Albert Ball, the naughty hero

Today marks the 100th anniversary of that enigmatic character, Albert Ball. Nowadays, perhaps, Albert Ball is pretty much a forgotten name. He was, however, one of the greatest air aces of the Great War:

Ball photo

Albert was a natural fighter pilot, and initially, he always flew French Nieuport fighters (with a top speed of 110 m.p.h.):

This is a painting  of Albert’s very own Nieuport:

nieuport_ball cccccc

As well as the French fighter though, the English S.E.5 with its top speed of 138 m.p.h. was to hold a huge place in Albert’s affections in the latter period of his career:

Unlike many of his colleagues in the Royal Flying Corps, Albert gained widespread public fame for his achievements. In general, unlike the French or the Germans, the British did not use their aces for propaganda purposes, but Albert was the first brilliant exception. Almost like a medieval knight of the air, Albert shot down 44 enemy aircraft. In today’s world he would have been, quite simply, a superstar.

Albert was genuinely fearless, and the war weary English public of 1917 loved the way he flew alone, like a Knight of the Round Table, and always attacked the enemy aircraft, irrespective of the odds against him.  His favourite prey was the German Roland C.II, the so-called “Walfisch”:

Most of Albert’s victories came by attacking enemy aircraft from below, with his Lewis machine gun tilted upwards. It was very dangerous but, like the Schräge Musik cannons of a later conflict, was remarkably successful.

Flying without any other aircraft to support him, Albert was always going to be vulnerable, and he was finally killed out on patrol on May 7th 1917, shortly before his twenty-first birthday. For this last combat, Albert was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, to add to his Military Cross, Distinguished Service Order, Distinguished Flying Cross, Légion d’Honneur, Croix de Chevalier, Russian Order of St George and the American Medal.

medals 2

These medals can still be seen inside Nottingham Castle. Outside, in the gardens, is his statue:

statue xxxxx

His battered uniform has been carefully preserved:

coatcccc

And so has his shattered windscreen:

windscreenxxxxxxxx

On a more scurrilous note, Albert was always one for the ladies and every photograph of the dashing hero seems to have him with a different young lady in tow. In some of his biographies he is credited with having left an unknown, but relatively sizeable, number of the young ladies of Nottingham in, shall we say, a very interesting state.  Indeed, it would be interesting to know if anybody nowadays claims kinship with this dashing young man.

Albert was born on August 14th 1896 at the family home at 301, Lenton Boulevard (now 245 Castle Boulevard), Nottingham. He was the third child, and elder son, of Albert Ball and his wife, née Harriet Mary Page. A few years afterwards the family moved to Sedgley House, 43 Lenton Avenue, The Park, Nottingham, where they lived in a moderately wealthy fashion:

sedgly avenue xxxxxxx

Albert had a brother Cyril and a sister Lois. Their parents were always “loving and indulgent”. Albert Ball Senior had originally been a plumber, but he was an ambitious man and became an estate agent, and then a property speculator, as his fortunes improved. He was to be elected Mayor of Nottingham in 1909, 1910, 1920 and 1935.
As a boy, Albert was interested in engines and electrics. He had experience with firearms and enjoyed target practice in the garden. Thanks to his wonderful eyesight, he was soon a crack shot. On his sixteenth birthday, Albert spent a lovely day as a steeplejack, as he accompanied workmen to the top of a tall factory chimney. He was completely unafraid and strolled around, not bothered in the slightest by the height:

steeplejack1

Albert’s education began at the Lenton Church School. He then moved, along with his younger brother Cyril, to Grantham Grammar School, which had a military tradition that stretched way back into the Napoleonic times of the early 19th century, well before the establishment of other schools’ Officer Training Corps, or Combined Cadet Forces.

Albert moved to Nottingham High School on Thursday, September 19th 1907 at the age of eleven, as boy number 2651. According to the school register, he was born on August 17th 1896, although on his birth certificate, the date is certainly given as August 14th. Later in life, Albert was to countersign a certificate from the Royal Aero Club on which his date of birth was written as August 21st. His father is listed in the High School register as Albert Ball, a land agent of 43, Lenton Road, Nottingham.

