EXPERIENCES OF A CANADIAN
AVIATOR IN FRANCE
AN ADDRESS BY MAJOR BISHOP, V.C., M.C., D.S.O.
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
January 10, 1918
PRESIDENT SOMMERVILLE, in introducing Major Bishop, said that for a long time the Club had looked forward to this talk by Major Bishop. He asked the Major to overcome his modesty on this occasion and give the audience his own experiences. The Major is dearer to Canadian hearts than any other man who has gone overseas, because he is a Canadian boy who, first of all lived the life that prepared him, and had then shown what a real Canadian boy could do. (Applause.) It was very natural that as a result of his splendid work at the front he should have been given a Military Cross, and then, when he had formed the habit of doing brilliant work, it was most natural that he should be awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Then when the British authorities found report after report coming in every other day about this genius of the air, they looked about for another honour, and awarded him the Victoria Cross. (Loud applause.) Then they looked through the Honour List of the Air Service of Old England, and found that the
Lieutenant-Colonel W. A. Bishop, V.C., D.S.O. and Bar, M.C., D.F.C., Legion d'Honor, Croix de Guerre, born and educated in Owen Sound, Ont., joined the 4th C.M.R.'s from the Royal Military College, Kingston. Having been held in Canada on account of illness, he went overseas with the 7th C.M.R.'s as Lieutenant, and did one or two tours in the trenches before transferring to the R.F.C.
He is officially credited with bringing down more enemy machines during the War than any other British pilot and is generally known as "the Ace of Aces."
records were still piling up the wonderful achievements of this Canadian hero, and so today they give the reason for another honour that has been conferred upon Major Bishop when they added a bar to the D.S.O. (Hear, hear.) Not being able to pick out of the multifarious exploits of Major Bishop the one particular thing that merited the honour, they have given the honour in these words:--"His consistent dash and great fearlessness have set a magnificent example to the pilots of his squadron. He destroyed no less than 45 hostile machines during the past four months-(Loud applause)frequently attacking enemy formations single-handed, and on all occasions displaying the fighting spirit and determination to get to close quarters with his opponent which earned the admiration of all who came in contact with him." (Loud applause.) Having done all this, Major Bishop came home and won new honours, and though perhaps he does not openly admit it, he acknowledges that ever since he has been in Canada he has about him the best pair of wings that he ever knew of. (Laughter.)
Major W. A. Bishop, V.C., M.C., D.S.O., was received with loud applause and cheers, and the waving of hand, kerchiefs, the large audience standing. He said:--"I am not a speech maker, as you all know, but in the last ten minutes I have decided that if ever I go on the vaudeville stage or into a menagerie of any sort to exhibit myself, I know whom I will ask to be my manager. (Great laughter.)
I am going to leave behind me today more or less the set speech which I had on hand, and perhaps tell a few experiences of my own, to try to convey to you just what the life of a pilot is in a fighting squadron in France today. Of course, this varies a great deal with the squadron and the time of year and everything else, but I will just give you my own experiences, and you can get more or less of an idea of what we go through. You know the life of the trenches-so many weeks in the mud, so many weeks out in dirty rest billets, and that sort of thing, but many people are vague as to what we do when we are on duty and when we are not.
The life we lead when not on duty is not, as most people might think, a life of training and constant preparation of one's self for the next flight and the next day's work; it is rather a light-hearted sort of life in which we try, when on the ground, to forget the work we have to carry out in the air, and keep it out of our minds. With this object in view the life of a fighting squadron is planned by the squadron commander. On all days there are sports of various kinds-horses to ride, tennis courts, and various other luxuries; and people who do not amuse themselves at these find many other things to do. For instance, last summer it was too hot to ride and to play tennis, and we had a big farmyard on the edge of our aerdrome, which afforded us a lot of pleasure. There were many ducks and geese, pigs and everything, and each day we would make it our work to drill these different animals into the proper spirit. (Laughter.) In the end we had the whole farm-yard moving around in proper formation-(Laughter)with a big, fat sow leading, with iron crosses and "Richthofen" written on its back. (Laughter.) Our billets are very good. For the most part, we live in huts which are fixed up, and everybody is encouraged to put wall paper on the walls, and to get proper beds, and one sleeps in sheets and has all such luxuries as that. The messing is very good. In my own case we had a large mess divided into two rooms, anteroom and mess room, with a kitchen off it. Meals were extraordinarily good, and at night we would have a four or five course dinner; breakfast in bed if you wanted it, or you could have it in the mess room; so that on the ground, life is not so bad. We find it very interesting because, being in comfort, the troops who come out of the trenches always swarm up to see us and look around the aerodrome, and stay two or three days with us, so we always have guests and are able to entertain other people, and these things help us in our object, which is to forget our work in the air.
