One thing is certain, when there is a major war, Canada often rises up to the challenge. From the Boer War to the most recent War in Afghanistan, Canada has stepped up. Looking back at the First World War, Canada had several big moments, not the least of which was the Battle of Vimy Ridge when Canada, in some regards, truly became a country. There were many heroes in those wars, but today we are looking at the heroes in the sky. We are going to look at the Canadian Flying Aces of the First World War.
For the purpose of this post, I will not be looking at the best aces, although many will be here, but the ones who had the biggest careers during the war and made a difference in Canada after the war.
No list of Canadian aces can begin without the man himself, Billy Bishop. Bishop, arguably the greatest fighter pilot in Canadian history, had 72 confirmed kills in the air. That high number put him third among all pilots during the war and only eight back from the legendary Red Baron.
Born in Owen Sound, Bishop was never one for team sports, so the life of a pilot suited him perfectly. At the age of 15, he developed a keen interest in aviation and would build an aircraft out of cardboard and string. He took it that plane off the roof of his third-storey house and luckily escaped injury.
Two years later, he entered the Royal Military College of Canada and promptly failed out after being caught cheating in his first year.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War, Bishop enlisted in a calvary regiment but became sick and missed shipping out. He then joined a mounted infantry unit where he became known for his ability with a gun and his almost super-human eyesight.
Fighting in France in 1915 and hating the trenches, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer, not a pilot. By 1916, he was training as a pilot in England and would get his wings in November of that year.
With a no-holds barred style of fighting, he would be the first to dive into the fighting and take enemy fighters down. He even took on the Red Baron and lived to tell the tale
On June 2, 1917, he took off on a solo mission to take out an aerodrome, which he did by shooting down three aircraft and destroying many more on the ground. He would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts.
He would return to Canada as a hero in 1917, where he got married to his longtime fiance Margaret.
Heading back to England in April of 1918, he was promoted to major and given command of the Flying Foxes. He was able to choose his own pilots and they quickly took to the air. From May 30 to June 1 alone, Bishop took out six enemy planes.
Unfortunately, the Canadian government began to worry about morale if Bishop were to die and he was promoted to Lt. Colonel and was sent back home just as the war ended.
Following the war, Bishop would move to Britain where he eventually became chairman of British Air Lines. After the crash of the stock market in 1929, he returned to Canada.
In 1936, he was made the first air vice-marshal in Canadian history and was promoted to Air Marshal upon the outbreak of the Second World War. His British Commonwealth Air Training Plan successfully trained 167,000 men in Canada to fly.
Bishop would die in 1956 at the age of 62.
Today, several streets, buildings and parks are named after Bishop. Mount Bishop in the Canadian Rockies is named for him as well.
The most decorated serviceman in Canadian history got his start on Nov. 3, 1894 when he was born in Dauphin, Manitoba. Growing up riding horses and working at a sawmill, he developed the ability to make a shot from nearly any distance, even while he was riding a horse.
As a young man, he watched pioneer aviators fly at farm exhibitions and that inspired him to eventually become a pilot himself.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Barker enlisted with the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles. Sent to England in June of 1915 and to France in September, he served as a gunner until he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in March of 1916.
Serving first as an observer, he quickly set himself apart for his ability with a gun in the air. On Nov. 15, he and his pilot helped to break up a German offensive and he was awarded the Military Cross for his efforts.
In January of 1917, he began training as a pilot and quickly earned his wings. During his time as a pilot, he would put a second bar on his Military Cross after he was wounded in the air in August of 1917. He served briefly as an instructor before coming back and fighting on the Italian Front in 1917 and 1918.
While serving in France to learn the latest combat techniques, he attacked a Rumpier two-seater and took on 15 more enemy machines where he was shot three times in the leg and had his left elbow shot off. Even with his injuries, he managed to shoot down three more enemy planes. He would crash land near the Allied front line and would hang onto life until January of 1919. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts. He would finish the war with 50 kills.
During the First World War, he would earn the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and twoBars, the Silver Medals for Military Valour and more.
Following the war he became the director of the RCAF but continued to suffer from the injuries during that iconic air battle. He had limited left arm movement and his legs were permanently damaged.
He would die in 1930 after losing control of his plane during a demonstration flight near Ottawa.
His funeral was the largest state event in the history of Toronto. An honour guard of 2,000 soldiers were on hand and the cortege stretched for a mile and a half.
Born in 1885, Thomas Williams may have only had 14 kills in the air, but he had a major impact on Canadian aviation. Enlisting at the outbreak of the First World War, he was shipped to England and he switched the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. By 1917, he was in the air and would have the distinction of being shot down by the Red Baron’s Flying Circus on September 22. He survived and on Oct. 24, he shot down his first plane.
A few weeks later, he was shot down by accident by a Canadian machine gunner on the ground. He officially became a flying ace on Jan. 10, 1918.
Over the course of the war and 199 flights, he would destroy eight airplanes, drive four out of control and captured one plane after killing its pilot.
Returning to Canada in the 1920s, he began barnstorming and helped to found the Royal Canadian Air Force. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the Fleet Aircraft Company and served as a test pilot for them until 1948.
He would be elected to the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame and was active in reunions of First World War veterans. He would continue to fly aerobatics all the way up to the age of 86 in 1971. He would write a volume of poetry at the age of 97, and he would pass away at the age of 99 in 1985, just a couple months short of turning 100.
