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Making of Billy Bishop
By Brereton Greenhous
232 pgs. US$19.99/C$29.99
Reevaluating a Canadian hero
By Steven Martinovich
Although the First World War ended in 1918, the story of Billy Bishop remains engrained in the collective consciousness of Canadians. Credited with shooting down an incredible 72 enemy aircraft, Bishop's place in history was guaranteed with a daring raid on June 2, 1917. In an action that earned him the Victoria Cross, the world's most difficult combat decoration to win, Bishop attacked and destroyed a German airfield single-handedly.
That event writes historian Brereton Greenhous, which consistently places Bishop near the top of polls listing Canada's heroes, is not only unbelievable, it's not to be believed. In fact Greenhous argues in a new book that Bishop's claim of 72 downed aircraft is a fabrication. The work of a brave man and "a consummate, bold liar."
Twenty-years after a controversial documentary questioned whether Bishop is the hero Canadians hold him to be, Greenhous' compelling The Making of Billy Bishop paints a sometimes unflattering portrait of an ambitious man out to make himself into the greatest ace of the British Empire, partly to marry the granddaughter of Timothy Eaton. Even his famed encounter with the Red Baron, alleges Greenhous, was nothing but a lie.
There is much circumstantial evidence in Greenhous' favour. Unlike the claimed victories of Manfred von Richthofen, nearly all of which had supporting evidence, only a few of Bishop's alleged aerial victories were witnessed by anyone. Tellingly, Greenhous argues, most of his claimed victims came while he flew alone, while with other pilots in the area Bishop's achievements were far more modest. Bishop's claims were aided and abetted by commanding officers either willfully ignorant or out to establish the unit's preeminence and by his impressive social contacts in England. On the day he claimed to have engaged Richthofen, Greenhous points out that the Red Baron had just scored his 50th victory and was barred from flying until he could be personally congratulated by the Kaiser.
The core of his case, however, is dismantling the story of Bishop's famed raid. Utilizing German records, Greenhous argues that none exist to confirm Bishop's story. What is more likely than a single-handed raid that claimed several aircraft, he says, Bishop simply landed his plane and shot it up. Inexplicably, Bishop returned to his base without his mounted machinegun, something Greenhous attributes to dishonourable actions.
While Greenhous does build an impressive case for his contention, critics could rightly point out that his extensive use of German records weakens his arguments as often as they strengthen them. Although meticulous record keeping is a German hallmark, that eye for recording detail turns out to be a facet of Nazi Germany, not its imperial predecessor. Another problem for Greenhous is that many of the original German records that formed the reports he studied turned out to have been destroyed - perhaps ironically by Allied bombers - during the Second World War.
If Greenhous is right, that Bishop was indeed a fraud when it comes to his illustrious military record, partisans of Owen Sound's famed son can at least take away that his bravery remains intact. As Greenhous rightly points out, becoming a pilot during the First World War was tantamount to signing your own death certificate. The lifespan of a First World War pilot was usually measured in days with only a handful enjoying the longevity of a Bishop or Richthofen. Ground fire, other pilots and structurally unstable aircraft combined for a horrific casualty rate.
Unlike nearly every other pilot of his era, Bishop often flew alone instead of in a formation, usually a suicidal decision to make. Bishop also often flew for extended periods of time deep in enemy airspace, making him vulnerable to ground attack and enemy formations. The sheer fact that he survived such perils may not be enough for a Victoria Cross, but it is enough to preserve the fact that Bishop was one of the bravest Canadians to ever don a uniform and serve his nation. Although The Making of Billy Bishop will provoke controversy among the guardians of Canada's military heritage, Greenhous' effort fails to strip Bishop of that.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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