by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
In his book, William Barker, VC: The Life, Death and Legend of Canada’s Most Decorated War Hero (2007), Wayne Ralph wrote that “a typical patrol was two and one-half hours, and this could stretch to three. The many handling conditions of the Camel, its unheated and cramped cockpit, the high cruising altitudes maintained without supplemental oxygen, the noise and vibration of the rotary engine, and the drizzle of castor oil (used as an engine lubricant), all combined to drain even the most robust fliers.”
After many flights, pilots had to be wrenched out of the cockpit due to exhaustion, while others emerged from their aircraft with severely frostbitten extremities.
Despite the conditions they faced, “Almost every day, and often two or three times a day, the pilots of C Flight would take to the air,” wrote Ralph. “Usually they were led by Barker, sometimes by (William “Willie” Carral) Hilboun (from Kersley, B.C.) or (William Myron) MacDonald (from Vancouver).”
It was on the Italian-Austrian front that Barker, the farm boy from Dauphin, Manitoba, proved his prowess as a fighter pilot. His 43 victories were the result of a mere 26 air fights, an extraordinary feat unmatched by any other pilot regardless of what front the enemy was engaged.
Despite flying well over a hundred missions, top aces such as Barker and William “Billy” Avery Bishop didn’t always encounter enemy aircraft. In fact, such encounters were rare and missions were more often tedious and fatiguing rather than involving harrowing aerial combat.
Bishop, Canada’s and the British Empire’s leading ace, when remarking on Barker’s prowess in the air, said: “In single combat, pilot against pilot, no enemy, German or Austrian — not Richthofen himself — could have stood against the fierceness of a Barker attack and live to boast of a victory.”
The fierceness of Barker was exemplified by an attack on an enemy aerodrome. Barker was not above bombing and strafing enemy troops, installations and machines on the ground, as disabling and killing the enemy was his occupation whatever the circumstances.
And all sides strafed and bombed ground troops. During the First World War, such missions were regarded as essential to battlefield strategy. Although at first rudimentary, such attacks evolved in intensity and became more effective as the war progressed.
Barker specifically trained his squadron in ground strafing tactics to eliminate casualties among his pilots from anti-aircraft fire. The men on the ground were far from helpless and shot back whenever they saw enemy airplanes approaching. In the process, they brought down many aircraft.
Barker’s training involved having “my pilots attacking and setting on fire a partly filled two gallon petrol tin. This was ideal for ground attack and its effects were quickly visible.”
V.M. Yeates, the author of Winged Victory, who survived four crashes while flying a Camel, called strafing “the last occupation on earth for longevity” and “the great casualty maker.”
The only time Barker showed any discomfort while strafing was when attacking horses — a reflection of his riding days on the Canadian prairies — but he realized it was “a military necessity” as “trained horses were very valuable.” In the First World War, horses were used to bring supplies and equipment to the front, as well as to transport death-dealing artillery, weapons of the modern age that accounted for the highest percentage of casualties.
During an unauthorized flight, Barker and wing man Harold Byrne Hudson from Victoria, B.C., took off on Christmas Day to strafe an enemy aerodrome. Since the flight was unauthorized, neither pilot made an official report on the actual aerodrome attacked, which eventually created varying stories about their mission.
When he arrived back at Grossa, Barker, in part, scribbled out in his log, “attacked hostile aerodrome with good results.”
Years after the war, Capt. John Mitchell, who served with Barker in 29 Squadron, wrote: “On X-Mas Day 1917 Barker and a pilot named Hudson decided to do an impromptu raid on Motta aerodrome (Austrian) about two miles over the lines. They secured a large piece of cardboard and wrote on it, ‘To the Austrian Flying Corps from the English RFC (Royal Flying Corps), wishing you a merry X-Mas.’ They proceeded to shoot up the hangars and the personnel on the ground.”
Ralph and other sources, such as 28 Squadron records, indicate the aerodrome was San Fior, 50 kilometres north of Venice, where a German squadron was based. The German military record of the raid reported two Canadians shot up the San Fior aerodrome.
In a letter to his parents (reported July 1, 1918, in the Free Press), Barker wrote that on Christmas Day he attacked a German aerodrome with one of his mates. Flying low, they found their objective — Germans getting out of their airplanes.
“Capt, Barker dived six times riddling the mechanics with machine gun bullets, then turned his attention to a hangar of three planes and set them on fire with incendiary ammunition.”
