Wings of War: William George Barker

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William George Barker was born November 13th 1894 at Dauphin, Manitoba, in Canada. People described him as an intelligent, restless boy, who loved to ride and hunt far more than studying, especially once his family moved into the woods around Winnipeg. In December 1914 he enrolled with the First Canadian Mounted Rifles, where his marksmanship, developed thanks to many years' hunting experience, meant he was chosen to become a gunner. After witnessing the massacres occurring during the second Battle of Ypres a few days after arriving in the trenches, he requested transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, and his second attempt proved successful. After a brief training he was given the role of observer, with the rank of Corporal in No. 9 Squadron then located in Bertangles, France.

Promoted to the rank of sub lieutenant on April 2nd 1916, after a few days' leave he was transferred first to No. 4 Squadron and sometime around mid July 1916, after being allowed a few days to recuperate from a light wound, he was transferred to No. 15 Squadron. The great work he had carried out as an observer earned him his first medal in November 1916, the Military Cross.

On returning to England to attend a piloting course, Barker got his pilot's licence in January of 1917, and was immediately transferred to France, once again with No. 15 Squadron, were he flew an R.E.8. Barker's capacities as a pilot did not appear in any way exceptional: he seemed less capable than others when executing acrobatics, but made up for that with a strongly aggressive drive, great courage and unerring marksmanship. Once he was promoted Captain Barker shot down an enemy plane in March, then in April he distinguished himself by carrying out a few heroic missions in which he directed artillery fire during the Arras offensive, earning a special mention. By this time he was known as the best scout of the whole front, rising to the rank of Flight Commander, and adding a “bar” to his Military Cross.

He was lightly wounded on August 7th 1917, and in September was recalled back to Britain where he became a flight instructor. During this period he was able to try out the new Sopwith Camel, whose potential capacities for duelling he immediately recognized. He desperately wanted to return to fight at the front in a single-seater. At first, his requests were not met by Bomber Command: after having deliberately violated flight rules on acrobatic flight during training, he was finally transferred to the front with No.28 Squadron, which was being supplied with Camel planes, and he was handed command of A Flight.

Barker carried out his first flight as a fighter pilot on October 20th 1917, during which he shot down an Albatros D.III. On the 26th of that same month he was credited with two Albatros D.V. Meanwhile however the Italian front had collapsed at Caporetto, thus seriously jeopardizing Italy's chances of containing Austria's advance: among the Allied forces sent to the rescue was also No. 28 Squadron of fighters in which Barker flew a Sopwith Camel B6313.

At Christmas 1917, Barker, Hudson and a third pilot flew as far as Motta airport, hurling down a large sign which read: “To the Austrian Air Force Corps from the English RFC, wishing you a Merry X-Mas”. Then they machine-gunned the hangars with Buckingham incendiary bullets, setting fire to many planes and killing twelve enemy personnel including pilots and mechanics. Having returned to their base in Istrana, they convinced ground personnel to repair the planes without mentioning this unauthorised exploit. But there was an unwritten rule according to which the days around Christmas were traditionally considered a truce and at eight next morning the Austrians launched a furious and un-coordinated attack. Having received warning in time, the enemies were greeted by British anti-aircraft artillery, which therefore did not incur severe damage from this attack. When the Command of the Royal Flying Corps learnt the whole story, it was decided not to punish either Barker nor any of those involved in the attack: however, the memory of this event lived on and in a short story entitled “The Snows of the Kilimanjaro”, Hemingway would describe the episode, transforming it through literary fiction into a Christmas attack carried out by Barker against a train of Austrian military officers on leave.

Because of the peculiarities of the Italian front, Barker earned special distinction by shooting down air balloons: this was a highly risky occupation, in which he and his favourite companion Harold Hudson soon specialized. Hudson specialized in strafing anti aircraft defence, while Barker took care of the balloons. In this way they shot down two Drachen east of Conegliano on January 24th, 1918, and as many as ten other machines on February 12th at Fossamerlo. The two often flew in tight formation, actively cooperating in covering each others' rear: a flying technique which was later adopted on a large scale especially during World War II.

