I’ve been meaning to do this for a bit.  In Douglas Bland’s Uprising, General Andrew Bishop is named after (and in story he’s the descendent of) the real life William Avery “Billy” Bishop, who was a Canada’s top Ace pilot during the First World War, and was a General training new pilots within the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the Second World War.

There’s a number of things that can be said about Billy Bishop.  He was a man with a tremendous ego, and there’s been a number of accusations raised that he was shameless self-promoter.  He was also was a superb pilot and fighter, and a man of undeniable ruthlessness who fought on the Western Front during the Great War, and was dedicated to training new pilots during the Second.

Winged Warfare
Cover is of the 2018 re-print (image via Amazon.com).

The thing is, it’s not just an argument of historians we’re dealing with here.  While many of the Empire’s Great War Aces (like Albert Ball) died, Billy Bishop not only survived but was also a writer.  His memoire ‘Winged Warfare: Life during the War of a Canadian Flying Ace’ was penned shortly after he’d been awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917 (and his list of aerial victories was only forty six).  We also have numerous letters and journal entries that have since come to light to give us at least some measure of the man.

So here’s the real life Billy Bishop on the nature of WW I aerial combat.




Here’s what he had to say about the nature of aerial warfare:

I had learned that the most important thing in fighting was the shooting, next the various tactics in coming into the fight, and last of all flying ability itself.  The shooting, as I have said before, I practiced constantly and became more and more expert at it, with the result that finally I had great confidence in myself, and knew for a certainty that if I only could get in a shot from one of two of my favourite positions, I would be successful in downing my opponent.  

[With regards to a pilot who can’t shoot] …thus the flying part, although perhaps the hardest to train a man for, is the least important factor in aerial fighting.  A man’s flying ability may be perfect.  He may be able to control the machine and handle it like no one else on earth, but if he goes into a fight and risks his life many times to get into the right position for a good shot and then upon arriving there can not hit the mark, he is useless.  Unable to shoot his opponent down he must risk his life still more in order to get out and away from the enemy, and that is why I put aerial gunnery down as the most important factor in fighting in the air.  

Tactics are next important because, by the proper use of the best tactics, it is so easy to help eliminate risks and also so easy to put the enemy at a great disadvantage.  Surprise is always to be aimed for.  Naturally if one can surprise and get into a proper position to shoot before he is aware of your presence, it simplifies matters tremendously, and there should be no second part to the fight.  

[Discussion on different positions and their advantages/disadvantages]

An extraordinary feature of these fights which occupied any length of time, and entailed such manoeuvring, was the fact that they were generally indecisive, one machine or the other finally deciding that for some reason or other it must quit and make good its escape.  In nearly all cases where machines have been downed, it was during a fight which had been very short, and the successful burst of fire had occurred within the space of a minute after the beginning of actual hostilities.  [emphasis mine]

He also regularly speaks of the importance of keeping a constant lookout from incoming enemy planes, and describes how (paradoxically) it was often easier to attack a large formation (where everyone complacently assumes someone else is watching) versus a pair or a lone aircraft (where a sense of vulnerability kept everyone’s head on a swivel).  It’s worth noting that Billy Bishop started his aerial career as an artillery spotter in a two man plane where it was his job to find targets on the ground while the pilot kept them in the air.

Although he doesn’t say it outright in the memoire, I get the impression this gave him the chance to develop a ‘situational awareness’ of what aerial combat looked like before he earned his full wings and took his life in his own hands.  As a result, by the time he returned to front as a solo flyer, he was already highly experienced.

This also suggests a rather uncomfortable fact that a lot of his aerial victories were likely against rookie pilots who hadn’t yet developed this awareness and thus were easy targets to surprise.  Many of his descriptions in ‘Winged Warfare’ have him dropping out of the clouds in behind a German formation, diving below to build up speed, then cutting sharply upwards so that the length of the  underside of the last plane’s body would be square in his sights.  More than anything else, he was an ambush hunter.  And he was very good at it.

I’m not trying to make Billy Bishop out to be an opportunist or a bully or something. I do however, think it’s necessary to scrape away some of the mystique that we often apply to the wars of the past.

Let me be absolutely clear here: In terms of the cold, hard calculus of war, picking off a rookie pilot is a good idea.  You kill him before he gains the experience to become a threat to you or others, and if you peel away enough rookies and you’ll put more and more of a burden on the experienced pilots.  This means they’ll have more work to do and fewer people to rely on, making them easier to kill in turn.  It’s a brutal calculation to make but in a war it’s the right one to make.

This calculation is evident in his description of the famous ‘Dawn Raid’ (2 June, 1917) where he launched a solo surprise attack on a German aerodrome just as it was waking up first thing in the morning.  A lot has been said (and exaggerated, and criticized) about this raid.  Some say that Bishop grossly exaggerated his victories in the action, but a few things are worth noting.

First, while he claimed to strafe several planes on the runway, it was unclear how much damage he caused.  Since they were unmanned at the time, he probably shot a number of holes in their wings and bodies, and possibly damaged an engine or two, but this wouldn’t have been irreparable.  So it’s reasonable to say that, as long as the pilots survived, those planes would have flown again within days.

On the other hand, Bishop did claim three aerial kills in the raid as well.  For that time period three kills in a single day was virtually unheard of (especially given that his Nieuport 17 only had a single Vickers Gun firing one single belt of ammo.  The thing is, these kills were all of planes struggling to take off down the runway in response to his raid.  Bishop was (legitimately) a crack shot, and he’d explicitly planned his raid so that he’d have targets which were moving too slowly to evade.

So there’s a pretty real likelihood that he brought down three enemy planes in his raid.  And the fact that he did makes the whole affair a pretty nasty business.

Our second piece for consideration is the two-man stage play ‘Billy Bishop Goes to War’ starring (as well as written and produced by) Eric Peterson and John Gray.

Billy Bishop goes to War
As the blurb suggests, it’s the kind of performance that calls for a glass of whisky to sip (image from imdb.com).

The play draws heavily off of Bishop’s writings, including personal letters home and journal entries in which he was far more candid then in the works he’d intended for publication.[1]  Eric Peterson (a Canadian acting legend) plays the titular Ace as an old man, wandering through an attic full of memorabilia from the War and reminiscing out loud about his experiences.  John Gray provides musical accompaniment on a piano and periodically steps in to voice people from Bishop’s past.

The play itself has been around for decades, with the duo taking various perspectives on Billy and how he may have really felt. The version they finally committed to film in 2010 takes on a more melancholy tone, with an elderly Peterson now comparable in age to the version of Bishop he is playing, and the effect seems to really add some insight to the man.   In this production, Bishop muses over his improbable path to becoming a pilot (he was poor student at RMC and only managed to get into flight school due to family connections via Lady St Helier), and the deeply unsettling nature of his fame when he proved to be a natural at aerial combat (Lady St Helier was insistent that he play the part of a hero and regularly arranged events for him to attend).  The sense is of a man affected by loss who has always felt alone, and the staging of the production supports this.  Although the play includes music in addition to John Gray’s piano, the film deliberately shows the orchestra pit and indeed the entire audience to be empty.

John Gray (playing the piano) accompanies Eric Peterson as Billy Bishop (on top of the piano).  I thought it looked ridiculous too, but by the time we’d reached this point in the story, I was totally fixated.

There are haunting moments when Billy recalls his encounters with British Ace, Albert Ball (whom he considered his better, even as he competed to outdo him in the sky).  Ball is the one credited with giving Bishop the idea for the dawn raid – which was originally going to be a two man job – and the play hints darkly that the whole idea may have been a dramatic effort at self-destruction rather than a tactical manoeuvre or a quest for glory.

