The Ball family. Photograph courtesy of Nottingham Museums and Art Galleries.
Albert Ball was one of Nottingham’s most decorated servicemen. He was a quiet, shy boy but became patrol leader of his local scout troop and rose to the rank of Captain in the Royal Flying Corps; he was academically of average ability but was intently curious and taught himself much about engineering and electrics; he preferred his own company but was keen to be involved in team activities and see fair play; he was intent on shooting down as many of the enemy but did not hate the ‘Hun’. He was a family boy and shunned the fame that his flying had created.
Albert Ball was fortunate in being born in the atmosphere of a prosperous home in Nottingham. He was the son of wealthy parents and had all the advantages of education and healthy recreation. He was born on 14th August, 1896,1 at 301 Lenton Boulevard (now Castle Boulevard), Nottingham, one of three children and the elder of two boys. His father, also Albert, was a moderately wealthy man and was increasingly active in local politics and was to become a Justice of the Peace and an Alderman and served four terms as Mayor of Nottingham and was given a knighthood in 1924 in recognition of his work in public service. He was an estate agent with business throughout the country and interests in various engineering concerns. Albert junior was very close to his mother Harriet and it appears that the Ball family was a very close, happy family and the children were encouraged in all aspects of their lives. The family moved to Sedgley House, The Park (now 43 Lenton Road) which looked down on the Nottingham Canal.
Young Albert grew up and developed an enquiring mind and nearly put an end to his own existence at the age of five by setting fire to the nursery by playing with matches in that room. He and his brother, Cyril, had a great curiosity and adventure for life and were often involved in minor scrapes and both boys enjoyed tinkering with old petrol engines, carpentry and radio receivers in the garden shed at the back of the house. Albert joined the Boy Scout movement and became a patrol leader in the Willoughby Street troop.
Albert started his school days at the local Church School in Lenton, before becoming a boarder at Grantham Grammar School for a short time before enrolling at Nottingham High School. He preferred living at home but at the age of fourteen years, he and his brother became boarders at Trent College, Long Eaton. Albert was not a natural academic and was more interested in photography, chemistry, carpentry and mechanics. Nevertheless he settled into life at the somewhat spartan Trent College and became involved in technology and built a boat, purchasing the necessary materials and even sailing it down the Trent and then the Nottingham Canal and was viewed from his own home! On a vacation at Skegness he built a raft and caused a stir by continuing to construct it through the night and trying to sail it the next day, which proved more difficult and he had to swim home, the raft being brought home by some fishermen!
At school he was seen as a ‘loner’ and was not a good team player but was always fair and wanted to do the honorable thing in all matters. He was described in a contemporary book as a ‘young knight of gentle manners’. Although he was not an academic he was never idle and his mind was constantly focusing on his ideals of engineering and constructing and told his headmaster that he wanted to be an electrical engineer. Engines of any description were a delight to the young Albert and electricity fascinated him. He left Trent College in 1913 at the age of seventeen years and began work at Universal Engineering Works, Castle Boulevard where he was happy learning and experimenting. However this time was short-lived as in August 1914 the First World War began.
When war broke out Albert offered his services; he had experienced some military routine whilst at school when he had joined the Officers’ Training Corps at Trent College. He had also been actively encouraged and helped by his father in the use of firearms and explosives. At the time his uncle, Alderman Frederick Ball was the Mayor of Nottingham and his mother was acting Mayoress to her bachelor brother in law and they presided over a recruiting meeting addressed by the Duke of Portland. Albert joined the city battalion of the 2/7th Sherwood Foresters, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment and commenced basic training at Wollaton Hall and the drill hall on Derby Road.
It was not long before Albert was promoted to sergeant but later he applied for a commission and was appointed as Second Lieutenant in October 1914 with the same regiment. Ball was frustrated by not being sent to France despite the desperate fighting and a terrible winter campaign and the realization that this war was not going to be over by Christmas. In January 1915 hoping that a move might accelerate his departure to France he transferred to the North Midlands Divisional Cyclist Company (NMDCC). His love of engines and all things mechanical assisted him and he was posted to Bishop Stortford. His belief in living life as normal are shown in the fact that he told his father that he would stop smoking and he had made £2.00 profit on the deal of a motor bike which he sent home to be put into a good investment!
