Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 2

Black and white photograph showing a biplane, with the pilot aiming a machine gun and an observer sitting in the rear.037: Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 2
May 4, 2017

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April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the attack and capture of Vimy Ridge, when all four divisions of the Canadian Corps worked together for the first time. During the First World War, over 25,000 Canadians served with the British Flying Service as pilots, observers and mechanics, and even though the Battle of Vimy Ridge is better known as a ground offensive, many of the preparations for the assault on Vimy took place in the air. In Part 2 of this episode, we once again sit down with Bill Rawling, historian and author of the book Surviving Trench Warfare, and Hugh Halliday, author and retired curator at the Canadian War Museum, to discuss the role Canada and her allies played in the air over Vimy Ridge and Arras in April 1917, a month known as “Bloody April.”

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Podcast Transcript

Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 2

Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the attack and capture of Vimy Ridge, when all four divisions of the Canadian Corps worked together for the first time. This was part of a wider battle that took place during April and May of that year, at Arras, France.

During the First World War, over 25 000 Canadians served with the British Flying Service as pilots, observers and mechanics, and even though Vimy Ridge is better known as a ground offensive, many of the preparations for the assault on Vimy, took place in the air.

In Part 2 of this two-part episode, we sit down with Bill Rawling, historian and author of the book Surviving Trench Warfare, and Hugh Halliday, author and retired curator at the Canadian War Museum, to discuss the role Canada and her allies played in the air over Vimy Ridge and Arras in April 1917, a month known as “Bloody April.”

We talk about Canada’s attempts at establishing its own air force during the war and hear anecdotes regarding some of the key figures who influenced Canada’s wartime reputation, including theories related to Billy Bishop, the infamous Canadian Flying Ace. We finish by touching on resources available here at Library and Archives Canada to researchers interested in these topics.

And now for Part 2 of our talk. First up, Bill Rawling. Why didn’t Canada have its own air force during the First World War?

Bill Rawling (BR): Well it actually had three. It had one that was created in Valcartier when they gathered together the first Canadian contingent in 1914. It was a small air force of one aircraft pilot, maybe another pilot and eventually a mechanic. And they sent them overseas and I think the pilot ended up with the Royal Naval Air Service. The other pilot I think had to be released. And I don’t recall what happened to the mechanic. The aircraft eventually fell apart and they sold the metal parts for scrap. So that was the first air force that Canada created.

There was a second one near the end of the war, a Royal Canadian Naval Air Service. The problem they were trying to solve were U-boat operations off the coast of Canada in 1918. And so they acquired flying boats from the United States’ navy, which also had a base in Nova Scotia, and the Canadians would have their bases as well.

GM: The flying boats that Bill Rawling mentions were seaplanes with hulls that allowed them to land in the water.  These planes had no landing gear and could not operate on land.  The first flying boat was designed, built and flown by the American aviator Glenn H. Curtiss in 1912.  During the First World War, flying boats were mostly used for reconnaissance, patrol and bombing operations. 

BR: And so the idea being that they would patrol to locate U-boats so that ships could be called to try to sink them. The problem being that it was very late in the war, so by the time they really started to get organized, the war was over. So that was Canada’s second air force.

The third was created on the western front and in Britain and it was going to be a Canadian Flying Corps, so similar to the Royal Flying Corps. Now, they now had so many Canadian pilots and ground crew that they could form an organization of their own. And I think the plan was to begin with six squadrons. The British said, well you can have two. And again, the war ended before they could actually get themselves organized, though they had reached the point that they had a commander, a lieutenant-colonel whose rank was changed to wing commander because it was part of the Royal Air Force, and who reverted to lieutenant-colonel and then to wing commander. Things were very volatile at that time. And that was Robert Leckie, who had been with the Royal Naval Air Service. Then when in 1918, they merged the Royal Naval Air Service with the Royal Flying Corps to create the Royal Air Force, he became a member of the Royal Air Force. And since he was from Canada and wanted to return to Canada, he was a good choice to command this wing of two squadrons, which basically became an administrative unit. I mean, their main role was to demobilize. So that was Canada’s third air force.

So Canada had three tiny air forces during the First World War. But the powers-that-be—the chief of the general staff, the director of naval service—their focus was on army and naval operations and felt that whatever Canadians could contribute to aviation, they could do so with the Royal Naval Air Service or the Royal Flying Corps, or the Royal Air Force later on. And in the course of the war, both of the flying services created organizations in Canada to recruit Canadians and train them.