Another scene describes the moment when Bishop was forced into a crash landing and just narrowly managed to come down on the Canadian side of the front.[2]  After a surprised encounter with a Canadian infantry Sgt (Peterson hilariously plays both roles while hunkered down behind a suitcase, propping up a helmet on his fist to create the Sgt’s silhouette), Bishop gets his first up close view of the War, and the lighting shifts to make the attic’s furniture look the debris of No-Man’s Land.

Peterson and Gray seemed to have read between the same lines I did with ‘Winged Warfare.'[3]  Their take of Bishop is kindly and sympathetic, but nevertheless cognizant that this was a war, and that Billy was very good at killing the enemy.  In one of the final monologues in the play Bishop describes his forty sixth kill, in which he surprised a German observation plane:

Suddenly I see this German plane heading right towards me…

It’s a gift!  I don’t have to think about it!  I put it down into a steep dive, come up underneath him and rake his belly with bullets!…

…and Jesus…I don’t know how they build those planes because the whole thing just fell apart before my very eyes.  I mean…the wings came off and the fuselage just collapsed!

…and the pilot and the gunner…they fall free and I’m pretty sure I didn’t hit them, you see…so they’re alive and there is nothing I can do to help ’em or to shoot them or anything!

I can just sit there and watch as the fall…wide awake…to die!  It’s awful!

I know I killed lot of ’em!  This is different!  I watch ’em fall…down…down…down

…one minute…

…two minutes…

…three minutes…

It’s like I can feel them looking at me.

A scene similar to this is described by Bishop in  ‘Winged Warfare,’ although at the time of writing (1917) he simply described it as “not a nice sight…I could not put them out of their misery, so I remained above and watched them fall.”  It’s ultimately a matter of interpretation as to how the real Billy Bishop felt about it and all the other pilots he sent to their deaths.

Ultimately it’s not possible to truly know what Bishop thought about all of this.  If maybe he had a change of heart as he grew older and wiser is hard to know.  There’s a hint of this kind of self-awareness in our third piece for consideration: The 1942 film Captains of the Clouds.

Captains of the Clouds
I just want to say that, for all their cheesy bravado, there’s a certain admirable courage to be found in movies made about the war before they knew how it ended.  (image from imdb.com)

This film (a rare colour film made during the Second World War) was meant to be a rousing piece of pro-allied propaganda where a group of Canadian bush pilots sign up to fight for the Allies against Nazi Germany.  It…doesn’t age that well.  Although it includes surprisingly in depth performance by James Cagney as the rash and headstrong Brian MacLean, it also includes some frustrating stereotypes, and rather baffling misogyny.[3]

Setting this aside, one of the key scenes takes place at Uplands Air Force Base in Ottawa, where the Air Marshall General Billy Bishop (played by himself) gives a convocation speech to a graduating class of real life British Commonwealth Airmen.

Uplands Grad Parade
The yellow paint scheme was standard for training planes.  If you’re in Ottawa and want to learn (and see more), go check out the Canadian Aviation & Space Museum).

This scene is not staged.  These are real life Canadian and British Commonwealth pilots and airmen.

Assembled Airmen

The men assembled here are real pilots and air crewmen bound for the war.  This was happening at a point in time when the outcome of the war was not know, and many of the bloodiest battles for the Allies (and Canada in particular) were not known.  And this was the real Billy Bishop sending them off.

Bishop speaking-2
There’s a bit of a sound pitch change at one point in the speech, suggesting a change in the microphone during the recording, but otherwise this was a real life speech by an actual VC recipient to a class of new pilots.

So here’s what he had to say:

“Men…the wings which I am about to present you…are a flying insignia with great traditions behind it. You have earned them after a long and arduous period of training…and they proclaimed to the world that you have accomplished your first job.  That you are entitled to undertake tremendous responsibilities. This wings are the symbol of gallantry.  You go forth from here…highly accomplished pilots.  Your training has been equal to and better than anything that the enemy can provide.”

“In a short time…and possibly in a very short time…you will be – and we all envy you – in active contact with the enemy. When you are in contact with that enemy…I want you to remember that we here at home are determined that you will have the fullest help and support that it is in our power to give you.”

“We will never let you down!”

“I am so glad to see here today, you men from the British Isles…along with our Canadians…you men from loyal Quebec…from the great plains of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, from British Columbia and the far west…and from all the other provinces.  But also you who are from from our great sister dominions Australia and New Zealand…and those of you who have come from as far as the Argentine. And also you gallant lads from the United States. Who have come up here to help and serve with us.”

“Now, it gives me great pleasure, to award you your wings.  I know, that you will always be proud to wear them…and I know that the Force will always be proud that you have them on your chest.”[5]

The plot events which surround this speech ends up detracting pretty heavily from the moment,[6] but it’s worth listening to what Bishop had to say to these young men about to follow in his footsteps.

Bishop’s speech here would have been carefully vetted to inspire and motivate, and added to that was the fact that he knew this particular ceremony was being filmed for use in a Hollywood movie.  At the same time…many of the new pilots shown in this film would not live long enough to see it reach theatres.  This was a reality for us during the war.  It’s an unsettling fact that the RCAF had 17,101 killed in action, coming close to rivalling the Canadian Army that lost 22,917 (source).

Given that the lion’s share of these deaths hadn’t yet happened,[7] there’s no getting around the fact that Air Marshall Bishop knew full well that – as he was speaking – the bulk of Canada’s wartime casualties were going to come from the men assembled before him that day.  Listen to that moment when Billy’s saying “We will never let you down!”  Tell me that’s not a guy who’s worried for his men.  Tell me that’s not a guy who knows what it’s like.

In the final scenes of ‘Billy Bishop Goes to War,’ Peterson – as Bishop – sadly contemplates the idea of other young men just like him going off to another war.  The play ends with him singing one of the play’s earlier, heroic songs, this time as a kind of requiem.  The camera pans over the audience again, and we are reminded that while Billy Bishop is lost in his thoughts, he is no longer alone.

***Featured Image from Captains of the Clouds.  The flag behind Gen Bishop is the old RCAF flag.  The modern flag had the Canadian flag in the upper left hand corner instead of the Union Jack.***


[1] Among other things, entire passages of monologue are lifted (with minor modifications) from Winged Warfare.

[2] The story itself did happen, although not quite as dramatically as the play suggests.  That particular sector of the front was relatively quiet at the time.  Upon landing, Bishop was able to enlist the help of several Canadian soldiers to push his plane into some dead ground to keep it safe from German shelling (which was relatively light at the time).   He then spent the night in the trenches before help was able to arrive from his aerodrome the next day.

[3] I knew about the play long before I ever saw it (which was barely a month ago).  As you may have noticed, I got a bit of an ‘everyman’ prejudice, and I naturally resisted reading about celebrated war heroes.  In preparation for this post, I read Winged Warfare (and drew my own conclusions) before watching Billy Bishop goes to War.  I got to say I have a whole new respect for the late Mr. Bishop as well as Mr Peterson and Mr Gray.

[4] There’s a scene with a sham marriage that (apparently) is meant to punish a woman who (I think) would have led some other man on…maybe?  It really is baffling but it’s staged in a way that it seems like the audience was supposed to know exactly what they were talking about.  This makes it feel like an artifact of a really different time.

[5] Transcribed by the author from the DVD in its entirety.  The ellipses represent dramatic pauses in Billy Bishop’s speech.

[6] In my opinion, it’s clunky as fuck and strikes me as borderline disrespectful.

[7] The bulk of the Canadian Army’s casualties came from the invasion of Italy and from the Normandy landings, followed by the campaigns in the low countries.

2 thoughts on “Billy Bishop – Let’s have a proper introduction…

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