by Frank E Earp
Next year, the 7th May will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Albert Ball, or to give him his correct title and due honour Captain Albert Ball, VC. DSO & Two bars, of the Royal Flying Corps. Perhaps you have never heard of this remarkable young man? One hundred years ago he was the first ‘pilot’ in Britain to become a National hero and for a generation was the pride of Nottingham.
Albert was born in Lenton, [301, Lenton Boulevard], on 14th August 1896. His parents were Albert (later Sir Albert), Ball and Harriett Mary Ball (nee Page). At the time of his birth, Albert Snr. was an estate agent and general dealer in land and properties having formally been a director in the family plumbing business ‘George Ball & Son. In 1909 as councillor for the Castle ward, he became first Mayor of Nottingham and then Lord Mayor of Nottingham. Twenty years later, he was knighted a ‘Knight Bachelor’ and created Lord of the Manors of Bunny, Bradmore and Tollerton.
Albert had three siblings, two older sisters and a younger brother; Hilda (b. 1887), Lois Beatrice (b. 1892) and Arthur Cyril (b. 1897). Shortly after his birth the young family embarked on a series of changes of address until around 1900, finally settling at ‘Sedgley’, 43 Lenton Road. Albert first attended school at Lenton Church School and went on to Grantham Grammar School, later transferring to Nottingham High School. At the age of 14 he attended Trent College in Long Eaton. Never much a scholar, young Albert showed an interest in more practical subjects like carpentry and engineering and an artistic side in learning to play the violin. This practical side of his nature was encouraged further when his father built him a shed in the garden of Sedgley, to use as a workshop. As a teenager his ‘head for heights’, – something as a pilot he was to need later, – was demonstrated on his 16th Birthday when he climbed to the top of a tall factory chimney with a local steeplejack. To the man’s great amazement on reaching the top, he proceeded to coolly walk around the edge surveying the scene bellow without a care.
A handsome young man, Albert attracted the attention of the ladies including Miss Dorothy, ‘Dot’ Allbourne (or Ellbourne) to whom he became engaged in March 1915. The engagement was brief, perhaps do to the fact that Albert retained an interest in a former ‘sweetheart’ Miss Thelma Starr.
Whilst at college Albert joined the ‘Officers Training Corps’ and gain a knowledge of firearms and with his keen eyesight soon became a ‘crack shot’. To this effect he conducted target practice in gardens at his home. On leaving college at the age of 17, encouraged by his parents, Albert set up his own business, – the Universal Engineering Works, a small electrical and brass foundry concern, – in a premises next-door to the house where he was born. Here the talented young man might have prospered and become one of the foremost engineers of his generation, had it not been for the fact that a greater history intervened. On the 4th August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany and the call went out for volunteers to fight for ‘King and Country’. In September 1914, having only just turned 18, Albert was one of hundreds of young Nottinghamshire men who answered ‘the call’ and enlisted in the local regiment the Sherwood Foresters.
Although enlisting as a private, Albert was marked-out as being ‘officer material’, – primarily because of his experience with the Officers Training Corps whilst at college. Within days of enlisting he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and shortly after, on the 29th October, commissioned to Second Lieutenant. Albert was eager ‘to do his bit’ and was bitterly disappointed when, after finishing basic training, instead of being sent to the front in France, he was retained to help train other recruits for the army. It was thus that Albert was to spend the first years of the War. We find his disappointment at not seeing any action reflected in a letter to his parents where he says; “I have just sent five boys to France, and I hear that they will be in the firing line on Monday. It is just my luck to be unable to go”.
In 1915 he was posted to Perivale in Middlesex on a ‘platoon officers training course’. Here he was to encounter for the first time young men learning to fly in the hope of joining the newly established arm of the forces, the Royal Flying Corps. Close to Perivale was Hendon aerodrome where several civilian flying schools gave flying lessons to achieve a Royal Aero Club Pilot Certificate’, – a necessary prerequisite to joining the RFC. A coarse of lessons were at the candidates own expense and range between the cost of £75 to £100 (£5,580 to £7,440 in 2010 prices). With an interest in such a novel experience and a keen desire to get into the fighting, Albert enrolled for flying lessons and although regarded as merely an average pilot, he gained his Certificate, (No. 1898), on the 15th October 1915. He promptly requested a transfer to the RFC and eight days later was seconded to No. 9 (Reserve) Squadron RFC.
Albert was sent for training to the aerodrome at Mousehold Heath near Norwich. In the first week in December, after being on duty all night Albert made his first solo flight in a ‘Maurice Farman Longhorn’ aircraft. It is little wonder then that his landing was somewhat rough. When on the ground, his instructor sarcastically commented on this fact, Albert angrily retorted that he had only 15 minutes experience in the plane and if this was to be the best instruction he was to get, he would gladly transfer back to his old unit should it be so wished. Despite further rough landings completed his training at Central Flying School, Upavon, and was awarded his ‘wings’ on 22 January 1916. A week later, he was officially transferred from the Sherwood Foresters to the RFC as a pilot.
