Archive Report: 1914 - 1918Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.
The Amazing Legend William 'Billy' Barker RCAF
On Christmas Day, 1917 Barker, Hudson and another pilot decided to send seasons greetings to the Austrians at nearby Motta Aerodrome. On a large piece of cardboard, they wrote the message 'To the Austrian Flying Corps from the English RFC, wishing you a Merry X-Mas'. They then proceeded to fly across the field wing-tip to wing-tip firing their incendiary Buckingham bullets into the open doors of the hangers. Soon the planes and hangers were burning fiercely. They swooped around and shot up the air-raid trenches where the mechanics and some of the pilots were trying to hide. They killed 12 and wounded many others. The trio made it back to their base at Istrana and quietly convinced the mechanics to patch the bullet holes, as unauthorized flying had been banned by the British commander. As the few days around Christmas were traditionally considered to be a truce, this action quite angered the Austrian commander.
After a day of drinking and brooding the Austrians headed out on a reprisal attack on Boxing Day. Of course, the pilots were pretty much sodden with alcohol and should have been sleeping it off. Most were still drunk when at 8 AM they were roused to avenge the insult. The Austrians couldn't even maintain their position in the air and became dispersed. The British AA gunners spotted them a long way off and proceeded to fire on them.
An eyewitness reported: 'I could hardly believe my eyes. About five miles away, flying at all heights between 500 and 3,000 feet was the most heterogenous collection of aircraft I have ever seen. Making no attempt to keep together, but on the contrary widely scattered, thirty or forty Austrian machines were slowly approaching us ... Every few hundred yards one would drop its bombs and make for home. Finally, about twenty reached the aerodrome and bombed it. After bombing the aerodrome they did not go straight back, but becoming more dispersed they wandered all over the country at about 1,000 feet.'
Barker (Left: with Camel) was awakened by the air-raid alarm and the whole squadron jumped to their Camels. A flight of 22 Austrians were mistakenly bombing a nearby airfield when 29 Sqdn and some Italian planes intercepted them. A large melee ensued with the resulting loss of 12 Austrian aircraft, one by Barker. Six enemy machines came down all around Istrana aerodrome. There was no report of any damage done to the aerodrome. As Barker's flight was returning to Istrana they spotted a large formation of aircraft heading their way from the Austrian lines. He climbed up to their altitude and discovered it was a flight of 10 German Gotha bombers. In formation, they were very deadly as the Gotha was armed fore and aft with machine guns, with the rear gunner being able to fire from guns in the dorsal position and from a ventral position to protect the belly. The cross-fire from so many machine guns was nearly impenetrable. Barker circled in front of the Gothas and approached the middle of the formation from dead-on at long range. He proceeded to fire on the three leading aircraft from 300 yards, hoping to damage one of them. As they neared he had time for a short burst at close range and then dived under them.
One machine was in trouble and swung out of formation with a lame engine. He quickly climbed above it and dove firing at the huge aeroplane, then flashing by only to pull up and fire into the belly around the pilot, in spite of a spirited defence from the two gunners. The Gotha went into a nose dive and burst into flames before crashing near the Piave River. One Austrian plane landed on the British field. The RFC pilots expected to capture a wounded pilot but found him out cold from drink. Another captured Austrian was still wearing his formal mess attire under his leather flying garments. They finally got the storey from him about the Christmas Day raid on their airfield and the loss of many aircraft, sheds, mechanics and pilots. Shortly after, the British Commander was informed of the whole incident. Because of the great result of the illicit bombing operation Barker, Hudson and the other pilot were not disciplined for disobeying orders, but they were also not decorated for it, as they would have been had it been an authorized flight. The British ground crews grumbled that they spent a good part of Boxing Day picking up prisoners.
On New Year's Day, 1918 Barker added to his mounting score while escorting RE8 bombers. He trailed the bombers at a higher altitude and noticed an Albatros stalking them. He waited until the German pilot was committed to his attack and then dove down on him. His machine-gun bursts surprised the German and sent him tumbling into a mountainside.
On Jan 5, 1918 he received word that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Britain's second-highest award for valour on the battlefield.