Albert did not last a particularly long time at his new school, as he was to be expelled for bad behaviour in 1910. Contemporary sources reveal that Ball particularly enjoyed misbehaving in music lessons:

“The Third Form music master was a Mr Dunhill, who had one eye which was straight, but the other looked outwards at an angle, rather like half past ten on a clock. Boys always used to make fun of him. Whenever he shouted “Stand up you ! ! ! ” and looked at a certain naughty boy, four others would get up elsewhere in the room. “NO !  NO !  NOT YOU !! …YOU ! ! ” The original four would then sit down, and another four completely unrelated boys would stand up elsewhere in the room.
Albert Ball specialised in misbehaviour during these singing classes. He and his brother would invariably “kick up a terrible row”, and were then sent out of the room.”

at trent college

According to one Old Boy from just a few years later, however, Albert’s actual expulsion came from:

“an incident which took place at morning prayers. Ball took in with him a huge bag full of boiled sweets. At one point it was allowed to burst, and hundreds and hundreds of sweets were all dropped onto the floor. The whole school assembly then became one seething mass of boys, all scrabbling about on the floor, “heads down and bottoms up, completely out of control ”, trying to pick up as many sweets as they possibly could.”

That did not necessarily mean, however, that Albert misbehaved with every single teacher. The Chief History master, C.Lloyd Morgan, was to recollect in later years:

“I think I taught Albert Ball but can’t recollect him.”

Albert moved next to Trent College, where he was a boarder. He was only an average student, but he possessed great curiosity for everything mechanical. His favourite lessons were therefore carpentry, model making, playing the violin and photography. He was also a member of the Officer Training Corps:

armoury door trent college

Albert eventually left Trent College at Midsummer 1913. His stay there seems to have been for the most part relatively happy, although it was not always a totally enjoyable experience, by any means. On at least one occasion, for example, the unhappy young Albert is supposed to have run away to sea, and he was only apprehended at the very last moment:

“covered in coal dust, in the engine room of an outgoing steamer”.

Whatever Naughty Albert’s long forgotten negatives, though, there is something genuinely cool about being featured on your very own stamp. As far as I know, Albert is the only Old Boy of the High School to have achieved this:

Albert_Ball_stamp zzzz

During his career, Albert secured 44 victories over enemy aircraft with a further 2 unconfirmed.  Nobody can fight alone for ever, though. After just 13 or 14 months of combat flying, Albert was killed.

The end came 100 years ago to this very day. I have tried to schedule the appearance of this post so that it is published to celebrate this anniversary.  There is no clear indication of what happened in his last combat although four German officers on the ground all saw his SE5 emerge from low cloud, upside down, and trailing a thin plume of oily smoke. Its engine was stopped and the plane crashed close to a farm called Fashoda near the village of Annoeullin. Albert was still alive and he was removed from the wreckage by Mademoiselle Cécile Deloffre. As she cradled him in her arms Albert opened his eyes once and then died. His death was later found to be due to his injuries in the crash. He had not been wounded.  The chivalrous Germans gave Albert a funeral with full military honours on May 9th. The original white cross with which they marked his grave, No.999, is still kept in the chapel at Trent College.

Albert’s father, Sir Albert Ball, was eventually to become Lord Mayor of Nottingham. After his son’s death, he bought the land where the crash had occurred. When he died in 1946 he bequeathed it to the inhabitants of the village to farm and to keep the memorial in good condition:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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35 Comments

Filed under Aviation, History, Nottingham, The High School

35 responses to “Albert Ball, the naughty hero

  1. Certainly a man who deserves to be remembered!

  2. The story of Albert Ball was one of my dad’s favourites. When he was a boy he had a book called “The Boy’s Book of Heroes” and Albert gets included in the chapter about Heroes of the War.
    https://aipetcher.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/a-life-in-a-year-2nd-january-%E2%80%93-james-wolfe-and-the-boys-book-of-heroes/

    • Yes, he certainly was. Arguably, England’s first media star. Thank you so much for your interest.

    • Yes, he was certainly much very a hero to all the boys of England. His idea of attacking the enemy irrespective of the odds, seemed to echo the current idea that chivalry existed between these new knights of the air. Thank you so much for calling by!

  3. Was there ever confirmation that his adversary was von Richthofen? That might have been quite a confrontation!

    • Not that I’m aware of. I have the vaguest of memories that the Red Baron concentrated, if possible, on the obviously inexperienced first time fliers. Thank you for your interest, by the way.

