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The Centenary of Captain Albert Ball

21 November 17 words: Gav Squires
photos: Andrew McClymont

2017 marks the centenary of the death of Captain Albert Ball, an English fighter pilot made famous during the First World War. After snapping some of the hidden Notts monuments dedicated to the historical figure, we took a look back at probably the most famous person not to have their name on a Nottingham tram; a man that the legendary Red Baron described as “by far, the best English flying man”...

Born in 1896 in Lenton Boulevard, the son of a future Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Albert went on to Lenton Church School, Grantham Grammar School, Nottingham High School and Trent College. As a boy, he conducted target practice in the garden of his family home where he became a crack shot and, already displaying an adventurous side, he’d go steeplejacking.

When war broke out in 1914, he signed up with the Robin Hood Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, who went on to fight at Passchendaele. By the end of October, he’d received his commission as a second lieutenant and the following year he transferred to the North Midlands Cyclist Company with hopes of getting posted to France.

He started taking flying lessons while stationed at the unit, and by October he’d qualified for his Royal Aero Club certificate. A week later, he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (the predecessor to the RAF) and in January 1916 he was awarded his wings. He started by flying reconnaissance missions but was shot down just over a month later, although it wasn’t long before he was assigned to the fighter squadron. A little over a week after that, he downed his first German reconnaissance aircraft, and a month later, he was declared an “ace” after scoring his fifth “victory”.

On his twentieth birthday, he was promoted to temporary captain and celebrated by downing three enemy aircraft in one sortie, becoming the first RFC pilot to do so. He soon found himself back in Nottingham on leave and was mobbed; he’d become a household name following his exploits in France and couldn’t walk anywhere in town without people stopping to congratulate him. Plans for peaceful walks around The Park with his family were a no-go.

On other visits back to the UK, he was presented with his Distinguished Service Order medal by King George V and started training other pilots in Suffolk. He also lobbied for the building and testing of a new plane, the Austin-Ball AFB1; a machine he’d helped to design. He was also the first service pilot to fly the new SE5 aircraft; the same kind of machine he would die in.

In France, he made a little garden for himself and wrote letters back home, with many containing some fascinating insights into Ball as well as the war itself. One includes the slightly cliched and patriotic “hate this game, but it is the only thing one must do just now” and, in a letter to his father, it was clear that Ball truly had his fill of the fighting: “I do get tired of always living to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer. Shall be so pleased when I have finished.” But, through it all, he never lost his sweet tooth: “I so love to have a huge piece of cake to go flying with in the morning.”

In other letters, he sounds like the typical public schoolboy adventurer: “I had a ripping flight over Norwich and did a spiral around the church tower. I could just hear the bells ringing, but my engine drowned the sound.” At times, he’s remarkably flippant about the dangers he faces: “Was shot down yesterday, so am getting a new machine today.” When writing to his sister, he says, “Yesterday, a ripping boy had a smash, and when we got up to him he was nearly dead, he had a two-inch piece of wood right through his head and died this morning. If you would like a flight I should be pleased to take you any time you wish.”

As with many of the First World War flying aces, there’s uncertainty about Ball’s ultimate fate. Officially, Lothar von Richthofen, the younger brother of “Red Baron” Manfred, was credited with shooting him down, but subsequent eyewitness evidence has pointed to an engine failure that led to Ball dying when his plane crashed. Apparently, a young Frenchwoman pulled Ball from the wreckage and he died in her arms. So well regarded was Ball by his enemy that they considered returning his body back to the British, but instead a message tube was carried, at great risk, and dropped over British lines informing them that Ball had died in combat.

Albert Ball was buried by the Germans, with full military honours, in the Annoeullin Cemetery in France; his is the only British grave there, the rest being German. His father purchased the field in which he died and a memorial stone was placed at the point where he crashed. At Nottingham Castle, a life-sized bronze monument was erected and the Albert Ball Memorial Homes were built in Lenton to house the families of local servicemen killed in action. These still stand and are now Grade-II listed properties. There’s another memorial to Ball at the Holy Trinity Church in Lenton and in 1967, Trent College, where Ball studied, instituted the Albert Ball VC Scholarships.

Ball was confirmed to have shot down 44 enemy planes during the war. At the time of his death, he was the leading British ace and, by the end of the war, only three other British pilots had downed more planes.

He was one of the most decorated fliers of the war, having been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour, for conspicuous and consistent bravery. He also won a Distinguished Service Order with two bars, Military Cross, the Legion of Honour and the Order of St George. These can all be seen in the Nottingham Castle Museum, along with parts from some of his planes, the message tube confirming his death to the British, and the scroll awarding him freedom of the city.

Ball was only twenty when he passed away, and he will go down as one of the best pilots to be born in the UK. His legend reminds of the bravery of those who fought, and continue to fight, in combats across the globe, while his short twenty years point to the futility of war. Albert’s short story serves as a lesson in a history, and you can flick through its chapters in Nottingham’s nooks and crannies. Get on the hunt for a bit of ‘istreh...

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