In early Feb. he downed another Albatros and an Aviatik two-seater, armed reconnaissance plane. His colleague, Cpt. Mitchell described Barker: 'Whilst one could not say he was a good pilot, he certainly made up for this in his shooting. I was his deputy leader and probably knew more about him than anyone else. I have seen enemy machines break up in the air or go down in flames long before I realized they were in range.'
When not flying Barker was not exactly a model fighter pilot, and probably not a lot of fun. He didn't drink or smoke, he didn't go carousing in local hot spots with the others, nor did he participate in the mess hall parties and pranks. He was more likely to be found on the aircraft line doing maintenance on his aircraft, cleaning the guns or talking to the mechanics and armourers. He lived to fly and fight, like "Buzz" Beurling, but unlike him, he was very ambitious and a bit conceited. His only "pranks" were played on the Austrians, like his Christmas Day shoot-up of an airfield and his invitation to the Austrian aces to join him and his pilots in aerial combat.
In one daring raid, he led the whole squadron down the streets of San Vito al Tagliamento in an attack on the Austrian HQ building. They flew very low, below second storey windows and telephone wires shooting out the windows and doors, then swooping up and pulling around to drop their Cooper bombs on the roof. The raid did no harm to anyone, but it certainly bolstered the Italian's morale. The British HQ was very impressed with his flying abilities, and began using him for all manner of difficult missions, including dropping Italian spies behind enemy lines from an Italian-made Caproni CA.3 bomber (the type was not identified, but likely was a Ca 3). These flights were very arduous, as they were made at a low level, in the dark and without escorts. In at least one incident he and the Squadron adjutant (Cpt. W. Benn) flew resupply missions for one spy who used all of his homing pigeons sending information back to the Italian HQ. More than a single plane would have alerted the Austrian AA gunners. As it was, the approach run over the drop area had to be done with motors at idle to avoid detection.
After several unsuccessful attempts at dropping spies behind the lines, Barker (Right: in captured German plane) and a mechanic rigged up the spy's seat in the front gunner's position with a trap-door. Once into position over the drop zone, Barker would spring the door and the spy would drop out without the need for a courageous leap over the side. It must be remembered that parachutes were hardly used by any airforce and were quite a novelty. There was little guarantee that they would open. So, for a spy to jump out of a moving aircraft, in the dark and rely on a questionable parachute took a lot of courage. Barker, in his usual style, found a way to help them out of the aircraft, where he wanted and when he wanted. His spy dropping flights were so successful that the Italian King awarded him the Silver Medal for Valour, the highest award available to non-Italian combatants.
On April 10 Barker was made a Flight Commander and moved to 66 Squadron. His toll of Austrian aircraft continued to climb. The air war in Italy was rapidly becoming a one-sided fight, with the British and French in the ascendency.
On April 17, he shot down an Albatros DIII, In May he downed 8 Austrian aircraft. One such battle on May 24 against Albatros D-Vs and a Brandenberg 'Berg' scout was described in detail: 'Capt. Barker attacked the rear Enemy Aircraft, which spun down. Lt. Birks attacked the Berg and after a very short fight EA went down with wings off. This was observed by Capt. Barker. At this time Capt. Barker observed three D.V.'s diving from the S. towards Lts. Birks and Apps, who were engaging the remaining two EA in the valley. Capt. Barker got under the tail of one of these EA unobserved and after firing about 40 rounds EA went down out of control and crashed on some hutments in the valley and burst into flames.... The remaining D.V. of the first three EA was an exceptionally skilful pilot and Lt. Birks fought him for a long time then Lt. Apps joined in the attack. Neither pilot could get EA down so Capt. Barker joined in the fight and got on the tail of EA. Capt. Barker fired a short burst at EA who went down out of control and dived vertically into the same hutments where Capt. Barker's first EA burst into flames.'
All of this activity in the air made for a very peaceful time for the Corps Squadron aircraft involved in the real work of the RAF, photo and general reconnaissance, artillery spotting and bombing of important targets. Most of the rest of the aerial action was in support of the Corps Squadron activities. Barker was awarded his second bar to the Military Cross for work done in the first two months of 1918, this was equivalent to being awarded the MC three times.
