William "Billy" Avery Bishop

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William "Billy" Avery Bishop

February 8, 1894
Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada
September 11, 1956
Palm Beach, Florida

Flying ace, head recruiting officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force

Canadian Billy Bishop rose to great fame as a flying ace in World War I. With seventy-two victories, Bishop was second only to the Red Baron of Germany, whose record stood at eighty downed enemy planes. Bishop maintained his enthusiasm for flying throughout his lifetime, and as director of the air force during World War II (1939–45), he recruited thousands of airmen into the Canadian air force.

Saved from School by the War

Born William Avery Bishop on February 8, 1894, in Owen Sound, Ontario, Bishop led a reckless childhood, regularly skipping school to play pool at the local YMCA. Upon graduation his academic record was not good enough to get him into a university, so he tested for the Royal Military College (RMC; the Canadian equivalent of West Point in the United States) and enrolled at the age of seventeen in 1911.

Being a cadet at the RMC did not agree with Bishop. He detested the rules and suffered severe punishment for breaking them. Once he had to clean a gun turret (a revolving structure in which guns are mounted) after being late for a parade, and when the senior who inspected his work found that Bishop had missed a spider, he forced Bishop to eat it in front of the other recruits. Bishop wrote home that recruits were "the lowest form of military life, of any life, for that matter," according to his son William Arthur Bishop in The Courage of the Early Morning: A Frank Biography of Billy Bishop. Schoolwork did not come easily to the teenager, and he was nearly expelled for poor marks and cheating on a final exam at about the time World War I broke out. William Arthur Bishop notes that school officials described his father as "the worst cadet RMC ever had."

While at college, Bishop had given little thought to becoming a professional soldier. But in 1914 he earned a commission to the Mississauga Horse Regiment because of his military training and superior horseriding skills. A bout of pneumonia kept Bishop from going overseas until 1914, when he left for England with the Fourteenth Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. Bishop soon learned the real dangers for cavalry in trench warfare and asked to be transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.

Into the Air

By 1915 Bishop had transferred to an air regiment as an observer. After his first training flight, Bishop wrote the following words, quoted in The Courage of Early Morning "This flying is the most wonderful invention. A man ceases to be human up there. He feels that nothing is impossible." Bishop flew on reconnaissance missions for four months before taking sick leave. He had a bad knee and a heart murmur and could have been discharged from duty. But Bishop decided he'd rather become a pilot. Within a year he earned his pilot's license and logged flying hours patrolling the southern region of England against zeppelin attacks as part of the Home Defense squadron.

In early 1917, Bishop joined the Sixtieth Squadron of the British Third Brigade, the best fighting squadron in France. He was positioned across the trenches from Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron, 1892–1918), the best pilot of the war and part of the "Flying Circus" of German ace pilots. The life expectancy for rookie pilots who flew against the Red Baron was about eleven days.

After four days of orientation flights, Bishop survived his first dogfight (airplane battle), downing an enemy plane. Within several weeks Bishop had become an ace (according to the French system of records, a pilot who has shot down five or more enemy planes) and had established himself as his squadron's best pilot. When Bishop was named an ace, General Hugh M. Trenchard, the commander of the Royal Flying Corps, congratulated him, saying "My boy, if everyone did as well as you've done, we'd soon win this war," as quoted by William Arthur Bishop.

Bloody April and Beyond

During April 1917, known as "Bloody April," Bishop's squadron lost thirteen of its eighteen pilots. Bishop stoically dealt with the loss of his peers. "It doesn't do to think about these things," he wrote, adding that the survivors "flew from sunup to sundown and took their fun where they could find it," according to William Arthur Bishop. During Bishop's flights that April, he won the most distinguished medals available to a soldier. Lighting an observation balloon on fire and shooting down an enemy plane near Vimy Ridge on April 8, 1917, earned Bishop his first military honor, the Military Cross. Later that month, he earned the Distinguished Service Order for singlehandedly destroying three enemy planes while being attacked by three others. Five weeks after arriving at the Western Front, Bishop had shot down seventeen enemy planes, more than any pilot in his squadron. He was promoted to captain. In his first forty days at the front, Bishop had been in almost forty air battles. By the end of May, Bishop had shot down more than twenty planes.

Flying alone in the early morning on June 2, 1917, Bishop crossed enemy lines near Cambrai and made a daring attack on a heavily staffed German unit at the Estourmel military airport. Bishop destroyed three German planes and returned unharmed to his squadron. News of his attack spread across the Western Front by that afternoon, and Trenchard sent Bishop a congratulatory message, calling his raid "the greatest single show of the war," according to William Arthur Bishop. Though some thought the pilot exaggerated his claims, French informants who had seen his attack confirmed the story. Bishop's actions won him the Victoria Cross, making him the first person to win all of the military's highest honors.

