The Flying Career of William Avery Bishop

(From the Canadian Air Force Office of Public Affairs, courtesy Capt. Darach McDonnell, Air Command Webmaster,


William Avery Bishop, the son of W.A. Bishop, Registrar of Grey county, Ontario, was born at Owen Sound, Ontario on 8 February 1894. In 1911, Bishop applied for entry to the Royal Military College and was accepted in August. Bishop spent the following three years as a cadet despite failing his first year examinations and consistently transgressing the strict college disciplinary code of behaviour on numerous occasions. At the close of the 1914 summer term Bishop's many escapades culminated in the 'threat of expulsion from the college, but before he could return, the European War commenced, and Bishop was hastily commissioned on 30 September in a Toronto militia regiment, the 9th Mississauga Horse.

When his regiment embarked for England on 1 October 1914, Bishop was in hospital, suffering from pneumonia. After recovering he was transferred to the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles, stationed in London, Ontario and left Canada on 9 June 1915 in a cattleship, Caledonia, bound for England, and the war.

Stationed at Shorncliffe, Kent, Bishop was thoroughly depressed with his lot -- living in primitive conditions of mud and mire amongst the morass created by hundreds of horses in the dank winter conditions. It was then he saw a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) aeroplane land in a nearby field arid take off again, and the sight stirred his determination to get away from the earthbound cavalry and transfer to the air service; in his own words, "the only way to fight a war; up there above the mud and the mist in the everlasting sunshine".

In July 1915 Bishop applied for transfer to the RFC as an observer, rather than wait for possible acceptance as a pilot, and on 1 September reported to 21 (Training) Squadron at Netheravon for elementary air instruction. The squadron was soon ordered to move to France, and on 1 January 1918 it arrived at Boisdinghem airfield, near St Omer equipped with RE7 Reconnaissance aircraft.

Operations started almost immediately, with Bishop gaining his baptism of enemy fire. His progress was punctuated with numerous accidents and injuries - Bishop always seemed accident prone throughout his life - including an injured knee [sustained during a crash landing.] Bishop refused medical attention which might have meant his withdrawal from flying duties. His last operational sortie as an observer came on 2 May 1916 and that same day he returned to England on leave. Bishop's injured knee still gave him trouble and he was admitted to hospital and remained unfit for operational flying until September, when he went home to Canada for convalescent leave. On his return to England, Bishop applied for pilot training, was accepted, and reported to Braesenose College, Oxford on 1 October 1916 for initial ground training.

In November he moved to the Central Flying School at Upavon to begin pilot instruction and quickly proved to be a bad pupil. The pure "art" of flying was always a difficult one to achieve for Bishop, while his many crash landings became notorious. He finally received his pilots "wings" followed by advanced night flying training and was attached to S7 (Home Defence) Squadron at Sutton's Farm, Essex.

A request for transfer to France was soon approved, and on 9 March 1917 he arrived at Filescamp Farm, base of 60 Squadron. The unit commander Major A.J. Scott, had him allotted to B Flight. 60 Squadron was equipped with single seat Nieuport Scouts -- tiny biplanes powered by a rotary engine, and armed with a single Lewis machine gun mounted above the top wing. Highly manoeuvrable, the Nieuport was an excellent combat aeroplane for the period. Its light weight and response to controls soon proved too delicate for Bishop's heavy-handed method of flying and after several damaging landings, he finally crashed while landing on 24 March - virtually at the feet of several visiting staff officers including his brigade commander. Later that day he was told that he was being posted back to England for further flying instruction, but was permitted to remain with 60 Squadron until a replacement pilot was found.

Next day Bishop was one of four Nieuport pilots from 60 Squadron who engaged a trio of Albatross DiII Scouts near St Leger. As one Albatross attempted to get under the tail of the leading Nieuport it came into Bishop's sights, and he promptly fired, splashing bullets around the German's cockpit. The Albatross dove away with Bishop in pursuit, still firing and after a headlong dive of nearly 9,000 feet the German plunged into the ground.

