World War I: Lieutenant Colonel William George Barker

wg-barker-large.jpg
Lieutenant Colonel William George Barker, VC. Photograph Source: Public Domain

William George Barker - Early Life:

Born November 3, 1894 in Dauphin, Manitoba, William George Barker was raised on his family's farm. Due to the necessities of farm life, his schooling was inconsistent as he was often required to aid with the crops or in the family's sawmill. Living on the plains, Barker became a proficient rider at a young age and soon proved gifted with a rifle. Introduced to flying in 1910, he attended aircraft demonstrations at local farm exhibitions.

With the beginning of World War I in August 1914, Barker found himself studying at the Dauphin Collegiate Institute.

William George Barker - To the Trenches:

With the commencement of hostilities, Barker cut his schooling short at enlisted as a trooper in the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles in December 1914. Following training, the regiment embarked for England in June 1915 and finally arrived on the Western Front in September. Serving in the regiment's Machine Gun Section, Barker found himself enduring the horrors of trench warfare. As cavalry was of little use along the fortified front, the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles left their horses and served as infantry. Fighting on the ground, Barker was intrigued by the appearance of Fokker Eindecker fighters.

William George Barker - Joining the RFC:

Seeking to escape the trenches, Barker applied to join the Royal Flying Corps as an observer in early 1916.

Initially rejected, he eventually obtained a transfer and joined No. 9 Squadron at Bertangles, France as a probationary observer. Serving as an observer/gunner, Barker flew Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2s. Fully accepted into the RFC in April, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and moved to No.

4 Squadron. Continuing in his previous role, Barker and his pilots conducted reconnaissance and scouting missions over enemy lines. On July 7, he was ordered to No. 15 Squadron.

Flying in support of British forces during the Battle of the Somme, Barker downed a German fighter on July 21. His success continued the next month when he claimed a second kill and was Mentioned in Despatches. In November, during the latter stages of the battle, Barker spotted a large concentration of 4,000 German troops near Beaumont-Hamel. Noting their position, he initiated an emergency "zonecall" to British artillery which began shelling the area and broke up the enemy concentration. For this, Barker received the Military Cross.

William George Barker - Becoming a Pilot:

With the end of the Somme, Barker elected to apply for pilot training. Accepted, he traveled to Narborough, England in late November 1916. Quickly grasping the fundamentals of flight, he took his first solo flight after less than an hour of dual instruction. Completing training, Barker was returned to No. 15 Squadron as a pilot and was promoted to captain. Flying B.E.2s and R.E.8s, he scored another kill in March. On April 25, during the Battle of Arras, Barker and his observer spotted a force of 1,000 Germans massing for a counterattack.

Directing artillery onto the German position, Barker was again Mentioned in Despatches. Known as one of the best reconnaissance pilots on the Western Front, he earned a bar for his Military Cross in July. A month later, Barker was wounded in the head but was able to return to base. Ordered to England to serve as an instructor, he quickly began requesting assignments to return to the front. Finally granted, Barker was allowed to become a fighter pilot with either No. 28 or No. 56 Squadrons. He elected to join the former as he preferred its Sopwith Camels to the latter's Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s.

William George Barker - To Italy:

A gifted marksmen, Barker entered combat in October 1917. Though downing an Albatros D.V on his first patrol, he was unable to claim it as the mission was unofficial.

Despite this, Barker scored three official kills before the end of the month. On November 7, he was ordered to take his squadron to Italy to aid the Italians after their defeat at the Battle of Caporetto. In temporary command of the squadron, he downed an Austrian Albatros D.III on November 29. Four days later, Barker claimed another fighter and an Austrian balloon.

Quickly becoming a skilled "balloon buster", Barker worked to develop new tactics for bringing down these floating observation platforms. On December 25, he and his wingman, Lieutenant Harold Hudson, conducted an unauthorized mission which saw them attack Motta Aerodrome. Strafing the field with tracers, they set hangars on fire and destroyed several aircraft on the ground. Before departing, they dropped a placard which read, "To the Austrian Flying Corps from the English RFC, wishing you a Merry X-Mas." Returning home, he scored another kill the next day when the Austrians launched a reprisal attack.

William George Barker - Victoria Cross:

Awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Barker continued to add to his growing tally through March. Known as a skilled pilot, he was also asked to fly special missions to deliver spies or supplies behind enemy lines using an Italian bomber. These achievements were offset by Barker's propensity for flying unauthorized patrols. As a result, he was passed over for command of No. 28 Squadron. Angered, he transferred to No. 66 Squadron in April 1918 and by July had added a further sixteen kills to his record. Promoted to major, he was given command of No. 139 Squadron.

Though the squadron was equipped with two-seat Bristol Fighters, Barker took his Camel with him to this new assignment. He continued to score aerial victories with his new unit until ordered back to Britain in September 1918 to take command of training operations at Hounslow Heath Aerodrome. In this role a short while, Barker again began to seek a return to combat flying. The following month, he was given permission to conduct a ten-day tour of the Western Front to assess new combat tactics and techniques.

Provided with a new Sopwith Snipe fighter, he joined No. 201 Squadron.

On the final day of his tour, October 27, Barker took off for one last flight along the front. Crossing the lines at Forêt de Mormal, he downed a German observation plane before being jumped by a formation of German Fokker D.VIIs. In a swirling dogfight, the outnumbered Barker sustained multiple wounds to both legs and his left elbow. Despite these injuries, he downed three Fokkers, taking his total to fifty, before being forced to land behind the lines of the Canadian Corps. For his performance, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Taken to Rouen, Barker nearly died but was able to recover sufficiently to be moved to Britain in January 1919.

William George Barker - Later Life

Returning to Canada in May 1919, he was the nation's most-decorated soldier of the conflict having also earned two Italian Silver Medals for Military Valor and the French Croix de Guerre. After briefly forming an aircraft company with fellow ace Billy Bishop, he joined the new Canadian Air Force with the rank of wing commander. Made acting director of the service in 1924, he attended the RAF Staff College, Andover and later observed British air operations in Iraq. Reporting his findings, he also shared them with American Brigadier General Billy Mitchell.

Plagued by his war wounds, Barker retired in 1926. Working with various business interests, he became the president of Fairchild Aviation Corporation of Canada in January 1930. Two months later, he was killed when his Fairchild KR-21 trainer crashed during a demonstration. Given a state funeral in Toronto that was attended by 50,000 people, Barker was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Selected Sources