Bishop landed his plane in difficult circumstances many times, but his closest brush with death came during a routine patrol. German artillery hit his fuel tank, and his plane burst into flames. Able to guide the plane into Allied territory before smashing into a tree, Bishop was caught upside down with the flames of his ruined plane licking his face when a sudden rainstorm put out the flames.

By age twenty-three, Bishop was promoted to major; he had downed forty-seven enemy planes and had survived a battle with the Red Baron. Bishop was in charge of an entire squadron (Eighty-fifth Squadron, nicknamed the Flying Foxes) near Passchendaele in 1918. Within a two-week span he knocked down seventeen planes—including the German ace Paul Billik, who had thirty-one victories of his own. Bishop's stunning victories came from his fearless attacks: He would regularly charge multiple enemy planes. Once he attacked nine of the deadly Fokker D. VIIs and succeeded in downing one of them. During his last day of fighting, Bishop reportedly shot down five enemy planes, bringing his total victories to seventy-two. He returned home a national hero. Later he learned that his victories had earned him the newly created Distinguished Flying Cross.

Hero at Home

Upon his return home to Owen Sound, Ontario, Bishop was welcomed by thousands of well-wishers. For the first years after the war, Bishop traveled throughout the United States with his wife, Margaret Burden (whom he had married in 1917), giving lectures about his flying exploits and promoting his book Winged Warfare. When the public no longer wanted to hear his stories, Bishop spent a few years running a chartered flight business in Canada with another Canadian ace, Billy Barker. After that business failed, Bishop moved to England and began selling pipe for a French company. He amassed a sizable fortune, and he and his wife had three children. The stock market crash of 1929 left Bishop bankrupt for the second time since the war. Bishop was a good salesman, however, and soon moved his family back to Canada, where he took a position as the director of sales and promotions at the McCollFrontenac Oil Company.

World War II

In 1938, as World War II loomed, Bishop accepted the position of honorary air marshal of the Royal Canadian Air Force. As director of recruiting during the war, Bishop had a real zeal for his position. He promoted the air corps with parades, band concerts, and publicity broadcasts. He attracted more applicants than the air force could accept. He also toured England and the United States, promoting the war. Bishop even played himself in Captains of the Clouds, a film released by Warner Brothers in 1942.

Bishop worked until an illness forced him into the hospital. Ignoring his doctor's warnings not to return to work, he continued recruiting airmen with the same zeal until he resigned from his post in 1944. His service earned him the Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, an award granted by the British monarchy. After his retirement from the military, Bishop wrote a second book, Winged Peace, in which he pondered the future of aviation. He returned to his position at McCollFrontenac Oil, but he hadn't lost his urge to serve his country; he volunteered to serve in the Korean War in 1950. The military declined his offer, and by 1952 Bishop was truly ready for retirement. He died in his sleep in the early morning of September 11, 1956, at his home in Palm Beach, Florida.

For More Information


Bishop, William Arthur. The Courage of the Early Morning: A Frank Biography of Billy Bishop. New York: David McKay Company, 1966.

Web sites

Billy Bishop Heritage Museum. [Online] http://www.billybishop.org/index.html (accessed May 2001).

"Canada and the First World War." Canadian War Museum. [Online] http://www.civilization.ca/cwm/tour/trww1eng.html (accessed May 2001).

"Canada and World War I." The History of Canada. [Online] http://www.linksnorth.com/canadahistory/canadaandworldwar1.html (accessed May 2001).

"The First World War." Veterans Affairs Canada. [Online] http://www.vacacc.gc.ca/general/sub.cfm?source=history/firstwar (accessed May 2001).

Canadians in World War I

When Britain entered World War I, Canada immediately guaranteed its support as well. Canada had an army of slightly more than 3,000 regular military men in 1914, but by war's end more than 619,000 Canadian volunteers had participated in World War I—a huge army for a country with a population of 8 million. Many were sent to battle with little training, but because almost half of the Canadian soldiers had been born in Britain, they had a strong sense of comradeship with their allies. Nearly 22,000 served in the British Royal Air Force.

The Canadians quickly proved their worth on the battlefield. The best Canadian initiative was the capture of Vimy Ridge along the Western Front in 1917, a turning point in the war. The battle had far fewer casualties than other attacks on the trenches, but Canadian troops gained more ground, guns, and prisoners. Brigadier General Alexander Ross led the Candian Twenty-eighth (North-West) Battalion at Vimy. Remembering the battle in a speech in 1936, he said,"It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then … that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation," as quoted on the Veterans Affairs Canada Web site.

Canadians' contributions to the war effort helped Canada become recognized as an autonomous nation. The Canadian prime minister was included in official meetings such as the 1917 Imperial War Conference, and Canada was represented by its own delegates at the Peace Conference of 1919 and in the League of Nations after the war. With the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the British parliament confirmed the independent status of Canada and Canada's membership in the British Commonwealth of Nations (a group of nations of equal status that have declared allegiance to the British Crown).

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