Recollections of Captain Albert Ball V.C. DSO. (Two Bars) MC
Croix Dd Chevalier, Legion D’Honneur, Russian Order of St. George
By Douglas Whetton
“And this is all that is left of it!
Only a moment, a moment of strength,
of romance, of glamour - of youth!
A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore,
the time to remember.” (Josef Conrad)
on that rain shrouded evening in May, 1917, gave a most interesting an certainly a most personal memory of Albert Ball while he was in France in 1916. Most of us in No. 11 Squadron know Albert Ball by sight, but few, if any, had spoken to him. He prowled around, wandered into sheds, watched engines being decoked and aircraft re-rigged, he smiled when spoken to , but said little, and generally disappeared after working hours.
He was a dark haired youngster, with eyes to match, and on the rare occasions when I had conversations with him during his first fortnight with the squadron, I was surprised to find so much serious thinking going on in such a youthful head.
He could fly not brilliantly, but certainly above average, and his first attempt on one of our Bristol Scouts showed him to be worth watching.
One evening in May 1919, I was speaking to the Flight Sergeant who explained that three of his men were on late shift working with ‘Mr Ball’ on ‘Mr Ball’s machine’, so I strolled across the field, and found Albert Ball’s Bristol Scout propped up in a flying position about 40 yards from the firing range, Ball’s small black head protruding from the cockpit. “Just got it I think he remarked, seeing me approach. “I’ll try her once again, and then pack up.” The engine started, and Ball proceeded to disarrange a group of targets with twenty-five rounds from his single Vickers 303 machine gun. Then he switched off and turning to the Flight Sergeant who had joined us. “I shall be taking her up at 7 am Flight Sergeant. Will you see she is brought round at six sharp, I say do you know anything about spring onions?” This last remark was addressed to me, and I hastened to assure him, as he climbed from the cockpit, that my knowledge of onions, spring or otherwise was very limited indeed. ‘I was wondering whether it is too late for seeding, I saw some in Bethune yesterday. If you are interested I will show you where I though of putting them, as soon as I have seen the machine put to bed, don’t forget the wheel chocks, Corporal.”
It was to dark to study the horticulture by the time we had seen the Bristol Scout tucked up for the night, and I left Ball candle silhouetted against the wall of the bell tent, effecting a lightning change for dinner.
He showed me his garden the next day, he has by then returned from his early morning patrol having shot down an Albatros two-seater . As we discussed the fight we admired the 4 inch green peas, and the cucumber and marrow plants just coming through. Ball had not one good word to say for his expenditure of one hundred and twenty rounds of ammunition, the price he had paid, not including the loss of 9,000 feet of height, and a severe attack of engine trouble for the destruction of one Albatros two-seater.
Looking back, I can trace to that afternoon in his kitchen garden, the genesis of the Albert Ball method. “Manoeuvre for the other man’s blind spot, hold your fire until you are on the point of colliding and then hose him.” There was something else about Ball that is perhaps unnecessary to add, and yet it has more importance than one may casually attach to it; I am referring to his astonishing keenness, which used to get him from bed while it was still dark, in order to make some adjustment on his machine, his engine, or his gun sights, in readiness for the day’s work.
During 1916, Ball had a short period of the dangerous game of spy-dropping. One incident occurred in July, 1916 when Ball was flying B.E.2e’s with No 8 Squadron and feeling thoroughly annoyed at having been transferred from No 11 Squadron and his Nieuport Scout . In the hope that his action would gain his return to No 11 he volunteered to land a spy behind the German lines. In the records of No 8 Squadron the name of the secret agent is given as “M. Victor” and it is shown that he had twice been taken over the lines by Lieutenant Clarke on July 19th and July 22nd, but on both occasions mist and low cloud had made a landing impossible, and they had been obliged to return.
Ball was to make the third attempt, starting at eight o’clock on the evening of July 26th 1916, crossing the lines at dusk Ball was attacked by three Fokkers but managed to dodge these, and flying deeper into enemy territory was then fired on by archie, in the form of flaming onion type tracers. Ball managed to find the landing ground and started down but when he landed the agent refused to get out and Ball still accompanied by his unwilling passenger returned to the aerodrome at 9.50 that night, although his anger at the agent’s reluctance to go is understandable is view of the risks he had run in getting the agent across the lines, there is also something to be said on the agent’s part. No doubt he felt that the reception they had been given both in the air and from the ground had so aroused the countryside that he would have little chance of getting away undetected. And since the penalty of capture was death, he could hardly be blamed for preferring a less-heralded arrival in enemy territory.
