Billy Bishop

Capt. Billy Bishop, VC seated in the cockpit of his Nieuport Scout, on Aug 6, 1917, Canadian Colour.

2 June 1917
2 June 2017 marked the 100th Anniversary of the events for which Canadian pilot William Avery “Billy” Bishop, VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED was awarded the Victoria Cross. Quickly winning the confidence of his commanding officer, Bishop was allowed to fly with a generously loose leash, allowing him to go out on lone wolf patrols without supporting wingmen, and more importantly, witnesses. On June 2, 1917, Bishop set out on his own, patrolling over German lines.  His citation for the Victoria Cross reads 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 machine about, he flew on to another aerodrome about three miles south-east, which was at least twelve 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 sixty feet Captain Bishop fired fifteen rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground.

A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired thirty 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 the 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 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.” (London Gazette, no.30228, 11 August 1917)
In the years following his death in 1956, Billy Bishop’s war record has come under scrutiny due to discrepancies in his claimed actions. Researchers have found that many German war records and casualty reports do not match with Bishop’s claimed victories, while a vast number of his victories are logged in British records without any sworn statements of the necessary supporting witnesses. Meanwhile, proponents of Bishop’s impressive record argue that Germany’s spotty records may have been the result of their struggling to figuratively “keep a lid” on what would have been a propaganda disaster if Bishop’s successes became public. Moreover, the Germans were becoming increasingly selective of reporting damage at this stage of the war, often preferring to not take note of bad news. Ultimately, Billy Bishop’s career is marked by both unquestionable bravery, as displayed in his confirmed actions but also clouded by what may be half-truths and fabricated encounters.

 

A very young Cadet William A. “Billy” Bishop while at the Royal Military College in Kingston.
Credit: Henry Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-203478

For a more complete presentation and understanding of the arguments for and against Billy Bishop’s legacy, we suggest reading the two following articles.
The Incomparable Billy Bishop: The Man And The Myths by Lieutenant-Colonel David Bashow   http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo3/no3/doc/55-60-eng.pdf
Billy Bishop – Brave Flyer, Bold Liary by Brereton Greenhous
http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo3/no3/doc/61-64-eng.pdf

 

Bathhouses

Australian soldiers outside a bath house near Ypres on November 1, 1917. Regular attendance at bath houses was compulsory for all troops on the Western Front.
© IWM (E (AUS) 1067)

Bathhouses on the Western Front

Amidst the mud and misery of the frontline, a trip out of the line sometimes meant a bath and welcome change of uniform and underwear for the troops. But the process wasn’t quite as refreshing as it may sound. John Becker of the 75th (Mississauga) Battalion recounts his visit to the baths in the area of Gouy-Servins, France in June 1917:

“This particular bathhouse was a rough board building with a boiler fired by wood alongside. Inside we took off our clothes and threw underwear and socks in a heap at one end. The underwear was immediately grabbed by fatigue men before it walked off under its own power [infested by lice]. We passed into another room and under long pipes shooting streams of warm water. A sergeant-major called “Soap On.” We soaped for three minutes. “Soap Off” – we had to immediately rinse ourselves as in another minute the water was shut off. We passed on to the other end, wiped our louse bitten hides, got clean towels, fumigated underwear, and resumed our clothes. The underwear was whatever we were handed. Some of it had been used for a long time… It was supposed to be free from livestock [lice], but this didn’t take into account the babies that had laid their eggs in the seams of my trousers and tunic, and an hour later I was providing a dinner for those eggs and all their brothers and sisters.” (Becker, Silhouettes of the Great War, 84).

Taking Down A Zeppelin

Aerial Warfare 1917 Series – Canadian Robert Leckie and his crewmates taking on a Zeppelin airship in their Curtiss Flying Boat. 

(previous posts include  “Bombs Over England)

 

German Zeppelin LZ 77. The sheer size of Zeppelin airships in the skies over England could cause panic amongst civilians.
© IWM (Q 58481)

With the drive up the Belgian coast successfully underway, (the Battle of Messines ending June 14, 1917), it was hoped the cross-channel air raids would slowly be reduced. In the meantime, pilots and gunners continued to do battle with massive Zweppelin airships and winged bombers in the skies over England. One Canadian patrolling english skies in 1917 was Air Marshal Robert Leckie, CB, DSO, DSC, DFC, CD.

