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

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Bill Lambert: World War I Flying Ace

Capt. William Lambert, 24 Squadron RAF, alongside his S.E. 5a

by Samuel J. Wilson
McFarland and Company, Inc., 2016
SMSgt Christopher Wlodarczyk, USAF, Reviewer

William Lambert, from Ironton, Ohio, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, was  one of America's leading aces, behind the famous Eddie Rickenbacker. Like Rickenbacker, Lambert patrolled the dangerous skies over France during the Great War delivering justice to the Iron Cross. Unlike Rickenbacker, he served with foreign forces as a member of Britain's Royal Flying Corps, No. 24 Squadron. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in early 1917 and sailed for Britain after completion of his training, on 19 November 1917. The author explains that it was Lambert's love for aviation that drew him to service via Canada, where he championed flight training and proved himself combat-ready.
[N.B. In the same time frame of April 1918 through August 1918 Lambert accomplished 21.5 victories while Rickenbacker scored six.]

Bill Lambert: World War I Flying Ace includes a brief summary of the Wright brothers' struggle to make aviation possible. Readers unfamiliar with aviation terminology such as airfoil, wing warping, rudder, elevator control, and ailerons may find it difficult to follow the progress and accomplishments of early American aviation. However, the author, Samuel J. Wilson, does an exquisite job chronicling the life and times of this decorated fighter pilot of the First World War, who lived largely in the shadows of the more vocal aviators in early aviation.

Wilson is a history professor at the University of Rio Grande in Ohio. He is careful to cite the professional work and memoirs of Lambert, who kept a daily log during the war and published his own book, Combat Report. As Lambert's timeline advances through 1918, the author provides current events and Allied strategy to generate a more complete and much-needed battlefield picture. Though the citations can become a bit distracting, they provide comfort to the reader that this man's story and his conquests are true and accurate. He also provides corroborating support by examining available squadron historical records. The stories are vivid accounts of contact with the enemy, the perils of an inattentive pilot, and the successes of No. 24 Squadron. Pilots faced many challenges flying in an open cockpit and dealing with incessant system failures that plagued operations and degraded the spirits of eager fighter pilots such as Lambert.

Sadly, Lambert's involvement in the Great War ended abruptly and prematurely. He suffered from combat stress, or "shell shock," as it was diagnosed at the time. It is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The chapter dedicated to his diagnosis and the condition is mind-opening and impactful for anyone who has experienced similar symptoms or knows someone who has struggled with this very real disease. PTSD affected Lambert and his character for the rest of his life of 87 years,  because the way he dealt with his problems was less than popular in the court of public opinion. The author is brutally honest in describing Lambert's personal side—his promiscuous behavior during his barnstorming days after the war and his stubbornness and crotchety demeanor later in life that only pushed friends and acquaintances away.

Back in RAF Uniform Later in Life
This book can spawn a greater interest in World War I aviation and America's first fighter pilots. The early machines may lack the appeal of modern-day air power with all of the bells and whistles of advanced technology, precision-guided munitions, and stealth technology. However, these dogfights—told from an ace's perspective—are real, engaging, and leave the reader in suspense. It is hard to put the book down as each encounter with the enemy keeps the pages turning, highlighting Lambert's 18 confirmed victories. It has the underpinnings of being a Hollywood production as Lambert advances to the edge of greatness, departing the Great War as America's leading ace only to be outdone by countrymen who were able to keep flying until the Armistice. It is an essential read for historians and aviation enthusiasts.

Lambert later served with the Army Air Forces in World War II. He retired in 1954 as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He died in 1982, age 87, and is buried alongside his wife in his hometown of Ironton, Ohio.

Christopher Wlodarczyk

Editor's Notes.  Thanks to Joe Unger for making this available to us. A few revisions were made to the original for the sake of clarity.


  1. Thanks for publishing this review! Wilson’s book is first rate and worth the read. It gives wonderful details into Lambert’s time as a pilot as well as his life after the Great War. Of particular interest is his time barnstorming the Mid-West in 1919 and his time in World War II. The book is well-researched and written!

  2. I find this particularly interesting because of the light it sheds on Lambert's personal side, the affect flying had on him, and how it continued for the rest of his life. In the last photo he looks so much like a dear old curmudgeon I knew who had gone through a lot with the OSS in WWII.

  3. Lambert was credited with 22 ½ victories, not 18. On 5 February 1974, Group Captain E. B. “Teddy” Haslam of the Historical Branch of the Air Ministry replied to a request about Lambert’s record by Royal Frey, Director of the U.S. Air Force Museum. After an exhausted search into Lambert’s record by F. W. Coles, Lambert was credited with 22½ victories by the RAF. This correspondence and documents supporting these findings are in Lambert File in the U.S. Air Force Museum Archives in Dayton.

  4. Here is more information on Lambert's victory total from Royal Air Force Museum: