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The Canadian aviator attacked an aerodrome single-handed


OFFICIALLY CREDITED WITH SEVENTY-TWO VICTORIES, Bishop was one of the supreme exponents of aerial fighting

OFFICIALLY CREDITED WITH SEVENTY-TWO VICTORIES, Bishop was one of the supreme exponents of aerial fighting. At the peak of his career he was flying six or seven hours a day on active service duty. He was brilliantly successful in surprise tactics.

SHEER impertinence might be said to be the keynote of one of the most remarkable actions of war, the action in which the Canadian aviator, W. A. Bishop attacked a German aerodrome single-handed. Dealing with the machines as they took off the ground, he shot down three aeroplanes.

It was when he had brought down about twenty aeroplanes in various kinds of combat that Bishop devised his aerodrome attack scheme. He put it into operation in June 1917. On the appropriate morning he was called at 3 o’clock and took off in his Nieuport scout before dawn.

Flying exceptionally low, he made his way across the lines and found that his lowness gave him protection and that no machine-guns or anti-aircraft guns opened fire on him. He found the German aerodrome he had planned to attack, but when he reached it he could see no sign of life upon it. This rather threw out his calculations, for he thought it might have been abandoned. While flying on, uncertain what to do, he came suddenly upon another German aerodrome with seven aeroplanes standing outside the hangars and mechanics and pilots about. Precisely what crossed the minds of those Germans when they saw that small single-seater fighter, bearing the red, white and blue cockades of the Royal Flying Corps, and skimming along a few feet from the ground, can be guessed only with difficulty.

That they were surprised there can be little doubt, that their surprise turned to anger a moment later there can be even less doubt; for Bishop swept over the aerodrome and began machine-gunning the Germans. One man fell at his first burst and then bedlam was let loose. Every gun and rifle in the place was turned on the little Nieuport as it circled and twisted above the aerodrome. Mechanics and pilots rushed to the waiting aeroplanes and got them into position to take off.

Bishop, doing what he could by manoeuvring to prevent his machine from being brought down by the machine-guns from the ground, now watched for the chance he had calculated upon weeks before when he had been planning this amazing raid. It was to attack the German machines, one by one, as they were in the act of taking off, for at such a moment he estimated that the pilots would be unable to reply to his fire.

His only fear was that a two-seater, which he had seen standing on the aerodrome, would take off and the rear gunner in that might prove dangerous. The two-seater did not move. So Bishop, as he turned and dodged a few feet above ground miles from his own side of the lines, saw the first single-seater German machine start its taking-off run, with its pilot bent on avenging this impertinent attack.

Bishop swooped down on him and, after a burst of fire, the German side-slipped into the ground and crashed. The second machine was then ready and was beginning its taking-off run before Bishop had quite finished with the first one. So he opened fire on the second machine from a longer range, striving at the same time to close with it. That machine went down too.

With ammunition running low, Bishop now thought about trying to make good his escape. He saw that his wings had been riddled with bullets from the machine-guns on the ground. But two German single-seaters then took off simultaneously, on slightly divergent courses. This was the contingency that he had dreaded.

Although he sought to get away he was unable to do so in time and the first of these aeroplanes engaged him. He succeeded in bringing it down, only to be engaged by the second machine, which, however, did not continue the fight for long. Bishop then made for home, having accomplished what must always be regarded as a master stroke of surprise.

In all Bishop was officially credited with seventy-two victories, but it is probable that the number of aeroplanes he brought down was considerably greater. He was indeed a great air fighter who fought with head and heart, with cleverness and courage.

[From Part 35, published 1 November 1938]

You can read more on “Evolution of the Fighter”, “James McCudden VC” and “R. A. J. Warneford VC” on this website.

William Avery Bishop, VC