Albert Ball V.C. - Issue 14 (Sep - Oct 1981)
What The Gamekeeper Saw - Issue 49 (Dec 1987 - Jan 1988)
From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 14
September - October 1981
Albert Ball V.C.
At the corner of Sherwin Road and Church Street, Old Lenton, is the Lenton War Memorial, erected in 1920. On it are inscribed the names of the 256 men and one woman from Lenton who were killed serving their country in the First World War. The death of each of those named was, undoubtedly, a personal tragedy for the family and relations concerned, but the death of one of these Lenton men ranked at the time as a source of national sorrow - such was the esteem in which the British people had come to hold the name of Albert Ball. At a time when British and Allied fortunes were probably at their lowest point and the British people were continually shocked and appalled by the daily figures of reported deaths on the Western Front, the press found a symbol of renewed hope in the fighting spirit and achievements of Albert Ball - Britain's first and probably still its best known 'Air Ace'.
Sedgeley House, 43 Lenton Road
Albert Ball's father, also named Albert was the son of George Ball, a native of Lenton. Albert Senior began as an apprentice, and was later taken into partnership in his father's plumbing business in Willoughby Street. That the firm prospered can be seen from Kelly's Directory of 1895 which records the plumbers G. Ball and Son at not only 32 Willoughby Street and 324 Lenton Boulevard, but also in the town centre at 16 Low Pavement. Albert Ball Senior was an ambitious man and in the 1890s changed his profession to become an estate agent and general dealer in land and properties. The rapid success of his business career can be gauged by his frequent change of home address as he moved into ever more opulent surroundings. In 1893, Wright's Directory records Albert Ball of G. Ball and Son as living at 301 Lenton Boulevard and it was here in 1896 that his son Albert was born (*). However just to make it more complex, the house in Lenton Boulevard currently assigned that number is not the house in question.
Albert Ball Junior
For in the early 1900s a portion of the Boulevard was re-titled and renumbered so that the building, which is now addressed as 245 Castle Boulevard should be the one, marked out for the blue plaque. A directory for 1896-7 indicated a removal for it gave the Ball family home as in Mettham Street, Lenton, but did not add a house number. For a time G. Ball and Son used the corner shop (now housing La Grenouille -No.324 became 32 Lenton Boulevard when Castle Boulevard was created) as business premises so it is likely that the Balls had the adjoining part of the building to live in. The directories, however, soon reveal a further move, for in 1900 Sherwin Lodge, 60 Sherwin Road was the Ball residence. Soon after the turn of the century, the Balls made their final move to Sedgeley House at 43 Lenton Road. This is the high gabled building just inside the Park, which looks down on to the Nottingham Canal and the Castle Meadows. Here Albert, his brother Cyril and sister Lois were to grow up in genteel surroundings amid the trappings associated with moderate wealth.
Albert began his schooling at Lenton Church School and from there went on to Grantham Grammar School, but soon transferred to the Nottingham High School. At the age of 14, he began at Trent College in Long Eaton and remained there until 1913. Never a star pupil in academic subjects, he preferred pursuits such as photography, carpentry, learning to play the violin, and modelling in wood and metal. In fact he showed a strong mechanical bent and on leaving school at 17 with the help and influence of his parents, Ball started up in business with the Universal Engineering Works, the small electrical and brass founding concern on Castle Boulevard next door to the house where he was born*.
Albert Ball in his cockpit, London Colney late Mar 1917 on formation of
56 Squadron The aircraft was an S.E.5 (scout experimental). This was a
new aircraft produced by the Royal Aircraft Factory and altered to Albert
Ball's own specification.
On August 4th 1914, Britain declared war on Germany and Albert Ball, barely 18, was one of hundreds of Nottingham men who eagerly volunteered to fight for King and Country. In September he enlisted with the Sherwood Foresters as a private soldier in the ranks. But within days of enlisting, Ball was promoted to sergeant and soon afterwards to Second Lieutenant, principally because of his experience and training in the Officers Training Corps at Trent College. Instead of being sent to France, as he would have wished, he spent the first year of the war helping to train other recruits for the army. After a number of billets, he was sent to Perivale in Middlesex on a platoon officers training course. Nearby was Hendon aerodrome, a magnet for would-be pilots hoping to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) or the Royal Naval Air Service. Here civilian flying schools, for a private fee of £75 to £100 would tutor men for a Royal Aero Club Pilot Certificate - a necessary qualification for anyone seeking acceptance to the air services. Apart from the desire to try such a novel experience, flying offered Ball another means of getting to the fighting in France.
