Thursday, April 14, 2005

I Am Canadian

In 1914, World War One broke out with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, while he was touring the neighboring country of Serbia. He was first in the line of succession for the rulership of the Austrian/Hungarian empire. In response to his assassination, Austria's Kaiser issued an ultimatum to Serbia. Serbia agreed to all but two of their demands; primarily they balked at the placement of Austrian troops within Serbia. War loomed, and the Serbians allied with Russia for protection. In response, Austria allied with Germany and called the Russians' bluff, invading Serbia. But the Russians didn't back down, a decision that would cost the Czars millions of Russian lives and after the war resulted in a communist revolution that brought an end to their reign.

Since France had a treaty with the Russians, they were forced to go to war when Germany attacked Russia. The Germans struck back at France, marching through Belgium on their way. The Belgians weren't pleased with this, and they went to war with Germany too. Since England had a treaty with Belgium, England was also dragged into it, along with her colonies -- in particular, Canada.

Twenty years earlier, in 1894, one William "Billy" Barker was born in Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada. Son of a blacksmith, he grew up on the farm, horseback riding and shooting and bird-hunting, unwittingly building the skills that would serve him well in the coming war. When England declared war on Germany, Billy joined the waves of young men who signed up to fight for King and Empire. After a year's worth of training, he arrived in Europe as a machine gunner. It didn't take long, though, before he decided that the filth and gruesome horror of trench warfare wasn't for him. He signed up for the Royal Flying Corps, as an observer, which meant that he sat in the second seat of a biplane and took reconnaisance photos, not to mention manning the guns. This was an entirely new concept, and Billy and his comrades were pioneers in the field.

For about a year, Billy flew reconnaisance missions as an observer in relative peace. Then in July, 1916, the British and French launched the ill-fated offensive of the Somme. It was an utter disaster, resulting in the loss of 58,000 British troops on the first day of battle alone. In the sky, Billy was in the thick of it, downing two German Roland scouts and taking a piece of shrapnel in the leg. After that battle, in late September, he earned a Military Cross when he and his pilot fought off two German Albatros planes and still managed to complete their photography mission.

In November, Billy applied for pilot training, and by January, he was back at the front, this time flying his own plane. It wasn't long before he was promoted to Captain, in charge of 'C' Flight in the No. 15 Squadron. Two months later in March, he earned another promotion and a bar to his Military cross for a dangerous recon mission that he managed to pull off despite damage to his airplane.

In August, a wound to the head took him off the front lines. While he was recovering he was given the job of instructor, where he first flew the legendary Sopwith Camel. He returned to the front in October, and within a week he had shot down three Albatros scouts.

Meanwhile, as the war had raged, other powers had been dragged into it. The Ottoman Empire joined the Austrian side, hoping to get a piece of Russian land for itself. Italy, Japan, and America joined the British and French, each one for their own purposes.

Italy had suffered a defeat at the hands of the Austrians in the battle of Caporetto, and the French and British each rushed in four airplane squadrons to help. Billy Barker was among them. Rather than recon, his job this time was to protect the recon planes, shoot down observation balloons, and keep the Austrian planes on their side of the front while making incursions into enemy territory of his own.

On Christmas day of that year, Billy and his buddy (and fellow Canadian) Steve Hudson decided to throw a little Christmas party for the enemy. They snuck out and dropped a mocking holiday greeting at their foes' airfield, along with lots of machine gun fire and two twenty-pound bombs. The Austrians were pissed off at this breach of the usual unnofficial Christmas truce and retaliated the next day, hoping to catch the British off guard. It probably wasn't a good idea to fly planes hungover and/or still drunk, though, and Barker and the British tore them apart, destroying twelve German planes.

Throughout their time in Italy, Bill Barker and Steve Hudson became reknowned "Balloon Busters", between them destroying at least nine enemy hot-air balloons used for observation. Billy shot down two in December. In January, he and Steve took off on a "practice flight". Somehow they managed to find and destroy two kite balloons during their practice. Later, in February, they informed their superiors that they were off to "test guns". During this "gun testing" they just "happened" to come accross five more enemy balloons, and shot them all down.