The two Canadian pilots fired about 400 machine gun rounds into a hangar and it burst into flames. It was later reported that 12 pilots and mechanics were killed.
American writer Ernest Hemingway in his short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which appeared in the August 1936 edition of Esquire magazine, gives a fictionalized account of the raid, glorifying Barker as a violent and exciting hero.
Hemingway, who drove an ambulance as a volunteer on the Italian front during the war, wrote: “Barker had flown across the lines to bomb the Austrian officers’ leave train,” Hemingway wrote, “machine-gunning them as they scattered and ran. He remembered Barker afterwards coming into the mess and starting to tell about it. And how quiet it got and then someone saying, ‘You bloody murderous bastard.’”
Whatever version is told, Barker’s attack prompted a reprisal raid. But the Germans (some accounts say Austrians) were feeling the effects of over-indulgence from their Christmas Day celebrations. Many were still drunk or else severely hungover. The attack was fouled up from the beginning as they headed for the wrong aerodrome, attacking Istrana instead of Grossa where 28 Squadron was based. In the process, nine German bombers were lost to Italian fighter pilots. One pilot was still so drunk that he became disoriented, ran out of fuel, landed, and was found sleeping when captured by the British. Despite less than accurate bombing, the Germans did manage to kill one British and five Italian mechanics, while wounding several others.
Barker received the Distinguished Service Order, Britain’s second highest military award, “when on scouting and patrol work he has on five different occasions brought down and destroyed five enemy aeroplanes and two (observation) balloons, though on two of those occasions he was attacked by superior numbers. On each occasion the hostile machines were observed to crash to earth, the wreckage bursting into flames. His splendid example of fearlessness and magnificent leadership have been of inestimable value to his squadron.”
Barker’s leadership was legendary. Under his command, no one flying with him died, nor was any aircraft escorted by him shot down by enemy pilots.
According to an official description of a May 24 dogfight: “Capt. Barker attacked the rear EA, which spun down ... Capt. Barker observed three DVs diving from the S. towards lts. Birks and Apps, who were engaging the remaining two EA in the valley. Capt. Barker got under the tail of one of these EA unobserved and after firing about 40 rounds EA went down out of control ... Capt. Barker fired another short burst at (second) EA who went down out of control and dived vertically into the same hutments where Capt. Barker’s first EA burst into flames.”
A second bar for his Military Cross was added “when leading patrols, he on one occasion attacked 8 hostile machines, himself shooting down two, and on another occasion seven, one of which he shot down. In two months he himself destroyed four enemy machines and drove down one, and burned two balloons.”
In a letter to his parents, dated May 26, 1918 (reported in the July 1 Free Press), Barker related that he had been decorated with the Croix de Guerre, a French medal for valour. He would also receive the Italian Cross of Honour.
Despite his record, Barker was passed over when it came time to replace the commander of 8 Squadron who had left for Britain. Slighted, Barker demanded a transfer to another squadron, which was granted.
“The only plausible explanation for Barker being slighted seems to be that he was a colonial officer,” wrote Dan McCaffrey in his book, The Lives and Times of Twelve Canadian Fighter Pilots. “Few Canadians were given positions of authority in the RFC (Royal Flying Corps), regardless of how well they did. It wasn’t impossible for a man from Canada to get ahead, but it was at least twice as difficult as it was for a Briton.”
In a November 22, 1930, article for the Free Press, S.V. Baucutt, who served as Barker’s private secretary and pay clerk on the Italian Front, wrote that the Canadian aviator sighted a squadron of “Austrian aircraft, at the same time two Italian machines were nearby and he signalled to them to come to his assistance and fight, but when the Italians saw the odds were against them they decided to turn tail for home and left him by himself. He took the numbers of the retreating Italians and went into the scrap alone. The result was he brought three down and the other three decided that a retreat was more beneficial to their safety.
“One of the examples of his audacity was a challenge he sent to three Austrian aces and dropped by air on the Austrian aerodrome to meet him (Barker) in mortal combat. The actual challenge follows:
“‘Major W.G. Barker, D.S.O., M.C., presents his compliments to Capt. von ____, Baron von ____, and Major von ___, and requests the pleasure of meeting them in the air to a fight in mortal combat. Major Barker will fly over ____ aerodrome every morning during the ensuing week promptly at 10 a.m. Signed Major W.G. Barker.’