Pulling out of the dive, Bishop was elated - and then his engine cut completely. He managed to land undamaged some 300 yards beyond the German frontline trenches, and spent the night by his Nieuport. He then returned to Filescamp. This confirmed victory saved Bishop from the pending ignominy of being posted back to England. Now began a remarkable run of victories.

On 8 April, Bishop claimed his fifth victory, but returned with his windscreen perforated by a bullet which had narrowly missed killing him. To celebrate, Bishop had the nose engine cowling and interplane Vee-struts of his Nieuport doped in bright blue colour - reminiscent of the red spinner which had marked the Nieuports flown by Bishop's idol, Captain Albert Ball VC, DSO, MC. On 25 April Bishop was promoted to Captain and given command of C Flight, and by month's end was credited with a total of 17 victories and awarded the Military Cross.

Though usually leading his Flight, Bishop was by then beginning to fly solitary patrols. Like Albert Ball, Bishop much preferred a lone role in combat. Unlike Ball, however, Bishop could and did participate in formation patrols, without any great impediment of his skills and aggression. Four more victories were credited to Bishop, before his return to England on 7 May for leave.

Returning to Filescamp on 22 May, Bishop gave thought to the possibility of a particularly hazardous venture, suggested by the now dead Albert Hall - a lone surprise attack, preferably at sunrise, on a German aerodrome. He discussed the thought briefly with his commander, Major Jack Scott, who simply told him to "go ahead". On 1 June, Bishop prepared for the venture by checking his Lewis gun and three ammunition drums meticulously, while his mechanic Corporal Walter Bourne gave Bishop's Nieuport a thorough overhaul.

June 2, 1917 commenced in a depressing drizzle of rain and low mist and when Bishop was called at 3 am he simply pulled his flying suit on over his pyjamas, sipped a cup of tea, and then made his way out to the squadron hangars. Walter Sourile had already wheeled out Bishop's blue-nosed Nieuport, B1566, and had its engine run up and ticking over. Bishop climbed into the snug cockpit and took off at 3:57 am. Climbing hard into driving rain which smothered his windscreen, Bishop headed towards Arras, then turned and followed the dimly visible Cambrai road below. Flying in the cloud and mist, Bishop soon became lost and, on emerging from cloud found himself over an apparently deserted German airfield.

Disappointed, Bishop continued through the low cloud. He soon found himself above a second aerodrome -- Estourmel. On the airfield were the mechanics and pilots of Jagdstaffel 5 preparing for the day's work ahead. Six Albatross Scouts and a two-seat machine were already out of their hangars, their engines being run up.

Dropping to 200 feet. Bishop started his first attack along the line of aircraft, spraying bullets as he streaked across the field through a barrage of small arms fire from the alert ground defences. Lifting over the edge of the airfield, the Nieuport executed a tight banked turn for its reverse run, and Bishop saw that one Albatross pilot had already started to taxi for take-off. Concentrating on this machine, Bishop fired just 15 rounds as the Albatross rose to a height of ten feet. The Albatross dipped a wing, hit the grass and disintegrated, spewing wreckage in a long slide along the field.

As the first German crashed, a second Albatross started its take-off run and Bishop frantically fired at this but missed. His fire caused the German pilot to swerve away and the Albatross hit a tree, tearing away its right wing. Firing a brief burst into the wreckage, Bishop pulled hard on his control column and climbed fast. Intent now on returning, Bishop saw two aircraft taking off in opposite directions - he had little alternative but to remain and fight.

One Albatross climbed to Bishop's height but waited at a distance, while the other made straight for the Nieuport. Bishop turned and fired, then began to circle, seeking a killing position. With its greater agility the Nieuport soon came up under the tail of the Albatross and Bishop emptied his Lewis drum into the forward fuselage of his adversary, who dropped away and crashed near his own airfield.

