“They damn nearly did it for me”: The story of William Barker, VC

News Article / November 17, 2016

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By Wayne Ralph

If you had asked Billy Bishop, VC, who was his hero, he would have said William Barker. They never served together in the Great War. They founded an aviation company in Canada and the USA that lasted a brief three years, but were not close friends. They were from different social classes and complete opposites in personality. Nevertheless, Barker fell in love with and married Bishop’s rich cousin, Jean Kilbourn Smith, an only child akin to the fictional Daisy Buchanan who Jay Gatsby loved, but never possessed, in the 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.

Bishop kept Barker’s name and story alive in every speech, article and book he wrote. He labelled the farm boy from Dauphin, Manitoba, the “deadliest air fighter that ever lived”. He considered his achievements all the greater since he had come from a frontier childhood.

Barker was declared in 1918 the Canadian holding the record for the most fighting decorations in the Great War He is still today our most decorated war hero. His Sopwith Camel, serial number B6313, has been declared by British aviation historians to be the most successful fighting aircraft in RAF [Royal Air Force] history. It scored 46 victories, all victories achieved by the one pilot, over an 11-month period. Barker’s final combat in the war in a Sopwith Snipe on October 27, 1918, resulted in four more victories and the awarding of the Victoria Cross, but grievous gunshot wounds. He did not consider it one of his finest moments, saying only that he had been badly wounded and shot down.

In 2011 an original letter written by Barker while in hospital was discovered in England by the granddaughter of Arthur Stanton Waltho, a fellow pilot with Barker at 28 Squadron. Here is how Barker described his convalescence:

“Yes, old man, they damn nearly did it for me. As it is, my left arm will be stiff for a long time it was a question of amputation. Must have been an explosive bullet there because the whole elbow joint is missing – my right hip has gone septic but I think they have it in hand. This bullet, a tracer, went in at the top and came out right at the bottom of the left buttock – then there is another one through the right thigh coming out the right buttock. You see I have to lay on these wounds as I am on my back with my arm strung up to the ceiling . . . Yes, Waltho, it may be nice to have the VC. But believe me I would sweep them all in the fire to stand once more fit. The agony I have gone through has been damnable . . . This has been some effort . . . I have not written a long letter like this home yet.

“PS – I am writing this at 4:30 AM. That’s when we are called to after laying awake most of the night. I am always glad to for the lights to go on”

When Barker was killed flying a Fairchild KR21 on March 12, 1930, condolences arrived from England, France and the United States. The US Army sent an honour guard for his state funeral in Toronto, the largest ever held in that city, witnessed by 50,000 people. However, he was interred in the crypt of his wife’s family, the Smiths, without his own public marker.

In 2011 Barker’s grandchildren paid to have an appropriate monument erected outside Mount Pleasant Cemetery Mausoleum. It has a bronze replica of a Sopwith Snipe propeller in a granite base. On November 11 each year a wreath-laying service with RCAF [Royal Canadian Air Force] personnel has taken place there, marking the day, and the life achievements of the RCAF’s first acting director.

© Wayne Ralph. Translated and reproduced with the permission of Wayne Ralph and Airforce Magazine, where this article first appeared in Volume 40, Number 2.

Wayne Ralph is the author of Barker VC: The Life, Death and Legend of Canada’s Most Decorated War Hero, originally published in 1997, republished in a new illustrated edition in 2007. 

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