WWI Aviator Series: The Boy Wonder
Anybody here like cake? I love cake. My God. I used to be one of those people who bought single cakes from the bakery just because. But do I love cake enough to never go flying without it? Not really. You know who did love cake that much? Albert Ball – a quirky, wild, British WWI Air Ace who never went up to fly and fight without a piece of cake in his pocket.
Destined to become one of England’s top-scoring aces in the First World War, Albert Ball was born in Nottingham in 1896. He came from pretty decent stock. His father worked his way up in the world from humble plumber to Lord Mayor of Nottingham, and eventually even seeing knighthood. As for the boy Albert, he grew into a deeply religious young man, who enjoyed tinkering with mechanical trinkets around the house, learning his way around rifles, and eventually becoming a crack shot with his better-than-perfect vision. While he performed on an average scale in school, Ball excelled at all things mechanical, also managing to pick up quite a talent for the violin.
All-said, Albert Ball was a pretty decent chap who looked to have a bright future in engineering ahead of him – until August of 1914. The outbreak of war saw him, and hundreds of thousands of others, putting his career aspirations on hold and joining the service. For Ball, it was the Sherwood Foresters. All that rifle work as a youth paid off, and he quickly worked his way up to second lieutenant.
However, his engineer and mechanical streak soon turned his attention to the airplane. In between strict daily regimens in the Foresters, Ball would head out on his motorcycle to an airfield in Hendon, where he began flying lessons and learning the newfangled art of aviation. He fell head over heels in love with it, and in October of 1915, he formally requested a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps.
He got off to a bit of a bumpy start in the RFC, bungling a couple landings during training and having it out with more than one instructor. Even so, he did pretty well and by the Spring of 1916, at the tender age of nineteen years old, he had earned a spot in one of the Combat flying squadrons in France. Although they officially started him in aerial observation, Ball managed to down three German aircraft within his first few months on the line. By summer, he had already made ace.
He had also wowed his squadron mates and commanders with his unique tactics in the air. Much like Frank Luke the Balloon Buster (click here to learn about him), Ball preferred solo patrols to group flights, having a bit of a reckless streak that didn’t always mesh well with others. He also employed some bold (and often deadly if not used carefully) strategies for engaging his enemies. His favorite was letting an enemy pilot get right up on his tail. Just when the pilot’s confidence soared, Ball would split off in a perilous turn, whip right around, and suddenly wind up with the upper hand. He also liked to barrel at his targets head-on, another dangerous gamble that saw many other pilots meet sticky ends.
But if Ball’s lone wolf flying status and wild stunts made anyone uncomfortable, they couldn’t really argue with the results. By late summer of 1916, Albert Ball had racked up close to twenty kills, and he took on several risky assignments that other pilots wouldn’t touch. Like flying a French spy across enemy lines, which would have carried and immediate death sentence had he been caught. Or engaging a swarm of fourteen German fighters inside their own lines, escaping with nothing but a beat up plane and a forced landing.
By 1917, at just twenty years old, Albert Ball had such a glowing record that even other famous aces found themselves in awe of him. Not just for his skill in an airplane, but for his untamed and beaming youth, which seemingly made him immune to the dangers of aerial combat and the stress of war. He never showed any real signs of strain or energy loss, although he did lament the business of killing, which he wrote about often to his father. These touching letters also showed that he had quite the modest streak despite his newfound fame, accepting his lot with more humility than anything – rare for those cocky flyboys of the First World War.
And Ball was an oddity in a few other ways too, indulging in many eccentric activities that sometimes left his flying mates scratching their heads. For starters, he refused to wear a helmet and goggles in the air – insisting that he liked the feel of the wind in his hair too much. Instead of sleeping in a warm barrack along with the rest of his squadron, Ball pitched a tent underneath his plane wing, where he could practice violin deep into the night. Sometimes, he even danced around his plane while playing the violin, moving and playing to the beat of his own crazy tune. He also planted flower gardens around his little tent, using seeds his father sent him from home.
As the summer of 1917 made its rapid approach, Albert Ball had an impressive forty-four kills on his record, and he had moved up the ranks to squadron leader. Dubbed “the boy Wonder” and even “the English Richtofen,” he had also become a British sensation, idolized by both the pilots in the flying fields, and the people at home who salivated over his exploits. But on the other side of the line, he had become a marked man – one of the most coveted prizes amongst the calculating pilots of the German airdromes.
On May 7, 1917, Albert Ball led ten planes on a patrol into enemy territory, where they stumbled on a host of planes from the crack fighter unit Jasta 11. As the weather deteriorated and visibility dropped, a harrowing dog fight broke out. The sky became ablaze with sizzling and popping tracers, roaring plane engines, and the smoke streaks of planes put down in the melee. In all the chaos and confusion, not to mention the crumbling weather conditions, it’s hard to discern what really happened next.