On the 18th February 1916, Albert Ball got his desired posting to the ‘front-line’ in France. However, it not to be to a ‘fighter squadron’, but to No 13 Squadron based in Marieux, France. The role of this squadron was to carry-out reconnaissance and photographic missions over the front-line (later bombing missions). Albert was with the squadron for 11 weeks, flying a number of twin-seater bi-planes including Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2. In that time as well as achieving many hours of test and practise flights, flew 43 ‘operational sorties’. Albert was forced to land by enemy action or mechanical failure on several occasions and survived unscathed a crash-landing which wrote-off his aircraft. Ever eager for combat, whilst on recon-missions, Albert and his observer Lieutenant S. A. Villiers actively engaged the enemy when ever they could. In a letter home he wrote; “I like this job, but nerves do not last long, and you soon want a rest”. However, in letters to his father, he asked that his younger brother Arthur, be discouraged from following him into the RFC.
It was on the 7th May that Albert got his to No. 11 Squadron. This squadron had been deployed to France in February 1915 with the mission to attack and destroy enemy aircraft, to this effect it was the Worlds first dedicated ‘fighter squadron’. It was during this time with this squadron that Albert gained his reputation as being one of the ‘lone wolfs of the skies’. For this, any young aviator had to master the art of stalking enemy aircraft from bellow until becoming close enough to fire upwards into the ‘belly’ of his aircraft.
Albert was as much a loner on the ground as he was in the air. Instead of staying in his billet in the local village he used a tent by the airfield, later replacing it with a self-built hut. His off duty hours were spent tending a garden he had created by his hut or practising the violin. His knowledge of engineering enabled him to act as his own mechanic. Despite this apparent antisocial behaviour Albert was well liked by other members of the squadron, be regarded as extremely sensitive and shy. Charismatically untidy and dishevelled, Albert wore his thick black hair longer than regulations permitted and preferred to fly without helmet or goggles.
On on the 16th May 1916, Albert scored his first aerial victory, driving down a German reconnaissance plane. Between May and July he went on to earn his reputation as being an ‘Ace’, shooting down many enemy aircraft and at least one observation balloon. But combat missions began to take its toll on the young man and in July he requested a few days off but, to his dismay, was temporarily reassigned to aerial reconnaissance duty with No. 8 Squadron. This posting last from the 18th July until 14th August. It was during this time that Albert was assigned the to the strangest duties of his career. On the evening of 28 July, he flew a French espionage agent across enemy lines. Dodging an attack by three German fighters, as well as anti-aircraft fire, he landed in a deserted field, only to find that the agent refused to get out of the aircraft.
Back in Nottingham, Albert’s parents must have felt proud of their eldest son when the London Gazette announced that Albert had been awarded the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous skill and gallantry on many occasions’, particularly for ‘one occasion when he attacked six enemy aircraft in one flight’.
Returning to his squadron, Albert’s 20th birthday saw him promoted temporarily to the rank of Captain. In the skies it was a day like any other. The 22nd August saw him become the first RFC pilot to shoot down three German aircraft in one sortie. Albert went on to end the day by engaging a further 14 enemy aircraft some 15 mile behind their own lines. However, with his plane badly damaged and almost out of fuel he was forced to struggle back to Allied lines and land.
On the 23rd August along with some other members of No. 11 Squadron, Albert was transferred to No. 60 Squadron RFC. Here, recognising his talent, his new commanding officer gave him a free rein to fly solo missions, and assigned him his own personal aircraft (designated A201) and maintenance crew. One of the crew painted up a non-standard red propeller boss and the aircraft became the first of a series of Albert’s aeroplanes to have such a colour scheme. It was found that such individuality helped his fellow squadron members identify his plane and confirm his combat claims. By end of the month, he had increased his tally to 17 enemy aircraft, including three downed on the 28th August.
We might be tempted to think from theses days of action that Albert had become a ‘blood-thirsty killer’, but this is not the case. The young aviators of both sides admired and respected their foe. They regarded their combat as only doing their duty, as Albert was to write in a letter home; “I only scrap because it is my duty… Nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down, but you see it is either them or me, so I must do my duty best to make it a case of them”.
It was at the end of August 1916 that Albert was to return home to Nottingham on leave. Unlike the French and Germans, the British Government was reluctant to publish the names of its fighter aces. However, the heavy losses suffered in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 meant that it became politic to publish details of war heroes in an effort to bust morel. It was thus that Albert found himself to be a household name and we can imagine the strain on a shy and war wary young man when he found that he could not walk down the street without being stopped and congratulated.
