by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
The unexpected death of Manitoba-born William “Billy” George Barker, as a result of a plane crash in Ottawa while flying a new aircraft, sent Canadian military officials scrambling to organize a funeral for one of Canada’s most famous First World War aces.
“Orders were issued asking all units of the Toronto garrison forces, both permanent and non-permanent,” according to a March 13, 1930, Canadian Press dispatch, “to have detachments at the funeral, in uniform if possible.
“Simultaneously his comrades in arms, particularly members of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during the Great War, got in touch with one another and arranged to pay their last tributes to him. Toronto holders of the Victoria Cross also arranged to attend the funeral in a body.”
Befitting the man, who received a Victoria Cross (VC) for aerial combat in the skies over Europe, six airplanes were organized to circle above the gun carriage that would carry Barker’s coffin to its place of interment.
Among those journeying to Toronto was his mother “Mrs. George (June) Barker ... accompanied by her two daughters Mrs. Neil Anderson and Miss Edna Barker.” They were to meet in Toronto by “George Barker, the deceased aviator’s father, and his brother Percy, both of whom are leaving Chicago to attend the obsequies.”
When the funeral was held on March 15, thousands of people lined the two-mile procession route.
“Fifty airmen from Camp Borden headed the cortege,” according to a CP dispatch dated March 16, “marching with arms reversed and the grief of comrades on their faces.”
Immediately in front of the Union Jack-draped coffin was the Toronto Scottish Regiment Band, and behind the coffin came R.M. Geary, Thomas Holmes, W.R. Rayfield, Colin Baron, and H.H. Robson, who like Barker, had won VCs during the war.
The pallbearers included VC recipient Major William McDowell, and Wing-Commander Croyle. Lieut.-Col. Eberle McIntrye, Group-Commander Lindsay Gordon, Wing-Commander Breadner and Squadron Leader Godfrey of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
A simple service was held in the St. Claire Avenue home of Barker’s father-in-law Horace Smith.
“A little girl, the colonel’s daughter stood in the room sad-faced, yet with the curiosity of a child, as she watched mourners take a last look at the crushed face and form which lay within (the coffin).”
With the service over, a 3,000 contingent strong formed into regiments and the band began to play the Death March to usher Barker to his final resting place.
“Fifty thousand persons stood in tribute, lining block after block. Barker to them meant the heroic youth of Canada who fought and flew, taking their chances, day after day, gay and uncomplaining, during the tense years of war. He had survived countless conflicts and brought down more than fifty planes of the foe.”
Actually, it was 50 airplanes, making him Canada’s third ranking ace, behind William “Billy” Avery Bishop (72) and Raymond Collishaw (60).
At the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, his comrades hoisted the coffin on their shoulders and mounted the slope leading to the mausoleum of his wife’s family.
“The air force men shouldered their rifles and three volleys spoke. A bugle sounded and with its last note came the rattle to musketry in the ‘present arms.’
“Out of the sunny, cloudless sky came a plane, flying close to earth, to rain rose petals on the coffin. With a great whir it droned away, its duty done.”
It was a stirring tribute to a man raised on a Manitoba farm. But then again, Barker was Canada’s most decorated war hero. From the end of the First World War to his death at only age 35, Barker was a “celebrity” in the true sense of the word. His exploits in the air became the stuff of legend and were known and admired on both sides of the Atlantic.
The official board of inquiry into the crash that took Barker’s life concluded “the cause of the accident was an error in judgment on the part of the pilot in performing aerobatics without sufficient altitude for safety.”
Eyewitnesses to the crash said Barker took a new Fairchild airplane “up for a flip,” during which the machine seemed to stall in mid-air when Barker attempted a steep climb. The airplane then plunged 300 metres to the ground. Pilots at the crash scene said Barker had pushed the aircraft, powered by just a 90-hp engine, beyond its capabilities.
Barker was born on November 3, 1894, in a log cabin on a farm near Dauphin, the oldest of nine children. He spent hours each day of his early childhood riding horses and shooting, and any money he earned went towards ammunition. His hours of practice led Barker to become proficient with a service rifle at Dauphin and Winnipeg competitions.
At the time of Barker’s enlistment, his attestation papers give his father’s address as Dauphin, Manitoba. His father, G.W. Barker, was listed as his next-of-kin. Subsequently, Barker signed a form instructing that his pay be sent to June V. Barker, his mother, at Box 464, Dauphin, Manitoba. Later, the Barkers would move to Winnipeg, living at 62 June St., and after that Chicago.
Barker enlisted at Brandon on December 23, 1914. According to his attestation papers, his “apparent age” was listed as 20 years, two months, and his height was given as 5-foot-10 1/2. His eyes were grey and his hair light brown. At the time of his enlistment, Barker said he was a student attending “collegiate” — he was in his last year at Dauphin High School.
