William Avery “Billy” Bishop was born on February 8, 1894 in Owen Sound, Ont. He spent his childhood years until the age of seventeen at 948 3rd Avenue West, attending Dufferin Public School and, later, the Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute. In 1911, he enrolled in the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Billy joined the cavalry. He began in the Mississauga Horse Unit, transferring later to the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles.
In 1915, he was able to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer. In 1916, Bishop graduated as a pilot, despite crashing a plane. Due to a shortage of pilots, his four hours of flying time was considered adequate and he began hunting Zeppelins whose crews were bombing southern England.
In February 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. You must remember that the 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 Billy with the VC on Aug. 30, 19717 at Buckingham Palace along with the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross that had been awarded but not presented. He was the first Canadian airman to win the Commonwealth’s highest decoration for valour.
His citation reads as follows:
For most conspicuous bravery, determination, and skill. Captain Bishop, who had been sent out to work independently, flew first of all to an enemy aerodrome; finding no machine about, he flew on to another aerodrome about three miles south-east, which was at least 12 miles the other side of the line. Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground. He attacked these from about 50 feet. One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of 60 feet Captain Bishop fired 15 rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground.
A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired 30 rounds at 150 yards range, and it fell into a tree. Two more machines then rose from the aerodrome. One of these he engaged at the height of 1,000 feet, emptying the rest of his drum of ammunition. This machine crashed 300 yards from the aerodrome, after which Captain Bishop emptied a whole drum into the fourth hostile machine, and then flew back to his station.
Four hostile scouts were about 1,000 feet above him for about a mile of his return journey, but they would not attack.
His machine was very badly shot about by machine-gun fire from the ground.
Billy Bishop was only 23 at the time. In 1917, Billy 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 him and his dad they shot down 73 German aircraft.
After the war ended, Billy 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, Billy Bishop and fellow pilot VC winner 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, Billy was given 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.
He crossed Canada and traveled to England to deliver positive and optimistic messages to thousands of people. He became a morale booster in both Canada and Britain and carried the free world’s desperate plight to neutral America.
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, Billy Bishop applied for duty in the Korean War but was rejected. The hectic pace of his life had taken a toll on him and his old energy and enthusiasm was gone. In 1952 Billy and Margaret retired in Palm Beach, Florida, where he died peacefully in his sleep on September 11, 1956. He was 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 in Owen Sound’s Greenwood Cemetery.
To learn more about Billy Bishop, you can visit the Billy Bishop Home and Museum in Owen Sound or visit the Museum’s website at www.billybishop.org.