Canadian pilot William Barker won a VC for his actions on 27 October 1918.
Barker was born in Dauphin, Manitoba. He became the top-scoring ace on the Italian Front, with a tally of 52, and Canada’s most highly decorated soldier, receiving twelve awards for gallantry in all.
Barker takes to the skies
Enlisting in 1914, Barker spent a harrowing year in the trenches of the Western Front before requesting a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. His first role in the RFC was as gunner-observer. It was during the closing stages of the Battle of the Somme, in November 1916, that Barker earned the first of his military decorations.
Whilst carrying out reconnaissance and directing Allied artillery, a superior German reconnaissance aircraft appeared out of the sun and locked on to Barker’s outdated B.E.2. Things looked grim for Barker and his pilot but with one burst of his Lewis gun, Barker took the attacker down becoming one of very few B.E.2 observers to score a kill.
Despite his skill as an observer, Barker craved the chance to fly his own plane. In January 1917 he earned his pilot’s certificate and was soon back above the Western Front flying reconnaissance missions. In April he won the Military Cross for his actions at the Battle of Arras, directing shellfire and eliminating a pair of German long-range guns.
The Sopwith surfaces
A head wound caused by anti-aircraft fire saw him return to England in August 1917. He was assigned to training duties, which didn’t suit him at all. But it came with one perk, the chance to fly the new Sopwith-Camel single-seater fighter.
This stirred his determination to return to the front, yet numerous requests to transfer were turned down. Infuriated, Barker took his Sopwith up and, in a move worthy of a court martial, buzzed RFC headquarters! His wish was granted, he was transferred back to the Western Front to fly Sopwiths.
What followed was a series of daring exploits in the skies above the Western Front that rendered Barker an ace and earned him the respect of his fellow pilots.
Late in 1917 Barker was transferred to the Italian Front and by the end of the year was the theatre’s leading ace. He built a reputation as a remarkably gifted pilot, and a risk taker. He led a squadron on a low level attack against the Austrian army headquarters in San Vito al Tagliamento. The aircraft zipped up the streets of the town, so low that Barker was beneath the telegraph wires. There were no casualties but the attack certainly struck a chord with Austrian morale!
By September 1918, with his tally approaching 50 and his nearest rivals either dead or grounded, Barker was the undisputed ace of the Italian Front. Too big a name to risk, he was recalled to Blighty. But Barker knew the war would soon be over, he wasn’t going home without taking one last opportunity to add to his score. On 27 October, he took off to seek out one last dogfight.
He found his target shortly after, a German reconnaissance aircraft. Closing on the plane, its crew unaware, Barker opened fire and the plane fell from the sky. But the last flight of William Barker wasn’t over yet, he turned to find an armada of up to fifty Fokker D-7 biplanes heading in his direction. With no chance of escape, Barker flew into the fray.
Bullets ripped through his cockpit, hitting him in the legs and arms. He passed out twice, his Sopwith Snipe somehow remaining airborne until he regained his senses. Fifteen D-7’s gathered on his tail, ready for the kill. But Barker wasn’t ready to give up yet, he turned his Snipe around and took them on, sending all fifteen scampering for home.
In the most one-sided of dogfights, William Barker had claimed another six victories. But by now he was bleeding heavily. Unable to control his beaten up Sopwith Snipe any longer, he crash landed.
The remarkable event was watched from the ground by Canadian general Andy McNaughton, who recommended Barker for the Victoria Cross.
Barker worked in the aviation industry after the war but never fully recovered from his wounds and suffered with debilitating depression. In March 1930 he took off for the final time from an airfield near Ottawa, a flight that ended the life of this extraordinary pilot.
“Air Aces: The Life and Times of Twelve Canadian Fighter Pilots” by Dan McCaffery