And there were training centres near Toronto and Borden and a few other locations. They were building facilities in British Columbia when the war ended. So there was already this whole organization that the Canadians could sort of be directed to. And authorities didn’t see the need to create a Canadian air force at that time. They will after the war.

Very soon after the war there’ll be the Air Board, which will be responsible for just looking into the issue of civilian and military aviation, and it will recommend the creation of a Canadian air force, which will be 1920, and then later on the Royal Canadian Air Force. So it won’t take long for a Royal Canadian Air Force to be created, mostly because something authorities in Canada did was look toward what the authorities in Britain were doing. And when the British decided on a separate air force, Canada followed suit.

GM: Hugh Halliday tells us a little more about that first air force, created with one airplane, in 1914.

Hugh Halliday (HH): First of all, we did not have anything resembling an air force of our own until the latter stages of the war when we formed a Canadian air force that never got operational. There was a small air arm that was formed in 1914, the Canadian Aviation Corps. This came about in a strange way. Sam Hughes, the administer of militia, had shown absolutely no interest in aviation whatsoever.

GM: “The aeroplane is an invention of the devil, and will never play any part in such a serious business as the defence of the nation.” A quote by Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, at the start of the First World War.

HH: In any case, in late August 1914, when they’re putting together the first division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Sam Hughes sends a message off to Lord Kitchener, the British minister of war, by the way, we’re sending you a division, could you use some airmen? And Kitchener tables back, we can take six now and maybe a few later.

At this time, there is only five certified pilots in the whole of Canada and none of them are military types. But into Sam Hughes’ office in Québec City, in Valcartier, walks a man called Ernest Lloyd Janney. And Janney, who is actually a conman, gets Sam Hughes to authorize the Canadian Aviation Corps. He commissions Janney as a captain to command it, gives him $5000 and sends him off to buy an airplane. Janney is a conman for the whole of his life and the first person he ever conned, as we can see, is Sam Hughes himself.

GM: Oh my goodness.

HH: Janney goes down to the United States—Marblehead, Massachusetts—buys an airplane totally unfit for military duty, and then arranges to have it flown back—arranges to have it flown back by the company test pilot because Janney at this point does not know how to fly.

GM: [Laughs] This is sounding...

HH: The Canadian Aviation Corps, one airplane, Janney, one other officer and a sergeant are loaded onto the ship that takes the Canadian 1st Division to Great Britain. The airplane is carried as deck cargo and is absolutely wrecked on route.

GM: Oh no.

HH: Janney then goes off on a binge, proposes to the general commanding the division a formation of a Canadian Flying Corps with 12 airplanes and it’s going to cost something like $297 000.17 and the general looks up from his desk and says who the hell are you? Who are you…anyway, Janney then goes AWOL, comes back to Canada. The Canadian Aviation Corps is dead on the spot and the reputation of it probably did more damage to forming a Canadian flying corps in the first three years of the war than any other episode.

GM: Did Sam Hughes get repercussions from this? Did he…?

HH: It seems to have rolled like water off a duck’s back.

GM: I guess people were busy with other things.

HH: They were busy with other things.

GM: Hugh tells us a little bit more about the infamous Ernest Lloyd Janney.

HH: Janney had all sorts of schemes. He at one point formed a pilot school in Toronto, took money from about eight pupils, never graduated any of them. It’s hard to say if any of them actually received any lessons whatsoever. He goes to the United States, forms an airplane-building company, builds one airplane, which crashes on takeoff, on the first flight. He comes back to Canada, ingratiates himself with what is in 1918, the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service. He can’t do much damage because it’s disbanded almost as soon as the armistice is signed. And in the 20s, he forms a series of companies to carry out commercial aviation and the main job of these companies seems to have been to sell stock for the purpose of Janney’s pocketbook. He’s even a bigamist. Fascinating character.

GM: What air assets did the British command give in support of the Canadian operations in comparison to the wider effort at Arras?

BR: Well the Canadian Corps was responsible for the capture of Vimy Ridge. Other British corps within the Third British Army had other objectives.

So, the way aviation was organized on the front is a corps would be assigned a squadron, which would be under the corps commander’s authority. I think it was 16 Squadron for Vimy Ridge. So each corps gets a squadron that will do all of its artillery-spotting and similar work. Beyond that, it’s day by day. You know, where do you need the aircraft to conduct what kind of operations? So, is the enemy more active over Vimy Ridge, which means that you’re going to need more fighters to defend the observer aircraft? Or is the enemy more active elsewhere, or does another corps commander need more protection because he has no idea what’s out there, he needs more reconnaissance? So it would be difficult to determine whether or not the Canadian Corps had more or less air support, and even then you’d have to look at the context to determine, well if it has less or if it has more, why is that. And that would most likely be consequent to the tactical situation.

