Few individuals in the First World War have been as romanticized as the pilots who took to the air. The Flying Aces as they were known took a new form of warfare and became icons, celebrities and heroes. The most famous Flying Ace of them all was The Red Baron, but Canada had a large number of Flying Aces who found success when it came to kills. Of the top 12 Flying Aces of the First World War, Canada had four.
In this episode, I’m going to look at some of Canada’s greatest Flying Aces, as well as how Canada took to the air.
When the First World War began, Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence, would ask England what Canada could do to assist with military aviation. The response was that six experienced pilots were needed immediately. As Canada had only flown its first aircraft five years previous, there was a serious lack of experienced pilots within the country. As a result, Hughes was unable to fill the requirement.
On Sept. 16, 1914, the Canadian Aviation Corps was created. It consisted of two officers, one mechanic and $5,000 to be used to buy an aircraft and have it delivered to Valcartier Camp.
The Windsor Star would report quote:
“A Canadian Aviation Corps is now in the course of formation at Val Cartier under the direction of E.L. Janney.”
The plane would arrive on Oct. 1 and was sent to England. The next day, Don Brophy, a football star at McGill, would join the corps.
The damp climate quickly caused the plane to deteriorate, and it would never fly.
The Canadian Aviation Corps would cease to exist by the end of 1915. There would still be mentions of a Canadian Aviation Corps well into 1916 though. In October of that year, the Halifax Evening Mail reported that a Canadian Aviation Corps would still be established, stating quote:
“In connection with the government’s action in establishing an aviation school and aeroplane factory in Canada there is to be authorized, it is understood, a Canadian aviation corps.”
In 1917, training airfields would open in Canada by the Royal Air Force, where many flying aces would train. The Canadian government would also advance money to the Royal Flying Corps, so that an aircraft factory could be opened in Toronto, as was mentioned by the Evening Mail.
For Canadians who wanted to fly, they would instead enlist with the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Over 20,000 Canadians would volunteer to serve with the service. These branches were under British command, and Canada had little in the way of involvement, federally, when it came to military aircraft.
While Canadians flew under a branch of the British military, they would still make Canada proud and several of the Canadian pilots would find fame for themselves back home.
Flying was very dangerous, and the average lifespan of a First World War pilot was said to be only two months. Nonetheless, they became arguably the most famous soldiers of the war, remembered to this day.
So, let’s look at some of those amazing pilots.
Born in Gladstone, Manitoba on June 1, 1899, Claxton would enlist to fight in the First World War as a member of the Royal Flying Corps on his 18th birthday. After completing his pilot training, he was sent to the Western Front.
In short order, he became the most successful airman of his squadron, claiming 37 victories in the air in only 79 days. This was accomplished by shooting down several planes in a single day, multiple times. From June 27 to June 30, he shot down 13 aircraft and on June 30 alone he shot down six. Due to his free-wheeling style in the air, his planes were often the worse for wear. He would often return back to base with his planes shot up, and on at least one occasion, crash landed.
On Aug. 17, 1918, Claxton was shot down behind enemy lines. Suffering from a serious head wound, his life was saved by a German doctor who performed cranial surgery.
The Kingston Weekly British Whig would report quote:
“With 33 enemy planes to his credit in less than four months, Flight Lt. William Claxton now a prisoner of war.”
Captain Frederick McCall would say of Claxton quote:
Over the course of his flying career, Claxton was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar and the Distinguished Service Order.
Claxton remained a prisoner of war until the end of the war. He would return home to Canada in December of 1918. He spent rest of his life working as the financial editor for the Toronto Telegram and as the manager of the Claxton Financial Digest.
He would die on Sept. 28, 1967.
Born in Vernon, McCall moved to Calgary as a young man when he was 10 in 1906. He would enlist in February 1916 and by 1917 had transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. After his military training, he would shoot down his first German aircraft and be awarded the Military Cross for it. After his fourth kill in the air, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In June 1918, he shot down four aircraft and two days later shot down another five, including four in the morning. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
The Montreal Gazette reports quote:
“He drove down two enemy machines out of control and later engaged two hostile two-seater planes, one of them crashing. He has always displayed the greatest gallantry and set a high example to his squadron.”
In August 1918, he was ordered back to England, and then to Canada after contracting an illness. The war would end while he was recovering.
