Monday 7 May 1917 – We Lost 836
Flying a new SE5a scout, Captain Albert Ball (Royal Flying Corps) with his patrol of eleven aircraft sets out on an evening offensive patrol. There is mist and clouds, and the SE5s lose formation on the outward journey. They encounter the Albatross fighters of Jasta 11, and furious fighting breaks out in and out of the cloud cover. Ball is last seen chasing a red Albatross into a cloud. A German pilot on the ground sees Ball’s plane fall inverted from the bottom of the cloud with a stalled prop, at an altitude of 200 feet. This German and three companions hurry to the crash site. They notice no bullet holes in the wrecked plane. A young French woman pulls Ball from the wreckage, and he dies in her arms of injuries. A German doctor later describes a broken back and a crushed chest, along with assorted lesser injuries. Lothar von Richtofen is credited by the Germans with shooting Ball down at 19:30 over Annoueullin; however there is some doubt as to what happened, especially as Richthofen’s claim is for a Sopwith Triplane, not an SE5, which is a biplane. At the time of his death, he is the leading Allied ace with 44 victories, second only to German ace and Lothar’s older brother, Manfred Von Richthofen. It is probable that Ball is not shot down at all, but has become disoriented and loses control during the aerial combat a victim of a form of temporary vertigo that has claimed many other pilots. At the end of May the Germans will drop messages within Allied lines announcing that Ball is dead, and has been buried with full military honors.
Ball is the son of a successful businessman who became both mayor and alderman of Nottingham. He studied at The King’s School, Grantham, followed by Trent College from 1909 to 1913, where he showed average ability, but developed his curiosity for things mechanical. He was in the Officers Training Corps. His best subjects were carpentry, modeling, violin, and photography. During flying service, he was primarily a ‘lone-wolf’ pilot, carefully stalking his prey from below until he drew close enough to use his top-wing mounted Lewis gun on its Foster mounting to fire upwards into the enemy’s fuselage. Ball on the ground was also very much a loner, preferring to live in his own hut away from the other squadron members. He spent his off-duty hours tending his small garden and practicing the violin. He was not unsociable, so much as sensitive and shy. He had a preference for living on the flight line throughout his career. He worked on his own airplanes, and as a consequence, was often untidy and disheveled. He also flew without helmet or goggles.
At the start of the war Ball enlisted in the 7th (Robin Hood) Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (The Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment). By October, 1914, he was a Sergeant, when he was commissioned Second Lieutenant the same month. He was assigned to training recruits and his rear echelon assignment irked him. He then transferred to the North Midland Divisional Cyclist Company in an attempt to speed his way into action but remained in England. While in England he took private flying lessons at Hendon where his interest in engineering found an outlet. Beginning in June 1915, he paid his own way to train as a student at the Ruffy-Baumann School. On 15 October 1915 he was granted Royal Aero Club Certificate No. 1898, and promptly requested transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. He was considered only an average pilot.
On 23rd October 1915 Ball was seconded to No. 9 Reserve Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps and trained at Mousehold Heath aerodrome near Norwich. In the first week of December he soloed in a Maurice Farman after standing duty all night. His landing was rough and his instructor sarcastic about it. Uncharacteristically, Ball’s temper took over. He angrily exclaimed he had only fifteen minutes experience in the plane, and that if this was as good of instruction as he was going to get, he would rather return to his old unit. The instructor relented, and Ball then soloed again and landed successfully on five consecutive flights.
He completed the RFC Central Flying School and was awarded his wings on 26 January 1916. On 18 February he joined No. 13 Squadron RFC at Marieux in France flying a two-seater BE2c on reconnaissance missions. At times, Ball managed to pilot the squadron’s single seat Bristol Scout, preferring the freedom of independent operations. His aggressive fighting spirit was encouraged by his commanding officer. While flying a BE2 he fought his first combat. On 29 March, he swooped in on a German two-seater. Ball’s observer, Lieutenant S A Villiers fired a drum and a half of Lewis ammunition into the German craft. In turn, a second German jumped the British duo, and the two Germans dived away. After this inconclusive skirmish, Ball wrote home in one of his many letters, “I like this job, but nerves do not last long, and you soon want a rest.” On 7 May 1916 Ball was posted to 11 Squadron, flying both FE2bs and Nieuport 11 fighters.
