Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Winged Warfare
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

Winged Warfare

by Lt. Col. William A. Bishop
Forgotten Books reprint, 6 September 2012

Billy Bishop in the Cockpit

Historians can research records and artifacts, but only the veterans can write from experience of the sights, sound, smells, and emotions of combat. Winged Warfare is the collected recollections of Billy Bishop, greatest Canadian and second greatest British Empire flying ace of the Great War. When he was 17, Billy's parents sent him to the Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario, for some military discipline.

This work is Bishop's stream-of-consciousness wartime memories. Like many early aviators, Bishop transferred from another service. In July 1915, after the 15-day crossing on an old cattle boat with 700 seasick horses he became a cavalry officer with the Mississauga Horse of Toronto of the Second Canadian Division in England. His ambitions were elevated when, knee deep in the dank, slimy, boggy mud of the cavalry camp he saw an airplane overhead. He quickly concluded that being an observer in the air was better than commanding a division on the ground. Confiding his ambition to fly to a friend in the Royal Flying Corps was the first step in taking flight. The initial assignment of new aviators was to be an observer who, well, observed. His training included what to observe and what to ignore. Once his observer wing was on his uniform he was off to France with a burning desire to become a pilot. His "machine" would fly over German lines for an hour or more, as he noted and photographed enemy positions. The machine gun he had by his knee went unfired during his four months as an observer.

After a knee injury sidelined him for several months Bishop got his chance to fly. Ground school led to elementary training in the air. He describes his first solo as the greatest day of his life. Although expecting to be assigned to zeppelin hunting over England, he applied for duty at the fighting front.

The 7th of March, 1917, was the day Billy Bishop returned to France for his second tour at war. In his inaugural mission he was assigned to bring up the rear of a formation over German lines. Eighteen days later he would record the first of his 72 kills. After his last five kills, on 19 June 1918, Bishop was sent to England on leave from which he would, to his disappointment, not return to France. He describes the ceremony during which the King invested him into the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

What I like about this book is the detail that can only be described by a veteran who has lived the events recorded in its pages. Bishop's casting as a member of the British Royal Flying Corps and his obvious pride as he looked own on "We Canadians" as they attacked Vimy Ridge and elsewhere all provide insight into an age when Canadians were gaining a grasp of their national identity. The second-by-second narrative of the dogfight seizes the reader's imagination. The intense cold that could stop hemorrhaging can only be intellectually experienced in the first person. The perceived distinction of going up against the Red Baron's squadron, the immense red birds with graceful wings and painted a brilliant scarlet from nose to tail, hints at the romance retained by this form of warfare. Only Bishop could convey his thoughts on downing an enemy aircraft:

While I have no desire to make myself appear as a bloodthirsty person, I must say that to see an enemy going down in flames is a source of great satisfaction. You know his destruction is absolutely certain. The moment you see the fire break out you know that nothing in the world can save the man or men in the doomed aeroplane.

Later he would observe:
The idea of killing was, of course, always against my nature, but for two reasons I did not mind it: one, and the greater one, of course, being that it was another Hun down, and so much for good in the war; secondly, it was paying back for some of the debt I owed the Huns for robbing me of the best friends possible. Then, too, in the air one did not altogether feel the human side of it. As I have said before, it was not like killing a man so much as just bringing down a bird in sport.

Winged Warfare is a short read composed by a warrior, not a professional writer. We read it for its detail and the spirit of its author, not its research and analysis. It pays to open this time capsule from the Great War.

All in all, an extremely good and enlightening read.

James M. Gallen


  1. Fine review, Jim. This book was much in demand at the start of WWII, when the RAF's new fighter pilots were looking for any guidance they could get.

  2. Unfortunately there is considerable controversy about Bishop's victory claims. The problem is that compared to other aces, very few of his claims were witnessed by other airmen, and very few can be tied to known German losses corresponding to the time and place. He tended to fight alone, long after it became the norm to fly patrols with six or more aircraft. His award of a Victoria Cross is equally controversial as there was only his word for what happened, though to be fair his squadron commander seems to have been very quick to push through the award.
    This question has been researched by reputable historians such as Ed Ferko back in the 1950s and Alex Revell more recently. Discussions can easily be found by searching the forums of websites such as, or
    For a first hand account of aces who's claims are much easier to verify, consider James McCudden's autobiography "Flying Fury", also known as "Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps", or Raymond Collishaw's "Air Command", or even Manfred von Richthofen's autobiography published under various titles.

  3. I might also add “Combat Report” by America’s second highest scoring ace, William C. Lambert. Or the excellent biography penned by Prof. Sam Wilson entitled “Wm C Lambert, World War One Flying Ace”. Both are excellent and should be reviewed in this blog!