Aerial Combat In The Summer of 1917
A Centenary Action

In the weeks prior to kicking off the great offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres/Battle of Passchendaele, (31 July – 10 November 1917), the British commanders sought to achieve air superiority over the battlefield. This was imperative for the protection of reconnaissance and spotting planes, as well as the artillery and infantry on the ground. Consequently, the numerous air branch services were instructed to draw the enemy out into pitched aerial battles. Such battles would result in a mass of aircraft, swirling, diving and looping through the skies, like a mechanical swarm of bees. As an indication of this chaos, a single battle above Polygon Wood on 26 July 1917 amounted to a total of ninety-four single-seater aircraft engaged in a scattered dogfight ranging through 12,000 feet of airspace (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 139).

“Major Raymond  Collishaw, Commanding Officer, in a Sopwith F.1 Camel Aircraft of No. 203 Squadron, R.A.F., Izel-le-Hameau (Filescamp Farm), France, 12 July 1918. ”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002788.

The next day, a strategic battle would play out east of Ypres involving a number of Canadians, including Raymond Collishaw, of Nanaimo, British Columbia, who was serving in B Flight of the Royal Naval Air Service’s No. 10 Naval Squadron at the time. Already having received a French Croix de Guerre and a Distinguished Service Cross,  Collishaw  would put up an impressive record in the summer of 1917, battling Manfred von Richthofen’s ”Flying Circus”, the Jagdgeschwader1.

For 27 July 1917, the plan was to send out slower, less agile F.E.2d’s over enemy lines and lure the responding German planes westwards towards an agreed upon rendezvous point  (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 140). ”The FE’s would then turn and fight and overwhelming formations of fighters would come down on the Germans…” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 140).  

Accordingly, at 6:15 p.m. on 27 July 1917, seven British F.E.2d’s of No. 20 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps headed towards German lines. Over Menin, nearly 32 kilometres behind enemy lines, approximately 24 Albatros fighters greeted them. Rather than form into their usual defensive circle, the greatly outnumbered F.E.2d’s turned about and made a break for friendly lines, hoping to lure the German Albatros’ along. Reaching the rendezvous over Polygon Wood, “by the time the F.E.’s arrived there, still furiously fighting off their attackers, a sizable number of additional German machines had joined in. Waiting for them were no fewer than 59 Allied fighters…” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 141). Diving down into the massed formations, what ensued could be considered sheer bedlam, as described by Collishaw:   

“I dived on a formation of three Albatros D-V’s, picking out one of them and opening fire… The pilot, I am sure, was hit, but so was something else, for the wings folded and the Albatros went straight down, shedding pieces as it fell. Off to one side I saw another German fighter go down… and then half a dozen of the enemy came down on my flight from high above” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 141-2).   

The London Gazette for 11 August 1917, announcing Flt. Sub-Lt. Ellis Reid’s receipt of the Distinguished Service Cross. Reid’s entry is second to last from the bottom, in the left hand column.  Note that he is listed as missing at the time. His surname is also misspelt, which was corrected in later publications.  
Credit: The London Gazette, 10 August 1917, Supplement: 30227, Page:  8207

In the resulting melee, “scraps extended all the way from 16,000 down to 4,000 feet” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 141). Collishaw’s friend, Ellis Reid, of Belleville, Ontario, single-handedly fought off the attacks of five enemy aircraft in quick succession, sending three of them down before he was able to pull away (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 142). ”The fight carried on furiously for about an hour and then, as was usually the case, suddenly ceased and none of the enemy was in sight” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 142). 

Large aerial battles such as these helped achieve air superiority prior to the start of the third Ypres offensive. Sadly, only a few days later, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Ellis Vair Reid would be killed in action, his Distinguished Service Cross for actions in June 1917 being awarded posthumously. Reid’s body was never recovered, and so he is commemorated on the Arras Flying Services Memorial.  

Editor’s Note: The Black Flight was originally published as Air Command in 1973 by Raymond Collishaw and Ronald Dodds .

 

 

 

Billy Bishop’s Victoria Cross
2 June 1917

Capt. Billy Bishop, VC seated in the cockpit of his Nieuport 17 fighter, in August 1917. Credit: William Rider-Rider/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001654 (Modified from Original). Colourized by Canadian Colour.

A Centennial Action – 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)

A very young Cadet William A. “Billy” Bishop while at the Royal Military College in Kingston.
Credit: Henry Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-20347

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.

For a more complete presentation and understanding of the arguments for and against Billy Bishop’s legacy, we suggest reading the following two articles:

The Incomparable Billy Bishop: The Man And The Myths by Lieutenant-Colonel by 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

 

Taking Down A Zeppelin
14 May 1917

A Centennial Action

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)

Bombs Over England
May-July 1917

A Centennial Action
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. (Modified from Original). Colourized by Canadian Colour.

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 helpless inability to assist their airmen weighed heavily on those in the trenches. 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)”. © IWM (Q 11564)

 

Marvel of Flight – Aerial Combat

A Centennial Action
Aerial Combat in 1917

While the marvel of flight was still relatively new and exciting at the turn of 1914, the technological advances of wartime now made it something to be feared and despised. For those at the front, enemy aeroplanes overhead often brought bombs, machine gun fire, and artillery bombardments. Ironically, aerial combat also served as a sort of entertainment and escape for the men watching the skies from the misery of the trenches.

Canadian crews scramble into action with their anti-aircraft guns in October 1916.  
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000974.

While fighting on the outskirts of Lens, just prior to moving to the Souchez River area in May 1917, Canadian Sniper/Scout/Observer Frank S. Iriam witnessed the following account of aerial combat:

“We one day saw an aeroplane fall nearly all the way to the earth from an elevation of over 20,000 feet. The plane was a Farnum Pusher type… some of the controls must have jammed with him starting to fall over, and over endwise, sidewise head first, tail first, and spinning as a wheel, down, down, down. Men [in the trenches] ran, climbing up on any convenient elevation, to watch breathlessly what we thought was going to be another fatal tragedy played out before our eyes. He fell so near to the earth that he was hidden by our view by some tall buildings.

At the last possible moment the pilot succeeded in righting the plane, straightened it out and flew away… an exhibition of cool-headed bravery along with a few other things… You should have heard the roar that went up from the thousands of fighting men..” (Glenn R. Iriam, In The Trenches 1914-1918, p. 187).

 

A Canadian ration party visits an anti-aircraft crew armed with a Lewis gun (see the “stove-pipe” pointed skywards) in December 1917. 
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002300.