Raymond Collishaw, A Forgotten Hero

Paying tribute to Canada's 'greatest airman' of WWI on Remembrance Day
By Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
November 5, 2013 Updated: November 6, 2013

Raymond Collishaw, one of Canada’s most decorated fighter pilots, was the third top-scoring ace of WW1—surpassed only by the famed Billy Bishop and Edward Mannock. He also served throughout World War II with distinction. Yet he is relatively unknown.

Born in Nanaimo, B.C., in 1893, Collishaw enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) at the age of 22 and over the course of WWI rose through the ranks, from Flight Sub-Lieutenant to Flight Commander to Squadron Commander. 

Collishaw ended the war with 60 victories, the third highest of the British Empire pilots. He remained in the Royal Air Force after the war and served in other combat arenas, including commanding the British forces against the Bolsheviks in Russia and the allied air forces in North Africa during World War II.

Yet Collishaw’s legacy has mostly flown under the radar, remaining relatively unknown to most Canadians compared to more high-profile aces like Bishop and Mannock. A January 1940 edition of the Toronto Star Weekly named Collishaw the “greatest airman of them all,” yet noted that “no man has escaped publicity so completely.”

This may be due to the fact that Collishaw achieved much of his success as an RNAS pilot. RNAS fliers did not carry the same prestige as their counterparts in the Royal Air Force (RAF), says Roger Bird, president of the Vancouver Island Military Museum. 

“Navy fliers weren’t really as renowned as the Royal Air Force fliers,” says Bird.

“Canada at the time needed to have a hero, and [RAF flier] Billy Bishop was one of the ones that was doing a lot on his own, so they jumped on him and promoted his exploits.” 

Bishop was the perfect hero to inspire war-weary Canadians with his daring lone-wolf escapades deep into enemy territory. Collishaw was more of a “man’s man,” says Bird, a squadron leader and team player who would often share the limelight and credit others with his successes to encourage them. 

“He supported his people and was a good leader,” says Bird. “Even though he did most of the shooting he gave the credit to some of his other wing-mates. He was quite gregarious with his people, rather than just being a loner.”

For this reason—as well as the tendency for RNAS pilots to receive less credit then their RAF peers—some historians believe Collishaw likely had more than 60 victories. Some estimates put the actual number closer to 81 kills—which would place him at the top of WWI flying aces, ahead of Bishop.

Bravery, Awards

Collishaw also had plenty of dramatic solo victories, however. 

One of the most notorious occurred in 1916 when he was caught off-guard by six German enemy planes which dove out of the clouds and attacked him. Despite the fact that it was six to one and the Germans had the advantage of height, Collishaw outmaneuvered them all by flying close to the ground, sending two planes crashing into the trees and scaring the others away. 

For this victory he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the first of 26 medals he received during his career. He was nominated twice for the Victoria Cross but never received it. Some believe he should be awarded the honour post-humously.

Over two months in the summer of 1917, the formidable “Black Flight,” an all-Canadian squadron led by Collishaw, shot down 87 enemy aircraft. Twenty-nine of those were destroyed by Collishaw himself—a record still unparalleled.

Collishaw also had several near-misses, and was shot down three times during World War I and was nearly captured by Bolsheviks during the mission in Russia. On one occasion his goggles were hit by an enemy bullet and he was forced to land his plane half blind. 

But whenever Collishaw crash-landed his plane he was known to emerge smiling, his courageous spirit unwavering.

“He had to be courageous and daring to do what he did, because if you look at the tri-plane that he flew, it was like a kite with an engine on it. It was made out of canvas, so there wasn’t much protection,” says Bird.

“You had to be fairly brave to do that.” 

Collishaw retired in 1943 and returned to Canada, settling in West Vancouver. His memoir “Air Command, A Fighting Pilot’s Story” was published in 1973. He died in 1976 at the age of 82.

In 1999, the passenger terminal at Nanaimo Airport was named after Collishaw, thanks to a successful campaign by Bird and others.

Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel