Of Duty and Honour – The Life of Captain Albert Ball

Albert Ball: Public Domain Image

Albert Ball was born in Nottingham on the 14th August 1896.  His father was a successful local businessman who would go on to become first Mayor, and then Lord Mayor of Nottingham and later still be knighted.

During his youth Albert and his family made several moves, and he spent one year as a student at Grantham Grammar School (now the King’s School) between 1906-1907.

Albert grew to be a talented engineer and at just 18 was on the verge of launching his own business when the First World War changed everything.

He enlisted in the Notts and Derby regiment barely two months after the outbreak of the War. Albert had been part of the Officer Training Corps while a student at Trent College, Nottingham and was identified as officer material and rapidly promoted, becoming a Second Lieutenant within a month.

Despite his rapid rise through the ranks, the one thing that Albert wanted was to be at the front, and that goal seemed elusive.
In 1915 he made the decision to train as a pilot in the hopes of seeing action. Fitting his training around his duties qualified in October of 1915, and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.
Further training followed, but by February 1916 Albert was in France.

Initially posted to No. 13 Squadron, a reconnaissance division, it was not until his transfer to No. 11 Squadron in May 1916 that Albert took his first flight as a fighter pilot.
Albert flew as though he was born to it, showing incredible bravery and skill.  He downed his first German plane on the 16th May 1916, one of 44 confirmed victories he would amass over his career. He would seek out enemy aircraft, and on one occasion deliberately flew over a German airfield to bait the enemy pilots

He wanted nothing more than to be ready for action, when he wasn’t in the air, his skill as a mechanic allowed him to maintain his own aircraft. Often when landing at base with a damaged aircraft he would want to jump straight into a new plane and be off again to face the enemy.
So as never to be far from his plane, he built a small shelter next to the aircraft hangar where he would live between flights, practicing the violin and even creating a small garden in his down time.

In August Albert was posted to 60 squadron, tasked with seeking out and destroying enemy aircraft. He would fly alone, often without a helmet or goggles. He rapidly gained a reputation as the ‘lone wolf of the skies’ among both allied and enemy troops.

It was not hate or pleasure which drove Albert, but duty – in a letter to his mother he wrote:

‘I only scrap because it is my duty… nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down, but you see it is either them of me, so I must do my best to make is a case of them”

It was not long before the bravery of this young man was recognised, in July 1916 after displaying conspicuous gallantry and skill in an action to destroy a German Kite Balloon, and after repeated attacks on multiple enemy aircraft, he was awarded the Military Cross.

In September 1916, while home from the front on leave he was further decorated, being awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for further acts of conspicuous gallantry and skill.
On return to his unit he was promoted to Flight Commander, and further news awaited him, he was to be further decorated both by Britain (awarded a Bar to his DSO) and Russia which awarded the 20 year old flying ace the Order of St George, 4th Class.

The war office were also recognising that the handsome young man gaining honours and notoriety in the air over France was just what was needed to boost the morale of the nation after the calamity of the Somme.
Recalled from the front in October for a rest posting, Albert returned home to find that he was famous, and that a nation was waiting to congratulate him.
While in England he attended a reception at Buckingham palace where he officially received his medals. In November it was announced that he would receive a second Bar to his DSO, making him the first British serviceman ever to be awarded the DSO three times.

Albert returned to combat, this time with the elite 56 squadron, in February 1917, and was in the air almost immediately.  Although he considered any day he was unable to fly to be wasted, his actions were taking their toll on the young man. In a letter to his father written on May 6th Albert wrote

‘I do get tired of always living to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer. Shall be pleased when I have finished.’

The very next day Albert would take to the skies for the last time. He led a patrol of 11 planes on the hunt for enemy aircraft. Soon after take-off the patrol encountered the infamous Jagdastaffel 11, the division led by the Red-Baron, (although on this occasion by Lothar von Richthofen – brother to the German ace).
In the fighting that followed Albert’s patrol was scattered, by the end of the fighting two British pilots were known to have been killed and three were missing.  Albert was one of those listed as missing.

German pilots were the only witnesses to his fate. Albert had gone up against Lothar, and forced him down. Shortly afterwards he entered a bank of low cloud and seemingly lost control of his aircraft.

The wreckage of Albert’s plane was later found in a field, he had been killed in the crash.  Although von Richthofen would claim that he had shot down Albert’s plane, an examination of the aircraft revealed that it had suffered no damage other than from the crash itself.
A post mortem revealed that Captain Ball had died as a result of a broken spine and crushed chest caused by the impact.  He was 20 years old.

He was given a full military funeral by the German military, and many German officers, including the Red Baron, spoke in tribute to him.

In recognition of his exceptional gallantry, he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, as well as the Legion d’honnour.

He is buried in Annoeullin Cemetary in France.  After the war, his father had a memorial constructed in the field where he crashed.

Other memorials stand in his home city of Nottingham, and in Grantham he is remembered by a blue plaque situated on the King’s School.

 

Grantham Museum is commemorating the life of Albert Ball with a special exhibition which launches on the 16th August and will run until the autumn.  Find out more here

 

References

‘Captain Albert Ball VC DSO MC’
http://www.captainalbertball.uk/   accessed 3/8/18

Nottinghamshire County Council:  ‘Captain Ball VC’
http://www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk/culture-leisure/heritage/remembering-ww1/the-victoria-cross/albert-ball  accessed 3/8/18

Imperial War Museum: ‘Lives of the First World War  Captain Albert Ball, VC, D.S.O., M.C’
https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/6832977    accessed 3.8.18

VC Online: ‘Albert Ball’: http://www.vconline.org.uk/albert-ball-vc/4585939838  accessed 3/8/18

BBC News ‘War hero Albert Ball: Relatives mark centenary of death’
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-39823339   last updated 8/5/17,  accessed 3/8/18

Earp F.E. (2016) ‘Albert Ball’
https://nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam.wordpress.com/2016/06/09/albert-ball/     accessed 3/8/18

Lord Ashcroft (2014) ‘First World War Centenary: Albert Ball, lone wolf of the skied who did what he had to’, The Telegraph, 22nd June 2014, as viewed on:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/10916546/First-World-War-Centenary-Albert-Ball-lone-wolf-of-the-skies-who-did-what-he-had-to.html  accessed 3/8/18