Just over 100 years and one month ago, in the early morning of 14 May 1917, then-Flight Sub Lieutenant Leckie was piloting Curtiss Flying Boat type H.12 No 8666, on a patrol to the north-east from RN Air Station Great Yarmouth. Off the coast of Terschelling, the Netherlands, the crew spotted Zeppelin L 22 10-15 miles away, seemingly at the end of its route patrolling the Dutch coast at 3,000 feet.

 

They increased speed and climbed to 6,000 feet. Nearing L 22 and still undetected, Leckie took control of the Curtiss from Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin, jettisoning three of their four bombs to lighten the aircraft as the crew moved to battle stations. CPO Whatling went to the rear Lewis Gun while Flt.-Lt. Galpin manned the two Lewis Guns in the bow.

Unspotted until only half a mile away from L 22, Leckie dove at the Zeppelin, roaring down out of dark fog and cloud to 3,800 feet, levelling out 20 feet below L 22’s gondolas. In the bow, Flt.-Lt. Galpin seized the moment and:

“opened fire with both guns at 50 yds range and observed incendiary bullets entering the envelope… the port gun jammed but the starboard gun fired nearly a complete tray before jamming also. We were then 100ft from her and turned hard a starboard while I tried to clear the starboard gun. As we began to turn I thought I saw a slight glow inside the envelope and 15 seconds later when she came in sight on our other side she was hanging tail down at an angle of 45 degrees… Five or six seconds later the whole ship was a glowing mass and she fell vertically by the tail. CPO Whatling observing from the after hatch saw the number L22 painted under the nose before it was consumed. He also saw two of the crew jump out, one from the after gun position on top of the tail fin and one from the after gondola. They had no parachutes. When the airship had fallen to about 1000ft four large columns of water went up below in quick succession either from bombs or engines becoming detached from the framework. After 45 seconds from the first ignition, the envelope was burnt off and the bare exoskeleton plunged into the sea, leaving a mass of black ash on the surface from which a column of brown smoke about 1500ft high sprang up and stood.” (Report by Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin on the destruction of Zeppelin L.22 on 14 May 1917, addressed to the Commanding Officer RN Air Station Great Yarmouth, dated 14 May 1917. Air 1/660 ).

The crew landed back at Yarmouth at 7:50 AM, with only two bullet holes from L 22’s return fire in their aircraft. For their actions that day, Flt.-Lt. Galpin received the Distinguished Service Order and Flight Sub-Lt. Leckie received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Curtiss H.12 ‘Large America’ flying boat, No. 8661. Flt. Sub Lt. Leckie flew the same aircraft, but No. 8666, on 14 May 1917.
© IWM (Q 67581)

Normandy Landings

Infantrymen in a Landing Craft Assault (LCA) going ashore from H.M.C.S. PRINCE HENRY.
Credit: PO Dennis Sullivan / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132790.

Today marks the 73rd Anniversary of the Normandy landings, made during the Second World War in 1944. In the early minutes of June 6, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion jumped from their aircraft, the first Canadians to set foot in France that monumental day. The paratroopers succeeded in securing the Drop Zone, before heading off and destroying numerous bridges on approaches to the beachhead. By midday, the Canadian paratroopers had achieved all their objectives.

Meanwhile, at 07:49 in the morning, Canadian infantrymen stormed ashore at Juno Beach. Fighting through beach obstacles, machine gun and artillery fire, the Canadians routed the defenders and by noon Juno Beach was clear, with the fight carrying inland. By nightfall of 6 June 1944, the Canadians had advanced the furthest inland of all invading forces that day.

The Vimy Foundation commemorates the sacrifices made 73 years ago today. For more information on the Normandy landings, we suggest visiting the Juno Beach Centre, either in-person or online!

Although an overwhelming success compared to the Dieppe Raid of 1942, the Normandy landings were not without casualties. Indicative wreckage litters the surf just off the beach.
Credit: Frank L. Dubervill / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132895.
German prisoners captured at Juno. La Maison des Canadiens stands out in the background.
Credit: Ken Bell / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132474.

Farms at the Front

Starting in 1918, while occupying defensive lines around Vimy, the Canadian Corps carried out perhaps the most unaggressive, yet official, military order on the Western Front – farming.