After the war, McCall became a stunt flyer. On July 5, 1919, he would crash-land his plane onto a merry-go-round at the Calgary Stampede when his engine failed. He would be uninjured in the incident, nor where his two passengers.
McCall would say quote:
“Right ahead of me was the race track around which the racing motor cars were going then at full speed. To land there was impossible without a terrible accident. On the other hand, farther ahead was another bunch of wires over the motordome. I saw that and in the short space I had to go, it would be impossible to put on the power sufficiently to cause the machine to rise and clear those wires. I saw no place to land except in the crowd in the midway, or on top of the merry-go-round. It was that or nothing, so I cut off the power completely and let her drop. It all happened in a second.”
In 1920, he would found McCall Aero Corporation Limited, which pioneered aircraft service in the region. In 1928, he founded Great Western Airways. In 1929, under his company, he flew a doctor to the Skiff oil fields to help two injured workers.
When the Second World War began, McCall became a squadron leader at various Canadian bases.
He would die on Jan. 22, 1949, at the age of 52.
In 1939, the Calgary International Airport was named for him, although that name is no longer used on the new airport. Calgary-McCall, a provincial riding, has been named for him, as is McCall Way in Calgary.
Born on July 14, 1894, in Carleton Place, Ontario, Breadner earned his wings at the Wright Flying School and joined the British Royal Naval Air Service on Dec. 28, 1915.
Flying in the No. 3 Naval Squadron during the First World War, he would earn the Distinguished Flying Cross on May 23, 1917. He was awarded the medal for shooting down four planes on April 6, 1917. On the morning of April 11, 1917, he would shoot down another plane.
He would meet the King in May when he was presented as the commander of the squadron who brought down the most planes with the smallest number of casualties.
One of his most notable events in the war was when he took a pilot as prisoner. He had engaged in combat with him at 10,000 feet, firing 190 rounds into his engines and forcing him to land. Breadner would write home and describe it quote:
By the end of the war, he was a major in the Royal Air Force.
In 1920, he became Squadron Leader and transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force when it was formed in 1924. In 1922, he would become the Controller of Civil Aviation, and then commanded Camp Borden from 1924 to 1925. From 1928 to 1932, he was the Director of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
In 1940, he became the Chief of Air Staff and was promoted to Air Marshal on Nov. 19, 1941. In January of 1944, he was made the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief RCAF Overseas. One year later, he was the Air Chief Marshal, becoming the first Canadian to hold the rank.
On March 14, 1952, Breadner would pass away in Boston. In his life, he was awarded the Military Cross, the Order of the White Lion, The Legion of Merit and the Commander of the Legion of Honour, among other medals.
One of the greatest pilots in Canadian history, Collishaw was born in Nanaimo, BC on Nov. 22, 1893. Growing up in Nanaimo, he spent time in Victoria and Oakland as he followed his father while gold mining. At the age of 15, he would join the Canadian Fisheries Protection Services as a cabin boy, where he would remain for seven years eventually becoming a First Officer. When the First World War began in 1914, he was originally going to join the Royal Navy because of his experience on the sea, but due to not hearing back from them over his enlistment, he instead went to the Royal Naval Air Service. He would train at the Curtiss Aviation School and would travel to England in January of 1916.
On Aug. 2, 1916, he was deployed to France. It was not until Oct. 2, 1916, that he had his first confirmed victories. Spotted by six German scouts, they opened fire on him. He would state later quote:
“The affair opened with a stream of bullets that went right into my goggles, sending powdered glass into my eyes. I was hardly able to see at all and could do little more than fling my Strutter about, hoping it would hang together in one piece.”
He was able to shoot down one German pilot during the air battle. Due to the injuries to his eyes, he could not see his compass and used the sun to position himself to travel back to Allied lines. He would finally see an aerodrome and he brought his plane in for a landing. He would write quote:
“I began taxiing towards a number of hangars in front of which stood a line of aircraft. Something about the machines struck me as odd but it was not until I got quite close to them that I understood why. Each one bore the Iron Cross markings of the German air force and I had put down at a German field.”
He quickly took off from the aerodrome and finally found his way to a French aerodrome where he received medical treatment for his eyes.