In Feb. 1918, the French and British each reduced their Divisions in Italy in anticipation of the German 'Ludendorff' offensive that was obviously in preparation for the Western Front. The Italian High Command had planned an offensive for the spring, but when they saw that the Austrians were planning an offensive of their own for late May, they dropped their plans and went to the defensive. Although the Austrians were inferior in manpower, guns, and aircraft, they hoped to collapse the allied front by simultaneous attacks upon the British and French positions along the Asiago-Mount Grappa sector and the Italians along the Piave River. In June, the Austrians were effectively halted from aerial observation by intense patrolling by British and French aircraft along the fronts and to 5 miles behind their lines. Barker was awarded his next decoration, the Croix de Guerre, by the French for the extensive work he did to protect and aid the French aircraft conducting reconnaissance missions.
It was around the end of May 1918 that Barker finally met up with one of Austria's famous aces, Franke Linke-Crawford. Flying in a most distinctive black and white chequered Albatros DV, he had been particularly active in harassing British flights and picking off the occasional straggler. One morning, Barker was leading an offensive patrol of Brisfits in his Camel when they met an Austrian formation of 10 machines. They immediately attacked and Barker noticed Linke-Crawford's chequered plane. He singled out the Austrian and dove after him, entering into a twisting, circling dogfight. Short bursts of machine-gun fire occasionally broke the air, but neither ace was hit. Barker found that the Austrian was a superb flyer, but was, at best, a mediocre shot. Even with the agility of the Camel Barker could not hold Linke-Crawford in his sights long enough for a killing burst. Rather than continue a game that his opponent was obviously good at, and not willing to let him go, Barker circled off to about 200 yards, long-range for their guns, and came at Linke-Crawford from head-on. He began firing as soon as he lined up the Albatros, and could see his tracers hitting the front of it. Linke-Crawford dove sharply and headed home, but Barker whipped the Camel about and dove after him. Just before the Austrian reached ground level Barker caught up to him and put his tracers through the Albatross's gas tank. Linke-Crawford crashed and died in flames just short of his own airfield.
Even a famous ace such as Barker did not escape the battles unscathed. In this period he was shot down twice. Once he landed in Lake Garda and had to be rescued with a rowboat, the other time he had to make a forced landing in the foothills. His Camel hit hard, the under-carriage tore off, and it did a flip landing on its back. Landings such as these frequently broke the pilot's neck. Fortunately, he was not hurt in either incident.
On June 15, the Austrians opened their last offensive in Italy with the usual artillery bombardment along the entire allied front. Much of the artillery fire on the British positions was inaccurate as the Austrians could not register the fall of their shells due to their aircraft being forced from the skies. Barker and the rest of No. 66 Squadron were active bombing troops in the early morning but had to quit by 09:00 due to fog.
All of the RAF planes were shifted to the Piave front, as it became apparent that the Austrians were massing to assault the Italians in force across the Piave River using pontoon bridges. The Camels were each loaded with four 20-lb Cooper bombs and full machine guns to strafe and bomb the bridges and troops. Barker led a strong attack on the pontoon bridges in the Montello sector, he wrote: 'The Montello, owing to its height, dominated the Venetian plain and under its cover [the Austrians] had thrown two pontoon bridges across the river. The leader selected the bridge farthest upstream and individual bombing commenced from about 50 feet. This bridge was quickly broken in two places and the pontoons, caught by the fast current, were immediately dashed against the lower bridge, carrying it away also. When this attack commenced these bridges were crowded with troops which were attacked with machine-gun fire. Many were seen to be in the water. This done, troops on small islands and in rowboats were machine-gunned.'
All-day they were active bombing and strafing. Most did four or five sorties that day. The British dropped 10,000 pounds of bombs and fired some 31,000 bullets that day. The Camels would sweep low over roads in formation three abreast, machine-gunning troop concentrations waiting along roads for the river crossing to clear. The damage they did was appalling. During the night the Austrians rebuilt some of the bridges and repaired others. Renewed air attacks on the 16th were again highly successful. Despite heavy bombing and strafing efforts by the RAF RE8s and Camels, there were seven bridges across the Piave by the afternoon. Fortunately, for the Allies, heavy rain started on the 17th and the Piave River rose considerably into a torrent, ripping away the remaining pontoon bridges of the Austrians. Faced with a dismal failure the Austrian high command withdrew from the sector on the 22-23rd of June. The Austrians had also lost 150 of their 200 aircraft.
