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Canadian History for Kids: Billy Bishop

June 2, 1917 – World War I – Air ace Billy Bishop seriously damages a German aerodrome and airfield and destroys three German planes far behind enemy lines, an action that wins him the Victoria Cross.

This Canadian History for Kids exclusive looks at the great Canadian Flying ace, Billy Bishop.

Billy Bishop was born on 8 February 1894 in Owen Sound, Ontario. In 1911, at age 17, his parents sent him to Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.

He had some troubles while attending the college. Billy wasn’t the best student while his elder brother Worth was known as the highest achieving cadet ever to grace Kingston’s halls. Billy’s personality hated every aspect of the firm military attitudes.

He failed his first year of college and was allowed to enter the second year of studies only on the basis that he stay longer at college to make up what he missed in the first year. The beginnings of the war cut short his education and eliminated this problem.

Due to his skill on a horse and his military “education”, he was quickly commissioned into the Mississauga Horse of Toronto, a cavalry detachment of the 2nd Canadian Division. Fortunately for Bishop, he was hospitalized with pneumonia when his unit left. He was then assigned to the 14th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles, being formed in London, Ontario.

Once in England, Bishop became depressed at the prospects of being in a cavalry unit in a trench war. One day in July, 1915 a biplane landed briefly for the pilot to get his bearings in a nearby field.

He found out from a group of Royal Flying Corps officers that he could transfer to the RFC. He joined the RFC as soon as possible and was transferred to Netheravon, 11 miles north of Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Bishop received his wings in November of 1916. Bishop, was referred to as “the Lone Hawk” for his preference for solo missions. The Germans referred to him as ‘the blue nosed devil’.

Perhaps unfortunately for a member of the RFC he was also regarded as something of a weak pilot, who had a tendency to crash land his aircraft.

Bishop was due to be sent to England from France for ‘remedial’ training when he succeeded in shooting down his first aircraft. There was no looking back and Bishop quickly gained celebrity for his ability as a crack shot.

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the remarkable feat of scoring 25 ‘kills’ within just 12 days as leader of the so-called ‘Flying Foxes’, he was earlier awarded the Victoria Cross for a single-handed offensive against the German aerodrome at Arras on 2 June 1917.

Bishop was the ninth Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross. Some years after the war (from 1982 onwards) questions were raised concerning the verifiability of Bishop’s feats that day and a Senate enquiry was held (he was cleared of any wrongdoing). Added to his Distinguished Flying Cross and Victoria Cross were also the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross.

Bishop survived the war as commander of 85 Squadron. He was withdrawn from active duty in June 1918 for fear that he would be shot down. The same year he published his war memoirs, Winged Warfare.

After the armistice Bishop initially travelled the U.S. giving lectures. He co-founded (with fellow Canadian ace Billy Barker) a charter airline business, which however went bankrupt. After a period of floating he eventually established himself as a successful sales director for Frontenac Oil in Canada.

During World War Two he served as Air Marshall with responsibility for Canadian recruitment. His fame as a former World War One air ace helped to draw fresh recruits to the air force. After the war he entered semi-retirement, later attempting to enlist during the Korean War.

Billy Bishop, the Blue nosed Devil, died on 9 November 1956 in Florida.

And that’s this week’s Canadian History for Kids, exclusive!

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