William Barker with a Sopwith Camel CREDIT ALAMY
RAF

The legendary victories of WWI hero pilot William Barker VC

The most decorated pilot in the history of the Commonwealth was ashamed of his Victoria Cross award and preferred not to speak about it.

William Barker with a Sopwith Camel CREDIT ALAMY

Canadian William Barker VC came from a humble rural background before rising to global fame during the First World War as the most decorated pilot of the era  -  not only in his home country but throughout the Commonwealth.

The fighter ace received 12 medals for valour including the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the French Croix de Guerre, the Italian Medal of Military Valour and the Victoria Cross.

His Sopwith Camel biplane fighter aircraft is considered by aviation historians to be one of the most successful combat aircraft in the history of the Royal Air Force - scoring 46 victories by one pilot during 11-months of battle.

His Victoria Cross was awarded to him for shooting down four aircraft while outnumbered by enemy planes - fifteen to one. He managed to do this in a badly damaged plane, while shot in the legs and missing an elbow joint that had been obliterated by an exploding bullet.

In honour of the heroic Canadian Victoria Cross recipient, the Royal Air Force's seventh P-8A Poseidon aircraft has been named 'William Barker VC'. However, outside of Canada, few may know of his heroism during the Great War.

Coming from a humble farming family in rural Manitoba, Canada, William George Barker was drawn to the skies from a young age, having seen “flying machines” at agricultural fairs. The future aviation star enlisted to fight in the First World War as soon as the call to arms was made in the Dominion of Canada, joining the Canadian Mounted Rifles in December 1914.

After enduring a year in the trenches, Barker transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in April 1916 and was shortly posted to England in November of the same year. The Corps in those early years of air combat formed the air arm of the British Army, prior to the squadron's merger with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force in 1918.

It did not take long for Barker to find his wings and after only 55 minutes of dual instruction the naturally-gifted pilot took off on his first solo flight.

Having completed his training at Netheravon, Barker returned to France as Captain, posted to 15 Squadron. Within 24 hours of arriving in Lealvillers, France, he saw action and was airborne for most of the following months. His quick thinking soon earned him a Bar on his Military Cross for spotting a developing German assault on Australian positions and dispersing it with an artillery barrage.

Barker’s B.E 2 (Royal Aircraft Factory designed two-seat biplane) was hit by ground fire on 7 August. He miraculously survived but was almost blinded by shrapnel that slashed his brow but narrowly missed his eyes. He was sent back to England to be an instructor while he recovered.

The MC recipient found the slow pace of his new role intolerable while there was action taking place across the Channel. Itching to get back to the battle skies, with his requests to be sent back denied, the 'instructor’ became restless, constantly disobeying flying regulations and serving aerial stunts at any opportunity.

He went as far as to treat the central Londoners to an unauthorised aerobatic display over Piccadilly Circus.

However, instead of being disciplined for his insubordination, the young ‘stuntman’ was not only allowed to go back to the front but was given the choice between 56 Squadron in France, or a newly formed Sopwith Camel unit, 28 Squadron, soon to go to France and then Italy. The lion-hearted Canadian chose the latter because it offered him the chance to fly the Sopwith Camel.

Willian Barker VC (Picture: Public Archives of Canada).

These were early days of aerial combat and a truly exciting time for aviation design which was adapting and evolving at an unprecedented pace. When Barker joined 28 Squadron, the Sopwith Camel was the most agile plane the Royal Aircraft Factory had ever made. It became Britain’s most famous fighter of World War I.

In many ways, this was due to what William Barker was able to achieve while in the cockpit. With 3,000 enemy planes destroyed, the Camels were the most successful fighter aircraft deployed by any nation in WWI.

With a few flying accidents throughout his career, it might be said that Barker was not the most skilled of pilots at flying. However, what set him apart from the rest and made him the most successful WW1 pilot was his marksmanship and aggressive courage.

Both qualities flourished while he served with the Sopwith Camel unit, making him particularly victorious at dogfighting.

The unit’s first victory came shortly after Barker’s arrival. His first and the Squadron’s first victories came on 20 October, when in the middle of a dogfight, he shot the wings of a German Imperial Army’s Albatross Scout and forced another to land. The Canadian maverick claimed four more victories before the squadron made their way over to Italy, where he claimed another 15, as well as a Distinguished Service Order award.

The distinguished pilot joined the 66 Squadron in April 1918, taking his personal Sopwith Camel No. B6313 with him, which had almost exclusively been flown by him. No. B6313 tallied an unprecedented score of 46 enemy shootdowns while flown by Barker, placing him in the top 10 of RAF aces and fourth among Canadian-born pilots. 

Despite his stunt antics and seeming lack of fear, first and foremost Barker was a leader and team player – he never had an aircraft that he was escorting shot down or a wingman killed during his remarkable record.

Today, William Barker is still Canada’s most decorated war hero. His last victory in the war which gained him the Victoria Cross was not in his trusted Sopwith Camel but in the newer Sopwith Sniper. On 27 October 1918, Barker was returning back to base on his last day of a 10-day roving commission when he encountered a large number of enemy aircraft.

By his own account, he was foolhardy to go into battle on his own while greatly outnumbered. He swiftly shot down one enemy two-seater plane and then was attacked by a large formation of single-seater Fokker D.VII fighters (according to some embellished accounts as many as 60, but definitely 15 or more).

He sustained severe injuries, making his crash-landing survival ever more miraculous. In a letter to fellow pilot Arthur Stanton Waltho, Barker said:

“Yes, old man, they damn nearly did it for me. As it is, my left arm will be stiff for a long time it was a question of amputation. Must have been an explosive bullet there because the whole elbow joint is missing – my right hip has gone septic but I think they have it in hand. This bullet, a tracer, went in at the top and came out right at the bottom of the left buttock – then there is another one through the right thigh coming out the right buttock. You see I have to lay on these wounds as I am on my back with my arm strung up to the ceiling . . . Yes, Waltho, it may be nice to have the VC. But believe me I would sweep them all in the fire to stand once more fit. The agony I have gone through has been damnable . . . This has been some effort . . . I have not written a long letter like this home yet.

“PS – I am writing this at 4:30 AM. That’s when we are called to after laying awake most of the night. I am always glad to for the lights to go on.”

Unsurprisingly, the recovery took a long time. The distinguished flyer had to rely on a walking stick when he received the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace the following year. Despite the fame and international acclaim that came with the award, William himself saw it as a defeat because before then, he had never been forced to crash-land by enemy aircraft. According to his grandson, the legendary pilot was more proud of his record of never having lost a wingman or an aircraft that he accompanied. He may have risked his own life on countless occasions, but the safety of his crew was paramount to him. 

William Barker VC was born in a log cabin in 1894, nine years before the Wright Brothers managed to get one of their “flying machines” that William was so fascinated by as a child, successfully in the air. When he died at the age of 35, during a demonstration of a Fairchild KR-21 biplane, 50,000 people attended his funeral. The national state funeral was the largest the city of Toronto had ever held.

He was interred in the crypt of his wife’s family, the Smiths, without his own name on the plaque.

Today, as long as the P-8A Poseidon aircraft is in service, the name William Barker will be where it belongs – in the skies.