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Albert Ball, standing in front of a Caudron G.3
Royal Flying Corps
|Years of service||1914–1917|
|Unit||No. 56 Squadron RFC|
Distinguished Service Order & Two Bars
Légion d'honneur (France)
Order of St. George (Russia)
Albert Ball VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC (14 August 1896 – 7 May 1917) was an English First World War fighter pilot and recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry "in the face of the enemy" that can be awarded to members of the British or Commonwealth armed forces. At the time of his death, he was the leading Allied ace with 44 victories, second only to Germany ace Manfred Von Richthofen. He was the United Kingdom's fourth scoring ace, behind only Edward Mannock, James McCudden, and George McElroy.
Ball grew up in Nottingham, England before joining the Sherwood Foresters at the outbreak of the First World War. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in October 1914. Ball began flying training in his personal time and became licensed to fly in October 1915. He was soon transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and into the Central Flying School where he was awarded his wings on 26 January 1916. In February 1916, he joined No. 13 Squadron RFC at Marieux in France, flying in reconnaissance missions before being transferred in May to a fighter squadron. From May through to his return to England in October he accrued a large number of aerial victories and two of his Distinguished Service Orders; he became the first fighter ace in England to capture the public's imagination. During his rest period he became engaged to Fiona Taylor. By April 1917, Ball was anxious for a return to action and he was transferred to No. 56 Squadron RFC which was posted to France on 7 April. Ball continued his impressive record of aerial victories before his final flight on 7 May, when he crashed into a field in France. There are several memorials to Ball in Nottingham including a statue and plaque in the grounds of Nottingham Castle.
Albert Ball was born at 32 Lenton Boulevard in Lenton, Nottingham. After a series of moves to houses throughout Lenton, his family settled at 43 Lenton Road; a house also known as Sedgley. Albert Ball was the son of a successful businessman; Sir Albert Ball rose in status from a plumber to an alderman and Lord Mayor of Nottingham. His parents are described in his biography as loving and indulgent parents. In his youth, he had his own small hut behind the family house where he tinkered with engines and electrical equipment. He was raised with a familiarity of pistols and conducted target practice in his family's gardens. He had keen vision, and was a crack shot. He was deeply religious.
Ball studied at The King's School, Grantham, followed by Trent College from 1909 to 1913, where he showed only average ability, but developed his curiosity for things mechanical. He was in the Officers Training Corps. His best subjects were carpentry, modeling, violin, and photography. It was no surprise then, that upon his graduation at the age of 17, his father staked him to a start in business as Universal Engineering Works in a building next door to the house of his birth.
First World War
At the start of the First World War, Ball enlisted in the 7th (Robin Hood) Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (The Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment). By October 1914, he was a Sergeant, then was commissioned Second Lieutenant the same month. He was assigned to training recruits; this rear echelon assignment irked him. In an attempt to get to the action, he transferred to the North Midland Cyclist Company, Divisional Mounted Troops, but he remained in England.
While still in England, he took private flying lessons at Hendon, where his interest in engineering found a natural outlet. Beginning in June 1915, he paid his own way to train as a student at the Ruffy-Baumann School; the school charged £75 to £100 for instruction. As he was learning to fly in his personal time he woke at 03:00 to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to Ruffy-Baumann and get in some flying at dawn; his duty day began at 06:45. On 15 October 1915, he was granted Royal Aero Club Certificate No. 1898, and promptly requested transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. He was considered only an average pilot.
Flight training and reconnaissance tour
On 23 October 1915, Ball was seconded to No. 9 Reserve Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps and trained at Mousehold Heath aerodrome near Norwich. In the first week of December, Ball soloed in a Farman MF.7 after standing duty all night, and his landing was rough. When his instructor was sarcastic to Ball about the landing, Ball lost his temper and angrily exclaimed that he had only fifteen minutes experience in the plane, and that if this was as good of instruction as he was going to get, he would rather return to his old unit. The instructor relented, and Ball then soloed again and landed successfully on five consecutive flights. This rough landing was not the only accident Ball was involved in; he mentioned two others, including one at 120 miles per hour. He completed the RFC Central Flying School and was awarded his wings on 26 January 1916. He was officially transferred from the North Midland Cyclist Company to the Royal Flying Corps on 29 January 1916 when he was appointed a Flying Officer.
On 18 February 1916, he joined No. 13 Squadron RFC at Marieux in France, flying a two-seater B.E.2c on reconnaissance missions. At times, Ball flew the squadron's single seat Bristol Scout, preferring the freedom of independent operations that this gave him. His aggressive fighting spirit was encouraged by his commanding officer.
