Billy Bishop’s Victoria Cross
2 June 1917

Capt. Billy Bishop, VC seated in the cockpit of his Nieuport 17 fighter, in August 1917. Credit: William Rider-Rider/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001654 (Modified from Original). Colourized by Canadian Colour.

A Centennial Action – 2 June 1917

2 June 2017 marked the 100th Anniversary of the events for which Canadian pilot William Avery “Billy” Bishop, VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED was awarded the Victoria Cross. Quickly winning the confidence of his commanding officer, Bishop was allowed to fly with a generously loose leash, allowing him to go out on lone wolf patrols without supporting wingmen, and more importantly, witnesses. On June 2, 1917, Bishop set out on his own, patrolling over German lines.  His citation for the Victoria Cross 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 twelve miles the other side of the line.  Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground.  He attacked these from about fifty feet, and a mechanic, who was starting one of the engines, was seen to fall.  One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of sixty feet Captain Bishop fired fifteen rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground.

A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired thirty 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.” (London Gazette, no.30228, 11 August 1917)

A very young Cadet William A. “Billy” Bishop while at the Royal Military College in Kingston.
Credit: Henry Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-20347

In the years following his death in 1956, Billy Bishop’s war record has come under scrutiny due to discrepancies in his claimed actions. Researchers have found that many German war records and casualty reports do not match with Bishop’s claimed victories, while a vast number of his victories are logged in British records without any sworn statements of the necessary supporting witnesses. Meanwhile, proponents of Bishop’s impressive record argue that Germany’s spotty records may have been the result of their struggling to figuratively “keep a lid” on what would have been a propaganda disaster if Bishop’s successes became public. Moreover, the Germans were becoming increasingly selective of reporting damage at this stage of the war, often preferring to not take note of bad news. Ultimately, Billy Bishop’s career is marked by both unquestionable bravery, as displayed in his confirmed actions but also clouded by what may be half-truths and fabricated encounters.

For a more complete presentation and understanding of the arguments for and against Billy Bishop’s legacy, we suggest reading the following two articles:

The Incomparable Billy Bishop: The Man And The Myths by Lieutenant-Colonel by David Bashow http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo3/no3/doc/55-60-eng.pdf

Billy Bishop – Brave Flyer, Bold Liary by Brereton Greenhous
http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo3/no3/doc/61-64-eng.pdf