William Barker, who had the most successful flying career in the history of the Royal Air Force, won the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross and six other bravery medals. The log book for his Sopwith Camel B6313 is displayed in the Imperial War Museum. Former RCAF flying instructor Wayne Ralph of White Rock wrote the biography Barker VC: The Life, Death and Legend of Canada's Most Decorated War Hero (1997).

In 1917, William Barker was the brash Canadian pilot who provided the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's most famous Esquire short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". On Christmas Day, Barker, then 22, and a teenage comrade, undertook an unauthorized aerial attack in northern Italy, attacking a German aerodrome during bad weather. This action so irritated the Germans that they launched a spontaneous retaliation on Boxing Day. The German counter-attack proved unsuccessful, according to Wayne Ralph, largely because so many of the German pilots were drunk or hungover.

Born in Dauphin, Manitoba on November 3, 1894, Barker grew up in Victoria and later became the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1927. Returning home, Barker also became a pioneer in Canada's fledgling civil aviation industry, starting an ill-fated business with flying ace Billy Bishop. Estranged from his family and always struggling with a drinking problem, Barker never settled into civilian life. When he died in an Ottawa airshow crash in March of 1930, his state funeral was the largest in Toronto's history. He is entombed in a crypt with the name Smith on the tomb's door -- because that was his wife's maiden name. In March of 1998, Nepean-Carleton MP David Pratt introduced a motion in the House of Commons to commission a statue to honour Canada's most decorated war hero, Lt. Colonel William Barker, after reading Ralph's biography.

More WW II veterans die every day than at the height of the Second World War. Based on his tape-recorded interviews over the past four years with more than 100 pilots, Wayne Ralph has written Aces, Warriors and Wingmen: Firsthand Accounts of Canada's Fighter Pilots in the Second World War (Wiley, $34.99), a follow-up to his biography Barker VC that resulted in two television documentaries. Wayne Ralph is one of the characters in the new book as he describes his efforts to contact and interview his subjects to gain their firsthand narratives and reveal the emotional lives of the fighter pilots. More than 40 life stories are told in detail. Included are Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm carrier pilots, Coastal Command anti-shipping pilots, night fighter and intruder pilots and navigators on the Mosquito and Beaufighter, fighter bomber pilots on the Typhoon and the day fighter pilots flying Spitfires, Hurricanes, Kittyhawks, and Mustangs. More than 20 of Ralph's interviewees died in the two years preceding publication.

Wayne Ralph was born in St. John's, Newfoundland. He grew up in a military family and served in the Candian armed forces between 1965 and 1973. A pilot with Pacific Western Airlines, he also edited Wings Magazine (1976-1981 and completed an MA in 1983 with a thesis on weapons procurement. He is the past president of the Air Force Officers Association of Greater Vancouver, a member of the Air Force Association of Canada, the Aircrew Association and the Royal Air Force Club, London. He has published various aviation articles and received the McWilliams Medal of the Manitoba Historical Society and the McIntyre Research Award of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society for his first book.


Barker VC-The Life, Death and Legend of Canada's Most Decorated War Hero (Doubleday, 1997) 0385256825

Aces, Warriors and Wingmen: Firsthand Accounts of Canada's Fighter Pilots in the Second World War (Wiley, 2005) 0-470-83590-7

[BCBW 2005] "War"