Beyond Reproach

Here again is an opportunity to weigh the evidence. The NFB quotes Willy Fry, and D.W. Warne who is reported to have obtained opinions from other pilots who either flew with Bishop or who knew him.

On the other side, no one as yet seems to have brought up the name of Bill Barker, VC, certainly one of the best known contemporaries of Bishop among Canadian pilots who flew with the RFC. Barker apparently had enough confidence in Billy Bishop to go into business with him after the 1914-1918 war.

A rare insight into how Billy Bishop's contemporaries felt about him is outlined in a letter from Air Marshall Leigh F. Stevenson of Vancouver to Senator Hartland Molson quoted in the minutes of the Senate Sub-Committee of October 30, 1985

Dear Senator
I was astounded to learn that there is a campaign afoot to discredit the name of Air Marshall A. Bishop, VC, DSO, MC, DFC and question his entitlement to the Honours and Decorations he was awarded in World War I. I was more astounded to hear that the National Film Board of Canada was considering production of a film supporting this campaign If there is any question as to Air Marshall Bishop's creditability or his entitlement to his honours, why was this left until this late date when he and most of his contemporaries are dead and few left to defend his good name. There are only a few of us left, nearly all in an organization called "World War One Flyers" which perhaps held it's last meeting in May this year.

I talked with Major Don MacLaren(54 victories)*, Nick Carter(17 victories)* and George Howsam(13 victories)* within the last few days, all Fighter Pilots in France and well decorated for their achievements, they are amazed that a campaign to discredit Bishop should arise, let alone receive support from a government agency.

There is not only a reflection on Air Marshall Bishop but on every recipient of Honours and Awards, on all Commanders recommending such awards, and even on His Majesty the King who finally gave the awards.

The recent play "Billy Bishop Goes to War" was in fact a theatrical cartoon which did nothing to enhance the image of Air Marshall Bishop, and now this new venture to further destroy the image of a gallant fighter pilot.

Commanders in the Field are meticulous in scrutinizing recommendations for Honours and Awards before passing them on to the Commander in Chief for final approval and eventually to His Majesty.

I did not know Bishop during the First War but met him immediately after. From that time until his death we were friend and he was a friend to all those with whom he fought in World War I. They were the Officers who called him back to the RCAF to assist in the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Never was there a suggestion that he was not entitled to Honours and Awards with which he was decorated. And no one ever questioned his bravery.

I was in the Infantry during the first three years of the First War but during my 28 years in the RFC, the RAF and the RCAF I got to know a great many pilots who served in France with Air Marshall Bishop and between the Wars and during the last war met and knew personally most of the Commanders who served in France during the First War. These included Marshall of the Royal Air Force, Lord Trenchard, Air Chief Marshall Lord Portal, Air Chief Marshall Sir Sholto Douglas and never did I hear anything but the most complimentary remarks about Air Marshall Bishop. They were the men through whose hands recommendations for Honours and Awards would pass. They were all men of high integrity.

You, Senator are the best person I know of to step in and stop this nonsense about Air Marshall Bishop. You were a fighter pilot in World War II, highly respected in business, social and military circles, and, in the Senate of Canada. Your voice would be heard.

If there is anything we, surviving pilots of World War I can do, please call upon us, I am afraid you will have to move quickly as we are all in our nineties and time is running out.

Another dynamic piece of information was given to the Senate Committee from William Stevenson, author of the book Intrepid... The story of Sir William Stephenson, the Secret-Service agent who, among other things, negotiated between Sir Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosvelt during World War II.

Firstly, a telex addressed to Senator Hartland Molson as follows:

Bill Stevenson (the writer) telephoned re Billy Bishop. Have confirmed to him my knowledge of and confidence in Bishop to pass on to you. Glad to learn you are pursuing the subject of nefarious unwarranted posthumous attacks on Billy. Trust you will persist in your course. All good wishes and admiration
Signed Bill Stephenson (Intrepid) (12 victories in WWI)*
This telex was followed by a letter from William Stevenson, the author, quoting Sir William Stephenson; this is, Intrepid. The letter reads:
Dear Senator Molson
I spoke to Sir william Stephenson again today, and he repeated what he had told me two or three weeks ago with respect to his knowledge of Billy Bishop in the 1914-18 war. "We were flying the same type of fighter aircraft in the same sector," Sir William says, "In the last most active periods of the air war against the Germans, I got to know Billy Bishop by reputation and then through personal contact. To my certain knowledge, Billy Bishop was held in the highest regard by all those Canadian and British airmen who flew in combat at the same (time) as he did. All his words and actions were regarded beyond reproach, and representative of professional fliers of the time. We were a close-knit group. Nobody could have tried to mislead us about his individual actions without the truth becoming very quickly known: Billy Bishop never made any kind of false claim, to my certain knowledge. On one occasion, when the Germans were preparing for their last great offensive, we pilots were told there would be a weekend in Blighty for the top-scorers, Billy and I flew back to England for that prize weekend, and we flew back to the front greatly refreshed, and with an even closer knowledge of each other. I have the clearest recollection of finding Billy Bishop a gentleman who played, as he fought, according to a code of honour that makes it utterly inconceivable that he would have made claims he could not substantiate. And furthermore, that was the reputation he enjoyed among those who shared with him the actual fighting. I never heard a whisper of criticism against him, and it is nonsense to suggest that 'it was common knowledge that he exaggerated.' Such a comment could only come from someone who had no experience in the air. All of us made genuine mistakes at some time or another, inevitable in the swiftness of dogfights or other aerial engagements, but those mistakes generally got sorted out later when the survivors worked with the intelligence officers to crosscheck the details.

*I added the victory scores for the pilots mentioned. They were not part of the original letter. Nor were they in "Hanging A Legend". I thought some of you might be interested in knowing the scores of the pilots mentioned.

I'd say the story on who thought Bishop lied and who didn't is sort of mixed. There's definitely not a uniform "knowledge" of Bishop being a liar. Hell, on Cowan's film, he questions a WWI pilot, Cecil Knight, who flatly denies knowing of the story recalled by Archibald James. Knight says it was not in Bishop's character. So who do we believe???

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Created:January 20, 2001
Last updated: May 27, 2001
©2001 by Albert Lowe, All rights reserved.
Other than the parts marked by an asterisk, everything on this page from the title down to the first horizontal rule comes from pages 71 and 72 of "Hanging A Legend" by Cliff Chadderton, OC, O.Ont., DCL, LLD, and CEO of The War Amputations of Canada.
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