In the weeks prior to kicking off the great offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres/Battle of Passchendaele, (31 July – 10 November 1917), the British commanders sought to achieve air superiority over the battlefield. This was imperative for the protection of reconnaissance and spotting planes, as well as the artillery and infantry on the ground. Consequently, the numerous air branch services were instructed to draw the enemy out into pitched aerial battles. Such battles would result in a mass of aircraft, swirling, diving and looping through the skies, like a mechanical swarm of bees. As an indication of this chaos, a single battle above Polygon Wood on 26 July 1917 amounted to a total of ninety-four single-seater aircraft engaged in a scattered dogfight ranging through 12,000 feet of airspace (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 139).
The next day, a strategic battle would play out east of Ypres involving a number of Canadians, including Raymond Collishaw, of Nanaimo, British Columbia, who was serving in B Flight of the Royal Naval Air Service’s No. 10 Naval Squadron at the time. Already having received a French Croix de Guerre and a Distinguished Service Cross, Collishaw would put up an impressive record in the summer of 1917, battling Manfred von Richthofen’s ”Flying Circus”, the Jagdgeschwader 1.
For 27 July 1917, the plan was to send out slower, less agile F.E.2d’s over enemy lines and lure the responding German planes westwards towards an agreed upon rendezvous point (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 140). ”The FE’s would then turn and fight and overwhelming formations of fighters would come down on the Germans…” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 140).
Accordingly, at 6:15 p.m. on 27 July 1917, seven British F.E.2d’s of No. 20 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps headed towards German lines. Over Menin, nearly 32 kilometres behind enemy lines, approximately 24 Albatros fighters greeted them. Rather than form into their usual defensive circle, the greatly outnumbered F.E.2d’s turned about and made a break for friendly lines, hoping to lure the German Albatros’ along. Reaching the rendezvous over Polygon Wood, “by the time the F.E.’s arrived there, still furiously fighting off their attackers, a sizable number of additional German machines had joined in. Waiting for them were no fewer than 59 Allied fighters…” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 141). Diving down into the massed formations, what ensued could be considered sheer bedlam, as described by Collishaw:
“I dived on a formation of three Albatros D-V’s, picking out one of them and opening fire… The pilot, I am sure, was hit, but so was something else, for the wings folded and the Albatros went straight down, shedding pieces as it fell. Off to one side I saw another German fighter go down… and then half a dozen of the enemy came down on my flight from high above” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 141-2).
In the resulting melee, “scraps extended all the way from 16,000 down to 4,000 feet” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 141). Collishaw’s friend, Ellis Reid, of Belleville, Ontario, single-handedly fought off the attacks of five enemy aircraft in quick succession, sending three of them down before he was able to pull away (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 142). ”The fight carried on furiously for about an hour and then, as was usually the case, suddenly ceased and none of the enemy was in sight” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 142).
Large aerial battles such as these helped achieve air superiority prior to the start of the third Ypres offensive. Sadly, only a few days later, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Ellis Vair Reid would be killed in action, his Distinguished Service Cross for actions in June 1917 being awarded posthumously. Reid’s body was never recovered, and so he is commemorated on the Arras Flying Services Memorial.
Editor’s Note: The Black Flight was originally published as Air Command in 1973 by Raymond Collishaw and Ronald Dodds .