William Avery Bishop, VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED (8 February 1894 – 11 September 1956) was a Canadian flying ace of the First World War. He was officially credited with 72 victories, making him the top Canadian and British Empire ace of the war. He was a Victoria Cross recipient who rose to become an Air Marshal. During the Second World War, Bishop was instrumental in setting up and promoting the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
Bishop was born on 8 February 1894 in Owen Sound, Ontario. He was the third of four children born to William Avery Bishop Sr. and Margaret Louisa (Green) Bishop. His father, a lawyer and graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Ontario, was the Registrar of Grey County. Attending Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute, Bishop earned the reputation of a fighter, defending himself and others easily against bullies. He avoided team sports, preferring solitary pursuits such as swimming, horse riding, and shooting. Bishop was less successful at his studies; he would abandon any subject he could not easily master, and was often absent from class.
Initial Love for Aviation
At the age of 15, Bishop built an aircraft out of cardboard, wooden crates and string, and made an attempt to fly off the roof of his three-story house. He was dug, unharmed, out of the wreckage by his sister. In 1911, Billy Bishop entered the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario, where his brother Worth had graduated in 1903. At RMC, Bishop was known as “Bish” and “Bill”. Bishop failed his first year at RMC, worked hard his second year but in his third year was caught cheating.
Joins Horse Cavalry – Excelled on the Firing Range
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Bishop left RMC and joined The Mississauga Horse cavalry regiment. He was commissioned as an officer but was ill with pneumonia when the regiment was sent overseas. After recovering, he was transferred to the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles, a mounted infantry unit, then stationed in London, Ontario. Bishop showed a natural ability with a gun, and excelled on the firing range: he put bullets in a target placed so far away others saw only a dot due to his seemingly “super-human” eyesight. His service record at the time of attestation shows that he was 5 feet, 6¾ inches tall, weighed 138 lbs., and had fair complexion, blue eyes, light brown hair. Scar on inner part of right leg, and was a Presbyterian. The unit left Canada for England on 6 June 1915 on board the requisitioned cattle ship Caledonia. On 21 June, off the coast of Ireland, the ship’s convoy came under attack by U-boats. Two ships were sunk and 300 Canadians died, but Bishop’s ship was unharmed, arriving in Plymouth harbour on 23 June.
Switches to RFC – As an Air Observer
Bishop quickly became frustrated with the mud of the trenches and the lack of action. In July 1915, after watching a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) aircraft return from a mission, Bishop said “it’s clean up there! I’ll bet you don’t get any mud or horse shit on you up there. If you die, at least it would be a clean death.” While in France in 1915 he transferred to the RFC. As there were no places available for pilots in the flight school, he chose to be an observer. On 1 September, he reported to 21 (Training) Squadron at Netheravon for elementary air instruction. The first aircraft he trained in was the Avro 504, flown by Roger Neville (WWI Flying Ace). Bishop was adept at taking aerial photographs, and was soon in charge of training other observers with the camera. The squadron was ordered to France in January 1916 and arrived at Boisdinghem airfield, near Saint-Omer, equipped with R.E.7 reconnaissance aircraft.
First Combat Mission
Bishop’s first combat mission was as an aerial spotter for British artillery. At first, the aircraft could not get airborne until they had offloaded their bomb load and machine guns. Bishop and pilot Neville flew over German lines near Boisdinghem and when the German howitzer was found, they relayed coordinates to the British, who then bombarded and destroyed the target. In the following months, Bishop flew on reconnaissance and bombing flights, but never fired his machine guns on an enemy aircraft.
Injured – Misses Battle of the Somme
During one takeoff in April 1916, his aircraft engine failed, and he badly injured his knee. The injury was aggravated while on leave in London in May 1916, and Bishop was admitted to the hospital in Bryanston Square. While there he met and befriended socialite Baroness Lady St Helier, who was a friend to both Winston Churchill and Secretary for Air Lord Hugh Cecil. After Bishop’s father suffered a small stroke, St Helier arranged for Bishop to recuperate in Canada, and he thereby missed the Battle of the Somme.