Another flying ace from Dauphin, Ernest Charles Hoy was a pioneer pilot in Canadian history, and one of its greatest pilots. Born in 1895, he first enlisted in the regular forces on March 3, 1915 and would eventually join the 29 Squadron as a Royal Aircraft Factory pilot in January of 1918 but would not get his first kill until Aug. 12. Through the month of August, he would notch seven kills, and six more in September, finishing the war with 13.
He would earn his final victory on Sept. 28, 1918 when he shot down a german pilot who would become a prisoner of war.
One year after the war, he would make the first ever airmail delivery over the Canadian Rockies, when he flew from Vancouver to Calgary over the course of 16 hours, to deliver the first air mail shipment.
He would pass away in the United States in 1982.
A legendary pilot in Canadian history, Wop May, born Wilfred May, was born in 1896 in Carberry, Manitoba and would go on to gain fame during the First World War and beyond. Enlisting in the army in February of 1916, he quickly rose through the ranks and was a gunnery instructor before the end of the year. In 1917, after being shipped to England, he applied to join the Royal Flying Corps. Things did not get off to a great start. His first flight resulted in the destruction of not only his own aircraft, but that of another one. Amazingly, he was accepted as a pilot and began training in London. He would earn his wings in February of 1918. He would fight his first aerial combat on April 20 of that year.
On April 21, he was sent out on patrol and his squadron was soon attacked by German fighters. During the fight he saw a plane circling above and he decided to pursue it and launch an attack. The plane fled into the middle of the fight and after his machine guns jammed, he dove out of combat. Little did he know, that plane that was flown by a man named Wolfram, the cousin of the Red Baron. Upon seeing his cousin being attacked, the Red Baron flew into the fight to rescue him and began chasing May. Roy Brown saw the Red Baron attacking May and dove into the fight.
By the end of it, the Red Baron was shot down and no one knows if it was Brown or May who shot him down.
Following the war, May returned to Canada and opened Canada’s first airfield near Edmonton. He aso created one of the first barnstorming companies in the world.
In 1919, he was hired by the Edmonton police chief to find a man who was wanted in the murder of a police officer. May flew the chief to Edson nearby and they caught the man soon after.
In December of 1928, an employee of Hudson’s Bay Company in Little Red River, Alberta became ill. It was found he had dipheria and needed medicine immediately. There were no roads to the location at the time, and May was asked to deliver the medicine on Jan. 1. He left in his Avro Avian and landed the next day at the little community where the medicine could be distributed. He would not arrive back in Edmonton until Jan. 7. By the time he arrived home, he was a hero for his race against death and he was greeted by the mayor upon landing.
He wasn’t done making a name for himself yet though. In 1932, he was involved in the manhunt of the Mad Trapper. May was hired to see if he could find where the trapper had gone after killing an RCMP officer. He would find footprints leading off over a frozen winter. The Mad Trapper, Albert Johnson, was soon engaged by the RCMP and killed in a firefight. May quickly landed his plane after the firefight and loaded an injured RCMP officer into his plane. He then flew 201 kilometres to get him help, saving his life.
During the Second World War, May would train pilots for the British government and serve as commander of a flight school near Edmonton. During this time, he also assisted the United States with para-rescue and was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1947 for his efforts.
He would pass away while hiking in 1952.
Mayfield, a neighbourhood in Edmonton, is named in his honour. In addition, a rock on the south slope of Endurance Crater on Mars was named wopmay in honour of him. The Wopmay Fault Zone, which is west of Hudsons’ Bay along the Wopmay River, is named for him.
While he achieved fame as a flying ace, William Stephenson would go on to become even more famous after the war, and one of the most celebrated individuals in Canadian history. It all began on Jan. 23, 1897 when he was born in Winnipeg.
Volunteering for the war effort in January of 1916, he was sent over on the S.S. Olympic and would eventually become part of the Canadian Engineer Training Depot. On Aug. 15, 1917, he was granted a commission with the Royal Flying Corps and was posted to the 73 Squadron on Feb. 9, 1918. During his time as a pilot, he shot down 12 enemy planes and became an ace. He would be shot down behind enemy lines on July 28, 1918 and serve as a prisoner of war until he escaped in October. As an ace, he would be awarded the Military Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross.
Following the war, he developed a business with George W. Walton for transmitting photographic images via wireless. This would produce him $12 million (in our funds) per year in patents for the next 18 years.
With his broad base of contacts in Europe through his business dealings, he began to provide Winston Churchill with information about the Nazi government. He was able to show that the Nazis were preparing for war and Churchill used the information he was provided to argue against appeasement of Adolph Hitler.
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Stephenson began to work as for the British Security Coordination, setting up a branch covertly in the United States in 1940. He would become a close adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and would aid in the creation of the CIA.
Over the course of the Second World War, he would provide an immense amount of intelligence through his operations throughout the Western Hemisphere. He also crated Camp X in Whitby, Ontario that was the first training school in North America for spy activities. Over 2,000 operatives from the British, Canadian and American sides were trained there between 1941 to 1945. One graduate of this program is rumored to have been Ian Fleming, who would go on to create James Bond. For this reason, many believe that Stephenson was a model for 007.
In 1945, Stephenson was knighted for his services to England. He was also presented with the Medal for Merit by President Truman. In 1979, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. He would pass away in 1989 at the age of 92.
In 2008, he was made an honorary member of the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps. Only two other non-Americans have this honour.
There is a library in Winnipeg named for him, as well as statue of him in the city. Several streets are named for him as well.
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