It was when he was posted on to an officers’ training course at Perivale, Middlesex which was only a short distance from Hendon aerodrome, where many of the future pilots of the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service began their flying career. The possibility of learning to fly rested solely with Albert as he had to pay for the lessons himself to gain the Royal Aero Club Pilot Certificate, the necessary qualification for the two air services. He was eager to get started and would regularly make an early morning start, riding his Harley Davidson motor cycle at 3am and returning to base by 6.45am to begin the ‘real work of the day’. Ball’s age, 18 years2 and knowledge of mechanics and engines no doubt helped him pick up the rudiments of flying but it still took him four months to take his ‘ticket’. However he showed no particular aptitude and was no better than the average student but he continued his lessons, even when he was posted back to St Albans, some 20 miles away from Hendon, sometimes he travelled there only to find that the lesson had been cancelled because it was too windy. In October 1915 he finally achieved his goal and was awarded Certificate No. 1898.
He was seconded to the RFC as a probationary pilot at No 9 Reserve Squadron, Mousehold Heath aerodrome, Norwich, Norfolk. Unfortunately due to the weather, which was very bad with a great deal of snow, he did little flying and was later given the opportunity to go to France and act as a flying observer, provided he gave up the pilot training. The RFC were keen to make up competent crews in the Vickers FB5 2-seater aircraft and the observer would act as air gunner. Tempting as this offer was, Albert declined, considering the amount of money he had already paid out for flying lessons would be have been in vain.
His time at Mousehold did not go as smoothly as was expected with him crashing from 800 feet and then getting a sarcastic dressing down from his instructor after a poor landing in an unfamiliar plane (a Maurice Farman). Albert felt the diatribe was uncalled for as he had been up all the previous night as an orderly officer and took the instructor to task and Albert went on to make five perfect landings. Several other flying incidents occurred before he finally received his ‘wings’ on 29 January 1916 when he was posted to No 22 Squadron, Gosport, Hampshire. During his short stay at Gosport he was given the task of instructing other would-be pilots. In a letter to his parents he wrote, “ We have had another bad crash. The pilot lost his head when up 1,500 ft., so you bet it has been a good smash…” And then went on “…I am flying over to see Cyril and on the way back … fly over the house but I shall be unable to land…”
On 17th February 1916 he left England by ferry and reported to RFC depot at St Omer and was posted to No 13 Squadron based temporarily at Marieux. The work of the pilots here was reconnaissance or ‘spotting’ patrols for the Royal Artillery. The previous year the Germans had been using a new mono-plane, the Fokker E1, with its fixed machine gun in front of the pilot’s cockpit which could fire 600 rounds per minute making it a particularly dangerous threat to British airmen. As he had done from the beginning of the war, Ball regarded his duties in a high-spirited, youthful way – the prospect of an early demise did not appear to bother him.
However, this view began to change after some weeks at the Front. He wrote home and advised his parents not to let Cyril follow in his footsteps complaining that ‘nerves’ do not last long as a pilot. He consistently requested cakes be sent from home and was negotiating land deals through his father. The weather in France was very bad with a lot snow which made flying difficult. However he made several sorties; one of which ended with him and his observer losing their way and flying very low over German lines. The observer lost his nerve and could not fire the gun and they were shot at from close range. Another sortie a week later saw them being shot to pieces and he had to land his plane sheltering near a wood but managed to limp home the next day. He had also had a potentially life threatening crash during March 1916 when his plane whilst taking off the engine had failed and it ploughed into the ground, the two occupants were lucky that the plane did not catch fire.
Ball always wanted to fly the best and fastest plane available but the BE 2c two-seater that he invariably used was not really in this category and in May 1916 he was transferred to 11 Squadron, (both 11 and 13 Squadrons were now based at Savy Aubigny near Arras) with a recommendation to fly the ‘new French machine’, the Nieuport Scout. He set about adapting and modifying the plane, No 5173, to suit his requirements as a fighter pilot. Ball had not taken leave since joining the RFC in France and in letters home he does make reference to his fatigue but not in a complaining way. He was finally granted leave in June 1916 and returned to Nottingham to his family. His leave was short but he returned invigorated and was soon back flying and in the midst of engaging the enemy.