Uses Influence to Become Pilot
Bishop returned to England in September 1916, and, with the influence of St Helier, was accepted for training as a pilot at the Central Flying School at Upavon on Salisbury Plain. His first solo flight was in a Maurice Farman “Shorthorn”. In November 1916 after receiving his wings, Bishop was attached to No. 37 Squadron RFC at Sutton’s Farm, Essex flying the BE.2c. He was officially appointed to flying officer duties on 8 December 1916. Bishop disliked flying at night over London, searching for German airships, and he soon requested a transfer to France.
Initial Combat Mess-ups
On 17 March 1917, Bishop arrived at 60 Squadron at Filescamp Farm near Arras, where he flew the Nieuport 17 fighter. At that time, the average life expectancy of a new pilot in that sector was 11 days, and German aces were shooting down British aircraft 5 to 1. Bishop’s first patrol on 22 March was less than successful. He had trouble controlling his run-down aircraft, was nearly shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and became separated from his group. On 24 March, after crash-landing his aircraft during a practice flight in front of General John Higgins, Bishop was ordered to return to flight school at Upavon. Major Alan Scott, the new commander of 60 Squadron, convinced Higgins to let him stay until a replacement arrived.
First Aerial Victory
The next day, 25 March, Bishop claimed his first victory when his was one of four Nieuports that engaged three Albatros D.III Scouts near St Leger. Bishop shot down and mortally wounded a Lieutenant Theiller, but his engine failed in the process. Bishop landed in no man’s land, 300 yards (270 m) from the German front line. After running to the Allied trenches, Bishop spent the night on the ground in a rainstorm. There Bishop wrote a letter home, starting, “I am writing this from a dugout 300 yards from our front line, after the most exciting adventure of my life.” General Higgins personally congratulated Bishop and rescinded his order to return to flight school. On 30 March 1917, Bishop was named a flight commander with a temporary promotion to Captain a few days later.
Becomes an Air Ace
On 31 March, he scored his second victory. Bishop, in addition to the usual patrols with his squadron comrades, soon flew many unofficial “lone-wolf” missions deep into enemy territory, with the blessing of Major Scott. As a result, his total of enemy aircraft shot down increased rapidly. On 8 April, he scored his fifth victory and became an ace. To celebrate, Bishop’s mechanic painted the aircraft’s nose blue, the mark of an ace. Former 60 Squadron member Captain Albert Ball, at that time the Empire’s highest scoring ace, had had a red spinner fitted.
Leading From the Front – Bounty on His Head
Bishop’s no-holds-barred style of flying always had him “at the front of the pack,” leading his pilots into battle over hostile territory. Bishop soon realized that this could eventually see him shot down; after one patrol, a mechanic counted 210 bullet holes in his aircraft. He then switched to a new method of using the surprise attack. This proved successful. He claimed 12 aircraft in April alone, winning the Military Cross for his participation in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The successes of Bishop and his blue-nosed aircraft were noticed by the Germans, and they began referring to him as “Hell’s Handmaiden”. Ernst Udet called him “the greatest English scouting ace” and one Jasta had a bounty on his head.
Survives Encounter with Red Baron
On 30 April, Bishop survived an encounter with Jasta 11 and Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. In May, Bishop received the Distinguished Service Order for shooting down two aircraft while being attacked by four others.
Victoria Cross and Controversy
On 2 June 1917, Bishop flew a solo mission behind enemy lines to attack a German-held aerodrome, where he claimed that he shot down three aircraft that were taking off to attack him and destroyed several more on the ground. For this feat, he was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), although it has been suggested that he may have embellished his success. His VC (awarded 30 August 1917) was one of two awarded in violation of the warrant requiring witnesses (the other being the Unknown Soldier), and since the German records have been lost and the archived papers relating to the VC were lost as well, there is no way of confirming whether there were any witnesses. It seems to have been common practice at this time to allow Bishop to claim victories without requiring confirmation or verification from other witnesses.
Highest Scoring RFC Ace – Third Highest of War
In July, 60 Squadron received new Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s, a faster and more powerful aircraft with better pilot visibility. In August 1917, Bishop passed the late Albert Ball in victories to become (temporarily) the highest scoring ace in the RFC and the third top ace of the war, behind only the Red Baron and René Fonck. At the end of August 1917, Bishop was appointed as the Chief Instructor at the School of Aerial Gunnery and given the temporary rank of Major.