Troops were instructed to assist French farmers where possible if a battalion was unable to manage its own field of produce. Here two Canadians help a group of French women.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000768.

Faced with ever increasing challenges of maintaining food supplies, the British Government ordered that the “English Armies undertake the growing of certain foodstuffs in the way of green vegetables and potatoes” using the land they currently occupied as a fighting force (NAC RG 9, Vol.4044, Radnor, “Statement of the policy to be adopted by Army, Corps, Area and Divisional Officers under the Directorate of Agricultural Production,” 7 February 1918).

Surprisingly, many of the Canadian Battalions took great interest in the project and its positive effects were two-fold; alleviating the strain on food supplies and providing an outlet for the burdened men. Farmers-turned-soldiers proved their worth providing expertise in planting and harvesting. As one unit rotated back into the frontline, those being relieved were expected to take over the farming plot. By the summer of 1918, the farming scheme was such a success that the addition of pig farms was considered, albeit briefly.

Two teams of Canadian Cavalry ploughing and harrowing ground on Vimy Ridge where potatoes are to be planted. April, 1918.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003810.

Uxbridge Secondary School Remembers

Lt. Col. Samuel Sharpe, DSO

Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Sharpe, DSO.
Credit: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2017.

On 3 April 2017, as part of our 100 Days of Vimy project, we shared the post of Lt. Col. Samuel Sharpe, DSO (Read it again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/100daysofvimy-april-3rd-2017/). A Member of Parliament, Sharpe used his influence to raise and recruit the entire 116th (Ontario County) Battalion from his constituents in the Uxbridge area. Serving as its Lieutenant-Colonel, Sharpe ultimately returned to Canada devastated by the losses to his county, committing suicide while seeking treatment in Montreal on 25 May 1918.

In honour of Lt. Col. Samuel Sharpe’s impact on his county and his ultimate sacrifice, students of Uxbridge Secondary School have dedicated themselves to commemorating the First World War’s impact on their county. For Vimy 100, a large group travelled overseas after nearly a year and a half of preparatory work. The following video was made for the Lt. Col. Sam Sharpe Gala that Uxbridge Secondary School’s Vimy 100 students hosted for the community, sharing the stories of those that went to serve King and Country from Uxbridge Secondary School.

The logo of Vimy 100 shirts of Uxbridge Secondary School students. Emblazoned on the back are the names of the Uxbridge Secondary School students who went to serve King and Country.
Courtesy: Tish MacDonald, Uxbridge Secondary School, 2017.
Students of Uxbridge Secondary School gather beneath the Vimy Memorial in April 2017.
Courtesy: Tish MacDonald, Uxbridge Secondary School, 2017.

 

Bombs over England

May-July 1917

The drive up the Belgian coast in June-July of 1917, for which the Canadians provided diversionary trench raids at the Souchez River, was undertaken for a number of reasons. One hope was to combat the threat posed by the Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers. British forces fighting up the coast would require the Germans to depart from airfields further from England, as well as to fly over more British-controlled territory. This would shorten the loiter time available to the German flights once over English skies, reducing their effectiveness, while also increasing the chances of British ground forces shooting down aircraft whilst flying overhead on the coast.

The threats from air attack had increased with the continuing development of Gotha bombers, used in addition to the Zeppelin airships. On May 25, 1917, a daylight raid of 21 Gotha bombers struck in the Folkestone-Shorncliffe region, creating approximately 300 casualties. Of these, 17 fatalities and 93 wounded were Canadian soldiers, training and awaiting transfer to the front. On 13 June 1917, London suffered its first daylight bombing raid, with 162 persons killed and 432 injured.

(Cdn Military Demonstration, Shorncliffe Sept. 1917.) An aerial greeting during lunch. Library and Archives Canada/PA-004772

Trench Raids – Dirty Tricks

The first trench raid made by Canadian troops is believed to have taken place on 28 February 1915, by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 88). At the time, trench raids were still small but efficient strikes by groups numbering from a couple dozen to one hundred men. In a war faltered to a standstill, trench raids provided the opportunity for those willing, to get at the enemy in daring operations. Consequently, raiding parties were regarded with an air of both extreme danger and boldness.

A raiding party of the 10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) waiting in nap for the signal to go. John Warwick Brooke, the official photographer, followed them in the sap, into which a shell fell short killing seven men. Near Arras, 24 March 1917. © IWM (Q 5098).

