Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Daredevils of the Skies

Billy Bishop

Like Cecil Lewis, whom I mentioned in last week’s post about the Royal Flying Corps, Canadian Billy Bishop extolled the joys of flying in his memoir, Winged Warfare. Bishop became the RFC’s top Ace with 72 victories, and was one of Canada’s three aviators awarded the Victoria Cross - Britain’s highest military decoration for valour. Bishop appears in my novels ElusiveDawn and Under the Moon.

William Barker
William Barker was one of the other VC recipients, and is Canada and the British Empire’s most decorated war hero of all time. During the air battle that earned him the VC, he sustained three bullet wounds to his legs, and his elbow was shattered.  Barker barely survived, and was plagued by his injuries throughout his short life. With his arm in a sling and still using a cane, he managed to take Edward Prince of Wales for a flight before leaving England, for which King George gave the Prince “absolute hell”.

At the Muskoka Chautauqua
After the war, Bishop and Barker started one of the first commercial airlines in Canada, and began flights between Toronto harbour (now known as the Billy Bishop Airport) and Muskoka. Of course they visit their (fictional) friend’s cottage in Muskoka in my novel, Under the Moon.

Absurdly, they had to pass flying tests before being given the now-required pilot’s licence, and were incensed that the examiners had much less experience than they did. Ah, bureaucracy!

Bishop and Barker were reckless daredevils and too fond of the drink, undoubtedly a legacy from the thrill and stress of warfare. Performing an air show over the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), they stunted so dangerously low that people fled screaming, and the aviators were fired.

Bishop had a crash that seriously injured him and his passenger, resulting is his being unable to fly, which contributed to the Bishop-Barker Aeroplane Company folding in 1922. 

Years later, Barker became Vice-President of Fairchild Aircraft in Canada. He was giving a demonstration of a new plane in 1930 when he crashed. So beloved was this hero that an unprecedented 50,000 people lined the streets of Toronto for his funeral. Sadly, he is almost forgotten. Here is an interesting news clip from 2011, when a plaque was finally erected to Barker at his obscure resting place. It includes film footage of the Bishop-Barker aeroplanes.

I was thrilled that Billy Bishop’s son, Arthur – a WW2 fighter pilot, historian, and author -  not only enjoyed reading the first two of my Muskoka Novels, but also that he gave me these comments:

"The Summer Before The Storm and ElusiveDawn are not only well written, suspenseful, and enjoyable, but also historically accurate. The amazing amount of research provides an excellent educational background on the Great War and on aviation. The writer obviously has a keen interest in and knowledge of the subject."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Glamorous Birdmen

In the summer of 1914, London’s Daily Mail offered a £10,000 prize for the first man to fly an airplane across the Atlantic. It had been just over a decade since the Wright brothers’ successful flight, and planes still seemed little more than kites.

So when war broke out, few people expected airplanes would have any military use, except for perhaps reconnaissance. But before long, pilots and their observers were dropping bombs and shooting each other out of the skies.

A British B.E. 2C - Notice the machine guns added to this reconnaissance plane
To many intrepid young men, one-on-one combat in the vast heavens was preferable to the mud and blood of the trenches. There was a sense of freedom, gallantry, the thrill of seeing the world as few ever had.

There’s a delightful passage from Cecil Lewis’s memoir, Sagittarius Rising, in which he recalls flying with his friend, Arthur.
“Sometimes, returning from our patrol, we would break off and chase each other round about the clouds, zooming their summits, plunging down their white precipitous flanks, darting like fishes through their shadowy crevasses and their secret caves.” Like too many others, Arthur was killed.

Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilot training was often cursory, especially in the early days of the war. Many recruits had only 2 to 3 hours of instruction before being expected to fly solo.  Training was so hazardous that ambulances were always on standby at the airfields. 8000 young men died in Britain during flight training, more than from enemy action.

A downed German airplane
If they survived training and had logged as little as 15 hours of flying time, pilots were sent to the Western Front, where most lasted only an average of 3 weeks. Those who weren't killed, wounded, or taken prisoner might be posted out because of "nerves". Flying was extremely stressful and dangerous.

But according to Lewis, there was glamour surrounding the “birdmen”, who were considered brave and daring. “The R.F.C. attracted the adventurous spirits, the devil-may-care young bloods of England, the fast livers, the furious drivers – men who were not happy unless they were taking risks. This invested the Corps with a certain style (not always admirable).”

In fact, the RFC considered a sporting man who could ride a horse and drive a car as a good candidate for pilot training. One third of all RFC pilots were Canadians.

The exploits of my characters who become RFC pilots in The Summer Before the Storm and Elusive Dawn are inspired by real people and events.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Long Way Home

It might be a Long Way to Tipperary, but it was even a longer way home to Canada.

Some of the nearly half million Canadians serving overseas in the Great War had family in Britain, but others found themselves far from home, perhaps for the first time. Many were still in their teens, and unused to large cities like London, which was also notoriously expensive.

Princess Patricia of Connaught - by W&D Downey
While Canadian officers were welcome at established British clubs – the Royal Automobile Club often being mentioned in memoirs, for example – there was nothing similar for enlisted men.

Concerned for their welfare when on leave or convalescing, and in the hopes of keeping them out of trouble in London, Lady Drummond of Montreal – who was head of the Canadian Red Cross Information Bureau in London - instituted the Maple Leaf Clubs for Canadian soldiers. They provided a hot bath, clean bed, decent meals, and a homey place to congregate for a minimal cost. They were subsidized by contributions from organizations in Canada, like the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) and Canadian Clubs, as well as private citizens. 

Rudyard Kipling and his wife were on the Board of Directors, and volunteers who helped serve meals included Princess Patricia, whose father, His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, was Canada's Governor General from 1911-1916. The King was so impressed that he asked they be named the King George and Queen Mary Maple Leaf Clubs.

One of my characters is involved in setting up a fictional Maple Leaf Club outside of London in The Summer Before The Storm.

Women were not forgotten, as the IODE established a club for Canadian nurses in Lady Minto’s London townhouse. Lord Minto was a former Governor General of Canada.