Raymond Collishaw, CB, DSO & Bar, OBE, DSC, DFC (22 November 1893 – 28 September 1976) was a distinguished Canadian fighter pilot, squadron leader, and commanding officer who served in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and later the Royal Air Force. He was the highest scoring RNAS flying ace and the second highest scoring Canadian pilot of the First World War. He was noted as a great leader in the air, leading many of his own formations into battle. As a member of the RAF during the Second World War, he commanded No. 204 Group (which later became the Desert Air Force) in North Africa.
Raymond Collishaw was born at Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, on 22 November 1893. His father was John Edward Collishaw from Wrexham, Wales, and his mother Sarah "Sadie" Jones from Newport, Wales, but raised in Pantygog, Garw Valley.
At the age of 15, Collishaw joined the Canadian Fisheries Protection Services as a cabin boy. He was a lower class sailor on board the Alcedo when it sailed into the Arctic Circle in search of the Stefansson expedition. Unfortunately, it turned out that the expedition was too late to rescue the Karluk. He would continue working on ships and the coast for the next seven years. By 1915, he had worked his way up to first officer.
First World War
When war broke out in 1914, his first idea was to join the Royal Navy, but did not hear from them for some time. Toward the end of 1915, Collishaw heard that the Royal Naval Air Service was hiring, and so he applied to them instead, and attended flight training in Toronto (at his own expense) and then in England. He qualified as a pilot in January 1916. He spent seven months patrolling the British coast. Then, on 2 August 1916, he joined the RNAS's 3rd Wing which was operating at Ochey, France, flying the British Sopwith 1½ Strutters. Some of the Sopwiths were equipped as bombers, while others were configured as two-seat fighters.
Collishaw's first recorded victory came while he was flying escort on the Wing's first large-scale raid into Germany, on October 12th, 1916. The raid was against the Mauser Rifle Factory at Oberndorf, Germany. The bombers had nearly reached their target when they were attacked by six German Fokkers. Collishaw got into position to allow his observer to fire on one, and he evidently damaged it. Lt. Collishaw then turned, gained height, and fired a burst with the front gun. The Fokker dived out of control, and, according to the British crews, crashed to the ground, a total wreck. According to the German authorities, they lost no aircraft during the engagement, but it was not unheard of for combatants to attribute their losses to accident rather than enemy action.
Collishaw's next two victories were properly witnessed by thousands of French troops. He was ferrying a new aircraft from Wing Headquarters when six enemies dived out of the clouds and attacked him. It was six to one, and the Germans had the advantage of height. Collishaw, like Barker and McKeever, was happiest when close to the ground in such a spot. He went down. At tree-top level the advantage of numbers meant much less. In two quick bursts, he sent two Albatroses crashing into the trees, after which the others flew off. The flight so impressed the French that they awarded him the Croix de Guerre.
On December 27th, while returning from a raid on the steel works at Dillingen, Collishaw's machine was damaged in flight; he only just succeeded in gliding back over French lines near Nancy [France], where he crashed, and his plane was a total wreck. It was the first of a number of crashes, and Collishaw on that occasion set the pattern which he followed throughout. He stepped out of the wreckage grinning, and ready to fly again."
In February, 1917, Collishaw was posted to No. 3 Naval Squadron, which was operating with the army near Cambrai. During his two months there, Collishaw was employed as escort to the Corps Squadron bombers, downing one German aircraft in the process. In April, he returned to the coast, being transferred to No. 10 Naval Squadron, engaging in mainly coastal patrols.
By the end of May, the Royal Flying Corps was badly in need of reinforcements, much due to the after-effects of Bloody April. As a result, Collishaw was posted to his previous No. 10 Naval Squadron as a flight commander. Collishaw's "B" Flight would be composed entirely of Canadians. Although British commanders had strongly discouraged pilots painting their aircraft, Collishaw's flight painted their Sopwith Triplanes black (though appearing dark brown), and called themselves the All-Black Flight, later known more simply as the Black Flight.
