"Albert Ball V.C. "
February 2012 Meeting Report
Speaker - Brian Fernley
The February 2012 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in The Centenary Lounge on Friday 3rd February. The guest speaker for the evening was Brian Fernley and his subject was ‘Albert Ball V.C.’ This was similar to a talk that he gave to the Keyworth U.3.A. in 2011. There were over fifty people present for the talk, a very good turnout considering how cold the weather was. That number included several guests who were present for the talk. Brian began by explaining that he had attended a talk at Bottesford on Albert Ball but that the focus of the presentation was mainly on the man himself. Brian has a considerable interest in the types of aircraft relevant to the time and this part of the subject was missing. Consequently Brian decided to do a presentation himself that remedied this omission and made the talk more interesting for aviation enthusiasts as well as those who were more interested in the social aspect of the subject.
Brian began by stating that Albert was the third child of Albert Ball senior and his wife Harriett Page. Albert was born on 4th August 1896 in Lenton, Nottingham. Albert had an older sister named Hilda and a younger sister named Lois as well as a brother named Arthur. Sadly Hilda died when she was less than a month old. Albert was born into a relatively well-off family, Albert Ball senior having inherited his father’s prosperous plumbing business. Indeed, Albert Senior had actually qualified as a master plumber but with his growing prosperity and civic aspirations he decided to leave the plumbing business and set himself up in something more ‘genteel’. To do this he became an estate agent and left Lenton for the more refined area of Nottingham’s Park Estate. Albert’s mother, Harriett, came from a family with an engineering background and the young Albert seems to have been born with an interest in things mechanical. The family home in the Park Estate had a large garden and in that garden Albert junior had his own shed. There he could tinker with all manner of mechanical items, his particular favourite being to get old engines working again.
Albert’s parents were both loving and indulgent. One way in which this manifested itself was that the young Albert was given private shooting at home in The Park. No one could have envisaged how useful this would be in Albert’s later life! Albert senior dedicated much of his life to civic affairs, whether for personal or altruistic reasons are debatable. Indeed, so successful was Albert senior’s civic career that he was at one time Lord Mayor of Nottingham. Albert junior was fervently patriotic, a true child of Empire.
Albert junior was educated at Lenton Church School, Grantham Grammar School, Nottingham Boys High School and Trent College. It would seem that as a scholar Albert was, at best, of only average ability. This shortfall was made up for by a propensity for hard work. Albert also served in the Officers Training Corps. On leaving college in 1913 Albert began working at the Universal Engineering Works. This was a business that Albert senior had helped his son to set up and was situated next door to the family home. Albert worked here until the outbreak of war in 1914.
When war broke out Albert was one of the first to enlist. He joined the 2/7 Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters and was keen to see action. Albert was a prolific letter writer all his life and, like other young men of the time, thought that the war ‘would be over by Christmas’. He didn’t want to miss out on the chance of some action and adventure. Serving his country was a duty that Albert took very seriously and he did this with a bold and fearless attitude throughout his military career. Due to Albert’s experiences in the Officers Training Corps he was soon promoted to sergeant and, shortly afterwards, in October 1914 to 2nd Lieutenant. Ball’s regiment however was not posted to the front and Albert became restless for some action. To further this end he transferred to the North Midland Cyclist Company but was frustrated when they too remained in England. During this time he had been taking private flying lessons at Hendon Aerodrome with the Ruffy-Baumann School, being charged between £75 to £100 for instruction. In keeping with his abilities at school Albert was only of very average flying ability.
What Albert did possess was a very detached attitude to the dangers of flying. After witnessing the aftermath of one accident in which a young flier was killed he wrote back to his brother giving all of the gory details surrounding the accident and then went on to extol how thrilling the flying experience was and offering to take him for a flight. Albert completed his flying lessons in October 1915 and gained a flying licence. He then promptly requested a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. The request was partially granted and later that month he was seconded to 9 (Reserve) Squadron. Albert finally gained his ‘wings’ in January 1916. A week later he was officially transferred from the North Midland Cyclist Company to the Royal Flying Corps. A month later, in February 1916, Albert was posted to 13 Squadron RFC at Marieux in France, flying a two-seater Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c on reconnaissance missions. The primary function of the RFC at that time was flying observation sorties for the army. The squadron did possess a single-seat Bristol Scout and Albert liked to use that whenever he could. The operational independence that this gave was much more to his taste.
