AS soon as war was declared in 1914 the schools of flying had more inquiries than they could cope with. The youth of the world wanted to fly. They saw in the air the gateway to adventure, and many passed through it to a freedom that is not of this world.
AWARDED THE VICTORIA CROSS in June 1917, Albert Ball had learned to fly at Hendon shortly after the outbreak of the 1914-18 war. He had a remarkable career as a fighter and brought down forty-four enemy aircraft before he was killed in 1917.
Of such was the young Nottingham boy Albert Ball, later Captain Ball, VC, DSO (two bars), MC, Croix de Chevalier Legion d’Honneur, Russian Order of St. George. He went to Hendon, in north-west London, to learn to fly. He was a jolly youngster, flushed of face and very shy at the time, but full of the determination to get his transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. On the day of his arrival he was put into a somewhat primitive Caudron biplane to have the controls explained to him; he was eager to know everything at once. He paid the school £100 for flying lessons. That was the standard fee for instruction in those days, although it was later increased to £125.
When he passed the tests for the Royal Aero Club certificate, he did so without revealing any promise of the brilliant future which was before him.
When, after a long absence, he returned to Hendon a fully-fledged RFC pilot, he gave a scintillating exhibition before he landed to renew old acquaintances.
When he first came down he was not immediately recognized as the Ball who was doing all the “strafing’’ over the Western front. Someone asked him if he really was the same Ball. He smiled that winning, boyish smile of his, and pulled from a pocket a batch of newspaper cuttings. It was his little joke, for he certainly was the Ball who was so much respected by the enemy.
The nervy pupil of a flying school was on the road to world fame, and was fast becoming a menace to Richthofen’s red squadron that dealt so much havoc among Allied pilots, and ultimately marked him down.
Ball would go out and bring down enemy aeroplanes with facility; but the job was not easy. He knew that - and he confessed to feeling a little nervous before the beginning of his many encounters. The red nose of his machine was not a welcome sight except to the bravest of his German opponents. It was the signal of the approach of swift, dramatic moments.
Ball was not disconcerted by numbers. On one occasion he was flying alone when he saw five enemy machines. He could have got away, had he wished, but that was not his method. He was a fast worker in attack, and never refused battle when the opportunity presented itself.
All five of the enemy accepted the challenge. Five to one, no doubt, seemed easy odds to them. But the odds changed with amazing quickness to four to one, and then to three to one. Two enemy machines were taking their death dives because Ball had been quicker than their pilots.
The remaining three craft, their pilots disturbed by this astounding performance, twisted and turned. To deceive the enemy, Ball forced his own machine down, letting it drop as if he had been mortally wounded. One of the enemy pilots, suspicious of this manoeuvre, copied it and followed the British flying man. Ball pulled his machine out before reaching the ground. The German was not so lucky, or perhaps not so skilful: he crashed to his death.
There were two German pilots now left. Seeing the recovery of Ball, they bore down on him. It seemed an easy enough task to put him out then; but the young Englishman soared swiftly and went into battle once more; before many seconds had passed he had fatally struck one of the two remaining fighters. The craft went down, leaving only one more to be accounted for. That was too much for the surviving German pilot. He fled - and escaped.
THE SINGLE-SEATER SCOUT in which Captain Ball, VC, brought many enemy aircraft down was an SE 5. Produced by the Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough, in Hampshire, in 1917, it was used with great success by the Royal Flying Corps. Fitted with a Hispano-Suiza engine of 150 horse-power, it had a speed of 105 miles an hour. Its armament included a fixed Vickers and a Lewis gun.
So this typically English youth had put paid to the accounts of four enemy airmen in a fight that had lasted not more than ten minutes. At one period of his fighting life he was bringing down an average of two German aeroplanes a day. If he encountered only one enemy at a time an early decision in Ball’s favour was a foregone conclusion. The Germans soon realized that - and single machines began to avoid the British craft with the red cowling. One of the German pilots decided at last to sacrifice himself if only to get Ball. It would have been a unique piece of air heroism. It would have thrilled the whole German nation, and would have cast an atmosphere of disappointment across the whole of the British and Allied forces.
Two Albatross machines were making a really staunch stand against the Englishman, who, however, succeeded in striking both of them. Ball’s aeroplane was having a rough time. One of the German pilots decided that probably the only way of ever getting Ball down was to ram him, and he set about the job, willing to sacrifice his own life at the same time.
He dived hard on the British craft. Ball saw what was coming, and succeeded in avoiding the collision with only a few inches to spare. Five minutes later two Albatrosses were making their last dives to earth.
When Ball returned to his own lines his machine was a sorry spectacle. Often he came back from fights with his planes beribboned, struts damaged and wires shot through; and these fights were typical of so many - the swift, successful encounters of a flying genius who astounded the world.
What Baron von Richthofen - another great and respected pilot - was to Germany, Ball was to Great Britain. Each, at the time, was the “star turn” of his country. Each symbolized the highest type of skill, and each respected the other. There was no malice on either side - just a sporting rivalry that sooner or later must end in death. Death was the end for Albert Ball, as for so many others.
Added to the drama was mystery. The boy Ball went down after a dogfight, although he would have preferred, no doubt, to have lost the battle (if he could not have won it) against Richthofen himself; for he often dropped challenges to the baron.
Chivalry of the Air
There was sportsmanship and a spirit of freemasonry among the world’s pilots in those days. If German and English pilots were fighting a lone combat and one ran out of ammunition, he would signal to the other, whereupon the fight was “off”.
The mystery of Ball’s death lasted some time. There is still controversy over it today, but the following account is the most probable. Ball engaged three German machines and, after he had shot down two of them, the third flew off. Anti-aircraft guns then opened fire on Ball, hit his engine and caused him to crash. The crash is presumed to have caused his death, because no
bullets were found in his body. No ordinary air fighter could have got Ball, for Ball was too swift for most of the enemy, of whose craft he had driven down forty-four, made up of forty-three aeroplanes and one balloon. These were officially acknowledged victories, but there were many others.
Ball was always spoiling for a fight, because, to him, as he said in so many letters, it was a sport; and he was barely twenty years of age when he was at the height of his fame. He was a mere boy. And what manner of boy?
Simple, fervent and typically English in his love for his God, his parents and his country, and his lack of hatred for the enemy. Let him now speak for himself in his simple, youthful way. In a letter home, he once wrote:
“Re saying a few words to God when I am doing any work and when it is done. You ask me if I did when I came back safely. You bet I did!” There is simplicity in that “You bet I did!” And again:
“We kept on firing (at each other) until we had used up all our ammunition. There was nothing more to do after that, so we both burst out laughing. We couldn’t help it; it was so ridiculous.”
That was Ball, simple and unaffected, the boy who struck fear into the heart of many an enemy pilot, the boy who nearly always saw the enemy before he himself was seen. He had the most remarkable eyesight. That was one of the secrets of his amazing success.