World War I: Air Marshal William "Billy" Bishop

Billy Bishop during World War I
William "Billy" Bishop. Photograph Source: Public Domain

 Billy Bishop - Early Life & Career:

Born February 8, 1894 at Owen Sound, Ontario, William "Billy" Bishop was the second (of three) child of William A. and Margaret Bishop.  Attending Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute as a youth, Bishop proved a marginal student though excelled in individual sports such as riding, shooting, and swimming.  Possessing an interest in aviation, he unsuccessfully attempted to build his first aircraft at age fifteen.  Following in his older brother's footsteps, Bishop entered the Royal Military College of Canada in 1911.  Continuing to struggle with his studies, he failed his first year when he was caught cheating.

Pressing on at RMC, Bishop elected to leave school in late 1914 following the beginning of World War I.  Joining the Mississauga Horse regiment, he received a commission as an officer but soon fell ill with pneumonia.  As a result, Bishop missed the unit's departure for Europe.  Transferred to the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles, he proved an excellent marksman.  Embarking for Britain on June 6, 1915, Bishop and his comrades arrived at Plymouth seventeen days later.  Sent to the Western Front, he soon became unhappy in the mud and tedium of the trenches.  After seeing a Royal Flying Corps aircraft pass over, Bishop began seeking an opportunity to attend flight school.  Though he was able to secure a transfer to the RFC, no flight training positions were open and he instead learned to be an aerial observer.

Billy Bishop - Beginning with the RFC:

Assigned to No. 21 (Training) Squadron at Netheravon, Bishop first flew aboard an Avro 504.  Learning to take aerial photos, he soon proved skilled at this form of photography and began teaching other aspiring airmen.  Sent to the front in January 1916, Bishop operated from a field near St. Omer and flew Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.7s.  Four months later, he injured his knee when his aircraft's engine failed at takeoff.  Placed on leave, Bishop traveled to London where his knee's condition worsened.  Hospitalized, he met socialite Lady St. Helier while recuperating.  Learning that his father had suffered a stroke, Bishop, with St. Helier's aid, obtained leave to briefly travel to Canada.  Due to this trip, he missed the Battle of the Somme which started that July. 

Returning to Britain that September, Bishop, again with St. Helier's assistance, finally secured admission to flight training.  Arriving at the Central Flying School at Upavon, he spent the next two months receiving aviation instruction.  Ordered to No. 37 Squadron in Essex, Bishop's initial assignment called for him to patrol over London to intercept night raids by German airships.  Quickly boring of this duty, he requested a transfer and was ordered to Major Alan Scott's No. 60 Squadron near Arras.  Flying older Nieuport 17s, Bishop struggled and received orders to return to Upavon for further training.  Retained by Scott until a replacement could arrive, he achieved his first kill, an Albatros D.III, on March 25, 1917, though he crashed in no man's land when his engine failed.  Escaping back to Allied lines, Bishop's orders for Upavon were rescinded.  

Billy Bishop - Flying Ace:

Quickly earning Scott's trust, Bishop was appointed a flight commander on March 30 and achieved his second victory the following day.  Permitted to conduct solo patrols, he continued to score and on April 8 downed his fifth German aircraft to become an ace.  These early victories were obtained via a hard-charging style of flying and fighting.  Realizing that this was a dangerous approach, Bishop shifted to more surprise-oriented tactics in April.  This proved effective as he downed twelve enemy aircraft that month.  The month also saw him earn a promotion to captain and win the Military Cross for his performance during the Battle of Arras.  After surviving an encounter with German ace Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron) on April 30, Bishop continued his stellar performance in May adding to his tally and winning the Distinguished Service Order.

On June 2, Bishop conducted a solo patrol against a German airfield.  During the mission, he claimed three enemy aircraft shot down as well as several destroyed on the ground.  Though he may have embellished the results of this mission, it won him the Victoria Cross.  A month later, the squadron transitioned into the more powerful Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5.  Continuing his success, Bishop soon ran his total to over forty achieving the status of highest-scoring ace in the RFC.  Among the most famous of the Allied aces, he was withdrawn from the front that fall.  Returning to Canada, Bishop married Margaret Burden on October 17 and made appearances to bolster morale.  Following this, he received orders to join the British War Mission in Washington, DC to assist in advising the US Army on building an air force.

Billy Bishop - Top British Scorer:

In April 1918, Bishop received a promotion to major and returned to Britain.  Eager to resume operations at the front, he had been passed as British top scorer by Captain James McCudden.  Given command of the newly-formed No. 85 Squadron, Bishop took his unit to Petite-Synthe, France on May 22.  Familiarizing himself with the area, he downed a German plan five days later.  This began a run that saw him raise his tally to 59 by June 1 and reclaim the scoring lead from McCudden.  Though he continued to score over the next two weeks, the Canadian government and his superiors became increasingly concerned about the blow to morale if he were to be killed. 

As a result, Bishop received orders on June 18 to depart the front the following day and travel to England to aid in organizing the new Canadian Flying Corps.  Angered by these orders, Bishop conducted a final mission on the morning of June 19 which saw him down five more German aircraft and raise his score to 72.  Bishop's total made him the top-scoring British pilot of the war and second-highest Allied pilot behind Rene Fonck.  As many of Bishop's kills were unwitnessed, historians in recent years have begun to question his total.  Promoted to lieutenant colonel on August 5, he received the post of Officer Commanding-designate of the Canadian Air Force Section of the General Staff, Headquarters Overseas Military Forces of Canada.  Bishop remained in the job until the end of the war that November.

Billy Bishop - Later Career:

Discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on December 31, Bishop began lecturing on aerial warfare.  This was followed by a short-lived passenger air service that he started with fellow Canadian ace Lieutenant Colonel William George Barker.  Moving to Britain in 1921, Bishop remained engaged in aviation concerns and eight years later became chairman of British Air Lines.  Financially devastated by the stock market crash in 1929, Bishop returned to Canada and ultimately obtained a position as vice president of the McColl-Frontenac Oil Company.  Resuming military service in 1936, he received a commission as the Royal Canadian Air Force's first air vice-marshal.  With the beginning of World War II in 1939, Bishop was elevated to air marshal and tasked with overseeing recruitment.

Highly effective in this role, Bishop soon found himself compelled to turn away applicants.  Also overseeing pilot training, he aided in authoring the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan which guided the instruction of nearly half those who served in the Commonwealth's air forces.  Under extreme stress, Bishop's health began to fail and in 1944 he retired from active service.  Returning to the private sector, he accurately predicted the postwar boom in the commercial aviation industry.  With the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, Bishop offered to return to his recruitment role but his poor health led to the RCAF politely declining.  He later died on September 11, 1956, while wintering in Palm Beach, FL.  Returned to Canada, Bishop received full honors before his ashes were interred at Greenwood Cemetery in Owen Sound.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Air Marshal William "Billy" Bishop." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: Air Marshal William "Billy" Bishop. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Air Marshal William "Billy" Bishop." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).