Remembering Capital Albert Ball VC

Today, on the date of his final flight, we remember Captain Albert Ball VC, one of Nottingham’s great heroes. Discover the story of one of the most distinguished fighter pilots of WWI, on the day that we honour his memory. 

Ball with an obsolete Caudron G.3, widely used as a trainer in 1915–16, Imperial War Museum Photograph Archive Collection

Nottingham’s Captain Albert Ball VC, one of the most distinguished fighter pilots of the First World War, was only 20 years of age when he was killed near Annoeulin. The date of his fateful final flight was 7 May 1917.

Albert grew up in Lenton, Nottingham as part of an increasingly upper middle-class family. His father, also Albert, was a plumber but, as an ambitious intelligent man in the late Victorian era, he prospered and built a thriving profitable business – later branching out into development and property. He would later serve as a JP, sitting at what is now the National Justice Museum, alderman of the city and as Lord Mayor.

Young Albert was always intrepid. He was a near contemporary of Lucy Webster, who lived at 8 Brewhouse Yard, who remembered the young daredevil Albert fearlessly balancing on the Castle’s walls.

Albert didn’t grow out of this daringness as a teenager and, within weeks of his 18th birthday (21 September 1914), during the opening stages of the First World War, he had volunteered as a private in 1st Platoon, A Company of 2/7th Battalion Sherwood Foresters. He was swiftly seen as a leader by his superiors and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant at the end of October 1914. This would send him to Perivale in Middlesex for officers’ training when he would get his first experience of flying.

By the autumn of 1915 the Royal Flying Corps, forerunner of today’s Royal Air Force, accepted him for their flying school.

“Captain Albert Ball (1896-1917), VC” by Noel Denholm Davis (1876–1950) from The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Museum of the Mercian Regiment

Arriving on the Western Front in the spring of 1916, his apprenticeship was spent in slow and steady aeroplanes used for reconnaissance. Ball surprised his colleagues by throwing them around with gusto; his lack of fear was only matched by his curiosity about the mechanics of the machines. Sent to one of the world’s first fighter squadrons in May 1916, there was now a perfect opportunity for him to evolve into an extraordinarily effective combat pilot.

The fearless Ball often flew the famously unpredictable Nieuport Scout aircraft, regularly filled to the brim with incendiary rockets, which he would use to bring down German kite balloons in the first months of the Battle of the Somme. Other pilots were wary of the Nieuports and his cavalier tactics; Ball used them with reckless abandon to great effect.

Ball was, by now, one of the most effective pilots that the RFC had and by the autumn of 1916 he had won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Military Cross. Word was leaking back to Britain of this prodigy of the skies. Despite the Flying Corps’ insistence on the value of a team effort, Ball’s bravery was earning him hero status.

On 7 May 1917, after a vicious aerial dog fight with the German forces, Ball’s S.E.5 aircraft was spotted flying erratically then crashing near the village of Annouellin. He was still alive when a local girl dragged him from the wreckage, but his back and one leg were broken, and he died within minutes. Recognised by the Germans, he was carried the half mile or so from the crash site and buried with full military honours in the German extension of the town cemetery. A fitting tribute to a worthy adversary.

Photo by Tracey Whitefoot

On 7 June 1917, the London Gazette announced that he had received the Croix de Chevalier, Legion d’Honneur from the French government. The following day, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his “most conspicuous and consistent bravery” in action from 25 April to 6 May 1917. On 10 June 1917, a memorial service was held for Ball in the centre of Nottingham at St Mary’s Church, with large crowds paying tribute as the procession of mourners passed by.

His statue, which was funded by public donations from the people of Nottingham and sits in the grounds of Nottingham Castle, was unveiled on 8 September 1921. We will celebrate and rededicate the statue and one of Nottingham’s great heroes this year, on the centenary of its unveiling.