Wedding – Assignment in Washington
Bishop returned home on leave to Canada in fall 1917, where he was acclaimed a hero and helped boost the morale of the Canadian public, who were growing tired of the war. On 17 October 1917, Bishop married his longtime fiancée, Margaret Eaton Burden. After the wedding, he was assigned to the British War Mission in Washington, D.C. to help the Americans build an air force. While stationed there, he wrote his autobiography entitled Winged Warfare.
Return to Europe – Squadron Command – More Victories
Upon his return to England in April 1918, Bishop was promoted to Major and given command of No. 85 Squadron, the “Flying Foxes”. This was a newly formed squadron and Bishop was given the freedom to choose many of the pilots. The squadron was equipped with SE5a scout planes and left for Petit Synthe, France on 22 May 1918. On 27 May, after familiarizing himself with the area and the opposition, Bishop took a solo flight to the Front. He downed a German observation plane in his first combat since August 1917, and followed with two more the next day. From 30 May to 1 June Bishop downed six more aircraft, including German ace Paul Billik, bringing his score to 59 and reclaiming his top scoring ace title from James McCudden, who had claimed it while Bishop was in Canada, and he was now the leading Allied ace.
Becomes an Icon – Asked to Return to Canada
The Government of Canada was becoming increasingly worried about the effect on morale if Bishop were to be killed, so on 18 June he was ordered to return to England to help organize the new Canadian Flying Corps. Bishop was not pleased with the order coming so soon after his return to France. He wrote to his wife: “This is ever so annoying.” The order specified that he was to leave France by noon on 19 June. On that morning, Bishop decided to fly one last solo patrol. In just 15 minutes of combat, he added another five victories to his total. He claimed to have downed two Pfalz D.IIIa scout planes, caused another two to collide with each other, and shot down a German reconnaissance aircraft.
On 5 August, Bishop was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and was given the post of “Officer Commanding-designate of the Canadian Air Force Section of the General Staff, Headquarters Overseas Military Forces of Canada.” He was on board a ship returning from a reporting visit to Canada when news of the armistice arrived. Bishop was discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 31 December and returned to Canada.
By the end of the war, he had claimed some 72 air victories, including two balloons, 52 and two shared “destroyed” and 16 aircraft “out of control”. The 72 enemy aircraft, including 25 in one 10-day period. During WWI in many cases it was difficult to authenticate all victories because when Germans withdrew from France, they destroyed many records. Historians including Hugh Halliday and Brereton Greenhous (both of whom were official historians for the Royal Canadian Air Force) suggested that the actual total may have been far lower. Brereton Greenhous felt the actual total of enemy aircraft destroyed was only 27. But yet the Canadian Government and others kept honouring Bishop with highest awards. It was thus presumed that the Victories were officially granted. He continues to be seen as the highest scoring Allied Ace.
Post WW I Career
After the war, Bishop toured the principal cities in the United States and lectured on aerial warfare. He established an importing firm, Interallied Aircraft Corporation, and a short-lived passenger air service with fellow ace William Barker, but after legal and financial problems, and a serious crash, the partnership and company were dissolved. In 1921, Bishop and his family moved to Britain, where he had various business interests connected with flying. In 1928, he was the guest of honour at a gathering of German air aces in Berlin and was made an Honorary Member of the Association. In 1929 he became chairman of British Air Lines. However, the family’s wealth was wiped out in the crash of 1929 and they had to move back to Canada, where he became vice-president of the McColl-Frontenac Oil Company.
Second World War – Promoted Air Marshal
In January 1936, Bishop was appointed the first Canadian Air Vice Marshal. Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, he was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). He served during the war as Director of the Royal Canadian Air Force and was placed in charge of recruitment. He was so successful in this role that many applicants had to be turned away. Bishop created a system for training pilots across Canada and became instrumental in setting up and promoting the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which trained over 167,000 airmen in Canada during the Second World War.