Among the Austrian airmen, this period was known as 'The Black Weeks'. The following account, published in the Vienna Neue Freie Presse sums up the agony of the Austrians on the Piave: 'In the plain near San Dona and Cap Sile, General Wurm's storm battalions were sent over the Piave River and the canal. From Treviso, General Diaz sent against them the 30th and 27th Corps, and General Croce's corps, newly formed from eighteen-year-old youths. The Austrians thus gallantly won a most important objective; the summit of the Italian hinge position was thrust through by the storming of the Montello. The rolling up of the whole of the Piave front from there appeared possible - indeed certain. 'Suddenly airmen appear. They come down silently from a great height in far-reaching volplanes. Now their motors hum again and their machine guns rattle. A hail of steel pelts down on the pontoons, which sink riddled. The guns of the defence bark from the bank and the fragments of their shrapnel endanger the lives of their own men, men whom they wish to protect. One, two, three of the great Caproni bombarding planes descend, shot down on the mud of the Montello. A Nieuport comes down like a torch hurled from heaven - the famous airman, Major Baracca - is a heap of ashes. His list of victories is the same as that of his most victorious Austrian adversary, Captain Brumowsky, who conquered thirty-four opponents. Like raging bulldogs, the English advance on their furiously swift Sopwiths against our airmen, engineers, artillery and infantry. Nothing, absolutely nothing, avails. The enemy airmen are too numerous, the enemy's shells too many. Like Sisyphus multiplied a hundredfold the bridge-builders work incessantly; they fall and disappear in the flood without a cry; they launch new pontoons; they think out new methods of transport from bank to bank - nothing helps; absolutely nothing prevails. Six times are the bridges and footways completed, six times are they destroyed.
It was sometime later in June that Barker, Lt. Birks and Lt. 'Black Mike' McEwen dropped the following note over Godega Airfield: 'Major Barker, DSO, MC and the Officers under his Command present their compliments to Captain Bronmoski, 41 Recon. Portobouffole, Ritter von Fiala, 51 Pursuit, Gajarine, Captain Navratil, 3rd Company, and the Pilots under their command, and request the pleasure and honour of meeting in the air. In order to save Captain Bronmoski, Ritter von Fiala and Captain Navratil and gentlemen of his party the inconvenience of searching for them, Major Barker and his Officers will bomb Godigo aerodrome at 10:00 a.m. daily, weather permitting, for the ensuing two weeks.'
Other than spelling most of the Austrian ace's names incorrectly, it was a silly challenge. The Austrians did not bother to respond to it. Barker, however, lived up to his word and bombed Godega Airfield every day for two weeks. Godega was the largest and most important enemy aerodrome on the whole front, and that the RAF bombed it daily with impunity and impudence says a lot about British aerial superiority in Italy. The excellent work done by the one flight of Bristol FE2 Brisfits in 66 Squadron prompted the British command to form a new Squadron, almost entirely, of them. This was the birth of No. 139 Squadron, and on July 14 1918, Barker was promoted to Major and given command of it.
He, however, kept his Camel. Not because he didn't think the Brisfit was a good aeroplane, on the contrary, he found it to be an excellent aircraft and frequently led patrols in one. But, he was an independent sort of fighter pilot and just couldn't give up the Camel. True to form, No. 139 Squadron was in action the next day, with three of them running into a formation of five Austrians. They downed two of the Austrian aircraft.
On the 18th, Barker in his Camel and one of his Brisfits with some others from 66 Sqdn shot down an entire flight of five Austrians. Barker shot down an LVG two-seater in flames, the other Camels downed three others, and the British AA gunners scored on the fifth aircraft.