Still intent on escaping, Bishop completely forgot the hovering Albatross behind him, which now dived, closing fast. Hastily replacing the empty drum of his Lewis gun, Bishop turned his Nieuport's nose towards the latest antagonist and fired the whole fresh drum of ammunition in one long smoking burst. Apparently unnerved by such a prolonged burst, the German dived towards the aerodrome and safety.

Bishop did not wait to see the fate of his fourth attacker, but fled at full throttle west. Bishop attempted to reload his Lewis Gun with a third and last drum but the gun became stuck in the downward position. Now more of a hazard then help, the weapon was dismounted and thrown overboard. The whole episode had lasted 37 minutes.

As he headed westwards Bishop spotted a formation of four enemy aircraft some 2,000 feet above him. Unarmed and alone, Bishop did his utmost to avoid being seen and dived at full power for the trench lines; crossing these amidst a flurry of anti-aircraft fire which added further damage to his already bullet-ridden aircraft.

Once across the lines into Allied territory and comparative safety, Bishop immediately suffered reaction from the past hour's high-key tension, feeling sick and dazed. Finally arriving over Filescamp aerodrome at 5:40 am. Bishop circled and fired off a succession of Very Light signal flares; then landed and greeted his "welcoming committee' of mechanics by extending three fingers of one hand excitedly to indicate his three victories. The Nieuport bore silent testimony to its ordeal of fire, with torn and slashed fabric hanging from wings and fuselage. As soon as Bishop had made his report, Major Scott reported it to Wing Headquarters and the news spread along the Western Front RFC units. A host of congratulatory messages flooded into Filescamp, including one from General Trenchard, General-Officer Commanding Royal Flying Corps who defined Bishop's solo sortie as, "the greatest single show of the war" .

Throughout July and August Bishop's victory tally continued to mount but on 28 July he underwent an experience which stayed in his memory for many years. Flying one of the squadron's new SE5 scouts, Bishop attacked a pair of German two-seaters but was hit in the engine by antiaircraft fire.

Turning out of the fight, Bishop coaxed the badly running engine as long as possible but, when only two miles from Filescamp, it burst into flames. As Bishop sideslipped to keep the flames from him, the fire spread to one wing. He eventually crashed, still burning, in some poplar trees, and was left hanging upside down in his cockpit. with flames threatening to consume both aeroplane and pilot. Bishop fainted, and recovered consciousness later, after being found by some passing infantrymen.

On 9 August, Bishop was informed that he was to receive the Victoria Cross for his one-man raid on 2 June. He was also informed that he would soon be posted to an instructor's post in England. This news dismayed Bishop who by then had become slightly obsessed with bringing his victory tally to a total higher than any Allied fighter pilot. In the event he finally left 60 Squadron on 1 September 1917 with an officially accredited score of 50 victories. By that date he had received the VC, Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and MS; and on 25 September a further award of a Bar to his DSO was promulgated. All had been gained in five months of intensive fighting.

Returning to Canada for extended leave, Bishop married his fiancée Margaret Burden on 17 October 1917 in Toronto. Thousands of local citizens lined the roads to catch a glimpse of Canada's air hero, "Billy" Bishop and his bride. On his return to England, Bishop expected an appointment to the school of aerial fighting at Loch Pooh, Scotland, but was instead promoted to Major on 13 March 1918 and given command of a freshly forming fighter squadron, No 88, at Hounslow, Middlesex.

Given a reasonably free hand in selecting his own pilots, Bishop gathered together a hybrid collection of British, Canadian, New Zealand and American individuals. Equipped initially with Sopwith Dolphin scouts, 88 squadron was re-equipped with the latest versions of SESA, and left for Petit Synthe, France on 22 May 1918. On 27 May, Bishop shot a German two-seater to pieces east of Passchendaele. Next day he destroyed two Albatross scouts east of Ypres to bring his tally to 53.