“Needless to say he was there, and for three mornings, although they saw him over the appointed place, not one machine rose to keep the appointment; they knew what to expect if they did.”
During his last months in Italy, Barker served with 66 Squadron and then with 139 Squadron. In the latter case, Barker was its commander and promoted to major, but it was a hollow victory, as it was a squadron that flew Bristol two-seater bombers. But Barker defied regulations and took his Camel fighter to the airfield and used it to escort the bombers under his command on missions. Barker proved to be so effective on the escort missions — never losing a bomber — that the British finally realized his value as a propaganda asset to the Allied cause and decided to remove him from harm’s way.
In September 1918, Barker left Italy to take command of the pilot training school at Houslow, England. Barker convinced RAF headquarters to let him go back to France for 10 days to study the enemy’s tactics. He was given a Sopwith Snipe and joined 201 Squadron of 13 Wing. The RAF gave Barker 10 days to learn about the enemy’s tactics, and was then to return to England.
But before he crossed the English Channel, the fighter ace would have his most memorable dogfight, which made him famous at home and abroad.
According to Barker’s official citation for his Victoria Cross: “On the morning of the 27th October, 1918, this officer observed an enemy two-seater over the Foret de Mormal. He attacked this machine, and after a short burst it broke up in the air. At the same time a Fokker biplane attacked him, and he was wounded in the right thigh, but managed, despite this, to shoot down the enemy aeroplane in flames. He then found himself in the middle of a large formation of Fokkers, who attacked him from all directions, and was again severely wounded in the left thigh, but succeeded in driving down two of the enemy in a spin.
“He lost consciousness after this, and his machine fell out of control. On recovery he found himself being again attacked heavily by a large formation and singling out one machine, he deliberately charged and drove it down in flames. During this flight his left elbow was shattered and he again fainted, and on regaining consciousness he found himself still being attacked but, notwithstanding that he was now severely wounded in both legs and his left arm shattered, he dived on the nearest machine and shot it down in flames. Being greatly exhausted, he dived out of the flight to regain our lines, but was hit by another formation, which attacked and endeavoured to cut him off, but after a hard fight he succeeded in breaking up this formation and reached our lines, where he crash landed.”
A Morning Post article reported, “The story of his fight against a horde of enemy planes records the most astounding individual aerial combat on record ... The enemy aircraft flew above and about him like a cloud of vultures till those who watched breathless from below made the toll of them from 50 to 60.”
The battle with the entire Jadgeschwadrer 3 (Jagd means Hunt, while Geschwadrer means wing) made up of Fokker DVIIs was observed by thousands of troops on the ground, including Canadian General Andrew McNaughton. From their vantage point, the troops cheered Barker’s exploits as he weaved his plane through the air, shooting at the Hun aircraft.
“The hoarse shout, or rather prolonged roar, which greeted the triumph (of Barker) and which echoed across the battle front was never matched,” said one artillery colonel.
Barker had downed his 47th, 48th, 49th and 50th enemy aircraft of the war.
Badly wounded, Barker headed for the Allied lines, fleeing at top speed. His plane hit the ground, flipped onto its nose and then over onto its back. Troops from a British Highland regiment pulled Barker from the wreckage. They later remarked that it was a miracle that Barker had survived the crash.
The fuselage of his Snipe aircraft was recovered from the battlefield and is preserved at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Barker recovered from his wounds in No. 8 General Hospital in Rouen, France, where he received telegrams of congratulations from King George V and the Prince of Wales . His aerial battle was so spectacular and so well reported on both sides of the Atlantic that there was never a doubt that Barker would receive the Victoria Cross (VC), the British Empire’s highest award “For Valour.” And such became the case on November 20, 1918, nine days after the armistice came into effect ending the First World War.
Reporting on the “aviator who fought sixty Hun planes,” the November 18 Free Press headline was Dauphin Boy Hero of Thrilling Feat.
Canadian Headquarters in London wanted news of how the nation’s newest war hero was faring in Rouen.
“He is lying badly wounded ... and the newspapers here and in Canada, as well as his many friends, are very anxious to know particulars of his wounds and likelihood of recovery, and all about him,” read a November 27 letter from a Major Bristol to Lt.-Col. A.L. Hamilton from Canadian Section, Third Echelon.
One of those who was officially sent to visit Barker was Capt. B. Johnston, who filed a report on January 6, 1919: “I found Major Barker was making excellent progress and the Medical Authorities were very well satisfied and pleased with his condition and progress towards recovery.”
