William (Billy) Avery Bishop Jr.

Bishop is Canada's most celebrated First World War pilot.


William (Billy) Avery Bishop Jr., military pilot, author, business owner, b. Feb. 8 1894 in Owen Sound, Ont., to William and Margaret Louise Bishop, the third of four children; m. Oct. 17 1917 Margaret Eaton Burden in Toronto; they had two children; d. Sept. 11 1956 in Palm Beach, Fla., was cremated and interred in Greenwood Cemetery, Owen Sound.

Bishop was Canada’s top flying ace of the First World War with 72 victories to his name. Nicknamed “Hell’s Handmaiden” by the Germans, he also played a crucial role in the British Commonwealth Training Plan during the Second World War.

William Bishop Sr. was a lawyer who in 1881 married Margaret Greene. In 1884 he completed construction on their family home in Owen Sound. There Billy Bishop grew up with his older brother Worth, younger sister Louise and older brother Kilbourn, who passed away in 1892.

He attended Beech Street School (now Dufferin Public School) and later enrolled at Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston Ont.

Bishop’s military career began in 1911 when he became a cadet at RMC. During his senior year, war broke out, and he immediately enlisted. He became an officer thanks to his horseback riding and shooting skills. In August 1914 he was a lieutenant with the Mississauga Horse regiment. After suffering from pneumonia, he was reassigned to London, Ont., as part of the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles and in June 1915 was sent overseas on the Caledonia. In Europe his life changed forever.

Bishop tells about witnessing an airplane take off and land for the first time, at Shorncliffe military camp in England:

“It landed hesitatingly in a near-by field as if scorning to brush its wings against so sordid a landscape; then away again up into the clean grey mists. How long I stood there gazing into the distance I do not know, but when I turned to slob my way back through the bud my mind was made up. I knew there was only one place to be on such a day — up above the clouds and in the summer sunshine. I was going into battle that way. I was going to meet the enemy in the air.”

Bishop’s own flying career was delayed, however, until October 1916, due to a knee injury. He was sent to Upavon Flying School on Salisbury Plain in England, and in November of that year he received his wings. He was assigned to Sutton Farms on the Thames River for night duty.

In March 1917, Bishop was sent to No. 60 Squadron at Filescamp Farm, where he waited until March 25 for his first real fight in the clouds. This first fight saw him shoot down a German Albatross before flying back to safety. The Albatross was a German plane that experienced multiple design changes during the First World War. It was a two-seater biplane from which a float plane version was developed during the war. Various models of the plane operated until 1931.

Bishop flew a Nieuport 17, which was an upgraded version of the Nieuport 11 biplane with a faster engine, larger wings and improved aerodynamics. This gave Bishop a hand in recording 22 victories by the end of May.

June 2, 1917, saw one of his most famous adventures in the sky. Bishop claimed he flew across enemy lines, took down three German planes and then made his way back to safety.

Due to Bishop’s consistent success in the skies, King George V presented him with the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross and the Victoria Cross on August 29, 1917, at Buckingham Palace in London.

Bishop returned to Canada on leave in September 1917. There, he wrote his book Winged Warfare and married Margaret Greene. Bishop went briefly to Washington, D.C., before returning, now with his wife, to England. There he was named commander of the new No. 85 Squadron (The Flying Foxes). The squad was sent to the front lines in France, where they flew S.E.5a planes. These aircraft that were known for being very strong and had square-shaped wings that allowed for greater control of lateral movements at low airspeeds.

By June 1918, Bishop had recorded 62 victories and was called to England to organize a group of Canadian pilots. Over the next three days he gained another 10 victories. His greatest feat came on June 19, when in a mere 12 minutes he shot down five German planes, earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war ended, Bishop spent his days travelling and doing talks about his experiences. He went into business with William Barker, a fellow Victoria Cross winner, and created Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes Limited, which provided passenger flights from Toronto to Ontario’s Muskoka Lakes. The company came to an end following a mishap at an aerobatics show at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds and after Bishop later experienced a crash landing.

His Second World War duties consisted mostly of recruiting and administrative work, thus keeping him out of the skies. Bishop officially retired after declining any involvement in the Korean War. He moved to Florida, where he died in 1956.

— Katie Dahl