27 October 2008

Our Most Decorated Soldier

Warning: War alert. Canadian History alert.

Today is the ninetieth anniversary of one of the most incredible acts in Canada’s history of war. The story involves a man almost completely forgotten today, in spite of several efforts to bring his name back into our memory. He is our most decorated soldier, William Barker.

Barker signed up early in the war as a machine gunner, but soon transferred to observation, and from there into flying fighters. He turned out to be a superb pilot, fearless and cunning. In an era when the average life span of a pilot was about two weeks, with only a few hours in the air, Barker amassed over nine hundred hours of combat missions.

For much of his career as a pilot, Barker was stationed in Italy. There he picked up a parcel of medals, was mentioned in dispatches and was even immortalized by Ernest Hemmingway in the story The Snows of Kilimanjaro for his raid on a German airfield on Christmas Day, 1917. His skill and ability to fight his way clear of tight spots was incredible.

His record was outstanding. According to Wikipedia “He is officially credited with one captured, two (and seven shared) balloons destroyed, 33 (and two shared) aircraft destroyed, and five aircraft "out of control;" the highest "destroyed" ratio for any RAF, RFC or RNAS pilot during the conflict.” He flew most of his missions with a Sopwith Camel, even after other improved aircraft entered the conflict. He felt his knowledge and comfort with his aircraft gave him an advantage greater than other improvements. As a result of this, his Sopwith Camel was the most successful combat aircraft in the history of the RAF. He had over 46 kills in it from September 1917-1918 over 404 operational hours. He only gave up the Camel when it was ordered dismantled. He tried to keep the clock from the aircraft as a souvenir, but was ordered to return it the next day.

His personality is difficult to pin down. His coolness under fire is undeniable, yet at times his behaviour appears almost childish. As he completed his Christmas raid in 1917 he dropped a cardboard note to the Germans inscribed with the words “Merry Christmas.” At another time, he dropped another note on a German Aerodrome offering a challenge to a top German pilot to meet Barker at some location where they could settle the question as to who was the better pilot mano e mano. The challenge went unanswered.

Barker’s greatest exploit, the one whose anniversary is today, was his last of the war. In 1918 Barker was ordered back to England to train new pilots- a task he despised, as he felt he was of more use as a combat pilot. To forestall being sent back, he quickly invented a story. He had served on the Italian Front, he explained. He knew little of the Combat techniques of the Western Front. He should at least get a taste of the tactics before he began training men to fight there. Somehow, HQ swallowed the story. He was given a Sopwith Snipe and a roving commission to serve on the Western Front for two weeks. He went into France and awaited his last chance to fight. It rained, and he was grounded for the entire two weeks.

The sun finally broke through the clouds on the day he was to return the Snipe to the depot. Reluctantly, he climbed into his aircraft and took off. As he flew away, several of the ground crew chased after him, waving their arms and shouting for his attention, trying to tell him he was flying in the wrong direction- towards the front, and not away from it. He soared out of sight and the crews and staff returned to their huts. An hour later, their phones were ringing with accounts of one of the most incredible dogfights in history.

Barker had decided to take one last shot at combat, and he flew his Snipe to the Western Front to try and find one last fight. As he flew along at about twenty one thousand feet, he spotted a German two-seater observation plane. He dropped on the plane from behind and shot it down in short order. As the plane went down, the crew bailed out using parachutes, a recent innovation. Barker watched in fascination as the two men drifted down towards earth. He had never seen them before. The British refused to issue parachutes to their men as they felt it would dull their pilots’ killer instincts, and they would bail out at the first opportunity rather than fight to the death. As Barker watched, he heard the sound of machine gun fire, and piercing pain as a bullet hit his thigh. He had let himself be distracted, and now he paid the price. As he looked around, the sky was full of German planes. He was in the middle of an entire German squadron.

It was desperate, but Barker was a master of desperate situations. He out circled the plane that had shot him, and with his deadly accuracy put a round through that plane's gas tank. The plane burst into flames and spun towards the distant ground. But the sky was still full of enemies. His plane was taking hits from all directions and he took a hit in his other thigh. He fought back, and sent another two fokkers down in spins, but by now the loss of blood was taking its toll and he passed out. His plane went into dive, and the rushing air help revive him. He pulled out of his dive, and found himself surrounded by another flight of Germans. He picked out one aircraft and charged it, guns blazing. The plane exploded, but now Barker was hit by another bullet, shattering his elbow. For a second time he fainted from the pain and loss of blood and his plane dove again. The rushing air revived him a second time. He found himself in firing position for another German plane, and he shot it down in flames.He bolted for allied lines, but the Germans intercepted him. He had to fight his way out one more time. He charged and broke up the German formation and took more hits. His gas tank- which was directly under his seat- was shot away but miraculously did not catch fire. With failing strength he switched over to the reserve tank and continued, flying at top speed as he descended to the ground. At last he crossed over to friendly lines. Cover fire from the ground chased off the last of his pursuers. He brought his plane down as best he could. His landing was little more than a barely controlled crash. Though badly wounded, he survived.

His plane was soon surrounded by lustily cheering soldiers who had witnessed the fight from the ground. From their position it was clear that this one pilot had defeated an entire German Squadron. What is more, by some coincidence the fight had taken place over the Canadian Corps. When the Canadians on the ground saw that it was a fellow countryman who had done this incredible deed, their cheers became only louder.

The fight was one of the most unique in aerial combat history. The estimates of the number of planes Barker fought range from fifteen to sixty. He had engaged elements of an entire German Squadron as he dropped in height through the German’s upper, lower and middle flights. The estimate of sixty is quite possible.

Barker was in a coma for weeks, clinging doggedly to life. When he awoke, the war was over. For his exploit, the High Command had two options: court-martial, or pin a medal on his chest. They chose the latter, and for this incredible combat Barker was awarded the British Empire’s highest military honour: the Victoria Cross.

After the war Barker lived an uneasy life, as did many veterans. He drifted in and out of the military. For a time he trained pilots, though he loathed that job. He used his status as the most decorated pilot of the war to lobby the British military to start issuing parachutes to their pilots. He and Canada’s most famous pilot, Billy Bishop, started a business of flying people from Toronto to Muskoka. The venture failed badly. Barker married a wealthy woman from Toronto and had a daughter, but seemed to find no peace.

In January 1930 Barker was a test pilot, taking a new aircraft up for a spin before the craft was tested in the presence of military brass. As he flew around, he took the plane into climb. The airplane stalled and crashed to the ground. Barker was dead.

His funeral was the largest in Toronto’s history. Over 50,000 people lined the route. An honour guard of 2,000 soldiers and veterans accompanied his body on the way to his tomb- a tomb which does not bear his name. He is buried in his wife’s family mausoleum. Today he is barely a memory.

Interestingly, his Snipe survives and is at the Canadian War Museum. It is the only surviving aircraft in which a VC was won. Last time I heard a report, however, it was not put on display as the museum did not have the money to prepare it for display.

An effort to help revive the memory of Barker resulted in the excellent book: Barker VC: William Barker, Canada’s Most Decorated War Hero, by Wayne Ralph. It is an excellent book, and a fitting tribute to a man whose name deserves to be remembered.

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