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  Albert Ball (1896–1917), by E. N. Birkett, c.1915–16 Albert Ball (1896–1917), by E. N. Birkett, c.1915–16
Ball, Albert (1896–1917), airman, was born at 301 Lenton Boulevard, Nottingham, on 14 August 1896, the elder son and second of three surviving children of Sir Albert Ball (1863–1946), master plumber, land agent, and sometime mayor of Nottingham, and his first wife, Harriet Mary Page (d. 1931) of Derby. He was educated at Lenton church school, Grantham grammar school, Nottingham high school, and from January 1911 at Trent College, Long Eaton, Derbyshire, where he was regarded as a conscientious if shy boy with a natural aptitude for anything mechanical. On leaving school in December 1913 he bought an interest in an electrical engineering and brass-founding firm in Nottingham, but at the outbreak of war enlisted in the Nottinghamshire and Derby regiment.

Swiftly promoted sergeant, Ball was commissioned on 29 October 1914, and spent the winter in training but, anxious to get to France, transferred to the north midland divisional cyclist company. Again frustrated in his desire to see active service, in June 1915 he began training privately as a pilot, and gained his Royal Aero Club certificate on 15 October. After applying to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), he underwent further flying instruction and was awarded his pilot's brevet on 22 January 1916, before being officially transferred to the RFC on 29 January.

Briefly with 22 squadron at Gosport before being posted to France, Ball joined 13 squadron at Marieux on 18 February 1916, flying BE 2c aircraft on artillery reconnaissance and bombing raids. He performed his duties conscientiously but felt the burden of responsibility for his observer's life. Hence he was pleased to be allowed occasionally to fly one of two Bristol Scouts attached to the squadron. His skill and enthusiasm as a single-seat pilot attracted attention, and on 7 May he was posted to 11 squadron at Savy Aubigny, one flight of which was equipped with the Nieuport 16, then the best single-seat scout in RFC service. Ball became an enthusiastic proponent of the French fighter, and was to score the majority of his victories while flying Nieuports.

Ball's first success with 11 squadron, a German reconnaissance aircraft forced down, came on 16 May. Two further successes came on 29 May, and the single-mindedness with which he was approaching the task of engaging the enemy was shown on 1 June, when he circled over an enemy aerodrome at Douai, inviting combat and driving down two enemy aircraft which took off to engage him. His dedication showed also in the arrangements he made at Savy, where he built a small wooden shed close to the hangar in which his aircraft was housed. There he lived and sometimes ate, the better to tend his personal Nieuport and the quicker to take off should an opportunity for combat present itself. His dedication was recognized by the award, on 25 June, of the Military Cross.

When the bloody and unsuccessful battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916, Ball was unknown outside 11 squadron. By its end, in November, he was the top-scoring RFC pilot, and famous. Yet his rise to pre-eminence was not straightforward. On 2 July he destroyed two enemy aircraft, but did not score again before, on 18 July, he was posted to 8 squadron, flying BE 2cs. The transfer, which Ball strongly resented, resulted from a request for a few days' rest. His reaction was to fly additional sorties whenever possible, including a difficult night flight to land a spy behind enemy lines. His passionate commitment to his duties brought the desired result: on 15 August, promoted to lieutenant, he returned to 11 squadron.

In the next eleven days Ball destroyed four enemy aircraft, three of them on 22 August 1916: the first time that such a feat had been accomplished in the RFC. That day he had attacked single-handed four enemy formations, one seven strong and another five, before returning with his aircraft riddled with bullets. The award of the DSO, gazetted on 26 September, at the same time as a bar to the DSO, acknowledged his achievements. A second bar was to be gazetted on 25 November, following the award in September of the Russian order of St George, fourth class.

On 23 August 1916 Ball was transferred to 60 squadron, a scout unit, in which he fully came into his own. The commanding officer, Major R. R. Smith-Barry, recognized his talent and gave him a roving commission. This paid handsome dividends for 60 squadron and for Ball, who by the end of August had seventeen confirmed victories. A month later this had risen to thirty-one and the intensity with which he flew his mainly solo sorties can be seen from the fact that on four more occasions he had brought down three enemy aircraft in a day.

Promoted captain on 13 September 1916, Ball was, at his own request, posted to home establishment on 4 October. Yet it was not long before he was agitating, unsuccessfully, to return to France. After a period with 34 reserve squadron at Orfordness, he was sent on a course at the school of aerial gunnery, Hythe. Gunnery instruction he found particularly irksome, and it was with relief that on 2 January 1917 he was transferred to 7 wing at King's Lynn, Norfolk, as a fighting instructor.

Ball's frustration was exacerbated by the adulation to which he found himself continually subjected, adulation which his father tended to foster. Around Nottingham he took to wearing an old trench coat in order to avoid drawing attention to himself and to his medal ribbons, and his speech on 19 February 1917 accepting the freedom of the city of Nottingham was brief and modest in the extreme. As an antidote to his frustration Ball put a great deal of energy into promoting a single-seat fighter whose design he had instigated the previous year, and which the Austin Motor Company built. He persuaded the government to order two prototypes, but they were not completed until after Ball's death and attracted no production order.