Books, Movies and Civil Aviation
In 1942, he appeared as himself in the film Captains of the Clouds, a Hollywood tribute to the RCAF. By 1944 the stress of the war had taken a serious toll on Bishop’s health, and he resigned his post in the RCAF to return to private enterprise in Montreal, Quebec, before retiring in 1952. His son later commented that he looked 70 years old on his 50th birthday in 1944. However, Bishop remained active in the aviation world, predicting the phenomenal growth of commercial aviation postwar. His efforts to bring some organization to the nascent field led to the formation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal. He wrote a second book at this time, Winged Peace, advocating international control of global air power.
With the outbreak of the Korean War, Bishop again offered to return to his recruitment role, but he was in poor health and was politely refused by the RCAF. He died in his sleep on 11 September 1956, at the age of 62, while wintering in Palm Beach, Florida. His funeral service was held with full Air Force Honours in Toronto, Ontario. The body was cremated and the ashes interred in the family plot in Greenwood Cemetery, Owen Sound, Ontario. A memorial service for Air Marshal Bishop was held in St Paul’s Church, Bristol, England, on 19 September 1956.
Family of Aviators
On 17 October 1917, at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto he married Margaret Eaton Burden, his longtime fiancée and daughter of Mr C. E. Burden (a granddaughter of Timothy Eaton and sister of ace Henry John Burden). They had a son, William, and a daughter, Margaret. Both of the Bishop children became aviators. William Arthur Christian Avery Bishop (1923 London, England – 2013 Toronto) was presented with his wings by his father during the Second World War. Arthur went on to become a Spitfire pilot and served with No. 401 Squadron RCAF in 1944. After the war, he became a journalist, advertising executive, entrepreneur and author. Margaret Marise (Jackie) Willis-O’Connor (1926 London – 2013 Ottawa) was a wireless radio operator during World War II, whom Bishop presented with a Wireless Sparks Badge in 1944. Arthur Bishop, his son used to joke that between him and his father — the legendary World War I flying ace Billy Bishop — they shot down 73 planes. That would be 72 planes shot down over the skies of Europe by Billy Bishop, and one by Arthur, himself a fighter pilot during World War II.
Very Highly Decorated and High Tributes
Bishop’s decorations include the Victoria Cross (August 1917), Distinguished Service Order (June 2017) & Bar (September 1917), Military Cross (May 1917), Distinguished Flying Cross (July 1918), légion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre with palm. He was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in the King’s Birthday Honours List of 1 June 1944.
Victoria Cross Citation
The citation for his VC, published in The London Gazette on 11 August 1917, read: For most conspicuous bravery, determination, and skill. 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.
Distinguished Flying Cross Citation
His citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross read: A most successful and fearless fighter in the air, whose acts of outstanding bravery have already been recognised by the awards of the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order, Bar to the Distinguished Service Order, and Military Cross. For the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross now conferred upon him he has rendered signally valuable services in personally destroying twenty-five enemy machines in twelve days—five of which he destroyed on the last day of his service at the front. The total number of machines destroyed by this distinguished officer is seventy-two, and his value as a moral factor to the Royal Air Force cannot be over-estimated.
Bishop also holds a number of non-military awards. In 1967, Bishop was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame. An award is also named in honour of Bishop. The Air Force Association of Canada approved the establishment of a trophy to commemorate the late Air Marshal W.A. Bishop, VC, in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to the legacy of excellence in Canadian aviation”. Billy Bishop’s childhood home was re-purposed into the Billy Bishop Home and Museum in 1987. The museum is located in Owen Sound, Ontario. The museum has exhibits on the family, Bishop himself and veterans. There is a permanent exhibit with information on Bishop at the Grey Roots Museum and Archives, just south of Owen Sound.
Bishop’s life has also been the subject of a number of works in media. Billy Bishop Goes to War feature film and Canadian musical, written by John MacLachlan Gray in collaboration with the actor Eric Peterson in 1978. A Hero to Me: The Billy Bishop Story – WW1 Canadian flying Ace, a documentary depicting the story of “Billy” Bishop from the perspective of his granddaughter Diana, was produced for Global Television and TVO in 2003. In addition to television and film, Bishop has also been featured on Canadian stamps. On 12 August 1994, Canada Post issued “Billy Bishop, Air Ace” as part of the Great Canadians series.