GM: The Arras battlefield experienced relentless action.  While flying a Nieuport 17 with 60th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, Lieutenant Billy Bishop earned his reputation as an Ace.  His fifth victory was claimed on April 8th, 1917, and he would put a total of 17 enemy aircraft out of commission before the end of the month.

Billy Bishop earned a Victoria Cross for his actions on June 2nd, 1917. The Victoria Cross is the highest award of the United Kingdom’s honours system. It is awarded for gallantry "in the face of the enemy" to members of the British armed forces. Canada established its own VC award in 1993 and it has yet to be awarded.

BR: Well, his is one of I think three VCs for which there are no witnesses. So, a lot of his—I mean his combat report you have to accept pretty much on faith. So the issue then becomes do you have faith or not based on his previous exploits. And the other two VCs, one of them is the British unknown soldier and the third is the American unknown soldier. So, Bishop may be the only sort of living VC recipient for which there is no witness. So then it becomes a matter of trying to find other evidence and historians who have faith have tried to do that with limited success.

Whereas some historians have taken the other route and said, well he did not attack the aerodrome—that’s what he got the VC for, attacking an aerodrome, shooting down foreign aircraft, shooting up other aircraft on the ground. But even then, it becomes a matter of well because there are no witnesses, does that mean it didn’t happen? So my view is, I don’t know. And you know as a historian, if there is no evidence, I feel that’s the only real answer you can give.

GM: Do German historians not have proof of this attack by Bishop?

BR: Well the German historians have only looked at it in so far as to see if there’s any record of an attack. But the records are incomplete. In fact I think some of them were destroyed during the Second World War. So only when it becomes a controversy do people start looking at it, say 1980s/1990s, and by then, some of the records are gone. So I think German historians looked at it and said, well we don’t know. I mean, the records are no longer available for us to come to a conclusion. And it doesn’t help that Bishop does not identify the aerodrome that he attacked, which makes sense because they don’t have big signs up, you know.

And they were so close together. I mean, this is near a very dense part of the western front, so there had been aerodromes wherever there was a farmer’s field that you could land aircraft in, they would have set up there. So some of them are within a few kilometres of each other. Historians have found like three candidates and I think for those three candidates there are no records left.

Bishop went on to become Canada’s sort of number one Ace in regard to victories. I can’t remember, what was it 74 or 76? Now, understand a victory is not necessarily destroying an enemy aircraft—if it goes down out of control, if it’s forced to land, and there are other criteria. In the Second World War, the focus will be on destruction. If you do not see the aircraft crash, then it’s not a kill. But in the First World War, there were these other categories. That’s why you have, you know, the Red Baron with 81 victories. Well, how many of those were aircraft that spun down through the clouds but recovered to return home. Someone did a study of Bishop’s claims, and I think using Second World War criteria, it comes down to a lot less, maybe 16 maybe 20 some-odd. But that would have been the same for almost anyone else.

GM: Hugh Halliday devoted a chapter to Billy Bishop and his claims, in a book he wrote about the Victoria Cross entitled Valour Reconsidered. He weighs in on this debate…

HH: And the controversy of Bishop is did he in fact perform the act that he did on the second of June, 1917. Did he do it or did he fake it?

GM: Because there were no witnesses.

HH: No witnesses. And my conclusion is: a) that those who want to prove that he did it or didn’t do it can’t do it, they can’t prove it. There’s not enough evidence. The people who want to debunk Bishop are trying to prove a negative. There then becomes the question of, well if there was no proof, why did he get the Victoria Cross anyway.

He was the only Victoria Cross winner who was awarded the Victoria Cross on the basis of his sole—his evidence alone. There were Victoria Crosses that were awarded solely on evidence provided by the enemy. But Bishop, zilch. No evidence. You can compare his combat report with his Victoria Cross citation. It’s almost as if he wrote his own citation. My own theory is this. When a man is recommended for an award, he was not to be told that he was being recommended. He would not know until it was officially announced that the king has approved the DSO or the MC or the Victoria Cross for so and so.

GM: The DSO and MC medals that Hugh mentions are the Distinguished Service Order, and the Military Cross, respectively.

HH: But Bishop knew when he had been recommended for every award. Somebody told him. And we know that he knew because he wrote letters to his fiancée saying, I’m getting kind of worried about where’s my VC. Or, the last time I was given an award for the DSO, I understand it was supposed to be a VC but they… So, Bishop knew.