It was while flying the two-seater pusher B.E.2 that he fought his first combat. On 29 March, he swooped in on a German two-seater aircraft; Lieutenant S. A. Villiers—Ball's observer sitting in the front seat—fired a drum and a half of Lewis ammunition into the German craft. In turn, a second German aircraft swooped on Ball's plane and the two German aircraft dived away. After this inconclusive skirmish, Ball wrote home in one of his many letters, "I like this job, but nerves do not last long, and you soon want a rest."
In April, 1916, in one of his other numerous letters home, Ball described his idea of a fighter plane 'better than the Fokker.'
Throughout his flying service Ball was primarily a 'lone-wolf' pilot, carefully stalking his prey from below until he drew close enough to use his top-wing mounted Lewis gun on its Foster mounting to fire upwards into the enemy's fuselage. He attacked heedless of odds. These tactics were in direct contrast to most other aces in the war; doctrine as stated by Oswald Boelcke for the Germans (see Dicta Boelcke), and Edward Mannock for the RFC emphasized swooping attack from above in advantageous situations.
First fighter tour
On 7 May 1916, Ball was posted to 11 Squadron, flying both F.E.2bs and Nieuport 11 fighters. After his first day of flying with his new unit, he wrote a letter home complaining about fatigue. Ball was unhappy with the hygiene of his assigned billet in the nearest village. He elected to live in a tent on the flight line. He soon built a hut to replace the tent; he reasoned it was better to be closer to his airplane. This was a habit that Ball was to repeat throughout his military career. Ball was very much a loner, preferring to live in his hut and on the flightline away from the other squadron members. He spent his off-duty hours tending his small garden and practicing the violin. He was not unsociable, so much as sensitive and shy. He worked upon his own airplanes, and as a consequence, was often untidy and disheveled. His iconoclasm in dress extended to his habit of flying without a helmet and goggles.
While flying Bristol Scout no. 5312 on 16 May, he scored his first aerial victory when he drove down an Albatros C. He then switched to Nieuport no. 5173 for his next four victories, becoming an ace and a balloon buster on 25 June by destroying an observation balloon with phosphor bombs. On 16 July, Ball went to his commanding officer and requested a few days rest. Instead of a complete break from flying, he was temporarily assigned back to flying reconnaissance with 8 Squadron where he flew in a B.E.2c from 17 July to 14 August. During this tour of duty, Ball undertook an unusual mission. On the evening of 28 July, he flew a French espionage agent across the German lines. Dodging both an attack by three German fighters and anti-aircraft fire, he landed in a deserted field, only to find that the agent refused to deplane. It was during this reconnaissance period that it was announced in the London Gazette that he had been awarded the Military Cross. The Gazette of 27 July 1916 states that the Cross was awarded "for conspicuous skill and gallantry on many occasions," particularly for "one occasion [when] he attacked six in one flight."
Ball's twentieth birthday was marked by his promotion to temporary captain and his return to 13 Squadron. Using two Nieuports—no. A134 and no. A201—he increased his number of victories to eleven by 22 August; on this day he scored three victories. He ended the day by fighting 14 Germans about 15 miles behind their lines. With his plane badly damaged and out of fuel, he struggled back to Allied lines to land. He then transferred with part of 11 Squadron to No. 60 Squadron RFC in August, taking Nieuport A201 with him. He was assigned to lead A Flight, but had license to fly solo missions. His new commanding officer even assigned Ball his own personal airplane and maintenance crew. One of the squadron mechanics painted up a non-standard red propeller boss; A201 became the first of a series of Ball's airplanes to have such a paint-job. By 31 August, he had increased his total to 17 wins. The next day, he left A201 behind and went on leave. While he had been in France, his feats had received considerable publicity. He found that his celebrity was such that he could not even walk down the streets of Nottingham without being stopped and congratulated.
He returned, to the post of Flight Commander, and to immediate success. He scored a morning and an evening victory on 15 September, flying two different Nieuports for the first time. On the evening sortie, he armed his plane with eight Le Prieur rockets on the outer struts, set to fire electrically. He intended to use them on an observation balloon. However, when he spotted three German Roland C.IIs, he broke their formation by salvoing his rockets at them, then picked off one of the confused pilots. After that, he settled in an improved airplane, Nieuport 17 no. A213. He had it rigged to fly tail-heavy, and had a holster built into the cockpit for the Colt automatic he always toted. He scored three triples and three individual wins in September with his new plane, ending the month with his total victories standing at 31. By the end of September, he had told his commanding officer that he had to have a rest and that he was taking unnecessary risks because of his nerves. On 3 October, he was sent on leave, en route to a posting on the Home Establishment in England.