Needless to say, Ball obtained his Certificate, though at this stage he was viewed as merely an average pilot. After having got his wings and been officially transferred to the RFC, he was eventually posted to the No.13 Squadron in France in mid-February 1916. Soon he was fully occupied with patrols, artillery shoots and photographic missions.
In the 11 weeks he was with this squadron, he flew at least 43 operational sorties apart from many hours on test and practice flights, he had forced landed and he had even crashed writing off his aircraft. Albert Ball had certainly got his wish to see action.
Baron Manfred von Richthofen and his Jasta 11 Squadron
Albert Ball was then transferred to No.11 Squadron, which was already equipped with single-seater fighter planes such as the Bristol Scout and the Nieuport Scout. It was on these, that Ball began to build up his reputation as a lone fighter pilot. In those early days of aerial combat, there were no generally adopted fighting tactics and each pilot had to devise his own. Ball proved himself a fearless fighter and would attack German aircraft whatever their number. No odds seemed too great for him to tackle using his favourite tactic of out-manoeuvring his chosen target and then diving below the enemy aircraft and raking its underside with his machine gun. By late August, Ball was already acknowledged to have shot down more German aircraft than any other Allied pilot at that time. Yet Ball was not of a boastful nature. He had little time for the social aspects of service life and, unlike many of the other pilots; he rarely flew for simple enjoyment. For him, his aircraft had become simply a weapon of war, in which to do his duty for this country. When not in the air, he preferred to maintain or adapt some aspect of his machine or else to tend the kitchen garden he had created around his homemade wooden hut, which served as his billet out on the airfield. (So stationed he was always' ready for the call to combat, even on occasion going up wearing only his pyjamas, such was his eagerness to do battle.) In June, he was awarded the Military Cross and was made a full Lieutenant in August. On September 1st, a further award to him of a Distinguished Service Order medal was announced.
Albert Ball enjoyed two spells of home leave. On the first, immediately after the award of his DSO he had expected to spend time quietly with his family and friends generally winding down from the previous hectic months of flying and fighting in France. But his rising fame had preceded him. As a result of newspaper coverage of his deeds, he came home to find himself the centre of attention. On his return to the front, a week or so later, he was further awarded a Bar to his DSO and the Russian Order of St. George, 4th Class, and promoted to Flight Commander and then to Captain shortly after. Though not long back, he was given a whole month's leave to be followed by a posting in a Home Establishment. His homecoming this time was a major news event, recorded and illustrated in all the local and in many national newspapers and journals. In November he was presented with his medals plus a further Bar to his DSO by King George V himself at Buckingham Palace and also made an Honorary Freeman of the City by the Nottingham City Council - a rare honour for one so young. His first home posting was as a fighting instructor, thereby at least in theory, giving new pilots the benefit of his experiences in France. This was followed by a post as a Lewis and Vickers machine gun instructor. To Ball, this was all too absurd, that he, the RFC's leading fighter pilot, should be used in a mundane ground instructional role. He determined therefore to try and get back to France. His initial applications were promptly refused. But after continual badgering of higher authorities, Ball was informed that he was to be posted to the 56 Squadron of the RFC based at London Colney. On April 7th 1917 this squadron moved over to France.
During Ball's time away from the front, the nature of aerial combat had begun to change. The German air service now had many pilots with lengthy experience of air fighting. In combat they began to group together more and rely on teamwork. The days of the lone fighter were drawing to a close. There is a strong suggestion that Ball was only being allowed to return to France for a month to provide some veteran example to the many inexperienced pilots of the units.