On 16 May he scored his first aerial victory while flying a Bristol Scout when he drove an Albatros C out of control. He then switched to a Nieuport for his next four victories, becoming an ace and a balloon buster on 25 June by destroying an observation balloon with phosphor bombs. On the evening of 28 July he flew a French espionage agent across the German lines. Dodging both an attack by three German fighters and anti-aircraft fire, he landed in a deserted field, only to find that the agent refused to deplane. Ball’s twentieth birthday was marked by his promotion to captain and his return to 13 Squadron. Flying Nieuports he ran his total to 11 wins by 22 August the day he scored three victories. He ended the day by fighting 14 Germans about 15 miles behind their lines. With his plane shot about and out of fuel, he managed to work his way back to friendly lines to land.
By 31 August he had run his total to 17 wins. The next day he went on leave. While he had been in France his feats had received considerable publicity. He found that his celebrity was such that he could not even walk down the streets of Nottingham without being stopped and congratulated. He returned, to the post of Flight Commander, and to immediate success. He scored a morning and an evening victory on 15 September flying different Nieuports. On the evening sortie he armed his plane with eight Le Prieur rockets on the outer struts set to fire electrically. He intended to use them on an observation balloon, however when he spots three German aircraft he breaks their formation by firing his rockets at them picking off one of the confused pilots.
After that he settled in an improved Nieuport 17. He had it rigged to fly tail-heavy and had a holster built into the cockpit for the Colt automatic he always carried. He scored three triples and three individual wins in September with his new plane, ending the month with his score at 31. By the end of the month he had told his commanding officer that he had to have a rest because he was taking unnecessary risks because of his nerves. On 3 October he was sent on leave en route to a posting on the Home Establishment in England. He had been awarded both the Distinguished Service Order, and a bar for a second award simultaneously on 26 September 1916. Now he was withdrawn from combat and brought back to England. He expected a quiet spell of family leave for rest and recuperation. Instead, he was lionized as a national hero with a reputation as a fearless pilot and expert marksman. A crowd of journalists awaited him on his family’s doorstep.
On 18 November he was invested with his Military Cross and both DSOs at Buckingham Palace by King George V. A second bar to the DSO followed on the 25 November making him the first triple winner of the DSO. Ball was not returned to combat but instead he was posted to instructional duties in England with 34 (Reserve) Squadron teaching pilot trainees. On 19 February, in a tribute from his native city Albert Ball became only the seventh Honorary Freeman of Nottingham. On 25 March while off-duty from this assignment, he met 18-year-old Flora Young. He impulsively invited her to fly with him and she promptly accepted. They borrowed a leather flying coat for her and away they went. Upon landing, he chatted lightly with her. That night, in the first of many notes he wrote to her, he admitted his attraction to her. Soon he was spending every spare moment with her. On 5 April, they became engaged; she wore his silver ID wrist bracelet in lieu of an engagement ring.
Inaction chafed Ball. He had already begun agitating for a return to action. He finally arranged a posting to 56 Squadron. This squadron moved to the front in France on 7 April 1917. He was assigned as flight commander in the new squadron the first to be equipped with the SE5 scout. Ball considered the aeroplane under-developed, and was allowed to retain a Nieuport 17 when the squadron went to France. Permission for the Nieuport came directly from Hugh Trenchard. On 23 April Ball was under strict orders to stay over British lines but he still managed to engage the Germans five times in his Nieuport. Fight number one, using his preferred belly shot, spun out an Albatros; he followed it, firing away, until its impact. It was the first kill for 56 Squadron’s tour of duty. Regaining altitude to 5,000 feet, he tried to dive on a lower flying Albatros two-seater and pop up under its belly. However he overshot and the German gunner put a burst of 15 bullets through the Nieuport’s wings and spars. Ball limped home. The undaunted Ball returned to battle in an SE5 and in his third combat of the day he fired five rounds and his machine gun jammed. After a landing to clear the gun, he returned to jump five Albatros fighters and sent one down in flames. His fifth battle, shortly thereafter, seemed inconclusive, as the enemy plane landed safely. However, its observer was mortally wounded.
