“The unwritten story of a great air fight” – William Reason Bishop and Douglas Fraser Mackintosh

William Bishop (left) and Douglas Fraser Mackintosh. Images courtesy of Richard Bishop

On 2 October 1917, William Reason Bishop and Douglas Fraser Mackintosh were killed when their aircraft crashed during a fight in the skies above Belgium. The German army buried them with full military honours, and their graves were tended by two local girls, Carola and Paula Vanderoughstraete. In this guest blog post, William’s great great nephew Richard Bishop tells us about his research into the story, ahead of a remembrance event to pay respects to these two brave airmen.  

 

  • Life before the war

William Reason Bishop was born in 1895, the youngest of six siblings. He grew up in Highbury, London and soon began to exhibit a remarkable talent for singing – as a soloist in Temple Church Choir he sang at the coronation of King George V in 1911. After leaving school, he worked as a clerk for Barclays Bank at its Pall Mall branch.

Douglas Fraser Mackintosh was born in 1890 in Thirsk, Yorkshire. He was the son of Ethel and the Reverend William Teesdale Mackintosh and by 1901 the family were living in Brighton. At some point before the war he moved to Australia, but little is known about this period in his life.

By 1914 the clouds of war were gathering, and both men would volunteer to serve in the armed forces.

 

  • Wartime service

After the outbreak of war, Douglas joined 1 Australian Contingent under the name ‘George Matthews’. He was seriously wounded during the Gallipoli campaign and was sent back to the UK. Once recovered was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery, and later joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).

William volunteered in December 1915 and enlisted into 1/6 Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment, a territorial cyclist battalion which was engaged in home defence for most of the war. In November 1916, he too was accepted into the Royal Flying Corps and spent much of 1917 in training – first at Christ Church College, Oxford and then RFC Doncaster, RFC Harlaxton and RFC Waddington.

William Bishop pictured in May 1917. Courtesy of Richard Bishop

William embarked for France on 14 September 1917 and was posted to 55 Squadron, a bomber unit based near St Omer. Much of the Squadron’s activity involved bombing German airfields in Belgium, targeting both enemy trenches and Zeppelin and aircraft bases used for attacks on Britain. William wrote home telling his family that he had “never had such an enjoyable time”, that his Squadron was “the finest in France” and that he was proud to belong to it. However, his flying career at the front was cut short after only seventeen days.

 

  • Their final flight together

The two appeared on the front Page of the Illustrated Sunday Herald, 17 February 1918. Courtesy of Richard Bishop

At 8:59 on 2 October 1917, a formation of 12 aircraft took off to bomb the airfield at Marcke where the German fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 10 was based. Jagdstaffel 10 was part of the famous ‘Flying Circus’ commanded by Manfred Von Richthofen, known as ‘the Red Baron’.

William was piloting a De Haviland DH4, with Douglas acting as his observer. The pair became separated from the rest of the squadron, probably because of poor visibility that morning, and their aircraft was last seen crossing the front line to the north of Ypres.

Local eyewitnesses reported that their aircraft was attacked by seven German fighters over the town of Meulebeke. A furious battle began; the lone British aircraft looping, diving and defying its attackers for 20 minutes. Inevitably, flames were seen and the DH4 crashed in the fields. Both William and Douglas were killed.

The German pilot who claimed the victory, Hans Klein, visited the crash site and was heard to say in broken French, “‘What a pity such heroes should have to die! They could have escaped, but preferred to fight to a finish. Never have I seen such gallant resistance before.”

Never have I seen such gallant resistance before

The two airmen were given a military funeral by the German army in Meulebeke, and are buried in Harlebeke New British Cemetery. Belgian girls Carola and Paula Vanderoughstraete looked after their graves and returned William and Douglas’ personal effects to their relatives after the war. They also hosted the families when they travelled to Belgium after the Armistice to visit the cemetery. 100 years on, members of the Bishop, Mackintosh and Vanderoughstraete families will meet at an event to pay their respects to the two brave airmen, and to remember the dedication shown by Carola and Paula.

 

  • Pay tribute to William and Douglas on Lives of the First World War
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