By 4 June he had added nine more victims to his count. On 8 June he received orders to move his squadron south to St 0mer. On the 15th he destroyed a Pfalz DiII east of Etaires, and on 17 June destroyed two more Pfalz scouts near Armentières. A triple victory came on 17 June, followed by a double claim on the 18th. The rising pace of destruction reflected Bishop's anxiety that he would soon be withdrawn from operational flying; a fear confirmed on 17 June when he was officially informed that he was to return to England to assist in the formation of a Canadian Flying Corps. The actual order came on 18 June, ordering Bishop to leave France by noon the following day.

Mid-morning on the 19th Bishop decided to have "one last look at the war", and took off alone for the German lines. In just 15 minutes of furious combat Bishop accounted for five enemy aircraft - four Pfalz DiII scouts and an LVG two-seater; bringing his victory tally to 75 confirmed (72 aircraft, 3 balloons) and five unconfirmed victories (all aircraft). On 3 August 1918, the London Gazette announced the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross to Bishop, in recognition of his 25 victories in 12 days of actual combat; and shortly after the French government decorated Bishop with its Croix de Guerre avec Palmes, and made Bishop a Chevalier de Legion d'Honneur.

On his return to England, Bishop was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel on 5 August and posted as the Officer Commanding-designate of the Canadian Air Force Section of the General Staff, Headquarters Overseas Military Forces of Canada. The Canadian Air Force was organized as a two squadron fighting force for service in France but was still not fit for operations by October 1918, and Bishop was sent to Canada to report on progress. He was aboard a ship bringing him back to England when news of the armistice with Germany was received. On 31 December Bishop was demobilised from the Canadian Expeditionary Force and returned to Canada.

Re-adjustment to civilian life was not easy for Bishop, who spent several months traveling the United States on a lecture tour. In the summer of 1919 he went into partnership with another Canadian air VC, George Barker, to form one of Canada's first air charter lines. The pair of celebrated pilots soon ran into legal and financial problems and, shortly after, Bishop had a serious crash. The partnership was dissolved. At the end of 1921 Bishop brought his family to live in England, where he built up a successful business, but the Wall Street crash of 1929 wiped out his amassed fortune, and he returned to Canada.

He was offered a vice-presidency of the McColl Frontenac Oil Company, and in 1931 was appointed an honorary Group Captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1936, with the growing menace of Nazi Germany, Bishop was made an honorary Air Vice-Marshal, RCAF, whose main task was to campaign for the vast enlargement of the RCAF. On 10 August 1938, Bishop was further promoted to the rank of Honorary Air Marshal, and became head of the Air Advisory Committee. Convinced of the European war to come, and therefore Canada's immediate involvement, Bishop concentrated on expanding the RCAF as fast as possible, including a scheme for recruiting American pilots. A new appointment as Director of Recruiting, RCAF became effective from 23 January 1940, and for the following four years Bishop was tireless in his myriad of duties.

Due to ill-health and mounting exhaustion, Bishop requested that he be relieved of his post in 1944. Fitting recognition of his many years of devotion to the cause of the RCAF in particular, and aviation generally, was made with the award of a Companion of the Order of the Bath in the King's Birthday Honours List of 1 June 1944. Returning to the oil business in 1945, Bishop eventually retired in 1952, and in the early hours of 11 September 1956, Bishop died peacefully in his sleep at his Palm Beach, Florida home.

The Montreal Gazette obituary read as follows:

Death came to Air Marshal Billy Bishop in the early morning. He died at the chill hour before the coming of the dawn -- an hour when he must often have been making ready for his solitary flights.

Perhaps, if he had had his choice, this would be the hour he would have preferred. For he had that courage which Napoleon once said was the rarest -- the courage of the early morning.


