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News Article / September 29, 2011

By Captain John-Hugh MacDonald

Ceremony honours the “deadliest air fighter that ever lived”

On Thursday, September 22, 2011, nearly 1,000 military and civilian spectators, VIPs, veterans and school children gathered in Toronto to honour one of Canada’s greatest – and nearly forgotten – war heroes, the late Wing Commander William George Barker VC, DSO, MC.

Under sunny skies and with Wing Commander Barker’s grandsons, great-grandsons and other surviving relatives, they applauded the dedication of a special monument – a bronze, Sopwith biplane propeller blade set on a granite base – at the steps of the stately mausoleum in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. David Onley, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, unveiled the monument as a CF-188 Hornet from 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron, 3 Wing Bagotville, Quebec, roared overhead, followed by a pair of vintage First World War biplanes during the playing of “The Last Post” and “The Lament”.

“I know I speak for the entire Canadian Forces when I say that we are proud to participate in this ceremony to recognize the most highly decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire and the Commonwealth of Nations, WComd William Barker,” said Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force. “I am sure Wing Commander Barker would have been happy to know that the Royal Canadian Air Force, of which he was acting director when it was formed in 1924, has recently been reinstated.”.

Wing Commander Barker was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and Two Bars, the Military Cross and Two Bars, the French Croix de Guerre, and two Italian Silver Medals for Military Valour. He was also mentioned in dispatches three times. After the war, he served as acting director of the Royal Canadian Air Force during its creation in 1924, co-founded (with fellow ace Billy Bishop VC) Canada's first commercial airline and the Canadian International Air Show at Toronto’s CNE.  He was also the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club.

When he he died tragically in an aircraft crash in Ottawa in 1930, he was only 35 years old. His state funeral was the largest ever in Toronto’s history, with more than 50,00 people in attendance. And yet, in the 81 years since he was interred within his wife’s family crypt he has rested in relative obscurity, behind a door bearing the family name of Smith. Gradually, Wing Commander Barker’s memory faded from Canadian consciousness, and no statue of him has ever been errected in any prominent public place in Canada.

But this memory lapse changed when John Wright, Honourary Lieutenant-Colonel of the Ontario Regiment, took the initiative to have Wing Commander Barker remembered properly after a two-year endeavour culminating in the monument unveiling ceremony.

“None of us here today can comprehend that the man entombed behind me was an international icon who lived just a few blocks away from this site,” said Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel Wright. “In his book Barker, VC, biographer Wayne Ralph captures the transformation of a young man who shot vermin from the back of a farm horse to the deadliest warrior the empire has ever known.

“When William Barker arrived in Toronto in 1919 as the most decorated war hero the empire has ever produced, he was a mere 24 years old. The day after his body arrived on the [Canadian Pacific] train at 6 a.m. into Summerhill station, people around the world opened their newspapers and gasped”, he said.

“I challenge all of you present as witnesses,” he continued, “when at the going down of the sun and in the morning, to remember him and all other Canadians in the service of their country, in harm’s way, as ordinary Canadians doing extraordinary things.”

In addition to the bronze propeller outside the mausoleum, a large plaque affixed to the crypt door for all to see now reads:

WILLIAM GEORGE BARKER VC

1894 – 1930

MOST DECORATED WAR HERO IN THE HISTORY OF CANADA, THE BRITISH EMPIRE, AND THE COMMONWEALTH OF NATIONS

VICTORIA CROSS

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER (TWICE)

MILITARY CROSS (THREE TIMES)

MENTIONED IN DISPATCHES (THREE TIMES)

MEDAGLIA D’ARGENTO AL VALOR MILITARE (ITALY – TWICE)

CROIX DE GUERRE (FRANCE)

Born in a log cabin in Manitoba, he entered the Great War as a simple soldier.

He soon joined the Royal Flying Corps, first as an observer, then as a pilot.

He rose in rank and fame, and became so skilled

that during his last twelve months of combat

not one pilot under his command

or aeroplane under his escort

was lost to the enemy.

By war’s end he had downed fifty enemy aircraft.

His fellow ace, William Avery Bishop VC, would call him

“THE DEADLIEST AIR FIGHTER WHO EVER LIVED”

After he died in an aviation accident,

his state funeral was the largest ever held in the history of Toronto.

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