However, the flight had the desired effect for Ball. General Higgins visited the aerodrome next day to convey General Trenchard’s praise for his gallant effort and less than a fortnight later, Ball was back with No 11 Squadron.
From Royal Flying Corps Communique Number 38.
Second Lieutenant A Ball on a Nieuport Scout of No 11 Squadron attacked a Roland at 6,000 feet over Moyenneville. He dived from 10,000 feet firing half a drum of Lewis at 30 yards range. The enemy machine was last seen diving vertically. Shortly afterwards he sighted an L.V.G. and two Fokkers. He turned towards them, climbing and awaiting an opportunity. Meanwhile the two Fokkers approached joined by two more. The L.V.G. then left its escort, coming over Oppy. Second Lieutenant Ball dived, firing half a drum at 50 yards range. Getting clear he changed the drum and again attacked the machine, forcing it to land. The escort of Fokkers were last seen making for Douai.
In August 1916, he joined No 60 Squadron , these months (August and September) saw Ball at his best, for it was during these months that he showed the Royal Flying Corps what fighting in the air really meant. It was while with 60 squadron that he obtained a gramophone, a favourite record of his being Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”. Sergeant-Major A.A. Nicod who was also with the squadron carried a number of Captain Ball’s records with him after Captain Ball had left for England, but he lost the majority of these at Beckendorf Aerodrome in 1919.
Flight Sergeant Sharp remembers making a model of a Nieuport Scout for Captain Ball, but said “Ball went west” before it was finished. As an engine fitter with 60 squadron, Flight Sergeant Sharp also remembers an experiment tried out on Captain Ball’s Nieuport, this was a horn type super-charger fitted to catch the propeller slipstream, this produced more revs, but was condemned as the engine might rev itself to pieces.
Roderic Hill recalled seeing Ball pottering round his garden, and sympathised with him when Bessie the squadron goat trampled all over the plants.
Back in England during October 1916 Ball paid a call on No 39 Home Defence Squadron which was stationed at Suttons Farm, Hornchurch, Essex.
A Mr Mills who was with No 39 Squadron at the time and who still lives at Woodford Green, Essex, said in a letter to the author “I cannot remember much of the visit, but I do recall he was dark haired young man.” The winter of 1916 proved to be something of a winter of discontent for Captain Ball, he felt that he should be back in France, and tried with little success to get out again.
Whether or not he had some premonition that this was to be his last leave, or whether is was merely the working of an orderly mind is uncertain, but he left all he possessed carefully covered with paper in his chest of drawers, and on each pile of clothes and belonging he wrote “Please do not do anything unless asked to do so”. his letters he carefully tied with red ribbon.
In 1917 he paid a visit to his old school, Donald Hoole, an old boy at Trent in 1917 in a letter to the author said
“I don’t remember many details of the late Albert Ball VC but I do remember that he visited the school shortly
before he lost his life: this would be late in the spring term of 1917 or early in the summer term following.
He had lunch at the high table with the masters and when the school gave him three hefty cheers he had nothing to say! In spite of his heroic exploits up to that time he was quite overcome with emotion, and what he had to say was repeated by the Headmaster *the late J. Tucker) and I don’t think it amounted to say more than the comment “I’d sooner meet a Hun in the air than all this” which was only heard by the Head on whose right he was sitting.
I had seven Uncles at Trent and three brothers. My youngest uncle would have been a contemporary of Albert Ball, although slightly younger. Mrs Anderson (the late Captain Bell’s sister) has one very vivid memory of her brother, of him coming into her bedroom and saying “Lol, you don't know what it is like over there, I must get back”.
Before leaving Nottingham for London Colney to join 56 Squadron, Captain Ball was presented with a black velvet cat by a Nottingham School girl, and this he carried for a time while he was with 56 Squadron in France.
C A Lewis remembers “Another last night in England April 6th 1917 the Squadron had taken rooms in a small hotel at Radlett. That last evening we all sat down to a cheerful dinner, we could hear the dance band and the sound of the music came clearly into the room” Poor Butterfly in the Shadows waiting” I think it said all we had in our minds that night.”
On April 7th the squadron took off for France. Because of my many trips across the Channel and my knowledge of the French aerodrome we were going to, the honour of leading the squadron fell to me. I fixed the leader’s streamers to my rudder, and on the Major’s signal led the way across the aerodrome, followed by the others in single file, turned into wind and took off. Waving to our friends below as we climbed away, Captain Ball was the last to leave.”
