Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Billy Bishop VC
Lone Wolf Hunter - The RAF Ace Re-examined
Grub Street, August 2014
Peter Kilduff is an acknowledged expert on the air war of WW1. I reviewed his biography of Rudolf Berthold, the German fighter ace, here. This volume explores the status of William Bishop, who went on to become the highly decorated leading scorer in the Allied camp. I have not read any of the other biographies of this Allied ace.
Once in the pilot’s seat, Bishop soon developed an overweening focus on securing leadership of the Allied victor’s table. Some idea of his tunnel vision is given by the fact that he forgot to buy a ring for his long-desired engagement to Margaret Eaton, of the plutocratic Canadian retail family. His letters to her from France form the key source of this book. In these he is prone to exaggeration in his desire to impress. At least he has some vestige of literary ability (unlike some letter writers of the era): “I felt completely a hero for having come through this visit to the baptismal font of war”…
He was fortunate early on to gain a mentor in the shape of Lady St Helier. This formidably well connected lady (I am channelling Maggie Smith in Downton), secured a timely transfer to pilot training, and ,later, the right postings. She was, for example, the great-aunt of Clemmie Churchill.
Kilduff’s style is drily academic, as he seeks to establish whether Bishop’s grandiose claims are warranted. Although his conclusion is cagey, most readers will I think conclude that Bishop over-egged this cake more than somewhat. His preferred strategy was lone wolf missions – so there were no accompanying colleagues who could verify his claims. Once he reached 20 or so kills, the authorities seemed relaxed in going along with this hero in the making. The circumstances of his gaining a VC for one such lone wolf mission are rather odd – it would seem the heavy hand of politics came into play with his award (as it had before, and would again).
His work rate was prodigious – it is miraculous he did not suffer more from combat stress. But his attitude evolved into little more than blood lust. I would not like to be in the same squadron, nor even share a mess with him. I longed to hear more from his squadron colleagues about their views on Bishop. Although several later published biographies in the Twenties and Thirties, by then Bishop’s hero status was well-entrenched, and they probably felt it was unbecoming to undermine that. Unvarnished, contemporary, views would have been most welcome. Bishop's candle was kept lit by his son, Arthur, who went on to become a fighter pilot in WW2, and died only in 2013.
One of the more intriguing photos in the book shows Bishop in a Berlin club, after the war, being entertained by his former foes – including a slimline Herman Goering! By WW2 the very senior Bishop became not only a figurehead for recruiting, but also played a key role in the liaison between North American and British air forces.
There are copious footnotes, many of them superfluous. Kilduff’s focus on establishing the veracity of Bishop’s kills leads to a dry volume which will be of interest to a limited audience of WW1 aficionados. This readership makes all the more strange the occasional explanation – such as that, in a two seat trainer, one seat is for the instructor, the other for the pupil!
This left me looking for a biography that gave greater insight into this unappealing character.