b. 04/08/1896 Nottingham. d. 07/05/1917 Annoeullin, France.
Albert Ball (1896-1917) was born at 301 Lenton Boulevard, Lenton, Nottingham on 14th August 1896, the son of a master plumber also called Albert, who in later years, became Mayor of the city and was knighted. His mother was Harriett Mary Page, and they had two other children other than Albert. In his youth, Ball had his own small hut behind the family house where he tinkered with engines and electrical equipment. He was raised with a knowledge of firearms, and conducted target practice in Sedgley’s gardens. Possessed of keen vision, he soon became a crack shot. He was also deeply religious.
Ball studied at the Lenton Church School, Grantham Grammar School and Nottingham High School before transferring to Trent College in January 1911, at the age of fourteen. As a student he displayed only average ability, but was able to develop his curiosity for things mechanical. His best subjects were carpentry, modelling, violin and photography. He also served in the Officers Training Corps. When Albert left school in December 1913 at the age of seventeen, his father helped him start a business called Universal Engineering Works in a building next door to the family home.
At the outbreak of war Ball volunteered for service in the Army and enlisted in the 2/7th Battalion of the Notts and Derby Regiment as a Private on 21st September 1914. He was promoted almost immediately to Sergeant, he was soon commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 29th October 1914. With no apparent hope of being sent to the fighting zone in France, Ball transferred to the North Midlands Divisional Cyclist Company, but continued to be stationed in England throughout 1915. Still determined to see active service, Ball turned to flying as a possible means of achieving his aim, and in June 1915 commenced private tuition as a pilot at Hendon with the Ruffy-Baumann School.
Due to his routine duties his flying progress was relatively slow, but on 15th October 1915 he finally gained his Royal Aero Club Certificate, No 1898, and applied for transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Further flying instructions were undertaken at Norwich and Upavon, and on 22nd January 1916 he was awarded his RFC “wings” brevet.
Transferred officially to the RFC on 29th January 1916, he was sent to Gosport for a brief period as an instructor with 22 Squadron, but on 18th February he was in France, reporting to his first operational unit, 13 Squadron RFC at Marieux. His squadron was equipped with two-seat BE2c’s – slow, stable machines, intended and used for general reconnaissance and bombing roles – and, after a series of moves, became based at Savy Aubigny airfield by mid-March 1916.
Ball was soon in the action over the fighting area and on 20th March had his first close brush with death due to engine failure. In the following weeks, he was flying daily; bombing and observing for the artillery, and ever alert to any opportunity to get to grips with German aircraft, despite the unsuitability of his aircraft for any form of air combat. He also became unhappy with having an observer, preferring to fly alone. An occasional flight in one of the squadron’s two single-seat Bristol Scouts gave Ball the individual “freedom” he longed for, and on 7th May 1916 he was posted to 11 Squadron RFC and given a single-seat Nieuport Scout in view of his obvious fighting potential.
On 1st June 1916, flying Nieuport 5173, he deliberately circled above the German airfield at Douai, inviting combat, and then forced two aircraft which took up this impudent challenge to hastily land again. After a brief spell of home leave, he returned to action, and on 26th June destroyed an observation balloon with phosphor bombs. This action led to his first gallantry award, a Military Cross, gazetted on 27th July 1916. By mid-July however the effect of almost continuous fighting and flying began to tell on Ball’s highly sensitive nervous system, and he requested a brief rest.
Two days later, he was posted to 8 Squadron at Bellevue, flying his hated BE2cs again. Despite disappointment he did his duty and carried out routine sorties, but did pester his Squadron Commander with numerous requests to volunteer for any unusual or dangerous missions. These missions included spy-dropping flights; while on 9th August he attacked a German observation balloon in his cumbersome BE2d and forced its crew to take to their parachutes. His attempts to prove himself paid off, and on 14th August – his 20th birthday – he was posted back to 11 Squadron, where a newly-issued Nieuport Scout was already allotted for his personal use. During the remaining weeks of August Ball began a run of combats and victories.
On 1st September 1916, 60 Squadron moved base to Savy Aubigny, and Ball returned with delight to the wooden hut which had been his “home” there. He then returned to England for two weeks’ leave, with the added distinction of an award of the DSO. On his return to 60 Squadron he was greeted with the news that he had been promoted to command of his Flight, while on the 13th came the award of a Bar to his DSO. Only two days later he was notified that Russia had awarded him her Order of St George, 4th Class.
Although now a Flight Commander, he seldom led his men into action; preferring to hunt and fight alone; thereby leaving his mind wholly concentrated on his task of fighting. In September 1916 he had a total of at least 23 individual combats, from which he claimed six enemy aircraft destroyed, eight more forced down, and one out of control. A final day of fighting on 1st October brought him three more claims. On 4th October he was sent home to England, for leave and a “rest” posting on instructor duties. His return to Nottingham was heralded with nationwide publicity. On 18th November, he attended Buckingham Palace for the award of his DSO and Bar and MC. On 25th November, the London Gazette cited the further award of a second Bar to his DSO – making him the first “triple DSO” in the British Army.
In February 1917 he was made an Honorary Freeman of the city of Nottingham. He was desperate to return to the front, and he joined 56 Squadron RFC; a newly formed fighter unit and they left for France on 7th April 1917, arriving at Vent Galand airfield, a few miles north of Amiens. On 22nd April, he led the Squadron’s first operational patrol, and the following day, he achieved the unit’s first victory by crashing an Albatross two-seater. On 6th May 1917, he would claim his last victory: an Albatross Scout of Jagdstaffel 20, which he surprised near Sancourt.
On 7th May 1917, he took part in a routine patrol for some Sopwith bombers of 70 Squadron RFC in the morning; but at 6pm that evening Ball, in SE5 A4850, spearheaded an eleven-strong fighting patrol hunting for German aircraft. Within an hour, the Squadron were split up and engaged in a sprawling series of furious combats with Albatross D.III’s of the notorious Jagdstaffel 11, commanded by Germany’s “ace of aces” Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen, but led on this occasion by his younger brother, Lothar. During the confused fighting, 56 Squadron suffered heavily; having two pilots killed, two wounded, and two others forced to land. One of missing was Ball. Possibly the last to see him alive was Captain Cyril Crowe of B Flight, who joined him at about 8pm in attacking a lone red Albatross DIII piloted by Lothar von Richthofen. After the initial attacks, Ball disappeared into a bank of cloud, and didn’t reappear.
The only witnesses to his death were three German army officers who saw Von Richthofen’s Albatross crash with a dead engine near Annoeullin village; then a few minutes later, Ball’s SE5 emerge from low cloud, inverted and shallow-diving, emitting a thin plume of black smoke. Examination of the wreckage revealed no evidence of it having been brought down by any form of gun fire; while Ball’s body had no combat wounds, and his several injuries were all sustained in the crash.
He was buried in Annouellin Cemetery in France, surrounded by Germans, the only Englishman interred there. Following his death, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross and French Legion d’Honneur. In addition to his VC, DSO with Two Bars and MC, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf, French Legion d’Honneur and the Russian Order of St George, 4th Class. The medals are held by the Sherwood Foresters Museum, Nottingham Castle.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOTTINGHAM CASTLE MUSEUM.
ANNOEULLIN COMMUNAL CEMETERY, FRANCE. GERMAN EXTENSION, GRAVE 643.
Brian Drummond – Medal Group at Nottingham Castle, and the image of the Trent Bridge Memorial
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – images from Trent College, Nottingham