The Controversy over Billy Bishop

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Eighty-five years after the fact, the record of Canada’s first Air Victoria Cross winner still comes under fire.

By Steven Dieter

News headlines across Canada were ablaze earlier this week with news that The Making of Billy Bishop, a new book by a former Department of National Defence historian says that First World War flying ace Billy Bishop “was a brave flyer – and a consummate, bold liar.” The author, Brereton Greenhous, claims that the mission for which Bishop was awarded the Victoria Cross never occurred.

Some might ask, what is all the controversy about? Based on what evidence is this author staking his claim? And why is one of our nation’s heroes being attacked, 85 years after the fact and 45 years after his death?

The core of this debate rests on a mission Bishop flew in the early morning hours of 2 June 1917. Bishop, a Captain in the Royal Flying Corps already credited with 22 aerial victories, left quite early in the morning intending to strike a German aerodrome at dawn. On this mission Bishop shot down three enemy aircraft, two just as they barely made it off the ground. With other enemy aircraft taking off, Bishop made a hasty departure only to find himself below four enemy fighter scout aircraft. Bishop flew below these planes for quite some time in order to avoid detection. Once finally able to head for his home base, Bishop realized that he was not completely certain where he was. He would make it back but because he was disoriented could not give an exact location of his attack.

Senior officers in the British command investigated the matter fully, reviewing Combat reports, Squadron records, and other supporting documentation. The Victoria Cross was finally awarded to Bishop on 11 August after roughly two and one-half months of investigation. King George the Fifth presented Bishop his Victoria Cross on 30 August at Buckingham Palace. Also presented at this time were the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross Bishop had previously been awarded.

So what is Mr. Greenhous using as proof that the mission never occurred? It seems that the bulk of the argument rests on the belief that Bishop was a liar. After all, he cheated on his exams at the Royal Military College; Bishop himself acknowledges this in his autobiography Winged Warfare. Neither Allied nor German eyewitnesses could confirm some of his combat claims. As well, the German weekly activity reports Mr. Greenhous refers to do not indicate an attack or casualties on 2 June in the area where Bishop is believed to have flown his mission. Granted, these may not be the right Weekly Activity Reports but Mr. Greenhous assumes the reader to know this.

Mr. Greenhous also places a great deal of preponderance on the fact that the Victoria Cross given to Bishop was awarded for a mission for which there were no eyewitnesses. The fact that Bishop ended up flying this mission alone was not by his choice. This type of “dawn attack” was not part of normal Squadron routines and participation was completely voluntary. Bishop had asked fellow Squadron comrades to fly with him that morning. Each in turn declined, opting to stay in bed at such an early hour.

Sadly, nearly all those who would have been alive during this time have passed on. No known eyewitness accounts exist. In 1985, Group Captain A.J. Bauer (Retired), while researching Bishop’s record in France became aware of an eyewitness who was a likely witness to the early-morning attack. Regrettably, the eyewitness passed away before he could record his recollections of that fateful day for Group Captain Bauer.

Some German records, assuming they were recorded and filed properly, were destroyed in the German retreat of 1918. Access to the surviving records during the inter-war period was very limited. Any surviving records were consolidated in Dresden. When Dresden was bombed in 1945, the resulting firestorm destroyed a vast number of the old records. (Only two original Jasta War Diaries from the First World War are known to exist.) British War Office files on the Victoria Cross from the First World War were purged, most likely during the Second World War when there was an acute paper shortage.

So, why this attack on one of our national heroes after so long? Evidently Mr. Greenhous thinks his research has produced the “truth” about this particular event. This is a topic he has been working on for quite some time. Recently, David Bashow in his book Knights of the Air concluded that the volume of evidence, albeit circumstantial, supported Bishop’s claim. Interestingly, the two authors reviewed many of the same sources in reaching their published conclusions.

It is not inconceivable that Bishop may have been over enthusiastic in some of his reports. Research has shown that Bishop wasn’t the only one to err in this way. But a bold liar? During a 1928 visit to Berlin, Bishop became the first and only foreign Member of the German Ace Association. Surely the Germans were not willing to acknowledge the Great Allied Ace if he were a fraud, would they?

Growing up in Owen Sound and attending the same high school as Billy Bishop, I was aware of who he was from an early age. I know that in 12 years of reviewing and presenting the history of Billy Bishop, I have been asked whether I believed if the raid occurred. While there may be evidence or information that is far from conclusive, I believe that Bishop did fly this mission. Being a historian, I am always willing to review all information and sources. So far, nothing has swayed my opinion.

For 85 years, Billy Bishop has been part of Canadian history. He was and is viewed by Canadians, and other around the world, as a hero. His boyhood home has been preserved as a Museum. When talking about airplanes or World War One, chances are that most people know his name.

It’s a shame it takes a controversy like this for Canadians to take notice of their heroes.

Steven Dieter, a graduate student at the Royal Military College of Canada, is the former Historian of the Billy Bishop Museum in Owen Sound, Ontario.

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