This Week in History


Billy Bishop: An Ace up Canada’s Sleeve

This story was initially published in 2000

On March 25, 1917, Canadian flying ace William Avery “Billy” Bishop shot down his first enemy aircraft. He went on to become a great hero of the First World War (1914-18) and one of the war’s most renowned fighter pilots.

Billy Bishop
© Library and Archives Canada
Born in 1894, Bishop joined a cavalry unit in 1914, when Canada entered the war against Germany and its allies. He arrived in England one year later. When he saw a British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) aircraft land in a nearby field, Bishop realized that he wanted to fight “...up there above the mud and the mist in the everlasting sunshine.” He requested a transfer and was sent for pilot training.

Bishop received his pilot wings in November 1916. The following spring, he transferred to 60 Squadron in France, which was equipped with single-seat Nieuport 17s. These combat biplanes were armed with one Lewis machine gun mounted above the top wing.

Billy Bishop's V.C. Raid
© Robert Bradford, Billy Bishop Museum

Flying with three other pilots in March 1917, Bishop engaged in his first aerial fight, against three modern and powerful German Albatros DIII Scouts. As one Albatros tried to manoeuvre beneath the tail of the leading Nieuport, the German aircraft came into Bishop’s sights. Seeing his opportunity, Bishop fired into the enemy pilot’s cockpit. The Albatros dove away with Bishop in hot pursuit. After diving more than 2,743 metres (9,000 feet), the Albatros slammed into the ground, giving Bishop his first victory. There were many more to come.

In less than two weeks of intense aerial combat in May-June 1918, Bishop brought down 25 enemy aircraft. When the war was over, he was officially credited with 72 victories. This total was surpassed only by the German ace Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron), who had 80 confirmed victories, and France’s René Fonck, who had 75.

Among other gallantry awards, Billy Bishop received the Victoria Cross (the highest decoration for valour awarded in the Commonwealth) for his one-man raid on an enemy airfield. As an Honorary Air Marshal during the early years of the Second World War, he recruited for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

William Avery “Billy” Bishop was commemorated as a National Historic Person, while Canadian Participation in the Royal Flying Corps is a National Historic Event.

It is the first year of the centennial anniversary of the First World War! To discover other First World War pilots, please see Protector of the Air and Pioneer of Bush Aviation. To learn about how pilots underwent training in Canada, read The Canadian Military Reaches New Heights.

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