Collishaw would eventually transfer to the No. 10 Squadron, known as the Black Flight, which was made up of Canadians flying the Sopwith triplane. Collishaw’s plane was the Black Maria. This fighting group would be highly successful, shooting down 87 enemy aircraft from May to July 1917. Of those, Collishaw shot down 27 German planes and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.
After taking a three-month leave, he would be posted with the Seaplane Defence Squadron and was made commander of the unit.
After the war, he emerged as one of the top pilots from the conflict and the second highest scoring Canadian pilot of the war, with 60 air victories.
In 1919, Collishaw was one of the officers selected for a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force. As a pilot, he would fight the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War.
From 1924 to 1925, he would attend the Royal Air Force Staff College.
By the time the 1930s came along, Collishaw was no longer the brash pilot he had been during the First World War, but a mature and senior officer with a great deal of experience.
When the Second World War began, he would become the Royal Air Force operational commander in Egypt. He would use his forces to harass the Italians, without weakening British strength in the Western Desert. His squadrons played a major role in Operation Compass, which was launched on Dec. 9, 1940.
He would write in his memoirs quote:
In July 1941, he was shipped back to the United Kingdom. He would eventually leave the Royal Air Force in 1943. He would retire due to medical reasons that forced him to spend time in the hospital.
In 1945, he returned to Canada and embarked on a career in the mining industry. He would also become a historian of the First World War in the air and work to unravel the mystery of who shot down the Red Baron.
He would die on Sept. 28, 1976.
Born in Ottawa on May 28, 1893, but raised in Calgary, MacLaren would move to Montreal in 1912 to study at McGill. After becoming ill, he moved to Vancouver and then operated a fur trading post with his brother and father near Peace River. While there, he would learn to speak Cree.
In 1916, after the fort closed, Donald joined the Royal Flying Corps and trained at Camp Borden.
On Nov. 23, 1917, he was sent to France and joined the No. 46 Squadron. In February 1918, he would shoot down his first German plane.
On March 21, 1918, he destroyed a railway gun with bombs, shot down two Germans and shot down a balloon. For this action, he was awarded the Military Cross.
After this, MacLaren would fall ill with the Spanish Flu, and was then hit with trench fever.
In September 1918, he took over command of the squadron after the previous commander was killed in action.
MacLaren was able to avoid being injured while in the air but in October 1918, he would break his leg while wrestling with a friend at the squadron headquarters. He returned to England, and then was sent to Canada. For his leadership of the squadron during the last few months of the First World War, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
In all, he shot down 54 German aircraft, despite not seeing his first combat until the last year of the war.
When the Royal Canadian Air Force formed, he would join and was put in command of Canadian pilots in England. It was under his command that 112 aircraft were granted by the British Air Ministry to form the Royal Canadian Air Force.
After leaving the RCAF in 1924, he would form Pacific Airways.
He would pass away on July 4, 1988.
Bishop is 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. There was a reason they called him Hell’s Handmaiden.
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 four aircraft and destroying many more on the ground. He would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts. The Evening Mail reported quote:
“Captain Bishop first flew to an enemy aerodrome, finding no enemy machine about, he flew to another. Seven machines with their engines running were on the ground. He attacked these from a height of 50 feet, killing one of the mechanics.”
One of the planes took off the ground but he was able to shoot it down by firing 15 rounds into it. A second machine took off and he shot that down with 150 rounds, crashing it into a tree.
The Evening Mail reported quote:
“Two more machines rose from the aerodrome, one of which he engaged at a height of 1,000 feet, sending it crashing to the ground. He then emptied a whole drum of cartridges into the fourth hostile machine and flew back to his station.”
He would return to Canada as a hero in 1917, where he got married to his longtime fiancé 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 on September 11, 1956, at the age of 62. The Windsor Star would write of him quote:
It would continue, speaking of how his life changed as he became more know, stating quote:
“Fame, wealth and social position had made little change in Billy Bishop. The honorary air marshal and substantial citizen of 1940 had the same cheery, affable manner as the unknown lieutenant who started shooting Germans out of the skies in 1917.”
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 on Oct. 27, 1918, 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.
The Ottawa Citizen would write quote:
“After a short fight the enemy broke up in the air. Another German machine attacked, and he was wounded in the right thigh but managed to shoot the German down in flames. A large formation of German machines then attacked Major Barker. He was wounded in the left thigh but drove down two of the enemy. Major Barker lost consciousness for a few minutes but recovered when he was again attacked.”