On the 26th he scored another double flying an SE-5 and one more on the 28th to bring his total to thirty-six. This days’ fight left this SE5 so battered by enemy action that it was dismantled and sent away for repair. Despite continual problems with jamming guns in SE5s, Ball had a week of triumphs to open May. On 1 May flying a brand new SE5 he destroyed an Albatros and drove another one down. The next day, he switched to a different SE5 and doubled again destroying an Albatros D.III fighter on 4 May and another pair the following day. The latter one of these victims nearly rammed him in a head on firing pass. Ball flew his seriously damaged plane home. Ball had been sporadically flying the Nieuport again and he was successful with it on 6 May destroying one more Albatros D.III in an evening flight for his 44th and final victory. Albert Ball Sr. bought the French field where his son died and erected a plain memorial stone on the site of the crash.
40 squadron pilots destroy seven enemy balloons with the loss of
- Flight Commander Captain William Eric Nixon (King’s Own Scottish Borderers attached Royal Flying Corps) who is killed at age 19. He is the son of the Reverend William Henry Nixon, former vicar of Winster and now Senior Chaplain to the Forces.
- Major John Burgh Talbot Leighton MC (Scots Guards attached Royal Flying Corps) dies of injuries received during practice at age 25. He is the son and heir to ‘Sir’ Bryan Baldwin Mawddwy Leighton, the 9th
- Second Lieutenant Roger Michael Chaworth-Musters (Leicestershire Regiment attached Royal Flying Corps) is killed at age 19. He is shot down by Werner Voss in the same action that Albert Ball is lost. His brother will die on service on the last day of 1941.
Production begins on the Sopwith Camel.
Today’s losses include:
- The leading Ace Allied at this time in the Great War
- Multiple sons of members of the clergy
- The son of a Baronet
- A victim of Werner Voss
- A man whose brother will die in World War II
- A Great War Poet
- Multiple families that will lose two and three sons killed in the Great War
- A man whose father was killed on Gallipoli
- A man whose son will be killed in the Second World War
Today’s highlighted casualties include:
- Second Lieutenant Bernard Freeman Trotter (Leicestershire Regiment) is killed in action at age 26. While on his horse supervising the transporting of slag for repairing roads he is killed by an artillery shell. His initial attempt to enlist thwarted by ill-health, he finally set sail for Europe in March 1916. He is the son of the Reverend Professor Thomas Trotter DD and a Great War poet. His poems are published this year under the title of “A Canadian Twilight and other Poems of War and Peace”.
She kissed me when she said good-bye–
A child’s kiss, neither bold nor shy.
We had met but a few short summer hours;
Talked of the sun, the wind, the flowers,
Sports and people; had rambled through
A casual catchy song or two,
And walked with arms linked to the car
By the light of a single misty star.
(It was war-time, you see, and the streets were dark
Lest the ravishing Hun should find a mark.)
And so we turned to say good-bye;
But somehow or other, I don’t know why, —
Perhaps `t was the feel of the khaki coat
(She’d a brother in Flanders then) that smote
Her heart with a sudden tenderness
Which issued in that swift caress–
Somehow, to her, at any rate
A mere hand-clasp seemed inadequate;
And so she lifted her dewey face
And kissed me–but without a trace
Of passion,–and we said good-bye…
A child’s kiss,…neither bold nor shy.
My friend, I like you–it seemed to say–
Here’s to our meeting again some day!
Some happier day…
- Captain Maitland Lockhart Gordon (Seaforth Highlanders) is killed at Bullecourt at age 34. His brother was killed in May 1917.
- Lieutenant Donald Francis Ferguson (Scottish Horse attached Gordon Highlanders) is killed at age 20. He is the son of the Reverend Edwin Augustus Ferguson Rector of Milton.
- Lieutenant Arthur Stephen Kenyon Lloyd (Saskatchewan Regiment) is killed at age 20. He is the son of the Right Reverend Dr. G E Lloyd Bishop of Saskatchewan.
- Lieutenant Charles Haddon Spurgeon McKenzie (Canadian Field Artillery) is killed at age 25. His brother died on service in England last February.
- Lieutenant Frank Clifford James (Royal Berkshire Regiment) is killed in action at age 19. He is the son of the Reverend H P James.
- Lieutenant Denzil Haffield Meautys (West Yorkshire Regiment) dies of wounds at age 19. His two brothers will be killed in the Great War.
- Lance Corporal Henry Shaw (Suffolk Regiment) dies of wounds at age 23. His brother was killed in July 1916.
- Private William Handley (Manchester Regiment) is killed at age 19. His father was killed in July 1915 on Gallipoli.
- Private Alfred Gozzett (Middlesex Regiment) is killed at age 33. His son will lose his life in the Second World War.