He was awarded the Military Cross at the end of June 1916 and this buoyed his spirits feeling gratified for the immense effort he had made recently. He flew for nineteen hours on July 1st 1916 as the Battle of the Somme began helping the army on the ground. Reports of his flying campaigns show that he was not one for shirking his duties and he was constantly in the thick of cross-fire. However, he did not hate the Germans and said in a letter to his father that,“I only scrap because it is my duty, but I do not think anything bad about the Hun.” Nevertheless, he began to feel the strain of flying so many sorties and when he asked for leave he received no favoritism from his superiors, in fact Brigadier-General Higgins transferred him to 8 Squadron back to flying the BE2 c aircraft, which he disliked because it carried a ‘passenger’ reliant on him for survival.
The time he spent with 8 Squadron helped him recuperate and was finally transferred back to his old squadron but not before being tasked with dropping a spy inside enemy territory. The ‘rotten job’, as he termed it, turned out to be just that. After several attempts to set the agent down, the spy refused to get out of the plane saying that they had attracted too much attention and he would not be able to complete his mission and so both men returned home. Ball carried on flying for 8 Squadron until he was summoned back to 11 Squadron on his twentieth birthday; he was promoted to full Lieutenant at the beginning of August 1916. He was allocated a new Nieuport Scout and his machine could be distinguished by a ‘red spinner’ fixed to the front of his propeller, which made observers both in the air and on the ground to recognize the pilot. On his return and throughout most of August he continued to play a significant role in fighting German aircraft and fortunately being very successful.
Later in August 1916 he was transferred to 60 Squadron and was involved in yet more fire with the enemy and on 31 August he took the fight to the Germans over Cambrai, taking on twelve German Rolands. He managed to destroy one plane and sent another ‘fluttering’ downwards before his plane was hit by the crossfire which went through the Nieuport’s engine ignition leads and had to glide, whilst firing from his Colt pistol at his antagonists, and landed in Colincamp returning to camp the following morning to be greeted with the news that he had been awarded with the Distinguished Service Order as well as being granted a spell of home leave.
When he arrived home to Nottingham, on 5th October 1916, on what proved to be his last leave, he was a national hero and felt quite bemused by all the admiration. He was entertained by the Mayor, Councillor Small and gave a very short speech, “It is indeed kind of the Mayor to say such jolly decent things about me.”! In turn Ball gave the Mayor and the Sheriff photographs the frames of which were made from the tips of propellers of a German aeroplane brought down by him in September (the remains had been recovered by a man in the trenches). Ball was given the honor of Freeman of the City in recognition of his services.3 He was presented by King George V with his MC and DSO and two bars medals on 24th November 1916 and he received a rose bowl from the people of Lenton.
His next spell of duty was not really to his liking as he was posted to 34 (Reserve) Squadron at Orfordness, where he was posted as a flying instructor, passing on his skills to trainee pilots. On the morning after his arrival he was entertained by the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. However, he found the work both at 34 Squadron and then at the school of Aerial Gunnery at Hythe tedious and knew that he was at his most contented when with a front line squadron and so he began to pester for a posting which unfortunately was not offered until he began to make requests via those people he knew ‘carried weight’. Eventually he was posted to a brand new unit, 56 Squadron, which had been set up for operations in France and to develop the art of aerial teamwork; something which the loner Ball was not good adapting to. The average age of the pilots was below 21 years and Ball was their flight commander. The squadron took charge of two new SE5s and a SE5 A4850 which Ball had assembled and made modifications to it and was his plane. During his time at the airfield he met and fell in love with 18 year old Flora Young, who was involved in agricultural war work. He never asked to marry her but rather gave her his gold identity bracelet as an engagement present.
On 7th April 1917, Ball flew back to France to Vert Galand, just north of Amiens. However Ball was not happy with his SE5 and his father used his influence to get Ball his favourite Nieuport B1522 out to him. On the 22nd April Ball led 56 Squadron’s first operational patrol and the next day he scored the unit’s first victory a German Albatros. He continued his sorties with success but often returned to base with a damaged machine. Two days before the fatal flight he nearly lost his life when his plane was rammed at close range and he limped back to Vert Galand.
There is some controversy as to exactly what happened on Monday May 7th 1917, the day Ball was killed in action. In the morning he led a fighting patrol, escorting a photographic reconnaissance mission of German airfields. At 5.30pm together, with ten other SE5s he set off from Vert Galand. The patrol was split up and engaged in dogfights with Albatros DIIIs led by Lothar von Richthofen, the younger brother of Manfred von Richthofen. 56 Squadron suffered severe losses; one pilot (Lt R.M.C Musters) was killed, two badly injured (Capt H Meintjes and Lt J.O Leach MC) and Ball missing. Captain C.M. Crowe saw Ball engaged in a fight with a red Albatros before loosing sight of both planes as they disappeared into thick grey clouds. After chasing another German plane, Crowe realized he was running short of fuel and set off for home. Ball by this time was in pursuit of the German near a village called Annoeullin.
What happened next is still not clear but apparently the German plane had one last attempt to rid himself of his enemy before crash landing. German witnesses state that they saw Ball’s plane come out of thick cloud, upside down, the propeller stopped and thick smoke pouring from the plane which was in a low dive and finally crashed just a mile outside of Annoeullin. On arrival at the crash the Germans found Ball’s body had been removed from the wreck by a young girl from the village. He had been alive when she had taken him out but died shortly afterwards. His body was taken to a nearby German field hospital where a doctor confirmed his death and noted that there were no battle wounds and that his injuries were consistent with his crashing; a broken back and arm, crushed chest and fractured leg and foot. Amazingly there were no injuries to his face and head until a little while later when some bruising became apparent, consistent with hitting his head against the cockpit.
Instead of returning Ball’s body to the British, the German hierarchy decided to give him a military funeral with honours in the village cemetery, attended by German officers, British prisoners of war and villagers and the grave was marked by a single white cross. Ball was posted as ‘Missing’ and the British were not informed of Ball’s death until the end of May, when the Germans dropped messages confirming his death and burial.
In June 1917 he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for the ‘most conspicuous and consistent bravery’ and at the same time he was appointed Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. On 10th June the same year he was honoured at a memorial service in St Mary’s Church, Nottingham, when a congregation including his father and brother attended. His mother was too grief stricken to attend and never fully recovered from the death of her beloved son. A memorial statue was commissioned and unveiled by Sir Hugh Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff, R.A.F. in the grounds of Nottingham Castle.
Memorial stone at site of Ball's crash. Photograph courtesy of Nottingham Museums and Art Galleries.
At the end of First World War, Albert’s father travelled to France and located his son’s grave, which was by this time marked by a wooden cross placed there by 207 Squadron RAF in 1919. Albert Ball, senior, replaced this with a marble headstone and surround and donated a sum of money for a fund for the constant maintenance of the grave, which continues today. He also refused to have his son’s remains reinterred to Nottingham. He also purchased the field where Albert crashed and erected a plain memorial stone on the site of his crash.4
Although Ball was one of a number of men from Nottingham who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War, he is probably the most well-known. Why is this? Certainly his youth and the fact that he was killed in his prime played a considerable part. There is no doubt that he was fearless and Chaz Bowyer comments that, “he left behind a tradition of raw courage”. He was an airman flying planes in a time and situations which previous wars had never encountered, so there was an element of glamour as well. His background and the prominence of his family in Nottingham may have ensured that his exploits were given greater publicity than might otherwise have been the case.
1. There is some discrepancy over this date with Briscoe and Stannard writing 21 August 1896 as his birthdate after the incorrect date on his Royal Aero certificate.
2. Between the ages of 18 and 25 years were considered to be the ideal age for a pilot.
3. 19th February 1917 was when he was officially installed as Honorary Freeman of the City.
4. I acknowledge the use of material in Chaz Bowyer’s book Albert Ball. The story of the 1st World War Ace.
Stuart Burch (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a considerable interest in Albert Ball, especially in the way he has been memorialized.