He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts. He would finish the war with 50 kills, and be awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and two Bars, the Silver Medals for Military Valour and more.
Following the war, he became the director of the RCAF and was promoted to Colonel. He 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.
The Windsor Star wrote quote:
“Colonel Barker died, perhaps as he would have desired to die, serving his country even in peace and advancing the cause of aviation. He met his death in an airplane which he was testing, a hazardous task for even the most skillful flier.”
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.
The Windsor Star would state quote:
“Colonel Barker is dead, a victim of the art which he had, during and since the war, helped to make safer but he has left an example and a memory that can never be erased from the minds of Canadians.”
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 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.
After he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the London Gazette reported quote:
Following the war, May returned to Canada and opened Canada’s first airfield near Edmonton. He also 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 diphtheria and needed medicine immediately. There were no roads to the location at the time, and May, along with Vic Horner, was asked to deliver the medicine by plane.
As they were flying, they were forced to land when the baggage compartment, which had a charcoal heater in it, caught fire. The serum was stored in there and they were forced to throw the heater out and place the serum in their pockets, armpits and groin to keep it warm.
After flying for three hours that day, the men landed at McLennan as it was becoming too dark to continue flying. The Edmonton Bulletin reported the following, “The overnight stop was made at McLennan not only to refuel but also for comfort as both May and Horner were suffering from the cold and could have continued on to [Peace River] last night without first landing and getting warmed up. It was then, too late to attempt a landing on the Peace as Wop has had previous experience here and knew the difficulties of poor visibility.”
In regards to landing at Peace River, May would later state quote: “If you people here only fully realized the strain it puts on a flying man to have to try and dodge the steel wires of the government telegraphs crossing the river and with the railway bridge a mile below and hemmed in by immense hills, you would get behind a movement to have those steel wires transferred to the bridge.”
After getting more fuel in Peace River the next day, the two men continued their flight and landed in Fort Vermilion at 3 p.m. just as a group from Little Red River were arriving.
The drugs were quickly handed over to Dr. Hamman, and people in Fort Vermilion were inoculated. This was done thanks to a dance that was held that night. When someone entered into the dance hall, the RCMP required them to have an injection of the serum.
Both Little Red River and Fort Vermilion would receive the inoculations and there would be only one death.
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 lake. The Mad Trapper, Albert Johnson, was soon engaged by the RCMP and killed in a firefight.
May flew down and landed next to the officer, put him in his plane and flew 201 kilometres to a doctor. This action saved the life of the officer.
Years later, May would state quote, “I was up overhead when RCMP Inspector Alex Eames was coming round the bend of the river. Johnson tried to run up the bank to get out of his way. He didn’t have his snowshoes on, and he couldn’t make it, so he came back into the centre of the river, dug himself into the snow and the fight started. We were up on top, circling, watching the fight and taking pictures of it.”
In 1935, May would become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire with the rank of Officer in the Civil Division.
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.
May would later say quote: “It was hard to get at them and they could not land, that was what gave us the idea for the rescue squad. A fellow said he had done all kinds of parachute jumps. I wanted to see him put on a demonstration. He and four besides himself jumped, not one of them had jumped before. We kicked them out over the airport. One guy landed on the wing of an aeroplane and went right through. The other guy landed on the American Officers’ Mess and another guy landed flat footed on the runway. It was not very good. We tried it again. The next guy came down wrong, one landed on his fanny on a pile of rock, he bounced about six feet. I got nervous and thought I would not like to see these fellows jump in the bush. We talked to the Americans. There was a very fine fellow by the name of Colonel Nightingale. He arranged that we sent some people to Missoula, Montana where they trained smoke jumpers. We got these people started and we then got them organized and trained more people and used them until the end of the war. The Air Force thought so much of them they took over our complete unit and operated it as the Search and Rescue unit.”
He would pass away while hiking on June 21, 1952.
The Victoria Times Colonist reported quote:
“Long before Charles Agustus Lindbergh made history on his solo Atlantic hop, Wop May was beginning to be a legend in the book of mercy flights. To the young people of Canada, he typified the spirit of aviation which has become a national tradition.”
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.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Virtual War Memorial, Weekly British Whig, Wikipedia, Halifax Evening Star, Owen Sound Sun Times, Windsor Star, Victoria Times-Colonist, Macleans