‘Exceptional courage, determination and skill’: remembering Albert Ball VC

Captain Albert Ball VC. IWM Q 69593

7 May 2017 marks the centenary of the death of Albert Ball, one of Britain’s greatest air aces of the First World War. He shot down 44 German aircraft and received the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order with two bars and the Military Cross. In this blog post, we celebrate Albert’s achievements and remember his sacrifice.

 

  • Life before the war

Albert was born in 1896 in Lenton, Nottinghamshire, to Sir Albert and Harriett Ball. He attended Lenton Church School, Grantham Grammar School, Nottingham High School, and finally Trent College, where he undertook officer training. At the age of 17 he started up in business with the Universal Engineering Works before joining the army a month after the outbreak of war, in September 1914.

 

  • Experiences in the army

Albert joined 7 Battalion Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment, known as the Robin Hood Battalion. Because of his experiences with the Officer Training Corps at Trent College, Albert was quickly promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant.  He was based in Britain, with the task of recruiting other soldiers. During this time at home Albert also took the opportunity to take flying lessons, which began a new phase in his military career.

 

Captain Albert Ball VC, sitting in his SE 5 aircraft. IWM Q 56140

 

  • Transfer to the Royal Flying Corps

Albert was accepted as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on 26 January 1916, and by 18 February that year he was flying in France.  He quickly established himself as one of the RFC’s outstanding fighter pilots, winning the Military Cross in June. By October he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Bar and was credited with 30 victories. Already a national hero, he was awarded a second Bar to his DSO in November 1916, making him the first triple DSO in the British Army. Albert joined 56 Squadron as a flight commander on 7 April 1917, soon increasing his official score to 44 victories.

Just one month later Albert was killed after his plane crashed to the ground, possibly following a German attack – the exact circumstances surrounding his death have never been established. Albert was buried by his German counterparts near to where he fell, and his funeral was attended by senior German officers, local officials and several Allied prisoners of war. He rests in Annoeullin Communal Cemetery in France.

 

The funeral of Albert Ball VC, 9 May 1917. IWM HU 70273

 

  • Legacy

After his death, Albert was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur and the Russian Order of St George, 4th Class. He also received a posthumous Victoria Cross for the following actions:

Capt. Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon, and has always displayed most exceptional courage, determination and skill.

For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from 25  April to 6 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.

(From the London Gazette, 8 June 1917)

Albert Ball’s jacket, Service Dress (Maternity pattern): Captain, RFC (UNI 11617)

Albert’s family donated some of his belongings to Imperial War Museums – his flying jacket is currently on display at IWM North in Manchester.

One hundred years after his death, pay tribute to Albert on Lives of the First World War.

 

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