The men who made up raiding parties came from all walks of life – many would have volunteered for the job, but undoubtedly others were coerced by their comrades to tag along. Simply put, trench raiders needed to be both brutally vicious and exceptionally restrained and self-reliant. Crawling through no man’s land, beneath and over barbed wire, ready to fight at a moment’s notice was not for the faint of heart. Brutal, dirty trickery was also a necessity in order to survive. While the Germans were known to booby-trap potential souvenirs and corpses with explosives, Lieutenant Louis Keene of a Canadian Machine Gun Company reveals the Canadians were just as nasty.

When his men learned the Germans actually liked the cans of bully beef fed to Commonwealth troops, they began to throw cans of it over into the German lines:

Throw one over… sounds like shuffling and getting out of the way are heard in the enemy trench. Fritz thinks it’s going to go off [as a grenade]. Pause, and throw another. Fritz not so suspicious this time. Keep on throwing until happy voices from enemy trenches shout, ‘More! Give us more!’ Then lob over as many hand grenades as you can pile into that part of the trench and tell them to share those too.” (Cook, Shock Troops – Canadians Fighting The Great War 1917-1918, p. 56).

A raiding party of the 1/8th (Irish) King’s Liverpool Regiment, 55th Division, at Wailly, France. Photograph taken the morning after a night raid during the 17/18th April 1916. © IWM (Q 510).

 

Trench Raids – What were they?

In a series of posts, we will be discussing more of the diversionary raids undertaken by Canadians during May – June of 1917 south of the Souchez River. Therefore it is fitting to first provide a brief overview of the Canadians’ development of raiding techniques.

In this charcoal sketch, H.J. Mowat depicts six Canadians leaving the trenches to go on a trench raid. In reality, the men would have removed their packs and helmets, and taken extreme caution on a night with a full moon. Credit: Sketch by H.J. Mowat – Beaverbrook Collection of War Art – CWM 19710261-043

Trench raids initially began as an offshoot of aggressive patrolling.  In groups of two or three, patrols would crawl out into no man’s land during the dark of night, gathering intelligence on the enemy wire, finding gaps and identifying strong points. These patrols would then pass their intelligence on to an officer who was forming up a raiding party. Numbering anywhere from a handful to a couple dozen men, the first raids were quick, brutal and efficient smash and grab operations. Meant to provide a simple means to attack the enemy, gather intelligence and hopefully a prisoner, raids allowed Canadians to experiment with tactics and gain fighting experience.

Read our Raiding series with Part I – Dirty Tricks.

Canadians gather round a German prisoner, captured during a trench raid by the 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalion.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-00262

 

The Marvel and Horrors of Flight

The development of flight during the First World War could be awe-inspiring, as seen here – Bristol F.2B Fighter aircraft of No. 139 Squadron, R.A.F crossing the Italian Alps in 1918. Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/ PA-006343.

Last week we began discussing the impression that aerial combat had on those watching from below in the trenches. Although last week’s account ended in a chorus of cheers, these outcomes were sadly few and far in-between. Today we go back to the memoirs of Canadian Sniper Frank S. Iriam:

“It was cruel to see the way the red devils shoot them to pieces sending them down in flames every day. Our airmen were a game lot continuing to face the enemy with obsolete contraptions… The fuselage of these old buses stuck out some distance in front of the wings. I have seen our airman standing on the forward nose while the bus was plunging through space in flames. They climbed out on the nose to get as far as possible from the flames in a forlorn hope that they might chance to reach earth before the wings burned off or the tank exploded. Usually, they were driven to jumping into space to escape the fierce heat or were thrown off when the plane turned over in its death plunge… spinning end-over-end like a wheel in mid-air… It was a heart-rendering thing to see and not be able to render any assistance… our airmen face back and give battle again in these old coffins after seeing what had happened to their comrades a minute before, fully knowing they would meet a like fate… Could human courage go any further?” (Glenn R. Iriam, In The Trenches 1914-1918, p. 197).

The helplessness felt by those in the trenches unable to assist their airmen weighed heavily. Depicted here is the wreckage of a RFC aeroplane lying in no man’s land in front of a trench in the La Bassee Sector held on 15th March 1918 by the 7th Battalion, Liverpool Regiment (55th Division). Photo from the Imperial war Museum