On 25 February 1917 Ball was posted to the newly formed 56 squadron, with which he crossed to France on 7 April. From the first no. 56 was an élite unit, despite major teething problems with the engines and guns of the SE 5, which the squadron was the first to take into action. Ball himself took an immediate dislike to the type, and was permitted to retain a Nieuport for his use when on solo patrol, and it was on a Nieuport that he achieved his (and the squadron's) first victory, on 23 April, and his last, on 5 May.

Between these dates, flying the SE 5 (to which he gradually became reconciled), Ball scored another eleven victories, seven of them between 1 and 5 May. Two days later, on 7 May 1917, he made his last flight. Eleven machines went out in bad weather that evening and engaged a large German force. Ball was seen pursuing an opponent into thundercloud, and then, by German observers on the ground, emerging from the cloud base in a shallow inverted dive, with the propeller stationary, to crash near Annoeullin. His aircraft had sustained no battle damage and Ball's only injuries were sustained in the crash. Various explanations have been suggested, but the most likely is that advanced by Revell: that Ball became disoriented in the cloud, and the engine cut out when the aircraft was inverted. What is certain is that the German authorities erred in crediting Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of the Red Baron, with Ball's death.

Ball, who died unmarried, was buried at Annoeullin by the Germans with full military honours on 9 May 1917. Just under one month later, on 8 June, the award of the Victoria Cross was gazetted; later the French government made him a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. The Victoria Cross citation spoke of Ball's ‘exceptional courage, determination, and skill’. These qualities he certainly possessed. But any assessment of Ball must take account also of aspects of his personality and fighting style which made him a legend in his lifetime.

Of medium height and build, Ball had a penetrating gaze and a shock of black hair, which he wore longer than was customary in the RFC. He was high-spirited and acquired a reputation for mild eccentricity, partly through such idiosyncrasies as flying without a helmet or goggles. By living in his hut and spending his spare time gardening, Ball also set himself somewhat (and literally) apart from his fellows. He was not a naturally gifted pilot but became highly skilled, and his fast reflexes, outstanding eyesight, and accuracy of shooting made him a formidable opponent. Devoutly religious, he trusted firmly in divine providence, yet there is no doubt that in attacking whatever the odds he was at times foolhardy, and that he was lucky to survive as long as he did. Nor is there any doubt that in the last weeks of his life he was exhausted. After his last successful combat, on 5 May, he wrote home: ‘It is all trouble and it is getting on my mind. Am feeling very old just now’ (Kiernan, 141).

Like James McCudden, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1918, Ball lavished a great deal of care on his aircraft, and like McCudden he felt no personal animosity towards his opponents. To his father he wrote in July 1916:
I only scrap because it is my duty, but I do not think anything bad about the Hun. 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 best to make it a case of them. (Bowyer, 63)
And in his last letter to his father he wrote: ‘I do get tired of always living to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer’ (ibid., 138).

Ball's victory tally of forty-four was soon surpassed, but his place in the pantheon of British military aviators is assured. More than any other individual he provided the inspiration which, after the appalling losses of ‘Bloody April’ 1916, raised and sustained the morale of the RFC and later the Royal Air Force.

David Gunby

Sources  

C. Bowyer, Albert Ball, V.C. (1977) · R. H. Kiernan, Captain Albert Ball (1933) · A. Revell, High in the empty blue: the history of 56 squadron RFC RAF, 1916–1919 (1995) · C. Shores and others, Above the trenches: a complete record of the fighter aces and units of the British empire air forces, 1915–1920 (1990), 59–60 · T. B. Marson, Scarlet and khaki (1930) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1918)

Archives  

Castle Museum, Nottingham, medals and artefacts · IWM, artefacts · Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, artefacts · Trent College, Long Eaton, artefacts |  Notts. Arch., letters to his parents  

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, news footage

 

SOUND

 

IWM SA, oral history interview


Likenesses  

A. A. Archer, carbon print, c.1915, NPG · E. N. Birkett, photograph, c.1915–1916, IWM [see illus.] · photographs, c.1916–1917, IWM · E. Newling, oils, 1919, Castle Museum, Nottingham; version, IWM · D. Davis, oils (after photograph?), Castle Museum, Nottingham · D. Davis, oils, Trent College, Long Eaton · H. Poole, bronze cast of statuette, NPG · H. Poole, statue on monument, Castle Museum grounds, Nottingham · photograph, repro. in P. G. Cooksley, VCs of the First World War: the air VCs (1996) · photographs, repro. in Revell, High in the empty blue

Wealth at death  

£5977 1s. 7d.: administration, 5 March 1918, CGPLA Eng. & Wales