My Review of Peter Kilduf's book on Billy Bishop

Billy Bishop, VC
Lone Wolf Hunter
The RAF Ace Re-examined

This latest book by the well known author and historian Peter Kilduff takes on the enormous task of detailing the aerial combats and claims of Billy Bishop. In the process, the author delves into the quagmire that is the controversy surrounding the great Allied ace. While Bishop was officially credited with 72 confirmed victories in WWI, some people think his score is actually less. And, more than a few think he fabricated many of his claims.

The most controversial is his famous aerodrome raid of 2 June 1917. This is the exploit for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Many doubters are of the opinion that this attack did not happen. They point to the weekly "Nachrichtenblatt" intelligence summary that reported no early morning attack on any German airfield for 2 June. It lists the day's western front casualties as one dead, and eight wounded.

What is also not mentioned in other books is that at roughly the same time as Billy's attack near Cambrai, a flight of DH-4s (2-seat bomber aircraft) from 5 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service were attacking the Bruges Docks, on the Bruges-Ostend ship canal to the North Sea. This raid was reported in both "The Times" newspaper and "Flight" magazine. Yet, there was no mention in German territory, about either attack. I should mention, the RNAS crews claimed one German fighter shot down, and one chased off.

Another factor to take into account, it was always assumed by those of us who don't think Billy lied that his attack took place in the area he set out for, around Estourmel, Esnes or Awoingt. This would have put his attack in the German 2nd Army area. Not his usual area of operations, opposite the German 6thArmy area. Peter points out it's possible that perhaps Billy flew north of Cambrai. Possibly to the German aerodrome at Emerchicourt. Peter also discovered that, according to the US Naval Observatory's Astronomical Applications Department, sunrise occurred at 6:03 am, local time that day. It was precluded by 89% illumination from the moon. Based on that, Bishop would have been flying and fighting in partial moonlight, not early morning sunrise, as some have written.

Now, why is it possible that Billy flew north of Cambrai? It appears that compasses of the day apparently had problems maintaining accuracy in combat aeroplanes. Peter tracked down published complaints about the RFC and RNAS equipment with statements like; "It appears that the twisting and turning of an aeroplane are so sharp and sudden that no existing compass was trustworthy in an aeroplane." And, flying in the moonlight, it would have been easy for him to veer off his planned course, and not even realize it.

As for his claims of shooting down an Albatross D. II aircraft. In the moonlight, it's also possible Billy mistook the interplane struts and pointed nose of the Albatross C. VII for the older fighter type, which was no longer on front line service. We are after all, talking about a person who, if he didn't fabricate the entire tale, was involved in trying to stay alive while attacking a German aerodrome. I would think that proper aircraft identification was not at the top of his list of priorities. Also, the intelligence report for the German 6th army area lists a machine from Flieger-Abteilung 26 crashed for unknown reasons. They also show the crew of the same as severely injured. FA 26 was stationed at an aerodrome outside Emerchicourt.

With regard to Billy's numerous claims, and the apparent lack of documentation from the opposing side, I will point out what has been said before and also what Peter has discovered in his search. A lot of the records are missing. Peter managed to reconstruct much of Billy's combat history from letters he wrote to his then fiancée and later wife, Margaret Burden. Peter also was able to use volumes of RFC and RAF records as well. But, on the German side, the records came up short. Even those that do exist were missing in details that were in evidence on the British side.

Peter did his best to find corresponding German losses to Billy's victory claims. He managed to identify about 21 through German records. If you look at the list of Billy's victories near the back of the book, you will see many entries that say, "German records incomplete." There are also a number of victories that Billy had witnesses for, yet there was no corresponding loss recorded on the German side.

I know this latest book on Billy Bishop, will not satisfy his detractors. It may not even satisfy some of his supporters. But, for me, it goes a long way toward explaining things further. Having never considered that Billy might have flown north of Cambrai, instead of southeast. This puts new light on his 2 June action. Add to that the raid by the 5 Squadron RNAS flight that was apparently also ignored in German records, and I think we have a better idea of what might have been going on at German HQ. At least, I do.

I would just like to add, that I greatly appreciate the research that Peter put into it. I truly believe he left no stone unturned in his search for the truth. And yes, I'd say that even if his search had found that Billy had lied about his claims. But, he didn't, so there it is. Even Billy's detractors couldn't find proof that he lied. Only conjecture. Hopefully, this will put that conjecture to rest. I doubt it will, but I'm going to hope for it anyway.

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Created: 24 January, 2015
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The above review is ©2015 by Albert Lowe.