Billy Bishop is generally credited with 72 confirmed victories - a figure that requires qualification. An aerial "victory" was not necessarily an aircraft shot down in flames and destroyed, as popularly believed. Furthermore an aircraft would be claimed as a victory, but may not have been destroyed (this leading to discrepancies in scores once the opponents records were checked), Occasionally, this was due to the inability to witness the ultimate fate of an enemy aircraft due to the heat of battle. It was also a result of official policy which defined a "victory". If an enemy aircraft was seen going down out-of-control, in flames, fall apart, driven-down or forced to land it was a victory. Using this criteria, Bishop's score is as follows:

Result of Combat                                      No of aircraft

Down out of control                                                  16
Driven down                                                          3
Forced to land                                                       3
Flamer (not observed to crash)                                       14
Crashed                                                              36
                                                  Total              72

Observation balloons when forced down or destroyed were sometimes counted as victories also. Billy Bishop "flamed" two balloons and forced one down. Bishop also had five unconfirmed victories: two aircraft driven down, two forced to land and one down, out-of-control. The final tally therefore of credited aircraft, balloons and unconfirmed aircraft is 80.

It should be noted that these conditions applied to all pilots and air gunners. Victories were claimed and each classified as confirmed or unconfirmed based on careful scrutiny

Award of the Military Cross

London Gazette on May 26, 1917:

"His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to confer the Military Cross on the undermentioned Officers and Warrant Officers in recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty in the Field:

Canadian Forces

Lt. William Avery Bishop

, Can. Cav. and R.F.C.

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He attacked a hostile balloon on the ground, dispersed its crew and destroyed the balloon, and also drove down a hostile machine which attacked them. He has on several other occasions brought down hostile machines."

Award of the Distinguished Service Order

London Gazette on June 18, 1917: "His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the appointment of the undermentioned officers to be Companions of the Distinguished Service Order in, recognition of their Gallantry and devotion to duty in the Field:

Captain William Avery Bishop, Canadian Cavalry and R.F.C.

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, While in a single-seater he attacked three hostile machines, two of which he brought down, although in the meantime he was himself attacked by four other hostile machines. His courage and determination have set a fine example 'to Others".

Bar to the Distinguished Service Order

"War Office, 26th September, 1917.

"His Majesty the King has been pleased to confer the undermentioned reward for gallantry and distinguished service in the field:

Awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order

"Captain William Avery Bishop, V.C., D.S.O., M.C., Canadian Cavalry and Royal Flying Corps,

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when engaging hostile aircraft. His consistent dash and great fearlessness have set a magnificent example to the pilots of his squadron. He has destroyed not fewer than forty-five hostile machines within the past five months, frequently attacking enemy formations single-handed, and on all occasions displaying a fighting spirit and determination to get to close quarters with h is opponents, which have earned the admiration of all in contact with him."

Award of the Legion d'Honneur and Croix de Guerre

"The undermentioned officer of the Royal Air Force has been awarded the Decorations specified, in recognition of distinguished services rendered:

Conferred by the Government of the French Republic. Croix de Chevalier, Legion of Honour

Croix de Guerre with Palms

"Lieutenant-Colonel William Avery Bishop, V.C., D.S.O., M.C., D.F.C., Canadian Cavalry and Aviation Service."

Award of the Victoria Cross

London Gazette No. 30228

llth August, 1917 War Office

"His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officer:

Captain William Avery Bishop, D.S.0., M.C., Canadian Cavalry and Royal Flying Corps.

"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 above, he flew on to another aerodrome about three miles southeast, 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 go t 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 aerodromes, 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".

Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross

Bishop received the Distinguished Flying Cross on August 3, 1918. The citation provides a fitting tribute to the combat career of the daring aviator:

"A most successful and fearless fighter in the air, whose acts of outstanding bravery have already been recognized by the awards of the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order, Bar to the Distinguished Service Order, and Military Cross.

For the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross now conferred upon him he has rendered signally valuable services in personally destroying twenty-five enemy machines in twelve days -- five of which he destroyed on the last day of his service at the front.

The total number of machines destroyed by this distinguished officer is seventy-two and his value as a morale factor to the Royal Air Force cannot be overestimated".

Created: 14 March 1996, 19:02:49 Last Updated: 23 April 1996, 19:02:49