On April 10th Barker was transferred as Flight Commander to No. 66 Squadron and his list of victims grew at an impressive rate: on 17th April he shot down another Albatros D.III while in May he destroyed as many as eight Austrian planes. Barker's Military Cross received a second bar.

During that same period the Austrians were planning a massive attack along the Piave river, where they were building pontoon bridges. Barker's squadron carried out a great many forays between June 15th and June 16th in the area of Montello: each plane was employed in at least four missions each day, strafing enemy defences and deploying Cooper 20-pound bombs.

The great results of the No. 66 Squadrons' Bristol FE.2 aircraft under Barker command convinced the British Bomber Command of the need to form No.139 Squadron, formed almost entirely by “Brisfits”. On July 14th 1918 Barker was promoted Major and was given command of 139 Squadron; he did maintain the privilege of flying his Camel. He was soon presented with yet another medal, adding a bar to his Distinguished Service Order, as if he had received the same military decoration a second time.

On August 9th Barker piloted an Italian plane over the Austrian lines to allow an Italian agent, Alessandro Tandura, to carry out a parachute landing in enemy territory. After the jump proved successful, Barker proceeded to bomb some Austrian objectives, thus masking the real purpose of his mission. Barker was also entrusted with flying Edward Prince of Wales on a Bristol fighter during His Royal Highnesses' inspection of the front line.

At the end of September 1918 Barker was newly transferred to Britain to direct a flying school at Hounslow: at the time he contributed to the final phases of the creation of the latest model of the Sopwith factories, the Snipe. He returned to the front for a mere ten days, with No. 201 Squadron. During his only combat mission on October 27th 1918, while he was patrolling solo with his new Sopwith Snipe he crossed the path of a whole Jagdgeschwader 3, comprising about sixty fighter planes. In the ensuing epic dog fight Barker shot down four enemies. Having received wounds to both legs and one arm, he was nonetheless able to cross over the French lines, but his plane made a disastrous crash landing which trapped him in the small Snipe plane, with the aircraft's nose firmly buried in the ground. Hundreds of Allied men, including the Canadian general Andrew McNaughton had witnessed dog fight, spellbound. Some Highland Regiment soldiers who sprinted to the rescue were surprised to find him still alive.

Barker remained unconscious for many days in the hospital at Rouen, when he regained consciousness, he was able to read the many congratulatory telegrams from the King, from the Prince of Wales and from Lord Hamilton. For this exploit, which remains unique in history, William George Barker was presented with the Victoria Cross on November 20th 1918.

After the war Barker returned to Canada and together with the other great Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop he founded the “Bishop and Barker Company”, a small air craft company whose business unfortunately did not flourish: the two pilots were forced to sell their two-seater Martinsyde to pay their debts.

In 1920 Barker joined the newly founded Royal Canadian Air Force and was sent to Britain as Liaison Officer at the Air Ministry. He flew many times over the area between Iraq and Palestine, thus contributing together with Raymond Collinshaw to the setting up of RAF routes in the Middle East.

On returning to Canada in 1924 Barker left RCAF. After a fruitless foray into the tobacco business he decided to accept the post of President of Fairchild Aviation Corporation of Canada based in Montreal, in 1930. In March of that same year, at the time of the presentation of a new two-seater model, Barker decided to make a trial flight before it was officially tested before the military. He took off from Rockcliffe airport, just outside Ottawa and returned to base ten minutes later. At very low speed he tried to get the plane to suddenly lift its muzzle skywards, but the plane stalled and Barker could do nothing to avoid disaster. He crashed within a few yards from landing, and died instantly.

The Sopwith Camel bearing registration number B6313 is the plane which totalled the highest number of victories of the whole of World War I. It was delivered on September 11th 1917, and reached France on October 8th with 28 Squadron: that same day Barker used it to shoot down an Albatros D.V, but did not claim this victory, having crossed the lines without having been given the necessary authorization. The B6313 was retired from service and demolished on October 2nd 1918, having flown for 404 hours and ten minutes (367 hours and 25 minutes of which under Barker's command) and having officially shot down 46 enemies including aircraft and balloons, all under Barker's command, and almost all on the Italian front.