He had been awarded both the Distinguished Service Order, and a bar for a second award simultaneously, on 26 September 1916. The first award was "for conspicuous gallantry and skill" which saw Ball take on two enemy formations. The bar was also "for conspicuous skill and gallantry" when he again took on four enemy machines in formation, and then on another occasion, 12 enemy machines. Now that Ball had returned to England he expected a quiet spell of family leave for rest and recuperation. Instead, he was lionized as a national hero with a reputation as a fearless pilot and expert marksman. A crowd of journalists awaited him on his family's doorstep. In an interview, he mentioned being downed six times. On 18 November, he was invested with his Military Cross and both DSOs at Buckingham Palace by King George V. A second bar to the DSO followed on 25 November, making him the first triple winner of the DSO. There would be only one more triple award to an aviator in the entire war, to Britain's top ace of all time, Edward Mannock. Ball was promoted to the substantive rank of Lieutenant on 8 December 1916.
Ball was not returned to combat; instead, he was posted to instructional duties in England with 34 (Reserve) Squadron, teaching pilot trainees. It was during this time in England that he contacted the Austin Motor Company about building his proposed fighter plane. The prototype Austin-Ball A.F.B.1 fighter was fast, at 138 miles per hour top speed. It could climb to 10,000 feet in less than nine minutes. Armament featured a machine gun firing through the propeller hub (thus avoiding synchronization problems between gun and propeller that would plague the SE-5), and a second gun mounted on the top wing in Ball's favored location. All in all, the Austin-Ball was at least comparable to the best British fighter, the RAF SE.5a, which topped out at 120 miles per hour.
On 19 February, in a tribute from his native city, Albert Ball became only the seventh Honorary Freeman of Nottingham. On 25 March, while off-duty from this assignment, he met 18-year-old Flora Young. He impulsively invited her to fly with him, and she promptly accepted. They borrowed a leather flying coat for her, and away they went. Upon landing, he chatted lightly with her. That night, in the first of many notes he wrote to her, he admitted his attraction to her. Soon he was spending every spare moment with her. On 5 April, they became engaged; she wore his silver ID wrist bracelet in lieu of an engagement ring.
Second fighter tour
Inaction chafed Ball. He had already begun agitating for a return to action. He finally managed to acquire a posting as a flight commander in No. 56 Squadron RFC the first squadron to be equipped with the S.E.5 scout. Ball had been slated to serve with the squadron for only a month as a mentor to rookie pilots. Ball considered the aeroplane under-developed, and was allowed to retain Nieuport 17 no. B1522 when the squadron went to France; permission for the Nieuport came from Hugh Trenchard who went on to become the first Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Air Force. No. 56 Squadron moved to the front in France on 7 April 1917; it was the beginning of a hectic month for Ball.
S.E.5 no. A4850, fresh from its packing crates, had been extensively modified for Ball, with the cockpit 'greenhouse' and Vickers machine gun removed and the windscreen lowered to improve speed and performance. He also had a second Lewis machine gun fitted to fire downwards through the floor of the cockpit. A slightly larger fuel tank was also fitted. Ball's aircraft was easy to recognise, since he had a red propeller boss from a German L.V.G. he had shot down fitted to his plane. However, on 9 April, A4850 was refitted, and the downward firing Lewis gun removed. A small Avro windscreen and a replacement Vickers gun were mounted. In a letter to Flora Young on 18 April, Ball mentioned getting his own hut. He also seemed to have moved his flight into another hut on the flight line.
On 23 April 1917, Ball was under strict orders to stay over British lines, but still managed to engage the Germans five times in his Nieuport. Fight number one, using his preferred belly shot, spun out an Albatros; he followed it, firing away, until its impact. It was the first kill for 56 Squadron's tour of duty. Regaining altitude to 5,000 feet, he tried to dive on a lower flying Albatros two-seater and pop up under its belly as he was wont to do. However, he overshot, and the German gunner put a burst of 15 bullets through the Nieuport's wings and spars. Ball limped the Nieuport home for repairs. The undaunted Ball returned to battle in a S.E.5. In his third combat of the day, he fired five rounds and his machine gun jammed. After a landing to clear the gun, he returned to jump five Albatros fighters and sent one down in flames. His fifth battle, shortly thereafter, seemed inconclusive, as the enemy plane landed safely. However, its observer was mortally wounded.
Three days later, on 26 April, he scored another double, flying SE-5 no. A4850, and one more on 28 April, to bring his total to an 36. This last day's fighting left this SE-5 so battered by enemy action that it was dismantled and sent away for repair. Despite continual problems with jamming guns in the SE-5s, Ball had a hectic week of triumphs to open May. On 1 May, flying a brand new SE-5, no. A8898, he destroyed an Albatros and drove another one down. The next day, he switched to a different SE-5, no. A4855, and doubled again. Then he switched back to A8898, destroying an Albatros D.III fighter on 4 May, and another pair the following day. The latter one of these victims nearly rammed him in a headon firing pass. Ball flew his seriously damaged plane home in overwrought nervousness.
