Albert Ball, VC
'To look at Albert Ball he appeared still a boy, short, hair unkempt and shy-looking. It was only when those dark piercing eyes would turn and rest on yours did you realise that some strange power was there - some power that made him in some way different to other men.'
A fellow airman
Captain Albert Ball, not yet 21 years old, arrived home in Nottingham from the Western Front. Instead of the peace and quiet with his family that he hoped for - and perhaps a spot of fishing with his Dad - he found himself a hero. Shy and not too communicative, he was caught up in a whirl of social functions and public honours. He dreaded it. At a formal luncheon the Lord Mayor paid him tribute and Albert's reply was an embarrassed mumble to the effect that he was pleased to have done something for his town.
When he ventured out into town he wore a shabby trench coat over his uniform but no one was fooled - everyone wanted to hail their local hero. These were dark days of the war and people at home were in need of an uplift in morale. Three months earlier during the Battle of the Somme, 80 per cent of the local battalion of Sherwood Foresters, the 'Robin Hoods', had been killed in a single day - more than 500 men lost in a futile attack on the German-held village of Gommecourt.
Albert Ball, the most renowned fighter pilot in the RFC, was just the hero to boost morale. The War Office had ordered him to do no fighting whatsoever - not even if a Zeppelin passed overhead. A dead hero was no use to them. He was invited to breakfast with Lloyd George and his daughter, which he described as 'very nice', and was then home posted to Orfordness as a flying instructor.
Routine flying was not for Albert - far too boring. Having already designed an aeroplane which the Austin Motor Company had agreed to build, he was offered a large sum to leave flying and concentrate on aircraft construction. His answer was unequivocal: 'Not until I have finished my job out there.'
In a letter to his mother he wrote: 'I have offered to go out again and have another smack. Don't think me unfair wishing to go again, for I don't do it because I wish to. I shall find it hard to go, but you will back me up, and I will try to help my country and bring credit to my dear mother.' His request was turned down: 'Captain Ball is at present employed in imparting his special knowledge to other officers, and that is the position in which he is most useful to the service.'
Named after his father, Albert Ball came into the world at Lenton, Nottingham on 21 August 1896. He already had an elder sister named Lois and his younger brother Cyril came two years later. Their parents were a close-knit couple. Harriet, their loving mother, indulged her children and ensured they were a united family.
Albert Senior, proud of his children, was ambitious for them. As a prosperous master plumber he steadily expanded his business into dealing in land and property. Interested in local affairs, he first represented Nottingham Castle Ward as a Councillor and later became Lord Mayor. With his rise in status Albert Senior moved his family from Lenton into a large gabled house with gardens in the select Park district that swept down from the Nottingham Castle down to the canal.
Young Albert might have been shy and reserved but he was full of nervous energy with an intense curiosity about how things worked. Though not brilliant academically, he was unusually clever with his hands. Both Albert and Cyr il attended Nottingham High School before they were boarded out at Trent College, Long Eaton. Photography, mechanics and gardening were the subjects Albert revelled in; and bugle call at 6:30 a.m. followed by a cold bath - no fires before 1 November - didn't dim his enthusiasm for the extra activities of bridge-building, the Scouts and the Officer Training Corps.
|Sense of Duty
Like his father, he felt a sense of duty early in his life and took a photograph of himself standing in front of the armoury door carved above which were Lord Nelson's famous words: 'England expects that every man will do his duty.'
Occupied as he was in his activities, he did find time to write home to his mother, usually after Chapel on Sunday. It turned into a regular habit throughout his short life. Though a natural loner, he was deeply attached to his mother, and his sister Lois who became his lifelong confidante. His destiny appeared to be the navy. After building a boat at school, he sailed home by way of the river and canal to Nottingham; while on holiday at Skegness he built a raft that he vainly swam after when it loosed and blew out to sea. He ran off to sea but changed his mind and returned to school after adventurously getting aboard a steamer at Liverpool.
The probability is that he would have turned out to be a leading industrialist. 'I have invented an accumulator for a pocket lamp,' he wrote home from school. In the holidays he tinkered in a shed at the bottom of the garden, refurbishing old dynamos and gas engines, even built his own radio set. Highly dextrous, he was an accurate shot with a revolver and was also able to play the violin. Foreseeing a big future for the electrical business, he took extra maths and technical drawing in his last term, writing home: 'I think there is a lot of money to be made in the way of making small electric-lighting plants for country houses.'
When he left school at 17 he didn't look old enough, nor tall enough at 5ft. 6 ins., but he was strong and agile with large, dark, brilliant eyes. He started work at a brass founding and electrical company in order 'to work my way up from the bottom and get to the top'. There was never the time - war broke out a year later.
Albert's bachelor uncle was Mayor of Nottingham - Albert's mother acted as Mayoress - and the Mayor presided over a recruiting meeting. To set an example Albert was the first to volunteer, joining the 2/7th Battalion Sherwood Foresters known as the 'Robin Hoods.' Within a few days he was promoted to Sergeant and by the end of October commissioned 2nd Lieutenant - along with his ATC training he was a deadly shot.
The battalion trained in the south of England but instead of proceeding to France they 'dug in' east of London where a German invasion was expected. Impatient to get to France, Albert transferred to an attachment of the Cyclist Division - he already owned a motor bike.
Despite mounting casualties at the Front, no call came for him to go. 'I am very disappointed just now,' he wrote home. 'I have just sent five boys to France and I hear they will be in the firing line on Monday. It is just my luck to be unable to go.'
In another letter to his sister Lois, he wrote: 'I do hope they will soon let us loose in France. Nearly all the cyclists who went from Bishop Stortford are either killed or wounded. It will be fine when we go . . .'
'I go in for a little flying now,' he casually mentioned in a letter home in June 15. Having enrolled for private flying lessons at nearby Hendon, he found the fascination of the flying machine irresistible. Up at 3 a.m., a ride to Hendon on his motor cycle and a dash back for the 6 a.m. parade became his routine. His C.O. reprimanded him for his oily uniform, a feature that distinguished his appearance throughout the rest of his service career.
Learning to fly took longer than he expected. Flights were cancelled if there was a strong wind, for the machines were very light. There was a succession of smashes: 'I had a fine time at Hendon on Sunday. The engines went wrong and we came down in a lot of trees. However after walking back to Hendon, I soon got up in another.'
And writing to Lois: 'I was so pleased to get your ripping cake, but I have nearly finished it. I saw a rotten smash yesterday, a boy came down 200 feet, smashed his arm in three places and nearly got burned to death. I am going on fine.'
By October 15 he had qualified for his pilot's certificate and was seconded to the RFC at Norwich. He still had to qualify for his 'Wings' and late in the year the weather was not the best for flying. 'When I got up 800 feet,' he wrote to his father, 'my control went wrong, and I came crashing down, smashing the bottom of the machine in. I was not hurt . . . I had lots of time to think what was taking place, in fact it made me laugh, although I thought it rotten to smash the machine . . . I am having one of the struts sent to you as a keepsake.'
Another bad crash when he hit the ground at 120 mph did not dent his enthusiasm. He merely wrote home requesting a new set of violin strings. After impressing his instructors by coming down from 1,500 feet in a left hand spiral and completing a perfect landing, he was posted to the RFC Central Flying School in Wiltshire. Early in the New Year, Albert crashed again: 'The machine was smashed into matchwood . . . However, as usual, I was not hurt at all.'
Four weeks later his family received a telegram: 'Got wings plus three days leave. Please wire £10.'
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