BALL, Albert [of Nottingham] VC

Photo:Albert Ball VC by Edward Newling

Albert Ball VC by Edward Newling

He did not, of course, ever wear the purple ribbon of the Victoria Cross since it was awarded posthumously

Photo:Sir Albert and Lady Ball with their children Cyril, Lois and Albert (right, behind his father)

Sir Albert and Lady Ball with their children Cyril, Lois and Albert (right, behind his father)

Photo:Ball's Nieuport

Ball's Nieuport

Note the red nose cone

Photo:Albert Ball by Chris Collingwood

Albert Ball by Chris Collingwood

This picture captures some of the unsettling loneliness of the hero

Photo:Ball's last fight

Ball's last fight

His SE5 is breaking away from Lothar von Richthofen's red Albatros

Photo:Original cross placed on Ball's grave by the Germans

Original cross placed on Ball's grave by the Germans

'He fell in the air war for his fatherland'

Photo:Albert Ball VC memorial

Albert Ball VC memorial

Nottingham Castle

Photo:The Albert Ball VC memorial at Nottingham Castle when newly erected

The Albert Ball VC memorial at Nottingham Castle when newly erected

It was unveiled by Air Marshal Trenchard in 1921

England's Richthofen?

By Ralph Lloyd-Jones

Albert Ball is far and away Nottingham’s greatest war hero from the First World War, or indeed any conflict in history. There is a magnificent statue of the famous pilot, who died aged just 20, in Nottingham Castle grounds. Many people who are not particularly interested in the War could name him, yet he was not one of the top-scoring Aces. He stands, in fact, only 11th highest British/Empire Ace with 44 accredited kills; there were five Germans with more (Richthofen claimed 80), as well as three higher-scoring Frenchmen.

 He was born at 301 Lenton Boulevard on 14 August 1896, son of Harriet and Sir Albert Ball. His father, who did much to promote his son’s career and memory, was a master plumber and land agent involved in local politics. He had been Conservative Mayor of Nottingham and lived until  1946, still basking in his namesake’s reflected glory. 

Because he had been educated at private schools, Nottingham High and Trent College, Long Eaton, the younger Albert was eligible to become an officer when war broke out. Having enlisted into the Sherwood Foresters he received his Commission in October 1914, but was frustrated at not being sent to the Front immediately. By getting up at the crack of dawn and riding his motorbike a long way (to Hendon, now site of the RAF Museum) he gained his Private Pilot’s Licence within a year and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.

After starting with the less glamorous BE 2C aeroplanes and Bristol Scouts on reconnaissance and bombing missions with 13 Squadron, in May 1915 he was posted to 11 Squadron with its much better  French-built Nieuport aircraft. Within a few days he was forcing down and destroying Germans. The vast majority of those that he accounted for were, however, 2-seat recce planes, much less dangerous than aggressive enemy scouts like the famous Albatrosses and Fokker Triplanes flown by the likes of the Richthofen brothers, Manfred and Lothar. Ball had exceptionally good eyesight, and his method was to spot a lone enemy at an enormous distance, fly up from behind and below him and shoot – using an upper wing-mounted machinegun that was aimed vertically above his head – directly into the belly of the unfortunate German aircraft. Most of them probably never even saw him.

So successful was this technique that he had won the Military Cross by June 25th. Albert  Ball’s behaviour on the ground was distinctly eccentric, living in his own little hut near his beloved Nieuport, creating a small garden which he lovingly tended and playing the violin while walking about the airfield in his pyjamas. Because he was effective in combat the authorities tolerated all this, but the British philosophy was not to encourage lone heroes simply because, by their very nature, they were likely to die young - which would be detrimental to morale. Dull but efficient teamwork is much more likely to win wars (and football matches). Yet Ball even invented the idea of making himself stand out individually by having the nose cone of his aircraft painted bright red, a trick to frighten the enemy which was later copied by Manfred von Richthofen in his famous all-red aeroplanes.

Like some other Aces of both wars, particularly Germans in WW2, Ball became obsessed with increasing his personal ‘score’, even flying off in those pyjamas on one occasion when he thought another victim was nearby. With the kills came the decorations: the Distinguished Service Order and two bars (i.e. three DSOs) by the end of 1916, the French Legion d’Honneur and the exotic  Order of St George from an admiring Russian Tsar. He had also risen swiftly to the rank of Captain, but, as was usual in such cases, was withdrawn from front-line duties to go and instruct other pilots back in England by way of a rest and in the hope that the trainees would learn some of his style. He even helped design a special ‘Ball’ fighter aircraft, though it never went into general production.

Back home on leave in Nottingham the naturally scruffy Captain Ball liked to wear a shabby coat and hide all his medal ribbons, hoping not to attract attention. When, in February 1917, he returned to active duty with 56 Squadron he did not initially like the new SE5 aircraft and was glad to be allowed to stick to Nieuports. The Germans were by now using bolder aerial tactics and had even formed a special ‘Anti-Ball Squadron’, a great (and unique) compliment to their irascible enemy! Although he achieved an incredible seven victories in five days (1 - 5 May 1917), Ball’s luck ran out on May 7th. He had been in a classic dogfight with several Germans, but appears to have lost his life by flying into a large cloud, becoming disorientated and emerging from it upside-down, possibly already unconscious, with the engine cut out. He was killed by the crash, not by any bullets, though Lothar, Manfred von Richthofen’s younger brother, boasted of having slain Ball. The Germans gave him a funeral with full military honours at Annouelin where he lies to this day, now with a more elaborate stone memorial than the original simple wooden cross (today in Trent College). He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

This page was added by Ralph Lloyd-Jones on 09/04/2015.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.