When it comes to the actual work in strenuous times such as when a battle is going on, or when there is any special call for a lot of fighting in the air, each pilot usually has two jobs a day, and sometimes three. These are regular jobs, and simply mean leaving the ground information with five or six others, and going out on a definite job of fighting, that is, to seek out and destroy the enemy, staying out for two hours, coming back, and then later in the day repeating this operation. Of course, it would never do to sit all day long, as soon as you come down from one job, and think of the awful time you had, and what in the world might happen on the next job. With our present system we have pilots who will come down and play tennis for an hour after they get on the ground, forgetting all about the events of the early morning; and they won't wait for the next job, but threequarters of the pilots of the squadron will be going up in their spare time, trying to sneak over to the line in hopes of having a little fight all on their own account. (Laughter.) The whole game of fighting in the air is not looked upon as work, and it is not really described as I call it here, a job. We speak more of going out for a fight, or, in the case of a man going alone, of going hunting. You will hear one pilot say to another at night, "How would you like to come out hunting tomorrow at ten o'clock?" The other fellow says, "Right you are." And there they go. In that way we have been able to develop a lot of pilots who would otherwise have come to France and done their regular jobs of work, and come down again, and been quite satisfied with that; but instead of that we find that the pilot who has been a month in France, will get keen and want to get a few Huns to his own credit, and will seek every possible opportunity to go out with some older man to learn his methods, and then later on, go off alone. Of course, it is a dangerous matter at first for an inexperienced man, and we forbid it until he has been out in company, then he gets the permission of his flight commander to go out. It has often happened that pilots who have been two or three days in France and are supposed to be up learning to fly a new machine, will turn it gently this way and that, and slip across over the lines and come back riddled with bullet holes. That is the spirit that has held for us the supremacy of the air up to the present. (Hear, hear and applause.)
As to the actual fighting in the air, the most successful fighting has been done on single-seater machines, and we use no other, with the exception of one machine which carries two people. By single-seater machine I mean a machine carrying one man. This machine has two or more machine guns mounted straight in front of the pilot so that they will fire straight ahead, missing the blades of the propellor by a mechanical device as the blades revolve. The guns are fixed and cannot be moved, and to aim at a man you must aim the machine, and, of course, accurately. To do this we have a telescopic sight line along the top of the machine, which is in front of the pilot's hand, and as he sits back in the natural position of flying the machine, he can look through this sight, and of course aims that way. Shooting in the air is, of course, a difficult thing, because, although you are firing with two machine guns at the rate of 1,200 bullets a minute you are moving at the rate of over 120 miles an hour, while your opponent is moving at the same rate, and usually he seems to be moving about 50 miles an hour faster. (Laughter.) If a man is passing in front of you like this at say 120 miles an hour, you have to judge the speed and the range very accurately, and place your sights just ahead of him, so that when he reaches that spot the bullets will also reach it and get the man. To bring a machine down, it is not a matter of hitting it. I have seen a single-seater Newport machine come back from a fight with a wing type a little over 30 feet distant, and I have seen that come back with 116 bullet holes in it, and the pilot unwounded. This shows that accurate shooting is the secret of the whole game, and now we are training our pilots, before they go to France, to shoot in all positions as well as to fly well. Some shots are favourites and much easier than others; for instance, when you are fighting another single-seater machine, if you are directly behind him you can fire straight at the pilot and he can't fire back at you, but, of course, it is a difficult place to stay, and no matter what he does you have to do the same thing. He may leap, turn on his back, twist around like lightning, or do any of the hundred little tricks we have, and you have to do the same thing in exactly the same time if you want to stay there; otherwise, you will find he is behind you in a second or two.