In the few days in which Captain Ball had been over the front, he realised the change that had taken place in aerial tactics since the end of 1916. It was a bold man who took to the sky alone, and it was only those who were excellent shots, highly skilled in manoeuvre and thoroughly experienced in aerial tactics who could hope to survive solitary expeditions over the enemy lines.
Lieutenant C A Lewis said Ball never flew for pleasure and never indulged in aerobatics, his tactics were point blank, going right in, sometimes to within a few yards of the enemy, without the slightest hesitation. He never boasted or criticised, but his example was tremendous.
‘I remember one day in April 1917 I saw him coming into land, holding the SE 5 off and floating, most unlike his usual touchdown. When he taxied in the nose of the aircraft was covered with oil, so were his face and goggles. There were bullet holes all round the cockpit and the elevator controls had been completely shot away. It was a shambles. However, somehow or other he had managed to extricate himself from the fight which had pt him into a power spin. Centralising everything he converted this into a dive and from this back to normal flying by winding back the tail trimmer. Then he had flown the aircraft back to base. To use the trimmer as an elevator most of us would have said was impossible, the lag in the response would have been too great; but somehow Ball had managed it.
Characteristically he hardly spoke of it as we gathered round, for as soon as we saw the machine we knew that to get it back in that condition called for exceptional skill. He turned away, calling for a fitter to bring a rag to get the oil from his face an goggles, walked over to the adjutant’s hut to make out his combat report and within half an hour was in the air again in his Nieuport Scout.’
Lieutenant Roger M Chaworth-Musters, the officer killed in the same action as Captain Ball in one of his last letters from France said:
“My dear Mum Thanks very much for your letter. My kit has not yet arrived, but I am moving into a hut today and hope to be fairly comfortable but am afraid it will be frightfully hot later on as the huts are right by the side of the road so we shall get the benefit of the dust. It is a real summer day here today and we shall soon begin to complain of the heat for a change. Although the weather has been favourable for aerial activity lately I am afraid I have not one my share. A new flight Commander has arrived and he is sharing my machine with me. The sharing is mostly on his side however and I have not had much to do. There has been a good deal of scrapping however and we are doing pretty well. Captain Ball is surpassing his previous efforts and has already accounted for about six more Huns off his own bat.He came back the other day with a huge hole right through the tail of the machine. The shell had carried away all his elevator controls except one strand of one wire with which he managed to bring the machine home. He got out and immediately got into another machine and was off again! He really is a marvel. He always comes back with his machine absolutely riddled with bullets.You would not say the Huns had gone back voluntarily or according to plan if you saw the number of shell holes which absolutely cover the country in the places they have left.I hope I shall have some exciting experiences of my own to tell you next time I write but must stop now.I am very happy out here now and would much rather be here than at some aerodrome in England. Love to Joan and Dad. Your affectionate son Roger ”
Captains Ball’s own letters from France in the three weeks before he was killed give a clear impression of the pressure he was under, one dated April 23rd 1917 begins:
“Dearest People Am so fagged tonight, but I feel I must send you a line and thank you for all your topping letters.
We did our first two real jobs today and I got two Huns, one I crashed, and the other I set on fire.I had six fight altogeather. One of the Huns I got in my Nieuport, and one with my S.E. My own machines were badly hit about,
and are having new planes tonight. Well now I am on a job at 5 am, so simply must sleep.Cheer ‘Oh!’ and I do
hope that I shall soon get in a real good letter. Tons of Love Albert.”
Another letter this one dated April 29th 1917.
“Dearest People Just a line for I am so fagged.April 26th evening.Attached four lots of Huns with five in each group. Brought two down, and had to get back without ammunition when dark. April 28th. Went out with my four officers. Had four fights, and got one Hun. One of my chaps brought down crashed, and in the end all my controls were shot away, but I got back.Simply must close now for I am so fagged. General Trenchard came today and congratulated me. Cheer Oh! Tons of Love Albert”
The need for frequent leave for pilots under constant pressure of aerial action was not fully appreciated for sometime, pilots could not be expected to carry on under the relentless build up of air fighting, but it was only after the widespread toll of R.F.C. aircrew during April 1917, that a decision was at last made to return pilots to Home Establishment for a rest period. A letter dated May 3rd 1917;
“Dearest People Am so sorry that I am not sending you all the letters you so well deserve, but my dear people, It is quite impossible, but am doing all I can. My total up to last night, was 38. I got two last night.
