Book Review: 12570 Mike Kennedy – Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight
As a young boy growing up in Montreal in the late 1960’s, I was fascinated by reading the accounts of Great War fighter pilots as detailed in John Harris Norman’s classic 1958 book Knights of the Air. For some curious reason, I was particularly intrigued by the exploits of Raymond Collishaw, a little-known hero of that era whose achievements were nonetheless just as significant as those of his more famous colleagues. It wasn’t until decades later that I learned that Colllishaw was born on the same day that I was – November 22 – and that he died in Vancouver on September 28, 1976 – exactly one day before my recruit class ran the obstacle race.
I guess that’s just one more illustration of the famous quote from another distinguished but now largely forgotten Canadian hero, the immortal 2759 Sit Charles Forbes, who remarked that “Destiny works in ways we will never be able to understand.” In any event, for many years I longed to know more about Collishaw’s life, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when I laid my hands on Roger Gunn’s biography of the man, that I was finally able to get the full story. And after finishing this gem of a book, all I can say is, what a remarkable story it is.
Raymond Collishaw was born in Nanaimo in 1893, a little less than three months before 943 Billy Bishop came into this world halfway across Canada in Own Sound. As subsequent events would show, the two men’s lives and careers would have some astonishing similarities. After leaving school at the age of 14, in the summer of 1908 Collishaw joined the Fisheries Protection Service as a junior seaman. Serving on various ships off the coast of British Columbia, over the next several years he rose steadily through the ranks, and by the autumn of 1913 he was First Officer aboard the CGS Fispa.
After the war’s outbreak a year later, Collishaw asked for a more active role in the RCN, but his appeals fell on deaf ears. A few months later, in early 1915, he learned that the Royal Naval Air Service was seeking recruits for pilot training. He successfully applied, and was officially accepted into the RNAS in August of that year. As there were no military flying schools in Canada at the time, Collishaw then found himself obliged to seek out a private facility where he could obtain initial training. This brought him to the Toronto, where the Curtis School was the only flight school in the country. Upon arrival in Toronto, Collishaw was informed he would have to fork out the then-enormous sum of $400 for his basic pilot training, and in addition would have to cover his living expenses out of his own pocket.
Fate intervened in November, when a plan was hatched wherein Canadian RNAS recruits awaiting pilot training would undergo a program of basic naval indoctrination aboard HMCS Niobe in Halifax, following which they would be commissioned as probationary RN Sub-Lieutenants and sent to England to commence flight training at government expense. Collishaw finally began to realize his dream on February 10, 1916, when he made his first dual flight in a French-built G3 Caudron. By the end of July he had completed pilot training and gunnery school, and received his first operational posting to 3 Naval Wing on the eastern tip of Kent.
Over the next 27 months, Collishaw would go on to prove himself to be both a remarkably courageous and talented fighter pilot, and in time, a capable and inspiring Squadron Commander. By the time the war ended in November 1918, he had been given official credit for 60 kills, placing third to only Edward Mannock and Billy Bishop among Commonwealth air aces. Even so, the exhilaration Collishaw must have felt as a result of emerging victorious from his numerous sorties must no doubt have been tempered by the pain associated with watching many good friends give their lives for the cause they served.
In common with many of his contemporaries, the long hours Collishaw spent aloft could at times be punctuated by moments of sheer terror. In one memorable incident during the summer of 1917, while conducting an evasive manoeuver a Sopwith Triplane that Collishaw was piloting spun out of control and his safety harness snapped. Collishaw was thrust almost completely out of the cockpit, and found himself hanging on to the wing struts for dear life. After falling nearly 10,000 feet, the aircraft miraculously righted itself and Collishaw was able to bring it home to safety, and live to fight another day.
His finest hour in aerial combat must undoubtedly have come on July 22, 1918, when Collishaw and fellow pilot Louis Rochford embarked on an early morning attack on an enemy aerodrome. It was an operation that was remarkably similar to the one that had earned Billy Bishop the Victoria Cross a year earlier. As the official citation notes:
“A brilliant squadron leader of exceptional daring, who has destroyed fifty-one enemy machines. Early one morning he, with another pilot, attacked an enemy aerodrome. Seeing three machines brought out of a burning hangar he dived five times, firing bursts at these from a very low altitude, and dropped bombs on the living quarters. He then saw an enemy airplane descending over the aerodrome; he attacked it and drove it down in flames. Later, when returning from a reconnaissance of the damaged hangars he was attacked by three Albatross scouts, who pursued him to our lines, when he turned and attacked one, which fell out of control and crashed.”