According to some witnesses, like Cecil Arthur Lewis in his memoir “Sagittarius Rising,” Ball was last seen in hot pursuit of a German red Albatross, whom some claimed belonged to Lothar Von Richtofen, the famous Baron’s younger brother. Other witnesses say Ball was last seen flying into a thunder cloud, where he simply disappeared. A German officer on the ground claims he saw Ball’s plane falling upside down from the overcast sky, trailed by black smoke. And still others maintain that Albert Ball simply got disoriented in the nasty weather, lost his way, and his plane ran out of fuel and he crashed.
No matter which story is true (although historians have officially discredited either Richtofen brother having anything to do with it), Albert Ball’s plane crashed alone and undefended, perilously far behind the enemy lines. A group of four German reconnaissance pilots eventually located the wreckage and hurried down to the site. Unfortunately, the famed Boy Wonder, Britain’s most beloved pilot, was already dead when they arrived. Even so, they had him sent to a nearby combat hospital, and eventually had him buried with full military honors in Annoeulin. According to their reports, there were no visible signs of combat on Ball’s plane or body, suggesting he died from the crash impact instead of the dogfight.
However, the British Army didn’t get the memo about Ball’s death for some time. When his plane failed to return home on May 7, his squadron carried on like usual in their barracks that night, holding out hope that he had just got lost in the weather and would find his way back eventually. They didn’t even list him as missing in action until May 18. By this time, the press had caught wind of their favorite flyer’s disappearance, and mountains of speculation built up around the story, fueled by the witnesses who said he flew into a cloud and disappeared – as if the sky itself laid claim to one of its most famous heroes.
Meanwhile, the German propaganda machine credited Lothar Von Richtofen with shooting down the famed British ace, even though he was in the hospital at the time recovering from an injury sustained in a different flight. It wasn’t until the end of May that German fliers finally dropped messages over the British airdromes detailing Albert Ball’s demise, and his subsequent burial in Annoeulin.
While it’s impossible to know what really happened in the air that day, most historians have chosen the story of Ball getting disoriented in the cloudy weather, running low on fuel, and not surviving the crash. An exceptionally sad ending for a pilot so vibrant, so young, so bold, and so courageous in the air. To think of such a bright future being halted by a rainy day pained more than just his squadron mates. The entire world grieved their first real celebrity pilot, with newspapers running headlines in France, Britain, America, South America, and Portugal. Even many Germans seemed a bit sad that the flame had fizzled out on their most honored adversary.
And the medals poured in to his devastated family. A Croix de Chevelier came from the French Government. The Victoria Cross came next. He also got a special medal from the Aero Club of America. A grand memorial service took place in Nottingham’s St. Mary’s Church, attended by throngs of mourning admirers. Although it must have been an honor for his family to see their son touch the lives of so many, it hardly took the sting out of his death. A blow so hard that his mother wasn’t even able to attend the funeral.
I have spent a lot of time with the flying aces of WWI, and to me, this story has always been one of the saddest. It brings home the hurt of war a little harder than the rest. Maybe because he was so very young when he died. Much too young for what he had to go through. Maybe because he had such a unique personality that could have done so many beautiful things. Or maybe because as a deeply religious young man, he abhorred the business of killing – and the business of killing brought about his own painfully premature death. Not from a blaze of glory worthy of his prowess, but from something so simple as a rainstorm and an empty tank of gas.
What. A. Waste. A waste of human life. A waste of soul and grit. A waste of a clever, curious mind that could have changed the world in its own unique way. That’s all that war is. It’s all it does. It burns and destroys and it lays waste. Snuffing out the flames of the Albert Balls of the world, and it is so painfully unfair.
In the face of the grave crime against nature and humanity that is war, I often feel helpless and afraid. Especially when modern day people and politicians rattle their sabers and wave their guns. It makes me feel sickened, horrified, pinned down. I literally freeze up with an utterly powerless feeling….
Until I pick up my pen. It’s the only way I know to get moving. By telling stories like Albert Ball’s, maybe we can remember him and all the others. We can see how much better they all deserved. And then maybe, just maybe, we can make a small bit of difference in preventing another wasteful war.
“They Fought for the Sky” – Q. Reynolds
“The First Air War” – L. Kennett
“The Canvas Falcons” – S. Longstreet
“Knights of the Air” – TimeLife Books
“Sagittarius Rising” – C. A. Lewis
Albert Ball picture photographed in “They Fought for the Sky” – Q. Reynolds
All other photos by M.B. Henry – for more from England/Europe, click here.
For reading about Germany’s most famous WWI Ace, the Red Baron, click here.
My apologies for being so off and on with this blog lately, it’s been an incredibly busy start to 2022 with my debut novel coming out in just a few months! And boy was it a wonderful day when my advance copies arrived in the mail. What a thrill holding this baby in my hands after everything I’ve put in to get it here. For more information about my book, and to pre-order a copy, click here!