The Making of Billy Bishop
By Brereton Greenhous
Dundurn, 232 pages, $29.99
When word of this controversial book about Great War flying ace Billy Bishop hit the news several weeks ago, people were aghast that the author, former Department of National Defence historian Brereton Greenhous, could make accusations about one of our nation's heroes. Reading this book, Canadians won't find much to support his claims that Bishop was a bold, consummate liar about the mission for which he received the British Empire's highest military decoration, the Victoria Cross.
This isn't the first time Greenhous has written negatively about Bishop. In 1989, he wrote an article for the periodical Canadian Historical Review, stating that Bishop's record was largely composed of unsupported claims. This book continues that line of thought, arguing that Bishop's career was one of flukes, lucky breaks and propagandistic desires.
According to the history books, Billy Bishop, a 23-year-old Canadian pilot with 22 victories to his credit by this time, took off from his airfield in the dark hours of June 2, 1917. His mission was to attack a German aerodrome at dawn, generally considered a time when aircraft would be most vulnerable to attack as they were being rolled out for the day's first flights. Bishop was flying alone that morning despite attempts to persuade colleagues to join him. Locating an aerodrome with its planes and pilots preparing for first flight, Bishop attacked, shooting down three aircraft before returning to his home base.
On his return, Bishop filed a combat report identifying as clearly as possible the location of the attack, the damage inflicted and the enemy aircraft engaged. This report, along with a recommendation for the Victoria Cross from his squadron commander, would make its way to the higher formations of the Royal Flying Corps for review. After nine weeks of investigation, Bishop was notified that he would receive the Victoria Cross from King George V.
Greenhous attempts to establish that Bishop's Great War military career was based on fibs, exaggerations and bold lies. The dawn attack is central to his thesis that this mission did not occur as the combat report indicates. What is ironic is that the author himself supports portions of this same report. He spends several pages evaluating various paths Bishop might have flown that morning. If the mission never occurred and the report was a complete fabrication, why try to identify a flight path that supports it?
Considerable space (roughly two chapters) is expended to examine each of Bishop's 72 career victories, raising questions about eyewitness accounts -- or absence of same. This is quite impressive, given that most books simply rattle off the victories like a laundry list. Regrettably, as Greenhous acknowledges, there is a lack of accurate records from the period.
The book does, however, raise some interesting questions. For example, Bishop wore, as part of his military medals, the 1914-15 Star. This was awarded to military personnel who fought in France during those years. Bishop, however, didn't arrive in France as part of the Royal Flying Corps until two weeks into 1916. That Bishop wasn't awarded this medal is supported by documents at the National Archives of Canada.
Is there enough information to support Greenhous's main thesis? He makes extensive use of Bishop's original combat reports and letters home to various family members. He also offers information from some German weekly air activity reports. Their lack of corroborating information is a key support of his claim that Bishop couldn't have achieved the victories he claimed. In the end, the lack of information to prove Bishop's claims is the same lack of evidence supporting Greenhous's thesis.
This is evident in many of the reports and war diaries of the Great War. Certainly those serving in 1917 could appreciate the context in which reports like Bishop's were written and filed. It is not inconceivable that many of the participants exaggerated or dim-inished aspects of their activities in reports or memories.
This inconsistency of information does not account for the errors and omissions in the book. Of note is the reference to Bishop's squadron commander during his last days of service in 1917, in which a periodical is severely misquoted. Several other passages lack footnoting adequate to allow the reader to review the source of the information.
Despite these faults, the book is a good read and does raise some interesting questions. In the end, it will be up to the reader to decide if Greenhous has proved his case. I am not convinced that he has.
There is one key point most people will agree to, which is that Bishop, and all flyers of that period, certainly were brave. Even Greenhous concedes that.
Interested readers should look at Billy Bishop's autobiography, Winged Warfare, recently rereleased. Other biographies include Arthur Bishop's life of his father, The Courage of the Early Morning (1965), Dan McCaffery's Billy Bishop: Canadian Hero (1988) and David Bashow's chapter on Bishop in Knights of the Air (2000). Steven Dieter is a graduate student in the War Studies Program at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is the former historian of the Billy Bishop Museum in Owen Sound, Ont.