      • It would be fascinating to know! Assuming Ball’s notoriety at the time was not well known to the Germans, the Baron might have thought that someone out on patrol by himself was inexperienced.

  4. Not sure if my first comment went through so here it is again! Sorry if it did!

    A nice mix, he sounds like quite a character and one we can all relate to. We had a maths teacher very similar and would always use the ‘wonky eye’ as a way of getting our own back. Children can be so nasty!

  5. Yes, that is very true, although I have always thought that you can win most of them over if you show a genuine interest in them as people. I suspect Mr Dunhill was just too remote and autocratic ever to have kids who had any real enthusiasm to do what he asked them to. Thanks for your interest, by the way.

  6. I never knew about Albert Ball, thanks for sharing his story.

    • My pleasure! If truth be told, he is pretty much a forgotten name now, but in his day, he was a household name. Lots of his memorabilia are in Nottingham Castle, especially his perspex windscreen with a bullet hole through it. That’s pretty cool!!

  7. A fascinating story about a man I had never heard of. Thank you, John

  8. An interesting character, for sure!

    • He certainly was! I think he was over indulged by very rich parents and that that explains a lot about him. He doesn’t seem to have been able to observe any kind of rules, either at the several schools he attended or even in the RAF where he always flew alone, never in formation with the rest. But as long as he was shooting down Germans, nobody seems to have bothered.

  9. Great post John. I really love that photo of the Memorial Stone, alone in a ploughed field.

  10. Good article John. Albert Ball reminds me of Bill Bishop’s service during the war.

  11. Simon Charles

    As a kid, i was always captivated by the smashed windscreen and hole in Nottingham Castle’s museum, and every time we visited (which was regularly as lived in The Park) I always went straight to that exhibit. I’d imagine the life expectancy of those Fly Boys was pretty low – and interesting to read his mortal injuries were caused by the crash, not by a German shell. Thanks again for the article – two thumbs up! Simon Charles

    • I think that their life expectancy could be measured in hours rather than days. Occasionally, one side would make a technological breakthrough and gain a temporary upper hand. This would include the Sopwith Triplane and the so-called Fokker Scourge when the dastardly Hun had monoplanes whose guns were synchronised and fired through the propeller. Simon Williams told the story on Midlands TV a few days ago about how Ball was killed. He went into a cloud, lost his bearings of up and down, and emerged flying upside down. That cut the fuel supply to the engine and he literally fell out of the sky. Even with Spitfires in 1940 a similar thing could happen so it must have taken a long time to solve the problem.

  12. Simon Charles

    that’s astounding – a pilot of his calibre became so disoriented in cloud that he didn’t realise he was flying upside down! – – – presumably the cockpits of those times did not have the instrumentation/artificial horizon dials that were commonplace in later years – eek.

    • I am not a pilot but I believe that it is very easy to fly the wrong way up without knowing it. It doesn’t happen nowadays because airliners are too big to fly upside down and the smaller aircraft have instruments and the pilots have all been trained that this is a specific problem. Mountain survival experts are trained that if they are buried in an avalanche, they need to spit to see which way is down before they start digging their way out, so the problem must be quite a widespread one.

      • I recall an article some years ago that made the case that many of the Great War aces were great shots but poor pilots, which is why many of them died in flying accidents after the war.

  13. Nice collection of pics and infomation

  14. Ted

    I’d never heard of Albert. Thanks for the write up on him. It looks like he was the man for the hour in a time which we have hanging in the fog of the distant past.

    The sad reminder of a lost life, the bullet hole in the windscreen.

  15. Great post John, lest we forget. I’m curious, did he serve on the ground prior to joining the Royal Flying Corps as so many did.

    • Ball joined the Sherwood Foresters, the local infantry regiment, at the beginning of the war and as the son of a rich man, he became a second lieutenant in October 1914. I don’t know if he ever saw action. In 1915, he moved to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and achieved his pilot’s wings in January 1916. I don’t think he would have taken very well to being given orders and obeying them, given his background of a spoilt childhood. In some ways, he was lucky that the RFC existed and he could transfer there and then operate on his own terms… alone!

  16. He also designed his own aeroplane. A man of many talents. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin-Ball_A.F.B.1

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