Oh! it was topping fight. About twenty of the Huns and fifteen of ours. Well, not I will tell you just why I don’t get a chance to write. First of all a few days ago, all my controls were shot away on my S.E.5. But I got the Hun that did it. That machine had to go tot he doctors, and is still there, but it will be finished soon. Secondly I got a new S.E. but it is now out of order, and I am now at the doctors with it. It is all trouble, and is so getting on my mind, am feeling so old just now.”
Alberts last letter to his sister Lois, written the day before he died:
"Received your topping letter, & cake. It is good of you to think of me so much. Well I made (shot down) my 42nd Hun yesterday, so am now four in front of the French." Albert then tells how his name failed to be drawn out of a hat and so he was not offered leave. "I came last. It seems a bit hard, for all the other chaps are new, & have not been out before, also they have not got any Huns. But Lol, it was a sporting chance, & all is O.K."
At 5.30 pm on the evening of May 7th 1917, eleven S.E.5’s took off in a fine drizzle and low cloud to patrol the area of Douai and Cambrai. The S.E.5’s in three flights lead by Captain Ball, C.M. Crowe and H. Meintjes, crossed the trenches at a point south of the Bapaume Cambrai road, and then split up into tiers, the lowest formation being that of Captain Ball.
Over Bourlon Wood, the formation ran into heavy cloud, and as this was being left behind, the whole formation was attacked by a formation of five Albatros D. 3 scouts from Jagdstaffel 11 , lead by
Lothar Von Richthofen.
Lieutenant R.M. Chaworth-Musters was an early casualty, Rhys-Davids noticed him leaving the formation making a wide circling turn apparently in pursuit of a machine, but whether this was hostile or friendly Rhys-Davids could not tell.
Some 500 feet under the main formation which was rapidly breading up under the German attack, Chaworth-Musters was attacked by Karl Allmenroder, and at such a disadvantage, had little chance, the S.E.5 fell away, an aileron came off and spinning it disappeared into the gathering darkness, to crash just off the main Arra to Henin Lietard Road.
Patrolling in poor visibility Captain Ball was flying towards Lens, Crowe over Fresnoy saw Ball S.E. 5 and turned to follow, soon to see him fire two rd Very lights and head for Loos, after some searching by Crowe he saw that Ball was diving on a single red Albatros, Ball opened fire with his Vickers, and as he turned away in a climbing turn Crowe followed in the attack, firing at close range. Then as Crowe pulled out Ball renewed his attack.
A Spad of No 19 Squadron, piloted by Lieutenant J.M. Child also fired at the Albatros from extreme range. Further away and above Ball’s S.E.5 there was a Sopwith Triplane, but the pilot did not enter the fight, for almost at once Ball and the Albatros went eastward still fighting and disappeared into a heavy bank of cloud.
Crowe followed, but when he came through the cloud he could see nothing of Ball or the German fighter, the light was now very bad. Captain Crowe returned to the British side of the lines, landing at No 8 (Naval)Squadron at 8.15. The Sopwith Triplane was piloted by Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Rhys Soar, of No 8 (Naval) Squadron, the author had the opportunity of seeing F/S/Lt Soar’s Pilot’s Flying book, and noted the entry for May 7th 1917.
Date and Hour Wind Direction Machine No Time in Air Course Remarks Monday May 7th 1917 East. 1 to 2 miles Triplane. No. 6292“Lily” 100 minutes Douai Offensive Patrol. Enemy aircraft and SE5 going East into cloud.
And so after three weeks of heavy fighting, in the fading light of a May evening Captain Ball disappeared through the face of a white cloud and a little before 8.25 pm his SE 5 came out of a low cloud upside down and in that position crashed into the rising ground near the village of Annouellin.
Honoured in life by his own country, in death the Germans buried him with full military honours. His Victoria Cross and Croix de Chevalier, Legion d’Honneur were posthumous.
A letter from Lieutenant W Wood to his parents written on May 19h 1917, refers to the loss of Captain Ball, he says “Hard luck on Captain Ball, was it not? he put up a glorious fight, a fight that should be written in red letters when the history of the war is published. I met him, he was only a little chap, and the jolliest and most modest little fellow imaginable. But he could not possibly go on forever.”
Whatever is said now about Albert Ball one thing is certain, and that is that he justified his faith in himself.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The Author would like to thank the following for help and interest in the prep of this article. Mrs Lois B Anderson for her interest and permission to quote from her brothers letters.