Fighting a two-seater machine is, of course, a different matter; it has its machine gun mounted in the front in the same way, but behind the pilot he has a gunner to fire one or two machine guns above or behind him. He has no protection above him, whereas in a single-seater you have a big engine in front of you. He cannot fire beneath him. He may be able to climb as fast as you, but he is never able to manoeuvre as quickly, so it becomes a question of manoeuvring, and, of course, judgment. You go into a range of three hundred yards and he opens fire on you. You watch his bullets; they are incendiary or tracer bullets, the path of which can be seen as they go through the air. You can see when his bullets are coming nearer you, and you turn to give what we call a "cross-shot"-a most difficult shot-and edge in a little nearer all the time, working from side to side to get underneath him. Even if you have to come straight at the man you have the advantage. You have two machine guns to his one, and in any case it is easier to shoot from a single-seater machine with fixed guns than it is for a man holding two guns and trying to get steady shots from them. He has the feeling--and this is the great thing that the man in the single-seater is out for blood; and he does not want to fight--at least I have never yet struck a two-seater man who did; and that helps more than anything else. His bullets may be coming in a well-concentrated group when you are 300 yards away, but by the time you are 50 yards away you find he is doing worse shooting than at 300 yards.
He is getting nervous, and his shots are scattering all about. Of course, when you get into proper range, which is under 50 yards, you have him where you want him. (Laughter.) If you can get underneath him you know that he can do nothing to shake you off, because, supposing he makes a turn to one side and has half finished that turning, in a single-seater machine you can catch up with him in half a second in that turn, remaining all the time out of his line of fire.
Another way of attacking two-seater machines that we use in formation is for three men to go out to try to get at a machine. One goes up on either side of him, about the same height; the other man goes down about 3,000 feet below, where he will not be seen. The two men beside him dash in on either side, just fire at random to worry the observer, while the man underneath steadily climbs up, and it is very seldom that he sees this third man coming at all. I have had a lot of luck this way, and although on one or two occasions the enemy has unfortunately seen me when I didn't think he did, the other times I managed to get up to 20 yards from him; then you take careful aim as if you were shooting at a target, and open fire, and about ten rounds is all you need--he is down.
To illustrate the different tactics we use, of course you will understand surprise is the greatest thing possible, but it is also the most difficult, and it requires more patience than anything else, consequently there are not many people surprised. You do it by using the sun and clouds, or mist, anything of that sort. For instance, if you dive at a man from the direction of the sun he very seldom sees you at all, as it is so nasty to look towards the sun that he hardly ever does so, even though he knows it is very dangerous not to do so. I was very successful in surprising on many occasions. I will just give you one case to illustrate. One day I went out I saw four enemy machines. I was looking for machines to surprise. I had already passed about three groups which had seen me, and did not look good enough, so I let them go. (Laughter.) Finally I saw this group of four, and managed to get about 6,000 feet above them. I stayed there for twenty minutes, following them up and down. It is very difficult to see a machine of that type above you when you are at a height of about 17,000 feet, as I was then. The four enemy machines kept going up and down a certain beat. They were flying from Lens down to Cambrai, and going down to one place they all turned and went back. I followed them up and down there for some time, and then started to come down. I wanted to get behind them, and they swirled off to one side, having seen another of our machines. I had to go up and wait again until they had cleared our machine, which was flying beneath them, and they resumed their former beat; then, waiting until they were just about to turn, I came down, judging my speed to be about 150 miles an hour, so that just as they were turning I would be about a quarter of a mile farther along their beat and behind them after they had turned. They were flying probably at 110. As a matter of fact, I was flying a slower machine than they were, so it meant that I had to have extra speed when I reached them, in case the surprise did not work and they turned on me. But they turned along and saw nothing. The rear machine, luckily for me, was slightly above the rest, and I came down, gliding along just about 10 feet underneath him, and then pulled my machine back so that the nose of it was probably a bare 10 feet from where he was. I could make out the smallest scratch on his machine, and waited until I had carefully got my sights in the exact spot where the pilot was sitting, and then pulled the trigger. The next moment, I was in danger of being hit as he fell, and I had to slip to one side by skidding the machine out to the right, as he fell to the left and missed me. The other three had heard me shooting; they turned around, and rather luckily, the enemy machine I had brought down burst into flames as it was falling. They probably gazed at that a moment, and that was just time enough for me to get within 20 yards of the second machine to the rear, and get my sights on. The whole fight was probably over in 15 seconds at the very most, and the two machines were going down. The other two did not wait to realize that they were two to one, and in better machines than mine, or anything else; they saw two of their machines down, and off they went, and unfortunately I could not catch either of them. (Laughter.)
