The Making of Billy Bishop

Description

232 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
$29.99
ISBN 1-55002-390-X
DDC 940.4'4971'092

Publisher

Year

2002

Contributor

Reviewed by Dave Bennett

David Bennett is the national director of the Department of Workplace Health, Safety and Environment at the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa.

Review

Billy Bishop, VC, DSO, DFC, MC, was Canada’s premier air ace in World
War I and among the greatest military fliers of all time. He was
credited with 72 victories, including a solo raid on a German airfield
on June 2, 1917, which earned him the Victoria Cross. Bishop was a
skilled flier, extraordinarily brave, charismatic, and an excellent
shot. He was also egotistical, hyperambitious, and “not really very
likeable at all.”

Doubts about Bishop’s war record have grown in recent decades,
culminating in the work of the late Phil Markham, whose scholarship
Brereton Greenhous warmly acknowledges. Many of Bishop’s victories
were solo flights that were not witnessed. The German records do not
corroborate Bishop’s claims and in a few cases they flatly contradict
them. Greenhous goes much further than previous critics in contending
that Bishop was a consummate liar and a fraud. He infers from the
verifiable facts that only 27 of Bishop’s 72 victories were genuine
(even here, Bishop gets the benefit of the doubt) and that the raid of
June 2, 1917 never happened. Bishop’s “ambitious imagination” was
encouraged by the authorities, who needed a hero to restore morale after
“Bloody April” 1917.

It would be tempting to see Greenhous’s book as revisionist history
in which the motive or the effect is to debunk existing interpretations
or public perception of historical events. There is, after all, a
small-minded and intolerant streak in Canadian society, in which any
challenge to conventional wisdom is met by a horde of indignant critics
rushing into print, Senate hearings, and threats of lawsuits. This
temptation should be resisted. Greenhous’s work is a straightforward
piece of historical detective work, to be met by scholarly criticism,
not public bluster. He not only displays great technical knowledge of
World War I flying operations but has produced a convincing picture of
the social and military culture of the Royal Flying Corps, of which in
1917 a quarter of the pilots were Canadian, rising to a third in 1918.
It is unlikely that Bishop’s reputation will recover from The Making
of Billy Bishop.

Citation

Greenhous, Brereton., “The Making of Billy Bishop,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 24, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/9657.