Only two days following this incident, Barker and two Brisfits got in amongst a flight of Austrian aircraft attacking Motta Airfield. For some reason, the Austrians took them for their own and did not attack them. Barker downed two Albatros DIIIs and a Brisfit team downed a third. By now Billy Barker had 33 enemy aircraft to his credit and 9 balloons. He was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order, in essence, earning the decoration twice.
Barker flew the Bristol F2 more in August 1918 as the Prince of Wales, who was attached to the British HQ in Italy that summer, took a keen interest in the activities of the RAF. He arranged for a flight over the front line in the gunner's seat of Barker's Brisfit. As he wanted to see something of the disposition of enemy troops they flew about 20 miles behind the front to Vittoria. They encountered heavy AA fire on their return, but no Austrian fighters came up to challenge them, which was just as well. The Prince made a number of visits to 139 Sqdn after that. Major Barker continued in his usual style, fighting what Austrians challenged them in the air, and pretty much bombing what they wanted when they wanted with only Ack Ack (anti-aircraft ground fire) to contend with.
In Sept 1918 he was ordered to take command of the fighter pilot training school at Hounslow, England and left Italy. Upon arrival at Hounslow, Barker immediately tried to return to the Western Front. He argued that he couldn't operate a fighter pilot training school without up-to-date knowledge of fighters and tactics on the Western Front. Finally, the School brass gave in and provided him with a new fighter, the Sopwith Snipe and sent him on a supposedly short, roving tour of the Front. He had a very successful few weeks in October 1918 during the Allied advances. The Germans had new aircraft that were capable of flying higher than the Camels and SE5as, consequently, the observers tended to be unobservant at high altitudes. The Snipe, however, was the natural evolution of the Camel and the Dolphin, possessing the best characteristics of both. It had a high ceiling, powerful armament, agility and ease of flying. The Germans were not expecting trouble up at 24,000 feet, and Barker was able to down several twin-seaters whose crews were not sufficiently attentive. His total now stood at 46 German and Austrian aircraft and 9 balloons.
Eventually, the brass at Hounslow ordered Barker back to their command and he had no choice but to return. On October 27 he sent his belongings on to England and climbed into his Snipe and set off for home. But first, he would take a last flight over the Front. As he climbed into the clear air he spotted a large German aircraft over the lines doing reconnaissance of the area. He couldn't resist and went up after it over La Foret de Mormal. He caught up to it at 22,000 feet and found the crew to be very good. They easily manoeuvered to keep the rear gunner in position to fire at Barker, and he hit the Snipe several times. Using his deadly accuracy Barker circled away and came back at the plane and shot the gunner dead from 200 yards. Now he closed in for the kill and hit some vital components. The plane broke up and the pilot had a long drop to his death.
But Barker made a mistake; like Richthofen and others, he became so involved in the fight that he didn't spot the Fokker DVII biplane climb up behind him. The first he knew about the other German aircraft was when an explosive bullet shattered the femur of his right leg. He immediately banked left and began a circling fight with the Fokker. They lost considerable height before the Snipe outcircled the Fokker and Barker fired a burst into its gas tank, igniting the whole plane. However, Billy Barker's troubles were just beginning. He had dropped into the upper Jasta of an entire 'circus' made up of nearly 60 Fokkers. They attacked from all sides and directions. The tiny Snipe was being chewed to shreds and he was hit in the left thigh. He fought back valiantly, driving down two Fokkers in spins. Fainting from pain and blood loss his aeroplane fell out of control for several thousand feet. The rushing air revived him, and he halted his fall but he found that he had spun down into the middle Jasta.
The fight started all over again, with his Snipe being shot up from all around. In desperation he picked out a nearby Fokker and charged it, firing all the time. Just as he reached the other aircraft it blew apart and fell away. His left elbow was hit by a bullet and shattered. Again he fainted from pain and shock and the Snipe fell into a spin. He fell a long way this time but eventually came to and managed somehow to pull out of his dive and got onto the tail of a Fokker in the lower level Jasta. He shot it down in flames. He headed for the Allied lines but was intercepted by a German flight. He charged at them and broke up their formation and turned again for the lines. His gas tank was shot away from under his seat and, amazingly, did not catch on fire. He had just enough strength to flip on a small reserve tank of fuel. He headed down as fast as the Snipe would go, nearly out of control and crashed at top speed, flipping the tough, little aeroplane onto its nose. Members of a Highland regiment pulled him from the wreckage and were amazed to find him alive.
