...he was only a little chap, and the jolliest and most modest little fellow imaginable.
- Lt W Wood
Captain Albert Ball, VC, DSO (two bars), MC, Russian Order of St George (fourth class), Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, was an English fighter ace of World War I who claimed 44 official victories1 over enemy aircraft in his short career. His successes at the Western Front made him popular with the British public, particularly citizens of his home county of Nottinghamshire, who found in him the characteristics of a chivalrous 'knight of the sky'. His opponents in the air matched this respect, for when he fatally crashed to the ground near the small French town of Annoeulin, in enemy territory, he was carried the half-mile or so from the crash site and buried with full military honours.
Ball was born on 14 August, 1896, in Nottingham. Ball's father (also Albert) began his working life as an apprentice and later became a partner in his father George's plumbing business in Willoughby Street, Lenton, Nottingham. The business did well, having two shops in the Lenton area and another in the city centre. In 1890, Albert Ball Sr left the plumbing trade to begin a very successful career as an estate agent. The Ball family changed residence over the years, before finally settling at Sedgley House, 43 Lenton Road. It was here that Albert, his brother Cyril and sister Lois grew up - their father becoming an alderman, and later the Mayor of Nottingham.
Ball began his schooling at Lenton Church School. From here, he went to Grantham Grammar School, before quickly transferring to Nottingham High School. His education continued at Trent College in Long Eaton when he was 14 years old. An average student, he preferred the arts to science - excelling in photography, carpentry, playing the violin and modelling in wood and metal. His aptitude for engineering was encouraged by his parents. When he left school in 1913, Ball began work at the Universal Engineering Works on Castle Boulevard, Nottingham.
The War to End all Wars
On 4 August, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany and 18-year-old Ball enlisted with the 1st Platoon, 2/7 Battalion (Robin Hoods), Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Rifles on 21 September. Within days of enlisting he was promoted to sergeant, and then second lieutenant, principally because of his time in the Officers Training Corps at Trent College. Due to this, Ball spent the first year of his service training new recruits, and became frustrated with not getting out to the Front. This frustration saw him join the North Midlands Divisional Cyclists' Company in 1915. However, by June that year he was packed off to Perivale in Middlesex for platoon officer training.
As fate would have it, Hendon aerodrome was a mere four miles from Perivale, so, with his hopes pinned on joining the fledgling Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Ball took up flying lessons. He became a member of the Ruffy-Baumann School, paying through the nose for private tuition at a rate of about £75, a small fortune at that time. This education would then enable him to obtain the much-needed Royal Aero Club pilot certificate - a piece of paper that every young man who dreamed of soaring into the sky needed in order to join the RFC.
Per Ardua Ad Astra2
On 15 October, 1915, Ball obtained Royal Aero Club certificate number 1898 and requested a transfer to the RFC. This was granted and he arrived at 9 Reserve Squadron at Norwich on 23 October, and then went on to the Central Flying School at Upavon on 19 December. Ball was an average pilot by all accounts, but was awarded his pilot's wings on 26 January, 1916.
On 18 February, 1916, he was posted to 13 Squadron at Marieux, France, flying two-seater reconnaissance aircraft - the Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c. He was soon fully occupied with patrols, artillery shoots and photographic missions, and took time out to learn the art of the perfect crash landing, as the BE2c was a difficult aircraft to master.
Ball was keen to fly fighters and on occasion would take to the air in one of 13 Squadron's single-seaters, the Bristol Scout. It was in this aircraft that Ball shot down his first enemy plane, a two-seat reconnaissance machine, the Albatros CI. His commanding officer encouraged his voracity for aerial combat and on 7 May, 1916 he was transferred to 11 Squadron to fly French-made fighter the Nieuport 17. It was a marriage that proved to bring out the best in both Ball and the tiny fighter plane.
Over the following months he scored many victories in it. His desire for combat was so great he even built himself a small wooden hut next to the aircraft hangar so that he could be airborne almost immediately. Ball was at times known to run to his machine in just his pyjamas and overcoat in order to get into the air for action!
An Ace Attack
Manoeuvre for the other man's blind spot, hold your fire until you are on the point of colliding and then hose him.
Ball quickly developed his own method of taking down enemy aircraft. The Nieuport Scout was equipped with a Lewis type machine-gun on its upper wing. This could be moved from the horizontal position (firing forwards above the propeller) to an almost 90-degree position - firing upwards above the pilot's head. Ball found that his best method of attack was to pull in behind a flight of enemy aircraft and attack the last aircraft in formation. He would slip his own plane underneath the enemy and fire his Lewis gun upwards into the belly of the opposing plane. He became so proficient at this that he was able to reload the machine-gun while steadying his own plane's control stick between his knees - all in a matter of seconds. Preferring to attack enemy aircraft alone, he told of his combat exploits in one of many letters to his parents:
Oh it was a good fight, and the Huns were fine sports. One tried to ram me after he was hit and only missed by inches.
