b. 08/02/1894 Owen Sound, Canada. d. 11/09/1956 Palm Beach, USA
William “Billy” Avery Bishop (1894-1956) was the son of W.A. Bishop, Registrar of Grey County, Ontario, Canada, and was born in Owen Sound, Ontario on 8th February 1894; the third son of the marriage. From his earliest years, “Billy” as he became known, always rebelled against authority in any shape or form. He struggled at school academically, and preferred outdoor pursuits. He was an excellent rifle shot and horseman. In contrast with his brother’s high academic achievements, Billy’s school record was a series of poor reports, and his school career was summed up by a tutor who said “The only thing your son is good at is fighting.”
On his 17th birthday in 1911, he decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps and applied for entry to Canada’s Royal Military College. Accepted in August, he spent the following three years as a cadet, despite failing his first year examinations and constantly breaking the strict disciplinary code of behaviour. At the close of the summer of 1914, he was at risk of expulsion from the college, and the staff officers had formed the opinion that young Bishop was, “the worst cadet RMC ever had.” During the summer vacation, before the College made his decision, the European War broke out, and despite his incomplete instruction, he was hastily commissioned on 30th September in a Toronto militia regiment, the Mississauga Horse, then mobilising for overseas service.
When his regiment embarked for England on 1st October 1914, Bishop was in hospital with pneumonia, but soon after his recovery, he was transferred to the 14th Battalion of the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles, stationed in London, Ontario, and with this unit left Canada on 9th June 1915 in a cattleship, “Caledonia”, bound for England and the war. Three weeks later, stationed at Shorncliffe, Kent, Bishop was disillusioned and in his own words, having seen an RFC aeroplane land nearby, “the only way to fight a war; up there above the mud and the mist in the everlasting sunshine.”
In July 1915, he applied for a transfer to the RFC as an observer, rather than wait for possible acceptance as a pilot, and on 1st September reported to 21 (Training) Squadron at Netheravon for elementary air instruction. By Christmas the squadron was under orders for a move to France, and on 1st January 1916 arrived at Boisdinghem airfield, near St Omer. By mid-January, the unit had received its full complement of new RE7 2-seat aircraft. Operations started immediately, with Bishop taking a large part in the unit’s activities and gaining his baptism of enemy fire. He was a little accident-prone, including an injured knee sustained when his regular pilot, Roger Neville, made a crashlanding. He refused medical aid. His last operational sortie as an observer came on 2nd May 1916, and he returned to England on leave. He sought treatment for his knee and was sidelined from flying until September.
On his return from Canada, he applied for pilot training and was accepted. His initial ground training began on 1st October 1916, and then moved to the Central Flying School at Upavon. After training, he was sent to France and on the 9th March 1917 he arrived at Filescamp, base of 60 Squadron RFC, where the unit commander Major A J Scott, had him allotted to B Flight. On the following day, Bishop had his first “victory” when he shot down a German Albatross DIII near St Leger. By Easter, he had achieved his fifth victory, but also nearly had been killed by a bullet through his windscreen. On 25th April, he was promoted to Captain and given command of C Flight. He was also gazetted for the Military Cross.
On 2nd June 1917, Captain Bishop, who had been sent out to work independently, flew first of all to an enemy aerodrome; finding no machines about, he flew on to another aerodrome about three miles southeast, which was at least 12 miles the other side of the line. Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground. He attacked these from about fifty feet, and a mechanic, who was starting one of the engines, was seen to fall. One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of 60 feet, Captain Bishop fired 15 rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground. A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired 30 rounds at 150 yards range, and it fell into a tree. Two more machines then rose from the aerodrome. One of these he engaged at a height of 1,000 feet, emptying the rest of his drum of ammunition. This machine crashed 300 yards from the aerodrome, after which Captain Bishop emptied a whole drum into the fourth hostile machine, and then flew back to his station. Four hostile scouts were about 1,250 feet above him for about a mile of his return journey, but they would not attack. His machine was very badly shot about by machine gun fire from the ground.
Throughout July and August, he continued daily sorties, and his victories were mounting. On the 28th July, he was lucky to survive when his plane was hit by enemy fire and caught fire, and he crashed still burning, and he was left hanging upside down in the cockpit. He fainted, and was rescued by some passing infantrymen.
On 9th August, he was personally informed by GOC Hugh Trenchard that he was to receive the VC. He was also informed that he would be leaving 60 Squadron for an instructor’s post in England. He left the Squadron on 1st September 1917 with 47 victories. By that date he had received the VC, DSO (gazetted on 18th June) and MC and on 25th September, a Bar to his DSO was promulgated. All had been gained in five intense months of combat.
He returned to Canada for extended leave, and married his fiancée, Margaret Burden in Toronto on 17th October 1917. On his return to England, he expected to be appointed to the school of aerial fighting at Loch Doon, Scotland, but instead was promoted to Major on 13th March 1918 and given command of 85 Squadron at Hounslow, Middlesex. Bishop selected his own pilots and they arrived in France on 22nd May 1918, and became based near Dunkirk. By the middle of June, he had increased his victories to 72.
On 3rd August 1918, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition for his 25 victories in 12 days. The French also awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur. On return to England he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and posted to Canadian Forces HQ. He was demobilised on 31st December and returned to Canada. He spent several months on a lecture tour of the USA but found civilian life tough. In the summer of 1919, along with fellow Canadian pilot VC, William Barker, they set up a air charter line. Sadly, it soon ran into financial trouble and the partnership was dissolved. Bishop moved with his family to England where he built a successful business only for the 1929 Crash to wipe out his fortune and he went back to Canada.
He was then offered vice-presidency of the McColl-Frontenac Oil Company, and in 1931 was Honorary Group Captain of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was then created Honorary Air Vice-Marshal, RCAF, whose main task for the Government was to campaign extensively for vast enlargement of the RCAF. He was involved in recruitment during the Second World War. Due to ill-health, he left his post in 1944, and was made a Companion of Bath on 1st June that year. He returned to the oil business, and eventually retired in 1952. He died on 11th September 1956 at his Palm Springs house in Florida. His body was returned to Canada, where his ashes were interred in Greenwood Cemetery, Owen Sound. His medals are held by the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM, OTTAWA, CANADA.
BURIAL PLACE: GREENWOOD CEMETERY, OWEN SOUND, CANADA. ASHES INTERRED.
Picture - Thomas Stewart
National Memorial Arboretum
War Illustrated 22nd September 1917
Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum
The four images above all come from Toronto City Airport and all are kindly supplied by Terry Hissey