If Albert Ball recognised that the opposition the Germans offered was now much stiffer, he made no mention of it. He continued to fight in the only way he knew - by constantly flying and attacking everything and anything which opposed him utterly regardless of the mathematical odds against him. He continued to succeed with these tactics and his tally of victories put him once more in top position amongst the Allied fighting pilots. The month was all but up.
Photograph taken at the official opening of the Captain Ball V.C. Memorial Homes
In the early evening of May 7th, Ball led his formation of eleven planes off on an offensive patrol to seek out a German fighter grouping over the Arras Front. Much is now known about the ensuing battle: for instance, that Ball's formation tangled with a group of fighters from Jagdstaffeln 3, 4, 11 and 33. Jagdstaffeln 11 was commanded by Manfried Von Richthofen, destined to become Germany's 'Ace of Aces' before his death the following year. On this occasion, however, Manfried was on leave in Germany and in his absence command of the unit passed to his younger brother Lothar Von Richthofen. After much aerial fighting, the British formation had been split up and Ball was last seen by other Allied pilots flying in pursuit of a German aircraft (later revealed to be piloted by Lothar himself). The German pilot was forced to crash land and Ball's plane disappeared on into thick cloud. After that, German eyewitnesses claim they saw Ball's plane re-emerge from the cloud upside down and then crash to the ground near a ruined farmhouse. Albert Ball died in the arms of a French girl who had been first on the scene and who had lifted the badly injured pilot from his shattered cockpit. At first, Lothar Yon Richthofen was accredited with bringing him down. But from the piecing together of all available evidence it seems quite likely that Ball was not shot down at all, but that once in the cloud, had become badly disorientated and emerged upside down and, with not enough time or height to recover control, had crashed to the ground.
The facts of Ball's last battle, not to mention a detailed account of his whole fighting career, drawn from the archives of the War Office and elsewhere, can be found in Albert Ball V.C. by Chaz Bowyer published in 1977. The biographer was able to draw on Albert Ball's copious correspondence to his family, written from the front. The book makes fascinating reading. Naturally, this article leans heavily on Mr. Bowyer's account for its source material.
Weather vane of the Captain Ball
V.C. Memorial Homes
After he failed to return from the mission, Ball was officially announced as missing and his parents informed. Everyone hoped that he had been taken prisoner, but at the end of May, the German authorities had messages dropped over, the British lines which made it clear that Albert Ball had been killed and his body buried at Annouelin. On the 8th of June it was announced that he had been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, and that the President of France had appointed him a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. In Nottingham a memorial service was held at St. Mary's Church, and Nottingham people packed the city centre to watch the procession to the church and pay their own tribute. The City Council decided to open a subscription fund to provide a tangible memorial to Albert Ball. Eventually a statue was commissioned and placed in the Castle grounds where it still stands. The Castle Museum has a special display of Ball's complete medals, photographs and various personal items. Scattered about England and Germany are various items kept as tokens to the memory of Albert Ball. Here in Lenton, we have a plaque in Holy Trinity Church and the mention on the War Memorial but more substantially - the Albert Ball Memorial Homes in Church Street.
Albert Ball Senior and his wife had these homes built in the early twenties to house the widows and mothers of Lenton servicemen killed in the war. Designed by a Col. A. W. Brewill, the eight homes opened on September 7th 1922, were considered models of compactness and comfort incorporating specific interior designs with the elderly in mind. The Balls handed the homes over to a set of trustees and put into trust a number of houses on Chain Row (the stretch of road between Church Street and Midland Avenue) the income from which was used to meet the upkeep and maintenance of the homes and even provide tenants with light and coal. The residents themselves were merely asked to pay a nominal rent. Now the original use of the homes has passed, the trustees stipulate that potential residents should have lived in Lenton for at least ten years prior to entry into the homes. When one of the homes becomes vacant, the trustees advertise in the local press for suitable applicants from whom they make their choice.
One of the rooms of the Captain Ball V.C. Memorial Homes
The exterior of the homes has many interesting features, which attract the attention of the passer-by. The building is designed to resemble an aircraft; the homes form the wings and the central porch the cockpit. The two centre homes even have curved walls, windows and doors to add to the cockpit theme. An impressive cupola resting on white pillars is crowned with a weather vane carrying the gilt model of Albert Ball's biplane. The stone inscription placed over the porch has the badge of the Royal Flying Corp and the blades of an aircraft propeller around it. The circular windows along the side are also intended to suggest propellers.