Following basic training, Barker shipped overseas with the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR) on June12, 1915, with the rank of private. He qualified as a 1st Class Machine Gunner at Shornecliffe, England, on September 9 and six days later was sent to France. While on the Western Front, he was dismounted, given a machine gun and sent to the trenches. The machinery of modern warfare, such as machine guns, massed artillery and the advent of tanks, made cavalry attacks on enemy positions redundant.
Without their horses, the CMR became the brunt of a German taunt. Just 300 metres from the Canadian trench, the German’s had erected a sign in English that must have exasperated Barker and his comrades. It read, “Canadians where are your horses?”
Barker would languish in a trench on the Western Front for eight months.
After viewing a dogfight overhead, Barker decided that trenches filled with mud and shared by men and rats the size of cats — they grew fat feasting on the partially-buried corpses littering No-Man’s Land — was not to his liking, so he set out to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). His first attempts were unsuccessful, but his war service records show that he was struck off the strength of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada (more commonly referred to as the Canadian Expeditionary Force, or CEF), and was given the rank of corporal in the RFC, joining No. 9 Squadron as an observer.
In addition to being an observer expected to pinpoint and photograph enemy positions and artillery, Barker manned the rear-mounted machine gun in a single-engine two-seater BE2c reconnaissance bi-plane. Soon Barker demonstrated his skill with a machine gun, killing a German pilot flying a Roland scout bi-plane. It was a remarkable feat, as German fighter pilots referred to the obsolete BE2c aircraft as “meat on the table.”
Two weeks later, Barker downed another Roland and as a result began to have his name mentioned in British military dispatches.
By April 2, 1916, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the RFC.
Wounded during the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916 — it became synonymous with the futility of frontal assaults on well-fortified trenches defended by machine guns —Barker was patched up and sent back into the air, since pilots and observers were in short supply.
BE2c aircraft were easy targets for more nimble German fighters, so as a matter of self-perseveration, most pilots on reconnaissance missions turned tail in order to avoid aerial combat with the enemy. But Barker and his pilot were the exception to the rule. While flying over German lines to photograph the area around Cambrai, they were attacked by two German fighters which they fought off. Four German planes then appeared and they were again attacked and again the two men fought them off, which resulted in Barker receiving his first decoration, the Military Cross, “For conspicuous gallantry in action.”
Intent on earning his pilot’s wings, Barker left for flight training at Narborough, England, on November 18, 1916. Training was rudimentary at best with the result that the average life expectancy of a rookie pilot at the front was just 11 days.
Baron Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s top First World War ace with 80 kills, said, “When one has shot down one’s first, second or third opponent, then one begins to find out how the trick was done.”
Unfortunately, few rookie pilots ever got to the point mentioned by Richthofen. Many lost their lives trying to get the hang of aerial dogfighting, shot down by enemy pilots before they could master the necessary skills.
In January 1917, Barker was posted with No. 15 Squadron, flying an RE8 reconnaissance airplane. Since death was so common among pilots, survivors such as Barker were quickly promoted. He was made a captain and became commander of C Flight.
In March, he shot down an enemy plane. In April, he directed artillery fire on a trench filled with 1,000 German troops, which earned him a promotion to flight commander and another bar for his Military Cross.
In August, he received a head wound, but still managed to land his badly damaged airplane. Just as before, he was patched up and sent back out to fight.
Barker was sent to England in September 1917 to train other pilots. It was while in England that he first flew the fast (192 km/h) and highly-manoeuvrable single-seat Sopwith Camel fighter, an aircraft that he used when back in France with 28 Squadron in October 1917.
While leading a bomb run by French Spads, German Albatros DIIIs attacked. In his Camel, Barker shot the wings off an Albatros, which plummeted to the ground.
A few days later, his patrol ran into a flight of two-engine Gotha GIV bombers of the Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Air Service). He shot out one bomber’s engines, but neither side incurred any losses.
Barker became an ace (five planes downed) just two days later when he shot down two Albatros aircraft.
In one incident, Barker and his flight of four Camels were attacked by 12 Albatroses. “I dived at one and fired about 50 rounds and he went down in a vertical dive,” wrote Barker of this encounter. “His top wing folded back to the fuselage and later the lower wing came off.”
Barker was then transferred to the Italian-Austrian front with his squadron. In October 1917, the Italian army had collapsed at Caporetto under an onslaught of Austrian and German troops, leaving an opening for the enemy troops to flood through. To help stem the tide, the Allies shored up the Italians and sent French and British aircraft and aircrews to protect the passes over the Alps into Italy.
“In Italy began the long story of success after success (for Barker), battles in the air that invariably ended with enemy machines whirling to earth in a mass of flames (Manitoba Free Press, March 13, 1930).”
The pilots found new challenges confronting them in the Alps, such as flying at high altitude in bitterly cold conditions. In addition, the Austrians posted anti-aircraft guns strategically overlooking valleys and ravines the pilots were forced to fly through at heights of up to 8,000 feet.
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 with severely frostbitten extremities.
(Next week: part 2)