It was whilst flying the B.E.2c that Albert experienced his first aerial combat on 29th March 1916. Ball attacked a German plane, which escaped, Ball was then attacked by another German plane but that too soon broke off the action and disappeared. The action might have been inconclusive but it was very much to young Albert’s taste. In May 1916 Albert was posted to 11 Squadron, a unit flying a mix of fighters including Bristol Scouts, Nieuport 11’s, and Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b "pushers". Ball’s first combat victory occurred on 16th May 1916, whilst flying a Bristol Scout, when he shot down an Albatross ‘C’. Two more aircraft fell to Albert’s guns on May 29th, this time whilst flying a Nieuport.
Albert Ball seems to have been something of a ‘loner’. This might be partially explained by the fact that he was exceedingly shy. Rather than mess with his fellow fliers Albert built himself a wooden shed, adjacent to his aircraft, and lived in that. This was very handy as it afforded him the opportunity to practice and play his beloved violin. It also meant that Ball could get up at first light and go hunting for the enemy. Albert was possessed of a very pugnacious spirit and loved to ‘attack the Hun’ whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Albert’s score continued to rise and in late August, with his score on seventeen, he was transferred to ‘A’ Flight in the squadron and given a roving commission to seek out the enemy on his own. This suited Ball perfectly as he was at his happiest hunting alone. However, at the beginning of September Albert was sent on two weeks leave. It was at this time that he began to be feted as the R.F.C.s leading flier. With the adulation came military honours, and not just from Great Britain. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and promoted to Flight Commander; the Russians awarded him the Order of St George.
After his leave Albert was soon back in action and by the end of September he had added a further fourteen victories to his tally. Shortly after this Albert was sent on leave again, the strain of so much combat was beginning to tell and Albert began to lose some of his appetite for killing German airmen. His nerves were also beginning to get stretched to breaking point. Whilst on leave, during November, Albert attended Buckingham Palace to be invested with his D.S.O. and bar, plus a Military Cross. Shortly after the visit he was awarded another bar to his D.S.O. making him the first person to win the award three times. Albert became a national celebrity and his exploits were widely publicized. In March 1917 Albert had met a young girl named Flora Young, they immediately hit it off together and it wasn’t very long before the two were engaged to be married.
However, the enforced inactivity was not to Albert’s liking and as his nerves recovered so did his appetite to get back in the fray. This wish was granted when he managed to secure a posting back to 56 Squadron in April 1917. Throughout April Albert’s tally continued to rise and by the beginning of May his total of enemy aircraft destroyed stood at forty-four. This made him the leading scorer in the R.F.C. Ball’s last flight occurred on 7th May 1917 and is shrouded in mystery. Manfred von Richthofen’s brother Lothar Von Richthofen claimed to have shot Albert down but his claim is not generally supported. All that is known for definite is that Albert was seen pursuing a German aircraft into clouds and was next seen falling from clouds, upside down, and out of control, eventually crashing to his death. It appears that all of the injuries on Ball’s body were consistent with the crash; he certainly bore no bullet marks or any obvious signs of combat. What may well have happened is that, during the dogfight that Ball was in, he may temporarily have lost consciousness and consequently lost control of his aircraft. This was not an uncommon occurrence amongst fliers then and is still a problem now though today’s pilots have special suits designed to combat the problem.
What was certain was the England had lost her leading air ace and one of Nottingham’s most famous sons passed into legend. How much longer Albert would have been able to continue fighting is something of a mute point. He was certainly beginning to feel something of a cold-hearted killer and the stresses and strains of combat were certainly taking their toll on his mental and physical health. What is certain though is that he was an incredibly fearless fighter and a proud patriot of his country, more than willing to die in pursuance of our national honour. He was certainly the stuff that heroes are made of, an unlikely hero too when you look at his early history. In June, a month after his death, Albert was posthumously awarded Britain’s highest military award for bravery, the Victoria Cross. Albert Ball’s name lives on in Nottingham; there is a magnificent statue to him in the grounds of Nottingham Castle and a row of Alms Houses dedicated to him in Lenton. Memorabilia relating to Albert can be seen in Nottingham Castle Museum including his prized Victoria Cross.