Now, to illustrate what I was saying about the two-seater machine. I had occasion once, when flying alone, to see a two-seater machine about 2,000 feet above me (about a mile over) on our own side of the lines. It was such a rare thing last summer to get a machine on our side of the line that one was willing to sell his life if he could only get a fight with them there. However, they very seldom stayed; in fact, probably only two fights out of five hundred would be on our side of the lines last spring and last summer. (Applause.) This machine had been over taking photographs or something, and I commenced to climb up to it, being directly underneath, and hoping that he would not see me. My plan was that if he did see me when I was 200 or 300 yards underneath I would use the old trick of watching his machine gun. I might explain that the observer's machine gun can be seen as it sticks over the side of the machine, and you know from which side he is likely to fire. If his gun is sticking over the left hand side, you keep slightly to the right; if he suddenly switches his gun to the right and the machine banks over to get a shot at you, you skip back to the left. If he banks like that and keeps his machine gun on the left hand side, you know then that he is immediately going to turn back the other way. This is one of the little things you have to watch carefully. (Laughter.) I was climbing along, not thinking much about that, and not intending to watch him in that way until I was within 200 or 300 yards, and I was still 2,000 feet underneath him-too far away even to hear his machine gun -when I noticed three or four holes in the wings of my machine about two feet away from me. The cabinet lock and petrol tank and engine were both hit, and luckily for me they were both hit before I was, because the engine immediately stopped and I had to come down. That just illustrates that good fortune is not all one way. I should not call that good shooting; it was more luck, because there is no question in range shooting, either good or bad, if one ever makes a hit at long range it is luck, and luck is a thing you can't help. The same thing comes in with anti-aircraft firing. Sometimes a shell will burst so near to you that the smoke will pass all around your machine, the shell bursting, and not a single spot in your machine be touched. Another time a shell will burst several hundred yards away, and you are rather laughing at the man on the ground who is making such shooting. You come down to find that several pieces have passed through your machine. Anti-aircraft firing is really a thing which does not worry us very much in any fighting machine, and it is never an excuse under any circumstances for leaving a job, because the firing is very bad; but we do lose a lot of people by it, and of course it can't be helped. As I say, that is luck.
Another job we have is, to attack hostile balloons, and this is one of the nastiest. The balloons are captive balloons and held to the ground by a cable, at the end of which they have some means of pulling them down very rapidly. Our job comes before a bombardment or any small engagement on the ground; we must go over and settle those balloons in order to upset the enemy artillery. The problem of getting at them is the most difficult; that is, to catch them in the air, as they can be pulled down so rapidly, and the enemy watches machines coming across the lines with telescopes, and the moment these machines appear dangerous down the balloons go. But this disposal of them is of no use, because when you are a mile past them, up they pop again; so they must be destroyed, which means perhaps half a days delay before the enemy can get another one up. Our method of destroying them is by special incendiary bullets from our machine guns. Unfortunately these do not always work, so that many people will attack balloons, go right down beside them, and the balloon will not ignite; they take all the chances and all the risks, but they are not successful. The risks are as follows: First of all, you must get above the balloon, and get there quickly, and try to catch your opponent in the air; he is going down very rapidly. The Germans know that some time or other they will be attacked, and all around the balloon they have special anti-aircraft batteries to engage you all the time you are coming down. From the moment you reach a height of 4,000 feet on your dive towards the ground, the machine gun batteries on the ground open fire on you, and all this time you have something which is more terrifying, and that is what we call flaming onions-balls of fire which they shoot up at you in groups of about ten. We do not know if these have ever been successful or not, for if many people have been brought down by them they have either been killed, or have never mentioned it in letters home from Germany, so we cannot tell how successful they are; but they are most terrifying, and any new pilot who happens to get on a job like this, finds it a terrible thing to have these things coming at him. But of course nobody funks at them. The quickest way to get back home in safety is to get down at your balloon and get away again.
