England,  France,  Phoebe,  Western Europe

Albert Ball, VC, DSO and 2 Bars, MC – Britain’s Ace Fighter Pilot

Albert Ball VC, DSO and 2 Bars, MC
Albert Ball VC, DSO and 2 Bars, MC

Born in Nottingham on the 14th August 1896, Albert Ball was one of three children, two sons and a daughter, of plumber Albert Sr and his wife Harriet (nee Page). Albert Sr was later to elevate his status to that of Lord Mayor of Nottingham and received a knighthood. Young Albert was educated at a variety of schools, Lenton Church school, Grantham Grammar and Nottingham High School before going to Trent College, at the age of 14. Deeply religious, Albert was also fond of all things mechanical and electrical, spending a lot of time in his private retreat in the garden shed, fiddling about with engines and such like. He had a marvelous lack of fear, spending time steeple-jacking on tall buildings and structures, completely unconcerned about height. He was also a keen gun enthusiast, and a crack shot.

Although only an average student academically, Albert shone in all things practical. He excelled at crafts, photography and playing the violin. During his teen years at Trent, Albert was an active participant in the school’s Officer Training Corps. At the age of 17, Albert left school and with assistance from his father, was able to secure employment at Universal Engineering near his home. The following year as war broke out, Albert enlisted in the Robin Hood Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. Rising quickly through the ranks to Sergeant, by October Ball was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, but was assigned duty training recruits. Frustrated and hoping to see some action, Ball transferred to the North Midlands Cyclist Company of Divisional Mounted, but remained in England. By February 1915, his despair was evident as he wrote to his mother that he was sending lads out to the front and remaining stuck in England himself. Desperate to find an outlet, Ball signed up for flying lessons privately with the Ruffy-Baumann School at Hendon Aerodrome, where although described only as an average pilot, his contemporaries described him as having a ruthless detachment to the frequent accidents suffered by his fellow trainee Pilots. This is all too evident in one surviving letter, “Yesterday a ripping boy had a smash, and when we got up to him he was nearly dead, he had a two-inch piece of wood right through his head and died this morning. If you would like a flight, I should be pleased to take you any time you wish”.

Ball qualified as a Pilot on 15th October 1915, and promptly requested a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, a week later joining No. 9 Reserve Squadron at Mousehold Heath, before transferring to Upavon, where he completed his training and earned his wings on 22 January 1916. He was officially transferred to the RFC a few days later and sent to join 13 Squadron RFC at Marieux in France, where initially he flew in a two-seater B.E.2 with observer Lieutenant Villiers. He demonstrated an aggressive streak in his flying from the outset and just a few weeks later, following several engagements, earned a single seater Bristol Scout fighter. It has been suggested that due to Ball’s introverted nature, almost reclusive, coupled with his flair for the dramatic in the sky, that he was not a popular choice of companion for observers who were a little wary of his penchant for spirited flight. In short, their survival instinct ran slightly deeper than their desire to get in an aircraft with the shy but ruthless pilot. Ball however, was not as reckless as suggested, he wrote his father advising him to discourage his younger brother from following him into the RFC.

Ball’s interest in all things flight was not restricted to the actual piloting of aircraft and his early skills in engineering were still a large part of his focus. In May 1916, Ball was reassigned to 11 squadron, but was disappointed with the standard of cleanliness of his new quarters and so opted to stay near the flight-line, living in a tent until he had built a hut, complete with garden which became his billet. In quiet moments he would tend his garden, play his violin or tinker with machine and engine parts. Ball also maintained his own aircraft, resulting in his often disheveled appearance. His hair was too long and he refused to wear helmet and goggles. By July 1916, Albert had earned the title ace and his kill score was 7. He was gazetted for a Military Cross. A month later, on his 20th birthday he was promoted to temporary Captain and returned to 11 Squadron which were subsequently attached to 60 Squadron where Ball was given free rein of solos, with his own choice of aircraft and personal ground crew. By now his kills were up to 17. In one sortie he took on 6 enemy aircraft and chased them 15 miles behind their lines, before getting low on fuel, forcing him to disengage and limp back to base with extensive damage to his plane. The following month Ball went home to Nottingham on leave, and was astonished to find he was recognised in the street and was a household name.

By the end of September 1916, after returning to 60 Squadron, Ball was simultaneously awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, as well as receiving the Russian Order of St George. He had improvised both the gun and added Le Prieur Rocket capabilities to two Nieuport aircraft which he flew in tandem to enable both day and evening flights without having to stop to allow refueling and maintenance with his new extended flying time enabling to score triple victories on several occasions. Later he replaced these with a specially weighted and improvised Nieuport 17, which flew heavy on the tail to allow him easier changeover of the ammunition drum. By now his kills sat at 31 making him officially Britain’s leading Ace. A few days later, after speaking to his commanding officer regarding his nerves and exhaustion, Ball was sent home on leave, and attached to Home Establishment RFC, where responsibilities included training of recruits, dispatching both pilots and aircraft to France, and home defence. He received his MC, DSO and Bar from King George on 18th November at Buckingham Palace, and a week later he received a second Bar, making him the first person ever to have received the award three times. Two weeks later he received the substantive rank of Lieutenant.