These homes are a striking and lasting monument to the brief life of Albert Ball born in Lenton 1896, died in France 1917.
(*) Soon after the publication of this article in 1981, Lois Anderson, Albert Ball's sister, contacted the magazine and informed us that the Castle Boulevard address was not her brother Albert's birthplace. The blue plaque should, she stated, be affixed to 32 Lenton Boulevard.
The original Lenton Listener article made a passing mention to a memorial plaque to Albert Ball erected in Holy Trinity Church. Reference to Captain Albert Ball can also be found on the family 'gravestone' which is situated against the south west wall of the church.
Click here to download a large version of this photo.
As our article makes clear Albert Ball was actually buried in France. To see photographs of Annouellin Cemetery and Albert Ball's gravestone - Click here.
From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 49
December 1987 - January 1988
What The Gamekeeper Saw
Albert Ball Junior
For the last forty-seven years Bill Ash has lived in Lenton, but at the time of our tale, viz. during the First World War, he was living with his parents on Lord Middleton's Estate. As you read on, however, the Lenton connection should become apparent.
Bill's father was a woodman on the Estate, which in those days included not only the parklands around Wollaton Hall, but also parts of Strelley, Bilborough, Aspley, as well as Wollaton itself. His job was to help look after the stands of wood, deal with any rogue trees that were damaged in high winds and generally keep the hedges in good trim. In his spare time he acted as gamekeeper for the resident of Aspley Hall, the brewer Heben Hardy, who had bought the shooting rights over the Estate lands from Lord Middleton. Mr. Ash would keep an eye open for anyone trying to poach the odd rabbit or pheasant. Young Bill, when not at the village school in Wollaton, loved nothing better than to accompany his father as he patrolled the Estate.
Bill Ash holding the broken propeller blade in
the back yard of his home in Osmaston Street.
On the day in question, sometime in 1916, (Bill cannot remember quite when, but then he was only nine years of age) father and son were out walking in woods and fields off Woodyard Lane, which can now be found to run between Wollaton Road and Wigman Road on the Beechdale estate. The quiet of the countryside was suddenly disturbed by the sound of a bi-plane flying overhead. All at once they saw it plummet towards the ground. The two of them raced the hundred or so yards across the ploughed field to the place where the plane had crash-landed. On reaching the aircraft, Mr. Ash recognised the pilot who was now standing beside his fuselage but, just to make sure, asked 'is that you young Mr. Albert?' To which Albert Ball replied in the affirmative. (Mr. Ash was familiar with the young gentleman as, in the course of his work, he had had occasion to take the odd brace of pheasant along to the Ball residence in The Park). Mr. Ash then enquired if the young pilot was all right. The manner in which Albert Ball phrased his answer indicated that it was only his pride that was hurt. As it was not every day a plane crash-landed in front of him, Mr. Ash asked Albert if he might have some small piece of the wreckage as a memento of the occasion. Albert Ball, still evidently rather annoyed with himself, replied 'you can have the whole b_____ lot'. Mr. Ash limited himself to a broken propeller blade.
The next day young Bill returned to survey the scene of the mishap and watched a team of men struggling to load the broken aircraft on to a lorry. Once safely aboard, the lorry and its load were slowly manoeuvred back to the road and driven away. Bill never did discover the reason for the forced landing and the mishap doesn't seem to have made the local papers. It's not even clear what Albert Ball was doing flying around the Nottingham area, as all his training took place elsewhere in the country. If anyone can shed some light on the matter, we're sure Bill would be pleased to hear from them. What subsequently happened to the plane is also a mystery, but as for the fate of the propeller blade that is more certain. It remained in the Ash household and is now one of Bill Ash's treasured possessions.
Albert Ball was less fortunate a year or so later, for in May 7th 1917, he crashed to his death in a field in Annoellin in France. For his endeavours in aerial combat in the First World War, Albert Ball was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Further web articles about Albert Ball V.C.