I can describe my second attack on a balloon, which was luckily successful. We all crossed the lines at a certain time, an exact moment, and headed towards our balloons. The day was very cloudy and misty, and the balloon was hard to find. I was new at the game, and very much worried for fear I would miss the balloon, so that on my whole trip over, 6 miles and back, I was looking for nothing else but a balloon, never for a moment thinking that there were naturally some Huns in the sky who would be looking for me. (Laughter.) I found my balloon, and did a circle over it to make certain that I was not over the wrong one, and then commenced to dive at it. I had gone down only a few thousand feet when I realized for several seconds that there had been the rattle of a number of machine guns right behind me. Remembering certain advice that had been given me, I pulled the machine back and began to dive again just as the Hun went beneath me, going in the direction I wanted to go. He was right in line with my sights, and although every bullet I had was precious for that balloon I could not resist it, and I let him have it. (Laughter.) Although I was inexperienced, it was the best thing I could have done, and the Hun went in exactly the one place where he would have gone if I had asked him to. (Laughter.) Of course I could not miss him, and he went down. It was next day before I heard the result. The antiaircraft reported it the next day; they had seen it, and I was so excited over the balloon, and so frightened, that I had lost it altogether. I did another turn. This time the balloon was sitting on the ground, and the people down there all waiting for me to come down. I came down 800 feet, and opened fire on the balloon. I was inexperienced with my special type of engine; I was rising, with the long dive and the oil had run into the cylinders, which had become very cold, so that as I was gliding past the balloon and firing at the people who had teen scattered along the ground, I suddenly realized that my engine was not running at all, but had stopped absolutely. I worked as hard as I could with every adjustment I could find. Nothing happened. I was going at the tremendous pace of 200 miles an hour, and had intended to go on to some fields beyond. I glided straight ahead and picked out the place where I was going to land. just at that moment, 15 feet from the ground, one of the cylinders picked up, and then two, and then the whole lot went off with a roar, and I tore off. (Laughter and applause.)
A return trip on these occasions is very exciting and very amusing. It is not as dangerous as it sounds, and I will explain why. We come back at a height of anywhere under 10 feet from the ground. Coming to a hedge or a clump of trees, we just duck up and over them, and down into the next field, and tear along, zigzagging all the way so that the enemy cannot warn their people ahead of you by telephone exactly where you are going, and just make in an approximate direction of home. You cannot pick out a landmark that low down, so you just keep tearing along till you are past the trenches, and you know you are all right. The reason you do that is this: You could come home either close to the ground, or you could climb. If you climb you are in a very dangerous position as regards aircraft firing, but they cannot fire against you when you are near the ground, and machine-gun fire is not very dangerous, as you are passing at such a pace; but 1,000 feet or more up they can get quite a good sight at you, whereas if you are on the ground they only see you the time you are in the field that they happen to be in, and you often come to groups of people around a battery of machine guns in a field looking around for somebody like you tearing along. I always imagined them very much pleased as they see you about two fields off, and get ready for you. You are travelling about 120 miles an hour. You dodge up over some trees and into their field. They are probably 200 or 300 yards away, and the only thing to do is to go straight at them, and, by the time you reach anywhere near that battery of machine guns, with your speed and a few bullets here and there, there is not a man within 50 miles of it, and everyone of them going hard (Laughter.)
Another job which we have been doing lately is to attack the infantry on the ground, and this is a little more dangerous because you have to do it from a height of about 500 feet, and then make your dive from there, because you have to pick out the place you want to fire at. You come down just above the enemy trenches, making certain that you are 200 or 300 yards behind, because the average man in a fighting squadron is not certain, to within 200 or 300 yards, exactly where our front line is and where the Huns are. You are using bullets which leave either a trail of smoke or a little spark of air as they pass, and as you come down you just scatter those around on the ground at random, even if you can't see a Hun anywhere, for they are all lying low by this time, and this has the greatest moral effect on them In an attack of that kind you probably may not kill very many people, but the effect on the men on the ground is tremendous, and the effect on our infantry is correspondingly good, because the next day, if you happen to be near the ground, you will hear the story of the man who did it, coming down within 200 feet of the ground The following day you will hear the story of a man who came down to 100 feet from the ground and fired on the trenches there. When you go back a week later you will find that a man came down to 50 feet--(Laughter)--and a little later, when they get out of the trenches altogether, you will hear that a man came down, and Heaven knows what he didn't do! (Laughter.)
