After war was declared in 1914 Albert Ball enlisted into the army and served with several units including the Sherwood Foresters and was soon promoted to sergeant and gained his commission as second lieutenant on 20 October. Ball was eager to see action but was assigned to training recruits in England so in the hope of being sent to France he transferred to the North Midlands Cyclist Company, but the company remained in England and he expressed his frustration in a letter to his parents dated 25 February, he wrote, “I have just sent six boys to France and I hear they will be in the firing line on Monday. It is just my luck to be unable to go”.
In March 1915 Ball started taking private flying lessons at Hendon Aerodrome and after qualifying for the Royal Aero Club Certificate, on 15 March 1915 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) and trained at Mousehold Heath Aerodrome near Norwich. He completed his training at the Central Flying School Upavon and was awarded his wings on 22 January 1916 and a week later was officially transferred from the North Midland Cycle Company to the RFC as a pilot.
At the age of 20 Captain Albert Ball became the first celebrity fighter pilot after shooting down 44 enemy aircraft in just one year. He was also the first man during the war to be awarded three DSO’s.
After his first dog fight Ball wrote in one of his letters to his parents:
“I like this job, but nerves do not last long and you soon want a rest…” and in a later letter to his father he discouraged the idea of his youngest brother following him into the RFC.
Albert Ball was described as a ‘lone wolf’ because he mostly flew solo missions and stalked enemy aircraft from below and used an adapted Lewis machine gun to fire upwards into the enemy’s fuselage.
Gun adapted to fire upwards
Although he quickly became a fighter ace and enjoyed aerial combat Ball had no hatred for the enemy and in a letter to his parents he explained, “I only scrap because it is my duty … nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down, but you see it is either them or me, so I must do my duty….”
On his 20th birthday Ball was promoted to temporary Captain.
In another letter to his father Ball wrote, “I get tired of always living to kill and beginning to feel like a murderer… I shall be so glad when I have finished.”
On the evening of 7 May 1917 near Douai, 11 aircraft of No. 56 Squadron RFC led by Albert Ball encountered German fighters from Jasta 11 (Red Baron’s flight). A violent dogfight in deteriorating visibility resulted in all the aircraft being scattered. Cecil Arthur Lewis who took part in the battle described the mass dog fight in his memoir ‘Sagittarius Rising.’
Lewis recalled Ball pursuing a red Albatros D.111 belonging to the ‘Red Barons’ younger brother Lothar von Richthofen who eventually landed near Annoeullin with a punctured fuel tank and Lewis said he last saw Ball flying into a dark thundercloud before disappearing.
In keeping with the propaganda of the period British newspapers claimed after being shot down 20-year-old Albert Ball dyed in the arms of a French girl who had pulled him from the wreckage of his machine and only after the war did several eyewitnesses described what really happened when Ball crashed behind the German lines.
A German pilot on the ground, Lieutenant Hailer saw Ball’s plane falling upside down with a dead propeller from the bottom of a dark cloud at an altitude of 2000 feet.
Brothers Franz and Carl Hailer and two other men in their party were from a German reconnaissance unit and Franz later noted, “it was leaving a cloud of black smoke… caused by oil leaking into the cylinders… The engine had to be inverted for this to happen… The Hispano engine was known to flood its inlet manifold with fuel when upside down and then stop running…”
Franz Hailer and his three companions ran to the crash site and Ball was already dead when they arrived. The three German soldiers said the crashed aircraft had suffered no battle damage and no bullet wounds were found on Ball’s body and a German doctor at a field hospital later said Albert Ball died from a broken neck and a crushed chest. His limbs were also fractured, and his injuries suggest he was killed due to impact with the ground.
Based on these eyewitness accounts It is now considered probable Ball was not shot down but had become disorientated and lost control. This has been described as temporary vertigo which had claimed other pilots. A month after Ball crashed the Germans dropped a message over the British lines announcing he was dead and had been buried in Annoeullin with full military honours.
In 1918 Walter Briscioe and H Russell Stannard published a seminal biography, Captain Ball VC and reprinted many of his letters. They quote Ball’s most notable opponent Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) saying “he considered Ball by far the best English flying man.” The authors also quote an unidentified RFC pilot who fought with Ball during his last battle as saying, “I see they have given him a VC . Of course, he won it a dozen times over; the whole squadron know that.
After the war
After the war British authorities discovered Ball’s grave which had been behind the German lines and the Imperial War Graves Commission (now called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) moved 23 British bodies from graves in the location where Ball was buried to Cabaret Rough British Cemetery, but at his father’s request Ball’s grave was allowed to remain and Ball is the only British grave from WW1 the rest are German soldiers. Ball’s father also bought the French field where his son died and erected a memorial on the crash site.
Award citation Victoria Cross
Lt (temp Captain) Albert Ball, DSO, MC, late Notts and Derby. R. and RFC
For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from 25 of April to the 6th May 1917, during which period Capt. Ball took part in twenty-six combats in the air and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove down two out of control and forced seven others to land.
In these combats Capt. 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 on another.
In all Capt. Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon and has always displayed most excellent courage, determination and skill.
Distinguished Service Order (DSO)
For conspicuous gallantry and skill. Observing seven enemy machines flying in formation, he immediately attacked one of them and shot it down at 15 yards range. The remaining machines retired. Immediately afterwards, seeing five more hostile machines, he attacked one at about ten yards range and shot it down, flames coming out of the fuselage. He then attacked another of the machines which had been firing at him and shot it down into a village, where it landed on the top of a house. He then went to the nearest aerodrome for more ammunition and returned to attack three more machines, causing them to dive under control. Being then short of petrol he came home. His own machine was badly shot about in these fights.
Distinguished Service Order (DSO)Bar
For conspicuous skill and gallantry. When on escort duty to a bombing raid he saw four enemy machines in formation. He dived on them and broke up their formation and then shot down the nearest one, which fell on its nose. He came down to about 500 feet to make certain it was wrecked. On another occasion, observing twelve enemy machines in formation, he dived in among them, and fired a drum into the nearest machine which went down out of control. Several more hostile machines then approached, and he fired three more drums at them, driving down another out of control. He then returned, crossing the lines at a low altitude, with his machine very much damaged.
Distinguished Service Order (DSO) Bar
For conspicuous gallantry in action. He attacked three hostile machines and brought one down, displaying great courage and skill. He has brought down eight hostile machines in a short period and has forced many others to land.
Military Cross (MC)
For conspicuous skill and gallantry on many occasions, notably when, after failing to destroy an enemy kite balloon with bombs, he returned for a fresh supply, went back and brought it down in flames. He also completed great execution among enemy aeroplanes. On one occasion he attacked six in one flight, forced down two and drove the others off. This occurred several miles over the enemy’s lines.