Pilot, Gardener, Engineer, Musician - Celebrity
As in the air, Ball very much kept to himself when on terra firma. His spare moments were spent tending to a small garden he had grown around his little hut by the aerodrome, taking time out with Lewis gun target practice, or generally pottering about with his aircraft.
Ball was short with jet-black hair, and photographed well, so the British and Allied press loved him. But many found Ball to be quite humourless, and very religious - believing it was God's will that the enemy be killed. But he was sociable when he needed to be. There were many reports of him being heard asking about the best time of year to seed spring onions, or giving advice on tactics, or playing his violin by red flare light in just his pyjamas, much to the amusement of his colleagues. And he had a penchant for chocolate that was unmatched by any other member of his squadron!
It was perhaps his solitude that kept him sane as his kill-rate soared to 14. He even received the military cross for destroying an observation balloon, not with bullets but phosphor bombs, on 26 June. Ball's conscience seemed heavy with the idea of all the death about him, though. In another letter to his family he observed:
...am indeed looked after by God, but oh I do get tired of living always to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer. Shall be pleased when I have finished.His superior officers soon felt the young man needed a break, and he was transferred from single-seat fighters back to reconnaissance duties.
On 17 July, 1916, Ball was moved to 8 Squadron at Bellevue to fly the familiar BE2c. This was to supposedly give him a well-earned rest, but more likely to increase his chances of survival. He and his aircraft had become famous, both with the British people and the enemy. But Ball was never far from the action, and felt that if he undertook dangerous missions this would prove to the higher authorities that he was better off back in fighter planes. So he did a little 'spy-dropping'.
Ball volunteered to drop a spy behind the German lines, and 8 Squadron records show he was to take ‘M Victor’ into German territory, drop him off, and return home. The spy had already had two unsuccessful sorties on 19 and 22 July - weather conditions had made landing impossible. So Ball took on the third attempt on 26 July, flying out at dusk. En route, the BE2c he was flying was attacked by a flight of enemy aircraft, and also spotted and fired upon by anti-aircraft emplacements. Ball managed to land the plane in German territory, but the spy refused to dismount! Ball was annoyed, but M Victor no doubt felt his brave pilot had attracted a little too much unwanted attention for him to slip silently away into the night...
Return to the Front
On 14 August, 1916, Ball arrived at 60 Squadron at Isle Le Hamem. It was here that he found himself not only with orders to command 'A Flight' of the squadron but undertake a 'roving seek and destroy the enemy' role. With this official carte blanche Ball was able to not only perform regular squadron missions but take to the air on solo flights to attack enemy targets.
On 22 August, Ball scored a hat-trick3, the first in the RFC, when he downed three German LFG Roland CII reconnaissance aircraft in 45 minutes. His total kills now stood at 17, and he celebrated by purchasing a gramophone. Ball would spend much of his time listening to one of his favourite recordings, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony - and trying to reproduce it on his violin.
Back to Blighty
Over the course of September 1916 through to February 1917, Ball found himself back in England, first on leave, then transferred to training centres to give new recruits the benefit of his experience and wisdom in aerial combat. He received promotions and medals in a steady stream, rising through the ranks to captain. Ball obtained the distinguished service order, the DSO with bar, the DSO with second bar (making him the first serviceman to receive a triple DSO), and the Russian order of St George (fourth class). In addition, he became an honorary freeman of the City of Nottingham on 19 February, 1917.
It was during this time that he became angry at being kept from the Front, first as a flight instructor, then working with the Lewis factory as an adviser to improve the machine-gun. He even had a hand in developing a fighter aircraft with the Austin Motor Company of Birmingham4, but the Air Board was not interested in the Austin-Ball Scout.
Ball continually pestered his superiors, enlisting the help of other fliers such as James McCudden, and even Lord Northcliffe, and was finally 'allowed' to return to active combat duty. Ball was to join 56 Squadron at London Colney on 26 February, 1917. On one last visit to Nottingham to see his family before leaving, a Nottingham schoolgirl presented Ball with a black velvet cat. He carried this for a time while in France.
While Ball was billeted at London Colney awaiting notification to fly out to France, he had a chance meeting with a young girl. A mutual friend of 17-year-old Flora 'Bobs' Young introduced the two of them, and within five minutes Ball had her dressed in a makeshift flying kit and up into the air with him, much to the chagrin of her mother! The pair were nigh-on celebrities, with the local press lauding Ball as a 'A modern Romeo', which was to be not far from the truth.
The couple were engaged at Shenley Church on Maunday Thursday and, while there was no exchange of rings, Ball gave Flora his gold identification disc and she gave him a new one - along with a small bound copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's Prayers Written at Vailima.
Flora had a beautiful singing voice and that evening Ball apparently asked her to sing one of his favourite songs, 'Thank God for a Garden', over and over. On the Saturday morning he left for 56 Squadron, to prepare for what was to be his last flight over the Channel.
