon line to wait for them. Captain Nixon, who led the Nieuports, indicated a target to each pilot. Mannock’s was at the far end of the line. He fired long bursts of tracer into it. It crumpled and began to fall. Mannock turned for home. Meanwhile Nixon had spotted the Albatroses and peeled off to try to protect his men. This drew the enemy off. They milled around Nixon and it was not difficult, with four others to distract the victim, for Richthofen Minor to shoot him in the back and bring him down.
Captain Nixon’s gallant death was little noticed outside his squadron and his family. But 7th May 1917 was memorable to all the air forces at the Western Front and the whole British nation for another sad event.
On 3rd May Albert Ball had written home. “It is quite impossible, but I am doing all I can. My total up to last night was thirty-eight. I got two last night. Oh! It was a topping fight. A few days ago all my controls were shot away on my SE5. But I got the Hun that did it. It is all troubles. I am feeling very old just now.”
Two days later: “Dearest Dad, Have just come off patrol and made my total forty-two. I attacked two Albatros scouts and crashed them, killing the pilots. In the end I was brought down, but am quite O.K. Oh! it was a good fight and the Huns were fine sports. One tried to ram me after he was hit, and only missed by inches. Am indeed looked after by God, but oh, I do get tired of always living to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer. Shall be so pleased when I am finished.”
On that day, talking to Atkins, another pilot, Ball said: “Trenchard says I can go home when I have got fifty. But I shall never go home.”
Two days after that, the 7th May, in the evening, eleven SE5s of 56 Squadron took off on the day’s last patrol. Behind enemy lines at 18,000 feet, they saw six Albatroses 3000 feet below and dived to attack. A mile or so away, two Jastas were approaching. When they saw the British begin their attack, they followed them down and opened fire on them from the rear. The dogfight, in which forty-one aircraft were involved, sprawled all over the sky and down to 600 feet before the last contestant departed for his base. Six SE5s went down, Ball among them. He was last seen on the tail of an Albatros. To this day it is not known for certain whether the six Albatroses that drew 56’s attention were the bait in a trap. Nor has it been established that it was Lothar von Richthofen who killed Ball. There is a legend that he did. But the only claim he made on that date was for a Sopwith Triplane. Ball’s confirmed victories totalled forty-three and no one can say how many more he shot down in that last fight.
He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross “For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from 25th April to 6th May 1917, during which Captain Ball took part in 26 combats and destroyed 11 hostile aeroplanes, drove down two out of control, and forced several others to land”.
When Ball had left 60 Squadron to return to England in late 1916, already, at the age of twenty, a captain and decorated with the DSO and MC, he had been thought irreplaceable and his record impossible to equal leave alone surpass. And he was irreplaceable until a twenty-two-year-old Canadian, Lieutenant William Avery “Billy” Bishop, joined the squadron on the very day of Ball’s death. At the war’s end Bishop had seventy-two victories; only one less than Mannock, the RFC’s most prolific destroyer.
Bishop’s way thither had been meandering, and, in a manner, adventitious. In 1911, aged seventeen, he entered the Canadian Royal Military College; and barely managed to stay there for the next three years: his frequent mischievous escapades courted expulsion. But, if he was not by temperament a conventional military or naval type, it was in his stars to become one of the greatest fighter pilots the world has seen; so he was lucky to be born at the right time to give full vent to his natural aptitude and fulfil his destiny. A spice of devilment and flouting of regulations may not engender the right chemistry to take a young man up to the rank of general or admiral; but they have set many a regardless junior officer on his way to an air marshal’s pennant. Billy Bishop emphatically was one of the best pilots of an earlier, or any, war. And if he had given up breaking rules for the hell of it when he passed out from the Academy, his independent attitude remained undiminished when he eventually put up his pilot’s wings and reported for duty on the Western Front.
First commissioned in September 1914 in the 9th Missisauga Horse, Bishop transferred to the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles and left Canada in June 1915. Like many others before him he found the mud in a cavalry camp unpleasant. And, as many others had been, he was attracted to the notion of flying only when an aeroplane landed nearby. Told that the quickest way to start operational flying was as an observer, that was what he volunteered to be. After a course at the observers’ school he put up his half-wing and went to France in January 1916 to an RE7 artillery co-operation squadron. He wanted to be fighting, not observing, but admitted that it was “no child’s play to circle above a German battery with your machine being tossed about in the air, tortured by exploding shells and black shrapnel puffballs coming nearer and nearer to you”. After four months he injured his knee in a crash and was sent to hospital in England, where he was grounded until November, when he was sent to flying school.