Billy had many more adventures during the war, with a total of 46 downed enemy aircraft to his credit, but it was his final one that was his greatest. Two months before the end of the war, Billy was reassigned to head up a fighter pilot school in England. He took two weeks' leave, and then requested permission to go to the front before he started teaching, to "familiarize himself with the latest German tactics and newest aircraft capabilities". Permission was not only granted, but he was also given one of the new Sopwith Snipes, the most advanced fighter plane in the skies at the time. He destroyed three German planes, and then was ordered to return to England and get to the teaching he was trying to avoid.

On the morning of Oct. 27, 1918, Billy Barker climbed into his Sopwith Snipe to return to England. He climbed up to 15,000 feet and, flying over enemy territory, encountered a German Rumpler two-seater. The German gunner managed to keep him at bay for a while, so he backed off to 200 feet and picked him off at long range before swooping in and finishing it. In his concentration on taking down this one last German plane, he failed to notice the German Fokker fighterplane sneaking up behind him. A blast of machine gun fire shattered his right thigh, causing him to faint from the pain. Barker's Snipe went into a spinning dive, plunging 2,000 feet, still pursued by the Fokker. He managed to regain conciousness and pull out of the dive, somehow dodging the pursuing plane's machine gun fire. He turned to meet his attacker, and destroyed him in a hail of bullets.

As Barker desperately turned back toward friendly territory, he was pounced on by a patrol of Fokker and Albatros biplanes. Guns opened up from all directions, but somehow he managed to shoot down three enemy planes in rapid succession. Another bullet struck his other leg in the exchange, rendering him unable to operate his rudder control pedals. He fainted from the pain again, plunging downward once more.

The blast of fresh air revived him, and he leveled out to find himself in the middle of a group of at least sixty enemy fighter planes. As they all opened fire, he pulled himself into a tight turn and blasted away at anything that crossed his sights. Another Fokker fell from the sky, but Barker was hit in the left elbow. He fainted again, and streaked downwards another 5,000 feet before coming to. To his dismay, he was still surrounded by Fokkers on every side.

Wounded, losing blood, barely able to maintain conciousness, and with only one operational limb, Barker knew he was done for. Determined to take one last enemy plane with him, he laid on the machine guns and charged at one of the Fokkers, determined to ram it out of the sky with his dying breath. He was still firing when to his utter surprise the enemy plane disintegrated. A bullet punched through his gas tank, but miraculously it did not start on fire. Coming up on the ground now, Billy switched over to his reserve tank and tried to steer his plane in for a crash landing. As he hit the ground, he skidded sideways and flipped over, coming to rest in a cloud of dust and smoke. Scottish Highland troops, who had witness the epic aerial battle, rushed to the scene and pulled him out. They were amazed that he was still alive.

Barker lay in the hospital in Rouen for two weeks after this, unconcious. He received telegrams from King George V, the Prince of Wales, fellow ace Billy Bishop, and many others. He also received the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

After the war, Billy Barker returned to Canada and co-founded a short-lived air transport company with fellow air ace Billy Bishop, the man who shot down the Red Baron. The duo tended to cause havoc; among other things they caused a stampede with their low-flying aerobatics at the Canadian National Exhibition, and had to pay heavy reparations to a woman who miscarried in the ensuing near-riot. The following year, he helped found the Royal Canadian Air Force, serving as its first director, and flying for a time in Iraq and Palestine. Later, he left the military, and became President of the Fairchild Aviation Company of Canada.

Lt. Col. William "Billy" Barker died in 1930, test flying a new Fairchild two-seater outside Ottawa. He was buried in Toronto with full military honours.

This is the sort of Canadian history we were never taught in school.

Billy Barker


Becca said...

Wow! If I was taught that kind of history in high school I probably would've slept less ;)

Nice post!

Terrin said...

me too!!! jared, you have such an awesome way of telling things. i was riveted the whole time!

Jason Mulgrew said...


jason mulgrew
internet quasi-celebrity

Le Conservateur said...

Modern history classes--especially regarding Canada--stand no chance against