Albert Ball's original gravemarker, erected by the Germans, which is now in Nottingham Castle Museum
Albert Ball’s original gravemarker, erected by the Germans, which is now in Nottingham Castle Museum

Whilst attached to 34 (Reserve) squadron as an instructor, Ball received the honor of Freeman of Nottingham, and was asked to test the prototype of the new S.E. 5 Scout, which he declared sluggish on maneuverability, and inferior to his Nieuports. He was the only test-pilot to give negative feedback. By April, Ball had embarked on a lightning engagement with Flora Young whom he had met only days previously. He was also itching to rejoin the fight in France. Ball managed to secure a posting as flight commander with 56 Squadron back to France on April 7th 1917. Later documents would show the position was only meant to last one month. Ball was apprehensive about the move to equip the squadron with the S.E. 5 Scouts that he had recently slated. An agreement was reached whereby he would be allowed to recommence his solo missions with his Nieuport, but when flying sorties he would be in a Scout. Further compromise was given by allowing Ball to remove the Vickers gun, from his Scout and replace it with a second Lewis gun facing down through the cockpit. A larger fuel tank was also fitted.
Ball’s flight was clear to start combat, and under strict orders to stay over British lines, they flew out on 23rd April 1917. Over the course of the next few weeks Albert scored a further 12 kills, and mortally wounded a crew member of another enemy aircraft. His earlier misgivings about the Scout were proven in part with the persistent jamming of the guns. He suffered damage to his first scout to the extent where it had to be dismantled and sent away for repair. His replacement came without the modifications he had fitted to the original.

On 6th May 1917, Ball proposed to up and coming Canadian Billy Bishop, during a visit to his squadron, that they mount an attack on Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s airfield early in the morning, catching them by surprise and grounding them. They agreed to carry out the attack at the end of the month. The following evening, Ball’s flight, over Douai engaged a squadron from Jasta 11, von Richthofen’s flight. The famous Red Baron was not present however his younger brother Lothar was part of the ensuing dogfight. Visibility was poor and deteriorating fast. The aircraft scattered, each engaged in its own battle, each out of touch with the others. Von Richthofen sustained a hit to his fuel tank causing him to ground, but not before he had claimed what he later stated was a tri-plane. As the team continued to engage the enemy, Cecil Arthur Lewis later recalled last seeing Ball chasing Von Richthofen – obviously prior to the fuel tank damage. Cyril Crowe meanwhile saw Ball fly into a dark cloud. Four German observers including brothers Pilot Officer Franz Hailer and his brother Carl, from the ground noted that Ball’s S.E. 5 suddenly dropped out of the bottom of the cloud, leaving a large trail of black smoke, which could only be caused by oil leaking into the cylinders which would cause the engine to stall or seize due to flooding caused by fuel in the inlet manifold. And the only way this could happen was if the aircraft was upside-down.

Memorial at the Crash site
Memorial at the Crash site

The aircraft never recovered and Ball went down with his Scout. The observers rushed to the scene but he was already dead. They removed his body and took him to a nearby German field hospital where a Doctor described multiple limb fractures, a crushed chest and a broken back. It is likely death was instant. There were no gunshot wounds on his body; Nor any damage caused by bullets to his aircraft. German Propagandists attributed the death of Ball, to Lothar von Richthofen however his statement of shooting down a Sopwith Triplane casts doubt on this, as does his grounding with the fuel tank damage. A more likely cause was vertigo caused by temporary disorientation when Ball was upside down, causing him to lose control of his aircraft and fall from the cloud. A fairly common occurrence which claimed the lives of several airmen. Ball was reported as missing, and this listing became official on 18th May. At the end of the month, German pilots dropped messages behind Allied lines informing them that Ball was dead and they had buried him in Annoeullin with full military honours on the 9th May. It was later found that they had erected a cross with the inscription “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”)

On June 7th it was announced that Ball had been awarded the Legion d’Honneur, Criox de Chevalier. A day later he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his most conspicuous and consistent bravery in actions between 25th April and 6th May. Manfred von Richthofen paid tribute to the young “English Red Baron” calling him “by far the best English flying man”. Tributes were also paid by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, and Major General Sir Hugh Trenchard in a biography released the following year, made up in part of Albert’s letters. After the war, when the British located Ball’s grave along with 23 others, his original marker was removed. Plans were made to consolidate all British and allied graves into purpose built cemeteries, however whilst the 23 other servicemen’s remains were removed for reburial, Albert Ball Sr requested that his son be allowed to remain where he lay. He later added a new marker. The original now resides in Nottingham Castle Museum, along with one of his aircraft propellers and his medals. Outside is a memorial statue; One of several dedications in the city which also include housing for families of airmen killed in action, and buildings and scholarships at his previous schools and college. Albert Sr also bought the field in which his son had crashed and died, and a memorial is also placed there.

The night before he died, Albert wrote to his father, “”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”.