What Billy Bishop did that has caused so many questions.

First, the known facts. On 2 June, 1917, Billy Bishop took off in his Nieuport 17 no. B1566, from Filescamp Farm Aerodrome, NW of Arras, France at 03:57AM local time. He landed back at Filescamp at 05:40AM, with 17 bullet holes in his aircraft, and the trailing edge of his plane (not specified whether it was upper or lower plane) shot away in two bays, AND his Lewis gun was missing from it's usual place on the upper wing now the story of his Lewis gun not being on his machine when he returned seems to be wrong!!

Now, for the disputed part. Bishop claimed that upon crossing the trench lines, he went to an aerodrome where he thought he'd find enemy aircraft. Instead he found an empty aerodrome. He then ventured approximately 4 miles SSE and came across another aerodrome that had 7 machines parked in front of hangars, some of which had their engines warming up. In the ensuing fight, he shot down 3 and chased away a 4th. Billy Bishop also claimed to have strafed the field, and observed one or more people on the ground fall down.

The problem of course is that Bishop did this by himself. Consequently he had no witnesses. Another problem was that he wasn't sure which airfield he attacked. During WWI, due to the short range of the aircraft involved, the front was literally littered with aerodromes on both sides of the lines. And range wasn't calculated in miles, but in how long you could stay airborne before you had to refuel. Most single-seat fighters had an endurance of between 1.5 and 2.5 hours. This assumed you were flying at cruising speed, and at an optimal altitude, usually somewhere between 5,000 and 10, 000 feet.

The problem we have with the Nieuport 17 is the various sources that have data on it. I've seen a low endurance of 1.5 hours, and a high of 2.5, depending on who wrote the article. So who do we believe? Well, The National Aviation Museum of Canada has operated a working, nearly exact replica of the Nieuport 17C1 (including a real rotary engine) since 1963. And the fact sheet they give out (Fact Sheet No. 17) lists the endurance as between 1 hour 45 minutes, to 2 hours and 15 minutes. I assume the difference is accounted for in the various altitudes it would be working at. The other problem with this aircraft is it has a limited throttle. My understanding is that it has maybe 3 different settings. Consequently, it usually was used at full speed most of the time. It's maximum speed was 107mph at 6,500 feet. And it's max at 10,000 feet was 101mph.

The late Philip Markham did a very detailed study of this, which I'm not going into. Suffice it to say that he makes a several good points. One of which goes against the idea that Bishop didn't have enough fuel to be gone as long as he was. Mr. Markham also points out that it would ONLY have been possible for Bishop to have made the round trip if most of his flying was done at medium altitudes, which for the Nieuport 17C1 would be between 5,000 and 10,000 feet.

Regarding the length of time of Bishop's patrol, something that few people have mentioned is that Bishop apparently landed on his side of the lines to ask for directions. You see, he was lost. Depending on how long he was on the ground, this would account for his "appearing" to have been out flying for over 1 hour and 45 minutes, when in fact, he wasn't! This story of his landing behind Entente lines to ask directions was told by him to Willy Fry, one of his supposed detractors. Willy Fry apparently made mention of it in his book "Air of Battle". So much for not having enough fuel.

Much has been made of the fact that Bishop returned without his Lewis gun. Some people (read Paul Cowan and the NFB) would have us believe that it's nearly impossible to remove this gun while in flight. Bob Bradford, formerly of the National Aviation Museum in Canada will tell us differently. I'll not go into it here, except to say you should check out the document "Expert Testimony" and decide for yourself. Of course, since this now appears to be false, you can skip this entire part of the subject.

Another problem is witnesses, or lack thereof. Before Bishop left on his fateful mission, he attempted to get his deputy flight leader, Willy Fry to go with him. Unfortunately, Fry had been up celebrating something the previous night, and was not feeling up to going with. Bishop decided to go it alone, even though some tried to talk him out of it. So, he went alone, did what he had to do, and came back. Now, according to William Arthur Bishop, Billy Bishop's son, and the writer of his biography, "Courage of The Early Morning", Arthur had a conversation with Spencer "Nigger"1 Horn, in which Horn told Arthur that he and others overflew a German aerodrome later that day, in the vicinity that Billy Bishop had claimed to have made his attack, and witnessed apparent destruction and damage below. Now, some have come forward and said that Horn never made that flight. I don't know. Some have suggested that Arthur was lying to protect the reputation of his deceased father. Since Spencer Horn is now dead, I doubt we'll know with certainty. So you will have to decide this one, for yourself. But ask yourself this, would you knowingly publish a lie and attribute it to a man who was alive at the time, and able to refute it? I wouldn't. I'd be setting myself up for all kinds of trouble.

The next problem is that of the German records. First, not many of them survived both world wars. In fact, I have reliable information that the original war diaries of only two German Jastas survived, 35 and 24. Almost without exception, anything else you might come across is a copy. Now, according to modern wisdom, the most likely Jasta that was the target of Bishop's early morning attack was Jasta 20. Unfortunately, the original war diary for this unit no longer exists. What we have instead are parts of hand written copies made back in the 1930's. The interesting thing is an assertion is made that these records are "available and quite complete". Yet, for a period of May 27, 1917 until July 11, 1917, there are only 8 entries, none of which mention an early morning raid on 2 June, 1917. In dealing with the copy of the Jasta 20 War diary, mention is made that Tornuss, the German historian who copied it, only copied those items that he was concerned with. He apparently left out first names of pilots, serial numbers of aircraft, and other information, as he wasn't concerned with that information. It seems to me the Jasta 20 war diary isn't as complete as it's made out to be.


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1Please try not to be alarmed. The term "Nigger" did not have the same meaning throughout most of the then, British Empire, now Commonwealth that it has had throughout most of the USA. It's only been more recently, I'm informed, since a certain rather infamous trial made the so called "N"-word more universal.

Created April 16, 1999
Last updated: April 26, 2001
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