Mrs Joan Harrison for permission to use Lieutenant Roger Michael Chaworth-Musters letter.
Captain C.M.Crowe and C.A. Lewis for memories of Captain Ball.
General der Flieger Karl bodenschatx Adjutant of Richthofen’s Jadgeschwader.
Bavarian War Archive. for interest, but who could not help, since the records relating to Captain Ball’s death had with other records of the period been lost due to Allied bombing in World War II.
Second Lieutenant A. Cropper, Wiltshire Regiment and Royal Flying Corps. Died of wounds received in aerial combat on October 22nd 1916. He was the younger son of the Reverend C.H.E. Cropper, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Clifton, Nottingham. At the time of his death he was 19 years of age. On Sunday October 22nd 1916 the last fine day of the month, enemy aircraft made full use of the opportunity to press their attacks on British reconnaissance machines.
Two F.E. 2b’s of No 22 Squadron while patrolling behind the German front line in the vicinity of Ballieu were attacked by three German Albatros D.2. fighters. Second Lieutenant Cropper in attempting to defend his companion machine was hit in the thigh by an explosive bullet. He got his aircraft back to the nearest British aerodrome and safely landed his observer, but himself died as soon as he reached the casualty clearing station, the companion aircraft he had tried to save was shot down at Balieu by Leutnant Han Immelmann of Jagdstaffel.2 (Boellcke).
Lieutenant Cyril Ball
Sherwood Foresters and Royal Flying Corps. No 35 Squadron and No 60 Squadron RFC and RAF. Captain Ball tried without success to get his brother posted to 56 Squadron at London Colney, and in a letter to his father dated March 14th 1917 says “Well now I am on Cyril’s tracks and hope to get him into my Squadron, I am giving my word that he could fly the S.E.5. and the Colonel is going to write for me, and see what he can do. I bet I shall manage it when I get out.”
But a further letter to his father dated March 22nd 1917 betrays his fears both for his brother and the Royal Flying Corps in general.
“Oh! I do feel so happy to think that I have got Cyril from France. Things are getting bad just now and I am afraid we shall all get a hotting up this time. The Hun RFC is far ahead of us this time, in fact about 30 MPH. Oh! I do wish I had got a Nieuport, and above all I wish I had my own machine The S.E.5. has turned out a dud. Its speed is only about Nieuport speed, and it is not so fast in getting up. It is a great shame for everyone thinks they are so good and expects such a lot from them. Well I am making the best of a bad job. If Austin will not buck up and finish the machine for me, I shall have to go out on the S.E.5. and do my best.
I am getting one ready. I am taking one gun off, in order to take off weight, also I am lowering the windscreen, in order to take off head resistance, a great many things I am taking off in the hopes that I shall get a little better control and speed. but it is a rotten machine, and if Austin’s machine is not finished I am afraid things will not go very OK.”
Ball’s fears for the Royal Flying Corps were soon realized, and although he came to accept the S.E.5. for a machine capable of taking heavy punishment, I do not believe that he was completely happy with it. He was anxious for Cyril, and after his own encounters with German fighter aircraft in April 1917 he tried to arrange a posting for his brother to a Spad Squadron, since he considered the Spad to be the only aircraft then available capable of meeting the Germans on equal terms.
Cyril Ball went to No 60 Squadron in January 1918, flying SE.5A’s. Major AJ.L. Scott, Commanding Officer said of Cyril Ball “He was a promising young Officer, but he did not have the opportunity of getting into his stride, before he was shot down.”
On February 5th 1918 after being in combat with an Albatros D.5 scout, which he sent down out of control, he came under fire of German anti-aircraft batteries, and was shot down behind the German lines. Here he was forced to march some six miles to a cottage which was being used by the Germans for interrogation.
He was kept three days in a small room with little but read and water for food, until two officers from a German Jagdstaffel came to pick him up.
He was then sent to Inglemunster, and from there was transferred to Courtrai, and thence to Ghent. It was not until he arrived at Karlsruhe, that he had his first decent meal, he was finally sent to Prussia. Conditions for British Officers were anything but pleasant and the food with the exception of stew, was not often forthcoming, hospital treatment too was very poor. Lieutenant Ball was repatriated on December 14th 1918.
Both Second Lieutenant Cropper and Lieutenant Cyril Ball were pupils at Trent College. A cross commemorating Cropper hangs in the chapel, and his name is among those on the chancel war memorial.