France Once More
Captain Ball returned to the Front on 7 April, 1917, when 56 Squadron arrived at Vert Galand. His companions included other ace pilots such as McCudden, Gerald Maxwell and Arthur Rhys-Davids. Disliking the new Royal Aircraft Factory SE5, the squadron's standard mount, Ball said of it in a letter to his parents:
The SE5 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.He continued to fly his Nieuport on solo patrols, but when he added a further 11 kills to his tally when piloting the new SE5 he quickly found it to his liking - although his own machine was heavily modified. The SE5 had an upper-wing-placed Lewis gun like the Nieuport Scout, and a second Vickers machine-gun which Ball promptly removed to make his aircraft lighter. He also discarded the factory-fitted 'greenhouse'-style windscreen. The SE5 had perhaps redeemed itself with Ball, but it would be the last aircraft he would fly.
During the battle of Arras, 56 Squadron was ordered to provide air cover for the Douai and Cambrai sectors. Ball led one formation that went out at 5.30pm on 7 May, 1917, to provide escort for a flight of Sopwith 1½ Strutters. The flight soon met a flying circus of red-and-white painted German Albatros D.III fighters from Jasta 11 - of which the famed Richthofen's Lothar and Manfred5 were members. An air battle of epic proportions ensued. But as darkness crept nearer, due to the fading light and heavy rain clouds, the opposing pilots soon split up and made their way towards their home airfields. Captain Cyril Crowe last saw Ball diving and firing after a red Albatros fighter, whereupon both aircraft vanished into thick clouds.
Eyewitness accounts tell that both aircraft then reappeared from the clouds, the Albatros crashing into the ground and the pilot walking free of the wreckage. But Ball's SE5 plummeted out of control nearby; his aircraft was a wreck. There was no doubt Ball had been killed, but there would be conjecture over the cause of his death. There are three versions of the events of that evening:
- The Albatros that Ball was seen pursuing was piloted by Lothar von Richtofen, who appears to have claimed Ball as one of his victories in his log book after surviving the dog fight6. However, some records show that von Richtofen was on sick leave on the date of the action, and that he claims to have shot down a triplane fighter, which the SE5 was not. There was some suspicion that the German propaganda machine may have had a hand in muddying the facts.
- Ball had become a creature of habit, and there was a clock tower in Annoeulin that he frequently flew by to check the time. After shooting down the Albatros he flew his aircraft (now well-known to the enemy) past the tower, where German machine-gunners lay in wait. As he passed by, they shot him down.
- The last, and possibly most believable, record of events is that Ball and the Albatros continued their dog fight, with Ball forcing it to the ground near a ruined farmhouse. On coming out of a heavy cloud bank to confirm the 'kill', Ball may have found himself disorientated and, being close to the ground, subsequently crashed.
There were indications that Ball had no bullet wounds at the time of death7, and neither did his aircraft. But whether he was shot down or a victim of pilot error will never really be known. As with any 'celebrity' death, rumour and story turn into myth and legend. Regardless of the true facts, the RFC had lost one of its most successful and popular pilots. Ball was buried by the German military with full honours at a war cemetery in Annoeulin on 9 May, 1917 - he was just 20.
Lest we Forget
Once Ball was known to be dead, a memorial service was held at St Mary's Church in Nottingham, and many people paid tribute to the young flier. Nottingham City Council decided to open a subscription fund to provide a memorial. It was not long before there was enough money to commission a statue by the sculptor Henry Poole, which was unveiled in the grounds of Nottingham Castle on 8 September, 1921, by Air Marshal Trenchard. The Castle Museum now holds a special display of Ball's complete medals and paintings, photographs of him, and other items including a pair of his flying gloves, his wristwatch, a bullet-holed windscreen from an SE5 and, somewhat poignantly, the German message container dropped over 56 Squadron's airfield to say Ball had died in combat. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on 8 June, 1917, with the London Gazette recording his achievement:
For the award of the Victoria Cross. Missions over France, 25 April to 6 May 1917,
T / captain Albert Ball, 7th Bn, Sherwood Foresters - Royal Flying Corps.
For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from 25 April to 6 May, 1917, during which period captain Ball took part in 26 combats in the course of which he destroyed 11 hostile aircraft, brought down two out of control and forced several others to land.
In these combats captain 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 in another.
In all, captain Ball has destroyed 43 German aeroplanes and one balloon, and has always displayed most exceptional courage, determination and skill.
Ball's parents received his Victoria Cross from King George V on 22 July, 1917.
His mother was unable to speak of his demise up until her own death in 1931. His father, Sir Albert (knighted for his works with industry and charity), later purchased the land where Ball was buried at Annoeulin, and his grave remains the only one for an allied serviceman in that cemetery. To this day it is still tended by relatives of Cecille Deloffre, a young Frenchwoman who ran to Ball's aid in his final moments.
His loss was a great one; but the splendid spirit which he typified and did so much to foster lives after him. The record of his deeds will ever stir the pride and admiration of his countrymen and act as an example and incentive to those who have taken up his work.
- Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig