Albert Ball VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC (14 August 1896 - 7 May 1917) was an English First World War fighter pilot and recipient of the Victoria Cross. At the time of his death, he was the leading Allied ace with 44 victories and only trailed the Germans' top ace, Manfred Von Richthofen. He ended up tied for 11th place with Captain J. Gillmore in the top 20 World War One pilots in the British Empire.
Born in Lenton, Nottingham, the son of a successful businessman, Ball was educated at The King's School, Grantham, Nottingham High School and Trent College. He was expelled from the High School but then went on to Trent College where he showed only average scholastic ability, but displayed a natural curiosity for mechanical things. Ball joined the 7th (Robin Hood) Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (The Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) at the start of the First World War. While in England, he took private flying lessons at Hendon where his interests in engineering and reclusion found a natural outlet. He was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 and trained at Norwich, but was then sent to the RFC Central Flying School where he was awarded his wings on 26 January 1916. He was sent to France three weeks later, to No. 13 Squadron RFC, flying the B.E.2c. On occasion, he managed to pilot the squadron's single seat Bristol Scout, finding the freedom of independent operations far more to his liking. His aggressive fighting spirit was actively encouraged by his commanding officer. In May 1916, he was posted to 11 Squadron, flying a mix of F.E.2bs and Nieuport 11 single-seater biplanes.
Transferring with part of 11 Squadron to No. 60 Squadron RFC in August (and now flying the improved Nieuport 17), the rest of 1916 saw Ball make steady claims for German aircraft shot down. Ball primarily fought as a 'lone-wolf', carefully stalking his prey from below until he was close enough to pull down his top-wing mounted Lewis gun on its Foster mounting and fire upwards into the belly of the enemy's fuselage.
On the ground Ball was very much a loner, too, preferring to live in his own hut away from the other squadron members. He spent his off-duty hours tending his small allotment garden and practicing the violin.
He was awarded his first decoration, the Military Cross, on 27 June 1916. By October, Ball had become the first person in the British Army to be awarded a DSO with two bars. By mid-October, Ball was sent to England for a well-earned rest. Now a reticent national hero with a reputation as a fearless pilot and first-class marksman, the young aviator had destroyed 13 aircraft (including one balloon), sent one aircraft 'down out of control' and forced a further 19 to land. He then became flight commander in the newly formed No. 56 Squadron RFC, which was the first unit equipped with the new S.E.5 scout. Ball considered the aircraft under-developed, and was allowed to retain a Nieuport 17 for his own use when the squadron went to France in April 1917. His custom S.E.5 was - on his orders - extensively modified, with both the cockpit 'greenhouse' and Vickers machine gun removed and the windscreen lowered to improve speed and performance. Ball's aircraft was easy to recognise, as he had a red propeller boss from an LVG he had shot down fitted to his aircraft.
2nd Lt. Albert Ball, 7th Bn. Notts. & Derby. R., T.F., and R.F.C.
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 has done 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.
Supplement to the London Gazette, 27 July 1916
2nd Lt. (temp. Lt.) Albert Ball, M.C., Notts. & Derby. R. and R.F.C.
For conspicuous gallantry and skill. Observing seven enemy machines 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 10 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, when it landed on the top of a house. He then went to the nearest aerodrome for more ammunition, and, returning, attacked 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.
Supplement to the London Gazette, 26 September 1916
Lt. Albert Ball, D.S.O., Notts. & Derby R. and R.F.C.
For conspicuous skill and gallantry. When on escort duty to a bombing raid he saw four enemy machines in formation. He dived on to 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 12 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.
Supplement to the London Gazette, 26 September 1916
2nd Lt. (temp. Capt.) Albert Ball, D.S.O., M.C., Notts. & Derby. R.
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.
Supplement to the London Gazette, 25 November 1916
Lt. (temp. Capt.) Albert Ball, D.S.O., M.C., late Notts. and Derby. R., and R.F.C.
For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from the 25th of April to the 6th of 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 several 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 exceptional courage, determination and skill.
Supplement to the London Gazette, 8 June 1917
On the evening of 7 May near Douai, eleven British aircraft from No. 56 Squadron RFC, including Albert Ball, encountered German fighters from Jasta 11. A running battle was fought in deteriorating visibility, and the aircraft became scattered. Both Lothar von Richthofen and Ball crashed behind German lines. Ball was killed, but von Richthofen survived and was credited by the Germans with shooting Ball down. There is however some doubt as to exactly what happened, especially as Lothar von Richthofen's victory claim was for a Sopwith Triplane rather than an S.E.5, as flown by Ball at this time (the two types are very unlikely to be confused). German propaganda of the time made great play of German aerial aces, and von Richthofen may even have been ordered to make the claim. It is just possible that Ball was not shot down at all, but became disoriented and lost control, a victim of a form of temporary vertigo that has claimed other pilots since, or that he was shot down, but by a less famous German pilot. It is unlikely we will ever know for certain. Cecil Lewis was in this fight and described it in his memoir Sagittarius Rising.
Ball's official tally of claims was 1 balloon, 27 and 1 shared aircraft destroyed, 6 'out of control', and 9 'forced to land'.
Won't it be nice when all this beastly killing is over, and we can enjoy ourselves and not hurt anyone? I hate this game.
The S.E.5 has turned out a dud. It's a great shame, for everybody expects such a lot from them. It is a rotten machine.
I do not think anything bad about the German. He is just a poor chap with very little guts, trying to do his best. Nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down.