I think that covers, as far as I can remember it, all the little jobs we are called upon to do. Before I close I would like to speak of things in general as they are now. The Germans are not the people to underrate all their enemies, and they realize the importance of the programme the United States was planning for the air. From the standpoint of the supremacy of the air, I happen to be pretty well posted at this moment, owing to the fact that some people have just come straight back from France to explain to the States how things are there, and I saw them last week in the conference. Germany has expanded at a tremendous rate in the air. The fighting now is no longer 6 to 10 miles back on the German side of the line, but it is over the lines, and the whole thing is uncertain, just like that-one day one side, next day the other, and it is anybody's battle. Now, that is serious enough; but France, whose Flying Corps has developed at a tremendous pace from the beginning of the War, has reached its limit, and in the coming year they have not planned any more growth in that branch; in fact they may have to contract a bit and disband several of their squadrons to fill up vacancies and keep up other squadrons. The United States is planning a tremendous programme, as you all know. Germany has prepared for this, and has prepared an even greater programme. What she is holding in stock for the spring I do not know; you can imagine that both countries always hold back their big efficiency in the air for the spring, when the weather is good; but now they appear practically able to outnumber us on the front, and they seem to have any number of machines to call upon. Pilots that are being captured tell our people that they can always go back, if they don't like the machine they have got, and get one they do like, or if one machine appears worn out, they can go back and get another one. We cannot afford to do anything like that, and our losses are tremendous, as you know, for the casualties are so great. What I want to get at is this: the United States will not have anything like the programme they have planned; they will not be able to carry that out in the spring; there is no doubt about that. Instead of 22,000 machines in the spring, I doubt whether they will have 500 machines working on the 1st of April. They are coming on, and they are working like fiends in the States; I have been there for over two months, working with them, and I know what they are doing, but the job they are up against is tremendous. They are very much behind in all their training systems and everything else; naturally they have not gone ahead as we have, but they have luckily within the last month adopted our training system, which seems to be most successful. But the production of machines is very low. However, when it does get going, it will be enormous. Unfortunately it is not working out yet, and the fact is this, that in the coming spring campaign, England will have to expand enough to meet the German force and to allow for the fact that France is not expanding any, and also for the fact that the United States will not be there in the early spring. Now, it is an awful problem, and people who know how things stand on the ground claim much the same thing that Germany is planning a tremendous campaign for the spring; and we are up against it; this coming spring we have got to fight our hardest, fight as we never have fought before. In the United States I could get up and explain this to people and tell them to wake up and stir themselves, and do something; there are so many people there who have not done anything. They are so inclined to think, as many people in this country are, that because the United States are in the War we have their resources and their men to fall back upon, and we must win. Well, men are all very well to put in the trenches. Russia put a lot of men in the trenches, but they were not armed, and what could they do? That is the problem they are up against, and it is a great one. Nearly everybody in this country has done his best, but they have got to do more. The War is not over yet, and it is a long way from being over, and what we have gone through in the past three years is absolutely nothing to what we have ahead of us and just a few months off, from what I can hear now; so that every effort that can be made by any man in all the countries on our side must be made to help us win. When we hear people discussing peace, it really sickens the heart of those who have seen people die over there, and seen how they die." (Hear, hear.)
[Major Bishop illustrated this point by telling of the death of a young Englishman named Bower, who in an air fight was hit by an explosive bullet, and though seriously wounded, flew over to the British lines in order to get help for his fellows who were in the fight. He lost his way, got out of his aeroplane and walked till he found a man to whom he gave the urgent message. The doctors, after his death, stated that his life could have been saved if he had descended behind the German lines or if he had remained in his aeroplane, which he had left for the special purpose of getting help for his squadron.]
"I am not a speaker, and I cannot convey to you how I feel about this matter, and how everybody else out there feels. Every man who has gone forth from this city is proud of Toronto, and they have reason to be proud, for Toronto has done well,-but this city has not done its best yet, and it must do more. A lot of people in Toronto have not done their share. Another lot of people have done more than their share, but they must do more still to get after those who have not done their share, and bring them up to the mark. That is all I can say to you." (Loud and long continued applause.)