The aircraft of the All-Black Flight were christened with suitable names. Ellis Reid, of Toronto, flew Black Roger; J. E. Sharman, of Winnipeg, flew Black Death; Gerry Nash, of Hamilton, called his machine Black Sheep; and Marcus Alexander, of Toronto, christened his plane the Black Prince. The flight commander, Collishaw, flew a machine which gloried in the name Black Maria.
During their first two months they claimed a record 87 German aircraft destroyed or driven down – which, strangely enough, brought Collishaw and the unit no wide publicity, though garnered a great deal of renown among their German opponents in the area. Collishaw later claimed that this was because officials in the regular Royal Flying Corps were loath to give credit to naval pilots.
June 6, 1917 was their grandest day. They were flying offensive patrols with 10 Triplanes. Collishaw was leading a patrol when they came across an Albatros 2-seater escorted by 15 Albatros and Halberstadt fighters. In the "fur ball" that ensued Collishaw dropped three Albatroses, Nash downed an Aviatik two-seater and an Albatros, Reid downed a Halberstadt scout, Sharman and Alexander each downed an Albatros. In total the RNAS shot down 10 German aircraft without any losses.
Their first loss came when they had achieved an aggregate of fifty victories. On June 26th, the All-Blacks found themselves engaged with Richthofen's Jagdstaffel 11. Gerry Nash found that he was fighting two German pilots single-handed. One of the Germans was Lieutenant Karl Allmenröder, victor in some 30 air battles, and second only to Richthofen among the German pilots then in action. Nash's other opponent was Richthofen himself.
Yet, faced by the two deadliest German pilots, Nash fought a tremendous battle. He twisted and turned, looking for openings, but at last Allmenröder got in a telling burst, and Nash's controls were damaged. He fell out of the fight and managed to land safely – but behind the enemy lines, where he destroyed his plane before he was captured.
The four survivors were bitterly grieved by the loss, for they had grown into a band of brothers, and they swore to keep a sharp eye out for the Albatroses of Richthofen's squadron which had brought down Nash. At the same time they thought that Nash was dead. On the morning of June 27th they met the Richthofen Staffel near Courtrai, and this time Collishaw found himself engaged with the bright-green Albatros of Allmenröder – though he was not aware at the moment that he was fighting the conqueror of Nash. It was one of the classic dogfights of the war, like Barker against Linke, like Hawker against Richthofen – two skilled and experienced fighters, who knew every trick, had met.
They met head-on, then they went into the "waltz" <dogfighting>, but at last Collishaw found an opening, and Allmenröder went down out of control, to crash to his death near Lille. Nash, lying in a cell, heard a church bell tolling that afternoon, and learned from his guard that it was the funeral of Allmenröder, who had shot him down. Allmenröder, the guard said, he been shot down by the leader of the Black Triplanes."
While there have been claims that Collishaw shot down German ace Karl Allmenröder as described above, this has been disputed and remains difficult to verify.
In August, Collishaw returned to Canada for two months' leave, the British Empire's second-highest-scoring living ace. He was virtually unknown, in stark contrast to the grand reception given to the top-scoring living ace, Billy Bishop, when he returned on leave at about the same time. At this point, he had been awarded two British decorations during the summer: the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Service Order. Returning to the war late November, he was given command of No. 13 Naval Squadron, which was operating from Dunkirk, doing escort duty with the Channel Patrol.
His most amazing experience on that tour of duty was an air battle between his squadron and a formation of German Scouts in which no shot was fired. The squadron was providing protection for an observation machine, which was ranging guns for a fleet firing on Zeebrugge. The German formation approached, and Collishaw led his pilots to the attack but found that his guns had jammed, owing to the congealing of the oil in the low temperature. Several times he turned to attack the Germans, and each time they withdrew, until the navy's shoot was finished. Then Collishaw learned that all the squadron's guns were jammed – possibly all the guns of the German Scouts as well."
On 23 January 1918, Collishaw returned to the embattled area of the Western Front to command No. 3 Naval Squadron, which was equipped with the more deadly British Sopwith Camel fighters. On 1 April, the RNAS and the RFC merged and No. 3 Naval became No. 203 Squadron Royal Air Force. Collishaw remained in command with the new rank of major, finding that serving as a Commanding Officer took up a great deal of his time with "paper work". But he was able to make time for flying, and by the end of the summer, he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a bar to his Distinguished Service Order.
Collishaw had quite a few close escapes during the war. His plane was hit often by bullets, but Collishaw escaped unscathed in the air. His aircraft was shot down out of control and crashed several times. Once, lost in a fog, he landed on a German aerodrome, and was actually taxiing to the tarmac when he saw German insignia on the grounded planes, and German troops rushing out to arrest him. He opened his throttle wide, took off, and escaped. On another occasion, his goggles were shattered by an enemy bullet. He once had his controls disabled by German machine gun fire from the ground and had to ride out the flight until the aircraft crash-landed – luckily near the British front trenches.
Collishaw scored 60 victories, consisting of 28 enemy aircraft destroyed (including one shared victory), 30 enemy aircraft driven down "out of control" (including two shared wins), and one enemy aircraft "driven down."
Collishaw was in England working on the formation of the Royal Canadian Air Force when the Armistice was signed. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel during this time. He took some leave in Canada in December before returning to England. He was planning on attempting to fly across the Atlantic using a long-range bomber, but his plans were interrupted by events.
The decision was made to send a squadron to help General Denikin's White Russian forces in the Russian Civil War and Collishaw was chosen to be in command. His squadron found itself fighting against the Bolsheviks, who had skilled German pilots manning some of their aircraft. This campaign initially went well but eventually turned into a retreat then a rout during which the squadron was withdrawn. Collishaw added another victory to his total during this conflict, as well as managing to sink an enemy gunboat with a bomb dropped from his Sopwith Camel. He admitted in his autobiography that his experiences in, and particularly his escape from, Russia were far more frightening than those on Western Front.
After 47 Squadron was withdrawn from Russia, Collishaw was sent to Egypt to command No. 84 Squadron. The squadron was moved to Persia, which was made a British protectorate after the war, to defend against the Russians. In the 1921 New Year's Honours List, Collishaw was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
Second World War
At the commencement of the Second World War in 1939, Collishaw was promoted to Air Commodore and took over as Air Officer Commanding, No. 204 Group ("Egypt Group") in North Africa. He concentrated on strategy and tactics to neutralize the Italian air force and to gain aerial superiority in North Africa. This was a tough challenge considering that his men were flying outdated Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and Vickers Wellesley bombers. Soon after the war started Collishaw's men were off the mark quickly, striking at an Italian airbase destroying 18 aircraft within two days of the commencement of hostilities with only three aircraft losses. He then turned their efforts to bombing harbours, ships and troops to hold up the reinforcement of North Africa. They sunk the Italian cruiser San Giorgio and blew up an ammo dump.
His pilots were badly outnumbered and outgunned. But he countered these deficiencies with expert advice on aerial tactics, aggressive attacks and trickery. He had only a single modern Hawker Hurricane fighter to use at the front (three others were relegated to training) dubbed "Colly's Battleship". He made the best of it by constantly moving it from base to base and letting the Italians see it. He came up with the idea of making many, single plane attacks on Italian formations to fool the Italians into thinking he had many Hurricanes. The result was that the Italians spread their superior fighters thinly across North Africa, and seriously diluted their strength. ... Collishaw implemented a continual harassment procedure that forced the Italians into having standing patrols over their forts. This was incredibly wasteful of men, fuel and machines. They should have been on the offensive, and yet were not.
In July, 1941 Collishaw was recalled from the desert and was replaced with Air Vice-Marshal Coningham. He was given the a posting in Fighter Command in Scapa Flow, Scotland, and remained there until July 1943, when he was involuntarily retired. He spent the rest of the war as a Civil Defence Regional Air Liaison Officer.
Later years and legacy
His memoirs were titled Air Command, A Fighting Pilot's Story and were published in 1973.
Collishaw died on 28 September 1976 in West Vancouver, British Columbia at the age of 82.
As early as the 1950s, there has been debate over whether his kills had been understated, due to the Royal Naval Air Service receiving less credit than the Royal Flying Corps. Some historians credit him with 81 (unofficial) kills, which would place him at the top of First World War flying aces, ahead of the "Red Baron" and top British Empire ace Billy Bishop. If the application of stricter victory verification was applied, however, his score would invariably be considerably less (as with all RAF, RFC and RNAS aces' scores in the First World War).
A man who flew with him claimed that he would often "give" a victory to a new, green pilot, just to bolster his confidence. The new pilot would be taken out by the renowned Collishaw to "bag one". Anxiously following the leader, he would find himself diving on the tail of a German reconnaissance plane. Trying to control the machine, so that the nose would stay still, he would find his gun-sight wobbling all over the sky. He would press the firing button, spraying bullets like a lawn sprinkler. Then suddenly Collishaw would appear alongside; there would be a short, deadly burst, and the new pilot would turn sick as he saw the enemy plane catch fire and plunge to earth. He would fly back to the aerodrome, where the flight commander would clap him heartily on the shoulder and insist "You got one! Grand show, old boy!" The new pilot, unable to speak, would nod timidly, and thereafter he would fly into battle with Collishaw anywhere. That was – according to the story – part of Collishaw's great quality of leadership.
- Constable, Miles. "Raymond Collishaw World War I Fighter Ace: A Short History". Canadian Air Aces and Heroes. Archived from the original on 6 April 2016. Retrieved 21 July 2016.
- Harris (1958), p. 85.
- Harris (1958), p. 88.
- "No. 30029". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 April 1917. p. 3821.
- Harris (1958), pp. 88–89.
- Harris (1958), p. 89.
- Harris (1958), p. 92.
- Harris (1958), pp. 92–93.
- Harris (1958), p. 91.
- Harris (1958), p. 95–97.
- "No. 30194". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 July 1917. p. 7426.
- "No. 30227". The London Gazette (Supplement). 10 August 1917. p. 8206.
- Harris (1958), p. 99.
- Harris (1958), p. 100.
- "No. 30827". The London Gazette (Supplement). 2 August 1918. p. 9199.
- "No. 30913". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 September 1918. p. 11247.
- Harris (1958), pp. 97–98.
- Harris (1958), p. 101.
- "No. 35094". The London Gazette. 4 March 1941. p. 1303.
- Playfair (2009), p.97.
- Harris (1958), pp. 83–84.
- "Unit Directory: No. 205 Collishaw RCAC Squadron". Cadets Canada. Retrieved 12 July 2010.
- "Nanaimo, British Columbia Airport Terminal named for Canadian War Ace". Air Highways Magazine Online. Retrieved 12 July 2010.
- Collishaw, Raymond; Dodds, R.V. (1973). Air Command: A Fighter Pilot’s Story. London, UK: Kimber. ISBN 978-0-7183-0073-9.
- Gunn, Roger (2013). Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight. Toronto: Dundurn. ISBN 978-1-4597-0660-6.
- Harris, John Norman (1958). Knights of the Air: Canadian Aces of World War I. Toronto: MacMillan.
- McCaffrey, Dan (1990). Air Aces: The Lives and Times of Twelve Canadian Fighter Pilots. Toronto: J. Lorimer. ISBN 1-55028-095-3.
- Playfair, Major-General I. S. O.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C.; with Flynn, Captain F.C. (R.N.) & Gleave, Group Captain T.P. (2009) . Butler, Sir James, ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume I: The Early Successes Against Italy, to May 1941. History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Uckfield, UK: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-065-3.
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