A CONTARY opinion on Billy Bishop

By Alex Revell

Although I made only a cursory reading of the comments by the champions of Billy Bishop on the site dedicated to him, I was appalled by their ignorance of their – presumably – chosen subject: WW1 aviation. I was even more appalled to find that from this position of ignorance the champions of Bishop have been so crass as to denigrate dedicated researchers who have been actively engaged in WW1 aviation research for over forty years. Has it ever occurred to them to question what possible motive the so-called detractors could have in putting forward the results of their research. They have no personal axe to grind and they certainly have no personal animosity towards Bishop himself. To those of us who have been researching since the early 1960s the doubts about the validity of Bishop’s claims have been an open secret for many years, especially those of us who were fortunate enough to meet and become friends with ex RFC/RAF pilots from the period. Their views on Bishop – which in those I met varied from amused tolerance to outright contempt - were backed up by researchers in the field. If two of these researchers had not been so disgracefully attacked in the Canadian Senate, after their confidential views had been abused by the makers of the film - an attack which meant that they had to defend themselves by presenting the evidence - the secret would still be kept. No one, throughout the years, had any wish to give offence to the members of Bishop’s family still alive.

The other person so disgracefully attacked by a member of the senate was a distinguished pilot, who had served in France with the infantry in1914, had survived the retreat from Mons, transferred to the RFC and had flown throughout the war, mainly at the Front, with very little time in Home Establishment.

A particularly odious senator had the audacity, with no knowledge of this pilot’s service record, to accuse him of cowardice because he had declined to accompany Bishop on the morning of June 2 1917. When informed of the pilot’s service record he did not even have the decency to apologise.

However, leaving aside all the minutiae of the argument, the basic points in dispute are these.

1. The raid on the German aerodrome on the morning of June 2 1917 for which Bishop was awarded the Victoria Cross.

2. Bishop’s victory claims.

Starting in 1978 the late Philip Markham began an investigation into the aerodrome raid. Markham was a retired RAF Engineering Officer, a scholarly Canadian researcher with a world-wide reputation for thoroughness and fairness. In a subsequent article published in Over The Front (Fall 1995 issue) he stated ‘ This research was started out of personal curiosity, and in the hope that I might find confirmation of the claims made by Capt. William Avery Bishop concerning an action on 2 June 1917 for which he was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross. I understood that this was the only occasion on which a VC was awarded solely on the testimony of the recipient The evidence which came to light over a period of 15 years was not what I had expected. History seldom contains detailed accounts of policy or incidents unpalatable in terms of national pride. Legend is preferred to truth, which seldom affects entrenched ideas.’ Later in the article Markham recounts that in one of his early letters to an ex RFC pilot he stated. ‘ My research is primarily out of personal curiosity, but I would dearly love to remove any doubts about Bishop’s integrity’

The article is very scholarly, technical, and concerned only with facts, and is too long to detail here, but I would urge people to obtain a copy and read it for themselves. Markham summed up: ‘My attempt to confirm Bishop’s claim to have attacked an enemy aerodrome and to have destroyed three enemy aircraft on 2 June 1917 has been altogether unsuccessful. I have been unable to discover any supporting evidence; in fact it has been quite the reverse. The point has come when the facts have to be faced, when the opinion of his comrades and contemporaries that Bishop was a fake and when the comment in the Nachrichtenblatt der Lusftstreitkrafte, which describes the aerodrome attack as fictitious, must be taken seriously, and weighed against the character of the man . I have spent a number of years in a thorough investigation of this award and believe I have covered all available aspects. The evidence, from both British and German sources, shows that there were no aircraft losses in the Jastas of 2 or 6 Armee on 2 June 1917, and indicates very clearly that the aerodrome attack never took place. There is not a shred of evidence to support Bishop’s claims.’

Markham then addresses the question of the VC having been awarded on the basis of ‘personal evidence alone’. ‘The answer lies in Rule 12 of the Royal Warrant, which defines the action required if “a claim, though thoroughly well founded, may not have been immediately established on the spot”. This paragraph was evidently included to protect the Monarch should the claim fail to be established, and implies that “the joint submission of Our Secretary of State for War and Our Commander in Chief of Our Army,” could only have been an endorsement in the expectation that “conclusive proof of the performance of the act of bravery “ would be forthcoming.

In Bishop’s case, apparently the only one of its kind, the joint submission was evidently the point of no return for the recommendation, because at this juncture unofficial knowledge of the recommendation must have been fairly widespread. Withdrawal would have been an unacceptable political embarrassment to the British and Canadian governments.’

I would strongly urge that all people interested in getting to the truth of this question read this extremely fair, unbiased and scholarly article by the greatly missed Markham..

Bishop’s victory claims.

The late Ed Ferko was an American who had studied the records of the Luftstreitkrafte for nearly fifty years. His knowledge of the of the arm was unparalleled, equalled only by the British researcher in the same field, Alex Imrie. Ferko carried out an evaluation of Bishop’s victory claims using the Verlustliste der Deutschen Luftstreitkrafte., the records of Kofl 2, Kofl 4 and Kofl 6 and the unit histories of the German Jasta operating in the same area of the Front as 60 and 85 Squadrons at the time in question. At the conclusion of his researches Ferko commented. ‘ It is not a pretty picture. I have checked every possible German book, letter or record in my hands, looking for information either pro or con – nothing has been withheld which might confirm or deny any of Bishop’s victories. I have failed to match a single victory claim made by Bishop against a known German loss for the day, time and place in question’.

I hope this will be of interest to the visitors to the site and will clear up a few misunderstandings. No one wants to destroy a legend, or denigrate a national hero – Bishop was a boyhood hero of us all. Research is undertaken purely in the pursuit of truth. Otherwise the study of history becomes a farce.

My comments on Mr. Revell's statements

First, I would like to say that I don't agree 100% with what the Canadian Senate did in their investigation into the NFB movie "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss". But I do for the most part agree with their findings on the movie.

As for the historians who were "attacked" by the Senate members, they did come forward, I presume at the request of Paul Cowan, to help him defend the movie. And we all know how politicians are.

And I have read Mr. Markham's article, which I have to admit, casts doubt on Bishop's claim. But given that, still, it is not conclusive. By the way, this is MY opinion.

Regarding Bishop's claims not matching German losses, why don't even 1 of Bishop's witnessed claims match up to German losses? In the Grub Street book, "Above The Trenches", they can only match two to German losses. Yet, Bishop had 20+ witnessed claims. And of his 72 "confirmed" victories, 2 were shared. Yet, NONE of his witnessed claims nor either of his shared claims can be matched to German records!

The conclusion to this is that either Bishop and his witnesses lied, the Germans lied in their records, OR, there are still missing records. I prefer to believe the later.

With regards to the Luftstreitkrafte report that referred to his aerodrome raid as fictitious, I guess no one ever denied anything for propaganda purposes before. I'm not saying that's what happened, but I think it's a possibility that we can not overlook.

However, for each "respected" historian that has come out against Billy Bishop, I've seen books and reports from just as many that support him. So, which do we believe?

I don't know, but as long as there is doubt, why shouldn't I believe Bishop??

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Created: June 23, 2000
Last modified: June 28, 2000
©2000 by Albert Lowe, All rights reserved.
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