The expectation was that Barker would be sufficiently recovered to be transferred to a hospital in England.
Barker recounted his last battle to the captain: “It had begun by him going up to 22,000 feet to get a two-seater (a Rumpler C reconnaissance aircraft). He told me that when going after this one, he did not act with his usual care in seeing that there was not a trap laid (a common tactic was for fighter pilots to use slow and lumbersome reconnaissance airplanes as bait), and when he downed the Hun two-seater, he found fifteen Huns below him (note that Barker does not mention 50 to 60 fighters as others witnessing the dogfight did). Two machines came after him and he got the first wound in the left hip. He attacked the Hun who had wounded him bringing him down, then bringing down the other machine which was attacking him with the second machine, which was brought down. He was later wounded in the left arm (his elbow joint was shot away, leaving only a muscle connection) and fell quite a distance before regaining his machine. After doing so, he brought down the Hun who gave him his last wound. During the later action he had only the use of (his) right arm, guiding the machine and using the right machine gun at the same time. He was unable to shut off the engine which was controlled from the left side.”
Barker’s chief regret? According to the report, it was that he would be unable to play hockey, baseball or water polo due to the disabling wound to his left arm. His left arm and the other wounds he suffered would continually pain Barker for the remaining days of his life.
In another letter home following the momentous dogfight, Barker wrote from Rouen: “By jove, I was foolish, but anyhow I taught them a lesson. The only thing that bucks me up is to look back and see them going down in flames.”
The Royal Air Ministry in London sent a cable to his mother, saying her son had been transferred to England and was well along the road to recovery (Free Press, January 22, 1919).
Barker was among the fortunate, as most of the First World War’s top aces were dead by the time the war in Europe ended in 1918. Even Baron Manfred von Richthofen, nicknamed the “Red Baron” and the war’s top ace with 80 airplanes downed, was killed. Roy Brown, another Canadian flyer with the RFC, is credited with downing the German ace.
While British officers, educated on the playing fields of Eton, initially believed aerial combat was “sport,” it soon became evident that the “knights of the sky” were not involved in gentlemanly jousts, but were engaged in a war of attrition similar to their counterparts on the ground. The RFC between 1914 and 1918 lost 16,623 pilots, which was 50 per cent of its force, and 62 per cent of its planes were downed. The French lost 7,259 pilots and the Germans 16,054.
Aerial warfare was deadly and ruthless, with the outcome depending upon the skill of pilot, his machine and a healthy dose of luck. Barker happened to be skillful and lucky, allowing him to survive the war unlike many of his contemporaries.
In 1919, Barker returned to Canada and with Billy Bishop formed the Bishop and Barker Company, the first commercial airline in Canada, which flew out of Toronto’s Island Airport. After legal and financial problems, and a serious crash, the partnership and company was dissolved
In 1920, Barker joined the newly-formed Canadian Air Force (Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924) and was sent to England as a liaison officer with the rank of Lt.-Col. He returned to Canada in 1924, resigned from the RCAF and started to develop the tobacco industry in Norfolk County, Ontario.
Conn Smythe was so impressed by the tenacity of Barker that in 1927 he named him the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A serious bout of pneumonia forced him to sell his tobacco interests, but he recovered and accepted the presidency of Fairchild Aviation Corporation in Montréal. It was the company’s two-seater Fairchild KR-34 airplane that Barker was flying at Rockcliffe Aerodrome in Ottawa when he plummeted to earth and lost his life.
Following his death, tributes were received from some of the First World War’s most successful aviators, including Eddie Rickenbacker, the United State’s top ace with 26 planes downed. He said Barker “was one of the most courageous pilots developed during the Great War. In fact, he often risked his life and good judgment for the protection of his fellow pilots, who were less efficient, by attacking at great odds, without thought of his own welfare ... The science of aviation and the citizens of Canada have lost a great soldier and patriot.”
After the largest state funeral in Toronto’s history, Barker became “Canada’s forgotten hero.”
Surprisingly, Barker wasn’t even buried under his own family name, but that of Smith, the maiden name of his wife.
It wasn’t until this year that a monument was finally erected to the “deadliest air fighter who ever lived,” as Bishop referred to him, in front of the Smith family crypt in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery where Barker is interred.
In Dauphin, a municipal airport, a street and an elementary school are named after Barker.