When the details of the exploit became known, Collishaw was recommended for the VC and Rochford for the DSO. Regrettably, and for reasons that were never fully explained, by the time the awards were approved both were downgraded; Collishaw received a bar to his DSO and Rochford wound up with a DFC. As a result, among the top five Commonwealth air aces of the war, Collishaw would be the only one never to wear the Empire’s highest decoration for valour.
By the time he completed his last operational mission in October 1918, Collishaw was a Major in the nascent Royal Air Force that had been formed just six months earlier. He had logged well over 700 hours in the air, and survived being shot down four times. He has also accumulated numerous decorations attesting to his skill and daring at the controls, including a DSO and bar, a DSC, a DFC, and four Mentions-in-Dispatches.
Unlike the vast majority of his comrades, however, for Collishaw the armistice of November 1918 did not spell the end of his fighting days. He had been offered and accepted a permanent commission in the RAF, and in the summer of 1919, when Britain decided to dispatch an RAF squadron to provide air support to the White Russians during that country’s civil war, Collishaw volunteered to serve. Over the next nine months he survived numerous hair-raising adventures, including at one point a near-fatal bout with typhus, from which he was eventually nursed back to health by a mysterious Russian Countess.
Although he and his comrades eventually found themselves on the losing side, Collishaw nonetheless managed to finally a respite from combat in the spring of 1920. He returned home to Canada in May of that year for a well-deserved three months’ leave, clutching a fistful of Imperial Russia’s most prestigious decorations.
Following the end of his Russian expedition, Collishaw remained in the RAF, rising gradually through that service’s ranks and rotating through a variety of postings around the world. Unlike Billy Bishop, whose duties during the Second World War would be limited to leading recruiting efforts for the RCAF, during the early years of the war Collishaw held an operational command in Egypt, where he was responsible for directing the RAF’s efforts against the Axis forces. He was posted back to England in 1941, was promoted to Air Vice Marshall the following year, and retired from service in 1943 at the age of 50. Following the end of the war he returned to Canada and settled in the Vancouver area, where he held several executive positions in the mining industry prior to his death in 1976 at the age of 82.
Readers should be aware that although Collishaw’s official tally during the Great War was 60 enemy kills, it has often been speculated that his actual count was much higher. As a Flight Leader and later Squadron Commander, Collishaw was well-known for his willingness to help bolster the confidence of rookie pilots by giving his juniors full credit for victories in which he himself had played a significant hand. Some historians believe that he may have taken out as many as 81 Hun machines, a figure which, if correct, would make Collishaw the Great War’s top-scoring ace of all, just ahead of the infamous “Red Baron” Manfred von Richtofen. The true extent of his accomplishments in aerial combat will likely never be known, but even so, there’s no denying that Raymond Colishaw is without doubt one of the greatest fighter pilots the world has ever seen.
In 1969, Raymond Collishaw’s life and achievements were the subject of a segment on the CBC
Documentary series Telescope. The complete episode can be found here http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/raymond-collishaw-wwi-flying-ace.
It is worth noting that just ten days after this aired in July of 1969, the long-awaited dream of putting a man on the moon was realized when Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. Fifty years after the end of the Great War, the young British Columbian who had made his name and reputation piloting the primitive flying machines of that era had survived to witness what became the defining moment of the Space Age.
He was never awarded the VC he deserved and was recommended for, never had a College Number, never wore the uniform of the RCAF, and sadly never received anything even remotely approaching the adulation that would be showered on his much more famous counterpart Billy Bishop. Even so, one hundred years after the events that earned him his place in the record books, Raymond Collishaw remains one of the most iconic and important figures in Canadian military history. Meticulously researched and replete with numerous rare historical photographs, Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight offers readers a compelling account of the life and accomplishments of an extraordinary pilot and leader. This is an outstanding book which any Ex-Cadet with an interest in the history of the Great War simply won’t want to miss.
Book Review: By 12570 Mike Kennedy
Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight – By Roger Gunn – Published by Dundurn Books – 272 pp. $26.99