In December he joined No. 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, with whom he did a lot of night flying, “a fearsome thing but very interesting”. Bored, and thirsting for a fight, he volunteered for France and arrived there on 7th March 1917 to fly Nieuport 17s with 60 Squadron.
On his first patrol, flying at the rear of a six-machine formation, and given, as usual with newcomers, an old aeroplane that was slower than the others, he had trouble keeping pace and was in constant fear of being separated. This in fact happened. A shell burst so close to him that he lost 300 feet and was left half a mile behind. He managed to rejoin, but, in common with other pilots new to battle, he found, after a few manoeuvres, that he had lost sight of his companions.
Presently he saw them below, diving, and hurried after them. There ensued an episode of the sort that was peculiar to the first war in the air and lent welcome light relief to the fear and tension of the daily business of killing and being killed. The object of the Nieuports’ attention was a large white German aircraft that daily did artillery spotting in the same patch of sky. This familiar object was known as “the Flying Pig” because it was decrepit, slow and crewed by an incompetent pilot and observer. It was a point of honour in the squadron that the bumbling antique contraption should not be shot down. It was considered fair sport, however, to frighten it. Bishop said: “Whenever our squadron approached, the Pig would begin a series of clumsy turns and ludicrous manoeuvres and open a frightened fire from ridiculously long ranges.” The observer was a very bad shot and never succeeded in hitting any of the British machines. So attacking this particular German was always regarded more as a joke than as a serious part of warfare. “The idea was only to frighten the Pig, but our patrol leader had made such a determined dash at him that he never appeared again. For months the patrol leader was chided for playing such a nasty trick on a harmless old man.”
But these lighter episodes were few and on 25th March Bishop figured in one of a very different sort that was much more typical of life at the Front. Patrolling with three others he saw three Albatroses which the patrol leader pretended to ignore. The Albatroses accordingly fell in astern and chased the Nieuports. When the distance between the two had narrowed to 500 yards, the Nieuports turned sharply about to engage the enemy. Bishop saw that his shots were hitting one of these, which promptly half-rolled, then began to spin. Suspecting that it was departing the scene rather than going back damaged, he followed it, shooting every time it pulled out of its spin; until it crashed. In the long dive Bishop’s engine had oiled up and stopped. He thought he was behind the German lines, but had no alternative to a forced landing. Luckily he was 150 yards behind the British trenches.
He had made his first kill, and two days later he led a patrol for the first time. He acquitted himself less than well. Seeing a single hostile below, he signalled to his pilots and dived on it. A second hostile appeared from cloud. When tracer from a third started streaking past him from astern he realised he had been duped. Meanwhile more enemy aircraft had appeared out of the clouds and attacked the rest of his formation. He looped and rolled off the top to avoid his three adversaries, then saw another fight in progress, which he joined: two Nieuports against four Albatroses. This went on for fifteen minutes without either side scoring a kill. He broke off to help another Nieuport that was on its own against two Albatroses. This combat brought them down to 2500 feet before the enemy broke off. Two Nieuports failed to return from this patrol.
Of one of the pilots who was killed, Bishop said: “He was only eighteen and had been in France three weeks. The RFC is filled with boys of that age with spirits of daring beyond all compare and courage so self-effacing as to be a continual inspiration to their older brothers in the Service.” He was hit in the back by an explosive bullet that exploded in his stomach. He continued fighting for ten minutes, then crash-landed and fainted; and died in hospital.
On 7th April Bishop was ordered to attack a balloon but forbidden to descend below 1000 feet. It was being winched down, so he dived, began firing at 500 feet and continued doing so until he was only 50 feet above the ground. Throughout, he was under fire from “flaming onions”, which he described as “terrifying balls of fire shot from some kind of rocket gun”. They weren’t. They were shells from a 37-millimetre cannon which, seen from the air, seemed to come spurting up in clusters of incandescent globules. His engine cut but caught again when he was down to fifteen feet, and he flew home through machinegun fire. He received congratulations from the Wing and Brigade Commanders and a telegram from Trenchard.
The rest of the month was a succession of patrols and ground strafing. On the 25th he was promoted to captain and by the end of Bloody April had shot down at least twelve enemy aircraft.
At the beginning of that catastrophic month the RFC had 754 aircraft, of which 385 were single-seater fighters, at the Front. The Germans opposed them with 114 single-seater fighters.
Thirty days later 151 British aircraft had been brought down, compared with 119 German.
The RFC lost 316 aircrew, dead and missing. The Germans lost 119.
The expectation of life for the British had averaged twenty-three days.