Thousands of British soldiers, including Canada's General Andrew McNaughton, had watched the whole fight and were cheering lustily as Barker obviously beat the entire German circus. He remained unconscious for several days in No. 8 General Hospital in Rouen. He received congratulatory telegrams from the King, the Prince of Wales, and Lord Hamilton in Italy.
On November 20, 1918 he was awarded the Victoria Cross and was again inundated with congratulations, from Prime Minister Borden, the Canadian General Staff and the one that meant the most to him, from Lt-Col. Billy Bishop. By January 1919 he was moved to England to convalesce. His wounds were very serious, and the broken bones in his thighs never really healed well, keeping him in constant pain, and a semi-cripple. While in Rouen he wrote the following letter home:
In the late spring, he again was given the honour of flying the Prince of Wales. He was still using canes and had his arm in a sling, but they took up Sopwith's new two-seater Dove and stunted for half an hour over London. He was then promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Air Force. His aircraft was reconstructed and photographed (below), and was later transferred to Canada for permanent display at the National War Museum in Ottawa.
Later in that year he returned to Canada and with Billy Bishop formed the Bishop and Barker Company, flying Martinsyde two-seaters and HS2Ls from Toronto's Island Airport to the Muskoka country north of Toronto. Unfortunately for them both, the endeavour did not pay off and they were forced to sell their aircraft to pay debts. They were also involved in a highly questionable incident where he and Bishop were hired to do stunt flying over Toronto harbour at the Canadian National Exhibition. They decided to give the audience a real thrill and buzzed the stands. The crowd panicked and stampeded out of the stands, and one woman apparently miscarried her unborn child. They were forced to forgo their fee to pay damages.
In 1920, Barker joined the newly formed Royal Canadian Air Force and was sent to England as a liaison officer with the Air Ministry. While in England he participated in the RAF project to choose flying routes throughout the middle east. This was the same project that Raymond Collishaw worked on. Barker flew for several months between Iraq and Palestine. In 1924, he returned to Canada and resigned from the RCAF to develop the fledgling tobacco industry in Norfolk County, Ontario. He and his wife lived in the village of Lynedoch near Simcoe.
A serious bout of pneumonia in the spring of 1929 forced him to sell his tobacco interests in order to recuperate and avoid a loss of income. By the fall he had recovered and had several attractive offers from aviation companies. He accepted one from a local Canadian company, and in Jan. 1930 became the president of Fairchild Aviation Corporation of Canada headquartered in Montreal. In March of that year, Fairchild was demonstrating their newest two-seater aircraft to the Department of National Defence. Before the formal tests with the military in presence, Barker decided to take the aircraft 'up for a flip'. He took off from Rockcliffe Aerodrome, just outside Ottawa (now the home of the National Air Museum) in the untried aircraft.
After some 10 minutes, he returned to the airstrip flying at full throttle very low. Just over the aerodrome he pulled up into a steep climb and rose to nearly 200 feet before the engine seemed to stall. He levelled out briefly but then flipped over and crashed nose-first into the field. He was killed instantly. There had been no indication that the engine was faulty, it was capable of climbing well, although it is possible that he had put it into too high a climb. But Barker was an excellent pilot, and should have known, or at least respected, the capabilities of the plane.
Other people have suggested that he committed suicide, as his years after the war were filled with constant pain, debilitation, and depression. He missed the hard and fast life of combat, as did Bishop and Beurling. It is impossible to know just what happened at Rockcliffe that afternoon. It really doesn't matter. William Barker was an excellent pilot, a fearless combat pilot, and a dedicated leader and trainer of the men under his command. He was everything that a Squadron Leader should have been. His participation in WWI definitely contributed in a major way to the defeat of the Germans. He developed combat tactics that were revived and used in WWII, first by the Germans and later by the Allies, and he pioneered ground-to-air combat.
William Barker was an ace and hero, par excellence.
Story researched and written by Jean Schadskaje.
Acknowledgements: Sources used by us in compiling WW1 material include:
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