November 10, 2021

Billy Barker: Unsung Canadian Hero of the First World War


Today, I want to introduce you to an unsung Canadian hero of the First World War.

How many of you have heard of Billy Bishop?

And how many of you have heard of Billy Barker?

The two of them were friends, but one of the two was a Canadian fighter pilot in World War One and is the most decorated war hero in Canadian history.  Can you guess which one?

If you guessed Billy Barker, you are correct!

William George Barker was born on November 3rd, 1894, in Dauphin, Manitoba.  Barker was the eldest son of a farmer who was also a blacksmith and sawmill operator.  Barker grew up on the frontier in Manitoba where he became proficient at riding horses and shooting.  While Barker was certainly a good student, he was often required to miss school in order to work at the family farm.

Early on, Barker demonstrated intellectual independence, intense focus, and kinesthetic capabilities.  Furthermore, after having seen “flying machines” at agricultural fairs, he developed an early interest in becoming a pilot.  As fate would have it, these interests and capabilities were combined in 1914, when Barker enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and left to fight in World War One.

After enlisting, Barker joined the 1st Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles, and trained as a machine gunner.  He sailed to England with his unit in June 1915, and served in the Ypres salient in Belgium that fall and winter.

Barker found service in the muddy trenches to be cold, wet, and discouraging.  As a result, in early 1916, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where he became an Observer and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.  After his transfer, he quickly gained combat experience, performing artillery spotting and photographic reconnaissance as well as acting as a gunner.  For example, on July 21st, Barker claimed one plane “driven down” with his observer’s gun, and in August claimed a second Roland, this time in flames.  On August 27th, Barker officially became qualified as an Observer and worked with Canadian troops for the first time on September 15th, including his old regiment.

In November, Barker performed reconnaissance in France during the First Battle of the Somme.  There, flying very low over the Ancre River on November 15th, Barker and his pilot spotted a large concentration of some 4,000 German infantry massing for a counter-attack on Beaumont-Hamel.  After sending an emergency Zone Call, all available artillery was fired upon the German troops, effectively breaking up the pending attack.  For this action, Barker earned the first of the numerous awards he would eventually receive—in this case, the Military Cross for “an act of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land.”

In January 1917, after spending Christmas on leave in London, Barker commenced pilot training and began flying solo after only 55 minutes of dual instruction.  Thereafter, he received ground and flying training, completing all requirements in only four weeks.  Then finally, Barker would return to fight in the Western Front in February, this time in his dream position as a pilot.

While flying a Reconnaissance Experimental, Barker was awarded a bar for his Military Cross, promoted to the rank of Captain, and appointed as a flight commander.  After sustaining a head wound from anti-aircraft fire in August, he was then assigned to duty as a flying instructor in England.  However, Barker had no desire to teach and frequently requested to be reassigned to front-line service.  In fact, during this time, he performed an unauthorized aerobatic display over Piccadilly Circus in London and was consequently reassigned to combat as a fighter pilot in October 1917.  On October 8th, 1917, Barker downed an enemy Albatros on his first patrol in France, later claiming another on October 20th and two more on October 27th.

After hearing of the numerous planes he shot down, you must be thinking: Barker must have been an excellent pilot!  However, believe it or not, he was not known for his flying skill, suffering several flying accidents during his career.  Rather, he excelled as a highly accurate marksman with physical poise, emotional intensity, and aggression in action.

One of the most successful but controversial raids Barker performed was On December 25th, 1917.  That day, he caught the Germans off guard and shot up an air field, setting fire to one hangar and damaging four German aircraft.  With a flair for dramatic acts, it’s not surprising that he also dropped a placard wishing his opponents a Happy Christmas before he left.

After having claimed one Jasta 1, three observation balloons, five Albatros fighters, and two two-seaters from January to March, Barker sought to fill a vacancy as Commanding Officer of 28 Squadron.  However, due to his tendency to ignore orders by flying many unofficial patrols, he was passed over for the position.  Dissatisfied, he then applied for a posting at 66 Squadron in April 1918 and later became Squadron Commander of RAF 139 Squadron.  As Squadron Commander, Barker continued to use his Sopwith Camel to fly fighter operations.  From April to mid-July, Barker would go on to claim an additional 16 kills, and during the night of August 9th, he even flew an enemy plane to land a spy behind enemy lines.

At this point, you might be thinking: Barker sure took down a lot of enemy planes.  He must have made some records!  And if that’s what you were thinking, you were right.  Due to his efforts from September 1917 to September 1918, Barker’s personal Sopwith airplane had become the most successful fighter aircraft in the history of the RAF.  Over 404 operational flying hours, Barker and his plane managed to shoot down a total of 46 aircraft and balloons and he had the highest destroyed ratio of any RAF pilot during the First World War.

In September 1918, after having flown more than 900 combat hours in two and a half years, Barker was transferred back to command the fighter training school in the UK.  After persuading his superiors he needed to get up to date on the latest combat techniques, he was granted a 10-day roving commission in France that October.  While there, he inadvertently crossed enemy lines, took down an enemy Rumpler, and ran into a formation of 15 or more enemy machines.  During the dogfight, Barker was severely wounded and force-landed inside Allied lines.  Thankfully, he was quickly transported to a field dressing station and his life was saved, but he struggled to stay alive at a French hospital until mid-January 1919.  For his actions on the day he was shot down, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for valour "in the presence of the enemy" on March 1st, 1919.

After the war, Barker formed a business partnership, Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes Limited, with fellow Victoria Cross recipient and Canadian ace Billy Bishop.  This partnership lasted for approximately three years.  Thereafter, in 1922, he rejoined the fledgling Canadian Air Force at the rank of Wing Commander and served as the Station Commander of Camp Borden until 1924.

After his retirement, Barker faced long-term effects from the wounds he suffered in 1918.  In particular, his legs were permanently damaged and he had severely limited movement in his left arm.  Furthermore, he also struggled with alcoholism in the final years of his life.  In 1930, at age 35, Barker died when he lost control of his biplane during a demonstration flight for the RCAF at Air Station Rockcliffe, near Ottawa.  At the time, he was President and General Manager of Fairchild Aircraft in Montreal.  He was survived by his wife, Jean Kilbourn, and daughter, Jean Antoinette.

When Barker had returned to Canada back in May 1919, he was the most decorated Canadian of the First World War.  During his years of service, Barker managed to receive the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and two Bars, two Italian Silver Medals for Military Valour, and the French Croix de guerre.  Moreover, with a remarkable 12 awards for valour in total, he’s described on a plaque in his tomb at the mausoleum of Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery as "the most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth of Nations."

My husband and I visited Barker’s memorial last year to pay homage to the Canadian hero.  Unfortunately, due to COVID, only a dozen people were in attendance.  However, if that gets you down, you should know that Barker’s funeral in 1930 was much different.  Then, on the Saturday after his accident, more than 50,000 people lined the route of his funeral cortege and his service was attended by an honour guard of 2,000 Canadian soldiers.  Included in the attendees were the Chief of the General Staff and his senior officers, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Mayor of Toronto, three federal government cabinet ministers, six other Victoria Cross recipients, and even an honour guard provided by the United States Army.  Combined, the total attendees at Barker’s funeral made it the largest national state event in Toronto's history.

I am honoured to have been able to share William George Barker’s story with you today.

- Johanne Levesque