Happy Birthday, Billy Bishop!

News Article / February 8, 2017

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From Owen Sound Museums and RCAF public affairs

One hundred and twenty-three years ago, Canada’s most famed aviation ace was born in the quiet town of Owen Sound, Ontario.

William Avery “Billy” Bishop, born on February 8, 1894, grew up in Owen Sound, attending local schools. In 1911, he enrolled in the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Bishop joined the cavalry. He began in the Mississauga Horse Unit, transferring later to the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles. In June 1915, he sailed for Great Britain.

There he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer. In 1916, Lieutenant Bishop graduated as a pilot, even though he’d managed to crash an aircraft during his training. Due to a shortage of pilots, his mere four hours of flying time was considered adequate and he began hunting Zeppelins whose crews were bombing southern England.

In March 1917, he joined the 60th Squadron in the hot flying zone near Arras, France. Flying a Nieuport 17 Scout plane, he shot down a German pilot, scoring his first kill, and was promoted to flight commander, despite his inexperience. Life expectancy of a pilot at that time was 21 days.

During 1917, he became the most successful pilot in the Royal Flying Corps with 72 confirmed victories. On June 2, 1917, he fought the gallant action for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross:  the dawn raid on the German aerodrome at Estourmel. King George V presented Captain Bishop with the VC on August 30, 19717, at Buckingham Palace along with the Distinguished Service Order and a Military Cross that had been awarded but not yet presented. He was only 23 at the time, and was the first Canadian airman to win the Commonwealth’s highest decoration for valour.

That same year, Captain Bishop married Margaret Burden, granddaughter of Timothy Eaton of the Eaton Company. They had two children, Margaret and Arthur.

Arthur was to become a spitfire pilot in the Second World War and always said that between them, he and his father shot down 73 German aircraft.

After the war ended, now-Lieutenant-Colonel Bishop returned to Canada a famous hero. There was such an interest in his wartime career that in 1917, he wrote a book entitled Winged Warfare. This was followed by a lecture tour throughout the United States in 1919.

In 1920, Lieutenant-Colonel Bishop and a fellow VC winner, pilot and ace, William Barker, purchased three seaplanes and provided passenger service between Toronto and Muskoka. They were the first certified commercial pilots in Ontario.

The Bishops returned to England in 1921, where he became involved in business, assuming directorships in several firms until losing his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.

In August 1938, Lieutenant-Colonel Bishop received the honorary rank of air marshal, having been first appointed as an honorary group captain in April 1931. He returned to active service in September 1939 with the rank of air commodore and the Royal Canadian Air Force put him in charge of recruiting – a task at which he was extremely successful – to fill the ranks of students training as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). He even appeared in a Hollywood movie about the BCATP: Captains of the Clouds, starring Jimmy Cagney.

He was also part of the Clayton Knight Committee, which was a scheme to recruit American citizens to train under the BCATP and fly with the Commonwealth air forces, even though the United States was neutral at the time and the recruiting of Americans was illegal.

He was a morale booster, crossing Canada and travelling to England to deliver positive and optimistic messages to thousands of people. By 1944, the war was winding down so he eased up on his public appearances and returned to his position as vice-president of Texaco Oil.

In 1950, Honorary Air Marshal Bishop applied for duty in the Korean War but was turned down. The hectic pace of his life had taken a toll on him and his old energy and enthusiasm was gone. In 1952, he and his wife retired in Palm Beach, Florida, where he died peacefully in his sleep on September 11, 1956, at the age of 62. After a large funeral attended by more than 25,000 people and appropriately arranged by his devoted wife at the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto, he was cremated. His ashes are interred in Owen Sound’s Greenwood Cemetery.

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