And in the process, the press started to get wind of—there had been an episode where a British pilot had stood over a German airfield and shot down the enemy as they came up one by one. And then the story got into the press that this pilot who had done this thing was a colonial. And it was only a matter of time before the story would get out with Bishop’s name attached to it.

Now, the authorities are in a peculiar position. What happens if the word gets out and what happens if they do not approve the Victoria Cross? Remember the Canadians have just taken Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps is fairly important. The number of Canadians in the Royal Flying Corps is growing exponentially. Can you see the headlines: Canadian officer’s VC denied: colonial officer’s word not good enough?

GM: Oh.

HH: My view is that they approved the Victoria Cross out of sheer fright of potential bad publicity.

GM: Was that that much of a concern back then if we consider Sam Hughes and his friend at Valcartier?

HH: It would be a concern by 1917.

GM: Yeah?

HH: Again, the British are not immune to Canadian sensitivities. They know that there’s a developing conscription crisis in Canada too.

GM: Oh.

HH: This is not going to help colonial-imperial relations. Again, VC denied, colonial officer’s word not good enough.

GM: Yeah, there’s a good enough ponderable there.

HH: I can’t prove my theory either.

GM: Since 1971, LAC has been the custodian of the individual personnel records of the men and women who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force as soldiers, nurses and chaplains. Each file contains an average of 25-75 pages, consisting of documents dealing with an individual’s enlistment, training, medical and dental history, hospitalisation, discipline, pay, medal entitlements and discharge or notification of death.

LAC is currently digitizing its entire collection of CEF personnel records. All CEF personnel records including those that have not yet been digitized can be accessed on our website.

GM: In the Library and Archives collections, what type of records were you able to find to help in your research?

HH: We begin perhaps with the personal fonds of the personnel. I’ve found, for example, the very useful the documents that were deposited here by Wilfred Austin Curtis, who was a fighter pilot and later on chief of the air staff. The fonds, the logbook et cetera, of Fred McCall. But also an enormous quantity of information in what’s called MG-40. And what happened was what the Canadian—the armed forces historical section in the 1960s were writing the long-delayed history of the air force, beginning with the First World War. And they dispatched researchers over to Great Britain and they copied hundreds, hundreds of documents, brought them back here, used them to write Canadians in the First World War by Syd Wise. And after five years, after the appearance of that book, they were deposited as MG-40 in Library and Archives Canada.

GM: Library and Archives Canada holds an extensive collection of documents related to the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  Our government and private collections include photographs documenting the battle, the unveiling of commemorative monuments and the subsequent history of the area.  We also have maps of the ridge that were used in the battle, many of which have been digitized.  Also, you can access postcards, private letters, diaries, speeches and memorabilia related to the battle in some of our private archival collections.  We hold documentary art depicting Vimy Ridge during and after the battle, as well.  And don’t forget about our extensive collection of published materials related to the Battle of Vimy Ridge and Canada’s role in the First World War.  All of these documents can be accessed through LAC’s search pages.

BR: Well, for my work on Robert Leckie—he joins the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915, in the Second World War, he’s chief of air staff from 1944 to 1947. Among the things that we can find at Library and Archives Canada, in I think MG-40, are his combat reports. I mean, he earned the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross in the course of the war. And we have the reports—his reports—on what happened during those operations as well as the reports of his superiors. So, you can get a pretty complete picture of what happened during those engagements.

I believe the personnel files have been copied and are available here, not to mention the Directorate of History and Heritage at National Defense Headquarters, which while I was working on volume one of the official history of the Royal Canadian Airforce, photocopied all manner of materials at what is now the National Archives of the United Kingdom. These are Air Ministry files, easy to remember because I think they’re all in Air 1 because these were the very first files that were created. And a lot of those are available in photocopy form at Library and Archives and at Directorate of History and Heritage.

GM: To learn more about Canada and the First World War at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. To view images associated with this podcast, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast. And if you liked this episode, you are invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through iTunes, Google Play or the RSS feed located on our website.

For additional information related to the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, please check out The Discover Blog. In collaboration with The National Archives of the United Kingdom, LAC will be publishing five blogs with topics including the Canadian role before the battle, the preparations leading up to the battle, the aftermath, post-Vimy memorialization and war art.

Thank you for being with us. I’m Geneviève Morin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guests today, Bill Rawling and Hugh Halliday. Also, thanks to LAC Archivists Andrew Horrall, Marcelle Cinq-Mars and Alex Comber for their contributions to this episode.

This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox with assistance from Paula Kielstra.

For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

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