Following his short period of home leave in Nottingham, Albert found himself back at the ‘front’ in France with the 60th Squadron. On his first day back, 15th September 1916 he was back in the ‘thick of things’ and in both his morning and evening missions he engaged and destroyed enemy aircraft. This was to be the pattern of things for the remainder of this ‘tour of duty’. By the end of the month Albert had become Britain’s top-scoring ace’ with 31 victories to his name. However, once again the dreadful conflict began to take its toll on the young man’s nerves and he again requested that he be given time away from the fighting.
On the 3rd October Albert was given a posting to the Home Establishment in England and en-route was allowed home leave. News of his daring exploits reached home before he did when a French semi-official report on his successes was published. After the near defeat at the Battle of the Somme, this was the kind of moral booster the Nation needed and Albert was once again greeted as a hero. A crowd of journalist awaited him on the doorstep of his family home in Nottingham. In his interviews Albert played down his successes by mentioning the fact that he had been ‘downed’ himself on 6 occasions.
On the 18th October Albert went to Buckingham Palace to be invested with his Military Cross and both DSO’s by King George V A second bar to his DSO was awarded on the 25th November and Albert became the first three-time recipient of the award. He was promoted to the substantive rank of Lieutenant on the 8th December 1916.
Now a National Hero with proven courage and skill’s the military authorities considered the fact that Albert would be best suited in promoting the War effort and in encouraging and training new recruits for the RFC. After his home leave, instead of returning to action he was posted to No. 34 Reserve Squadron, based at Orford Ness, Suffolk. Here Albert used his flying skills and combat knowledge to test-fly the next generation of fighter aircraft for the RFC. During his time with 34 Squadron Albert made a great impression on several future aces including such famous names as James McCudden and the Canadian piolet William, ‘Billy’ Bishop, both of whom went on to receive the VC.
Back in home, on the 19th February 1917 Lieutenant Albert Ball was made an Honorary Freeman of the City of Nottingham. It was on 25th March that Albert was to meet the love of his life, 18 year old Flora Young. Flora was a girl after his own heart and when Albert invited her to take to the skies with him in his aircraft, she duly excepted. The two became engaged on the 5th April and Flora wore Albert’s silver identification bracelet in lieu of a ring.
Despite his happiness with Flora, the period of inaction began to chafe Albert and once again he requested to be returned to active service. This request was granted by a posting as ‘flight commander’ with No. 56 Squadron, – considered to be as close to an elite unit as any in the RFC. The Squadron was moved to the Western Front on the 7th August 1917. On his arrival Albert ended a letter home to his parent with the words; “Cheero, am just about to start the great game again” – and start the great game he did for there followed a sustained period of action where Albert and the Squadron encounted some of the best German pilots. Albert achieved a string of victories to add to his score which now totalled 44. But Albert was becoming weary of the fight and in his final letter to his father he wrote; “I do get tired of always living to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer. Shall be so pleased when I have finished”
On the evening of the 7th May 1917, in the skies over Douai, France, 11 aircraft from No. 56 Squadron led by flight commander Albert Ball engaged in a ‘running dogfight with German fighters from Jasta 11. Visibility was poor and aircraft from both sides became scattered, resulting in individual actions, – the kind Albert was fond of. Albert was last seen by his fellow pilots pursuing the red painted Albatros aircraft of Lother von Richthofen, younger brother of the infamous Red Baron. As a result of the action the German was forced to land near Annœullin with a punctured fuel tank. The pursuit was observed from the ground by a German pilot officer, Lieutenant Franz Hailer. He witnessed Albert’s aircraft fly into a dark thunder cloud, at an altitude of 200ft (61m) and when it emerged saw it fall upside-down from the sky trailing thick black smoke. Together with his brother Carl and two other German airman, Hailer rushed to the crash site. When they arrived the pilot of the plane Albert Ball was already dead. Searching through Albert’s cloths for identification Hailer was later to state that he did not find any bullet wounds on the body. Together the German airman agreed that the aircraft had not suffered any battle damage. Albert’s body was taken to a German ‘field-hospital’ where it was examined by a doctor. He subsequently described a broken back and a crushed chest, along with fractured limbs, as the cause of death.
The German’s respectfully called Albert Ball the ‘English Richthofen’ after their own air ace Baron von Richthofen, (The Red Baron). Albert was buried by his German foe with full military honours and due ceremony and over his grave the erected a cross bearing; ‘In Luftkampf gefallen für sein Vaterland Engl. Flieger Hauptmann Albert Ball, Royal Flying Corps [‘Fallen in air combat for his fatherland English pilot Captain Albert Ball’].
Albert Ball was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on the 8th June 1917. Three days later a memorial service was held in St Mary’s church Nottingham. A large crowd gathered in the Market Square to pay their tribute as the procession of mourners passed by. Among those attending were Ball’s father Albert, Sr. and brother Cyril, now also a pilot in the RFC; his mother Harriett, overwhelmed with grief, was not present. Ball was posthumously promoted to Captain on 15 June. His medal was presented to his parents by King George V on 22 July 1917.