Two Airports on His Name
Several places also have honoured Bishop by bearing his name. Two airports in Ontario are named after Bishop. The airport in Owen Sound is officially named “Owen Sound Billy Bishop Regional Airport.” Toronto’s island airport was renamed Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport in 2009. Although Owen Sound’s mayor questioned the change, the proposal was approved by the Toronto Port Authority on 10 November 2009. Having two airports in the province with similar names was a concern. Toronto’s Pearson International Airport was originally named Bishop Field Toronto Airport Malton.
Other Ways of Bishop Memorializing
“Billy Bishop Private” is a roadway on private land at Ottawa Airport, Ottawa, Ontario, where the “Billy Bishop Room” for visiting dignitaries also exists. “Billy Bishop Way” is a street near the Downsview Airport in Toronto, Ontario. “Billy Bishop Park” is a public park in Ottawa, created with the help of the Royal Canadian Legion. “Mount Bishop”, a 2,850-metre-high (9,350 ft.) mountain on the Alberta – British Columbia border. “Bishop Building”, the 1st Canadian Air Division and the Canadian NORAD Region Headquarters in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “Billy Bishop Legion Branch 176” in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Billy” Bishop was added to the wall of honour at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario in 2009. Air Force Association of Canada’s Air Marshal W. A. Bishop Memorial Trophy is one of the highest awards for aviation in Canada. Bishop’s former home in Ottawa, Ontario, constructed in 1905 in the Queen Anne Revival style, has been opened to the public in the annual Doors Open Ottawa showcase of buildings.
Controversy: Was Bishop a Fake?
It wasn’t until long after Bishop’s death that any questions were raised about his wartime record. He had always been a self-publicist and his ego was well known, but nobody questioned his integrity or wartime record. After all, the victories were on record. In 1982 his record was challenged. A documentary was released in Canada called The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss. The documentary made the sensational claim that the national hero wasn’t quite what everybody believed. It questioned the actions that led to his being awarded the Victoria Cross. It was such a sensational and important claim that the Canadian Senate established a Committee to investigate Bishop’s wartime record. That committee didn’t actually reach any firm conclusions. It couldn’t prove that Bishop was or wasn’t genuine in the claimed victories or his VC winning combat. An anomaly had been seized upon as evidence of calling the story fake. In truth, the records used to call him a fake, themselves are often error strewn. Of course, it was in the national interests to retain him as a recognised national hero.
Given the many gaps in British and German records (including the destruction of documents during bombing campaigns in the Second World War), historians have not been able to confirm all of Bishop’s combat claims — Kilduff, for example, could only confirm 21 of 72 victories. As the evidence is inconclusive, it is unlikely that the debate will ever be settled. Without doubt, Bishop was both brave and skilled. Whether or not his combat claims were exaggerated, his daring and his success were an inspiration during the First World War. For many, he was — and is — a Canadian hero.
- Veteran Affairs Canada. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/people-and-stories/billy-bishop
- Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Avery-Bishop
- Billy Bishop, greatest ace or a fake? https://schoolshistory.org.uk/topics/world-history/first-world-war/billy-bishop-greatest-ace-or-a-fake/
- Library and Archives Canada https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/100-stories/Pages/bishop.aspx
- Katie Dahl, Canada’s Great War Album https://greatwaralbum.ca/Great-War-Album/About-the-Great-War/Air-Force/Billy-Bishop
- The Canadian Encyclopedia https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/william-avery-bishop
- Billy Bishop. The Canadians in World War I. https://www.theworldwar.org/explore/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/billy-bishop
- List of World War I aces from Canada https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_World_War_I_aces_from_Canada
- Billy Bishop, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Bishop
- Billy Bishop – Let’s have a proper introduction… https://puttingdownuprising.com/2019/06/01/supplemental-reading-winged-warfare/
- Five Things I Learned About My Grandfather, Billy Bishop https://www.dundurn.com/news/Five-Things-I-Learned-About-My-Grandfather-Billy-Bishop
Header Image Source: http://www.theworldwar.org