The squadron armorers and mechanics undertook the repair of the faulty machine gun synchronizer on A8898. Ball had been sporadically flying the Nieuport again, and he was successful with it on 6 May, destroying one more Albatros D.III in an evening flight, for his 44th win. The heavier battle damage that Ball's airplanes were suffering showed that his German opponents were developing team tactics for fighting. Meanwhile, Ball continued his lone patrols, fortunate to survive.
On the evening of 7 May 1917 near Douai, eleven British aircraft from No. 56 Squadron led by Ball encountered German fighters from Jasta 11. A running dogfight in deteriorating visibility resulted, and the aircraft became scattered. Cecil Arthur Lewis was a participant in this fight and described it in his memoir Sagittarius Rising. Albert Ball was last seen by his fellow pilots pursuing the red Albatros D.III of Lothar von Richthofen. Richthofen landed near Annoeullin with a punctured fuel tank. Ball's squadron-mate Cyril Crowe last saw Ball flying into a dark thundercloud. A German pilot officer on the ground, Lieutenant Hailer, saw Ball's plane fall inverted from the bottom of the cloud with a dead prop, at an altitude of 200 feet; early model SE-5 engines could not run inverted. Hailer and his three companions hurried to the crash site. They saw no bullet holes in the wrecked plane. Richtofen was credited by the Germans with shooting Ball down; however there is some doubt as to what happened, especially as Richthofen's claim was for a Sopwith Triplane, not an SE.5, which was a biplane. Given the amount of propaganda the German high command generated touting the younger von Richthofen, there was probably a high level decision made to credit Ball's death to him. It is probable that Ball was not shot down at all, but had become disoriented and lost control during the aerial combat, a victim of a form of temporary vertigo that has claimed other pilots since.
A young French woman had pulled Ball from the wreckage, and he died in her arms of injuries suffered in the crash. A German doctor later described a broken back and a crushed chest, along with assorted lesser injuries. It was only at the end of May that the Germans dropped messages within Allied lines announcing that Ball was dead, and had been buried with full military honors.
Ball's confirmed victories were one balloon and 28 aircraft destroyed, including five planes in flames. He was also credited with six aircraft downed 'out of control', and nine 'forced to land'. Even though the Austin-Ball A.F.B.1 prototype was successful, it never went into production. With Ball dead, it had no advocate. It was announced in the London Gazette on 7 June 1917 that Ball had been awarded a Croix de Chevalier, Legion d'Honneur by the French Republic. He was posthumously promoted to Captain on 15 June 1917.
Albert Ball, Sr., bought the French field where his son had died and erected a plain memorial stone on the site of the crash. In remembrance of his son, Ball Sr. built a row of eight homes in the early 1920s to house the families of Lenton servicemen killed in action. These homes opened on 7 September 1922, and showed some interesting features. They were designed with ease of use for the elderly. The row was built to evoke an aircraft, with the homes the wings, and the central porch reminiscent of a cockpit. The two centre homes had curving doors, windows, and walls to fit the theme. Windows on the row were suggestive of propellers.
There are several memorials to Ball around Nottingham. There is a statue and a plaque to Ball in the grounds of Nottingham Castle; the statue was dedicated in September 1921. His Victoria Cross is displayed inside the castle as part of a display of relics concerning Ball at the Sherwood Foresters Museum. A memorial to Ball (and his parents and sister) is on the exterior wall of the southwest corner of Holy Trinity Church, Lenton, Nottingham.
In 1967, the Albert Ball, VC Scholarships were instituted at his alma mater, Trent College. In 1999, a school in Annœullin was, upon its inception, named in honour of Albert Ball, the choice of so naming the school having been made by the children themselves.
The dining hall at Trent College features the propeller from one of his aircraft, mounted on one wall with a plaque describing his achievements.
Victoria Cross citation
|“||Lt. (temp. Capt.) Albert Ball, D.S.O., M.C., late Notts. and Derby. R., and R.F.C.
For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from the 25th of April to the 6th of May, 1917, during which period Capt. Ball took part in twenty-six combats in the air and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove down two out of control, and forced several others to land.
In these combats Capt. Ball, flying alone, on one occasion fought six hostile machines, twice he fought five and once four. When leading two other British aeroplanes he attacked an enemy formation of eight. On each of these occasions he brought down at least one enemy.
Several times his aeroplane was badly damaged, once so seriously that but for the most delicate handling his machine would have collapsed, as nearly all the control wires had been shot away. On returning with a damaged machine he had always to be restrained from immediately going out on another.
In all, Capt. Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon, and has always displayed most exceptional courage, determination and skill.
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- The British Fighter Since 1912. Francis K. Mason, Naval Institute Press, 1992. ISBN 1-55750-082-7, 9781557500823.
- David Gunby, ‘Ball, Albert (1896–1917)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 2 July 2006
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