Raymond Collishaw was born on November 22nd 1893 at Nainamo, British Columbia, Canada. He was the eldest of 6 chidren. His parents were John Edward (Jack) Collishaw an itinerant miner originally from Wrexham, North Wales. His mother was Sarah (Sadie) Jones who although originally from Newport, once lived in Station Row, Braich y Cymmer, Pontyryhl. Relatives of his mother used to live in the Pantygog area of the Garw.
In 1908 Raymond, aged 15 joined the Canadian Fisheries Protection Fleet as a cabin boy, he led an adventurous life at sea, once taking part in a failed rescue attempt for the Stefansson expedition, the ship Karluk was trapped in the pack ice near the Arctic Circle he was awarded a Polar medal for his part in this but it was taken off him later, because he was considered ‘too young’, he left the service after 7 years with the rank of First Officer.
At the beginning of WW1 he applied straight away to join the Royal Naval Air Service but they never replied to his request, after visiting a Aero Show he became fascinated with flying. And after re-applying to join the R.C.N.A.S. and taking a Curtiss flying course in Toronto at his own expense! Collishaw solo’ed after only 8-1/2 hours flying time. In 1916, he was transferred to the cruiser H.M.C.S Niobe, first for basic training and then sent to Redcar Racecourse airfield in Yorkshire where he practiced in coastal patrol flying in French Caudron G3 and British Avro 504 aeroplanes guarding the North Sea Approaches.
Collishaw’s early flights were not always successful, once, while attempting to drop a message to another pilots girlfriend he flew so low that he crashed into a row of canvas toilets? And even though he was covered in the debris of toilet paper and excrement he managed to scramble free of the wrecked aircraft. Needless to say he did not impress the girl or indeed his commanding officer!
Eventually Collishaw was sent to South eastern France, firstly to the aerodrome at Luxieul les Bains where he flew in Sopwith Strutters. In January 1916 on a routine flight, but without an observer he was ‘jumped’ by six Albatros D6 enemy aircraft at once! As bullets ripped through his aircraft destroying his controls and smashed his goggles temporarily blinding him with broken glass. Collishaw pushed his aircraft into a shallow dive heading for some trees to try and lose his attackers. One Albatros crashed trying to follow him down, another strayed across his gunsights just long enough for him to get off a burst from his guns and that went down in flames? Somehow he managed to lose the remaining 4 attackers in some cloud. He then attempted to navigate his way back to base.
On seeing an airfield below him he nursed his crippled plane for a landing, as he taxied his plane along the ground he noticed groups of people running towards him ‘to help.’ Then, realising that they were in fact in German uniform; Collishaw restarted his engine and took off again closely followed by two Fokker aircraft, they fired at him and shot away his undercarriage, but for the second time that day he managed to lose both of the Germans in some cloud. He finally ‘pancaked’ his plane at a French aerodrome near Verdun, where his eye injuries were patched up by a local optician/doctor. The French authorities awarded him the Croix de Guerre for this action.
This also led to a promotion and he was transferred to a fighter squadron equipped with Sopwith Pups and because most of the pilots had a Naval Air Service background they were nicknamed the ‘Sopwith Sailors? The Sopwith aircraft were known for their amazing turning ability and Collishaw had a very succesful time with this squadron and as their main job was protecting long range bombers from enemy fighters he soon able to further hone his skills as a pilot by shooting down even more German aircraft.
In April 1917 Collishaw was posted to a Canadian Royal Naval Air Service squadron consisting of Sopwith (Tripe) Triplanes, these planes were considered slower that the German Albatros triplane but much more agile in the air? Tripes were also referred to as ‘ Flying Stepladders’, because of their design. Collishaw commanded B. Flight, all the pilots were Canadians. B. flight aircraft were also distinctive because the engine cowlings and wheels where painted black! Pilots further personalised their aircraft by naming them! eg Collishaws plane was Black Maria, (allegedly named after Maria Jones, an Aunt) and the others were Black Sheep, Black Arrow, Black Death, Black Prince, Black Cat, Black Bess, Black Tulip, and the rather oddly named Black Roger? ( I have since discovered this was apparently named after the pirate flag the Jolly Roger)
During its short history, Black Flight as it became known were formidable. On one day alone June 6th 1917 they shot down between them 10 enemy aircraft without a single loss to themselves! Collishaws squadron often came up against the Jagdstaffel 11 of Baron Manfred von Richthofen. ( also known as Richtofens Flying Circus.) Collishaw is in fact credited with the shooting down of the Red Baron’s second in command Karl Almenroeder, himself an ace with 30 kills already to his name!, Collishaw himself was unsure about this, he admits to getting off a 3 second burst at extreme range at Allmenroeder but apparently a nearby Anti-aircraft battery has a better claim? However it is his bringing down of a German ace with 30 kills is celebrated on a commemorative stamp? Collishaw himself was credited in his medals citation for the period 10/6/1917 to 24/6/1917 with a total of 14 enemy aircraft shot down. As a mark of respect for a brother airman Collishaw attended Richthofen’s funeral when he too was finally shot down in April 1918.
A rather unusual story related by Collishaw was that he once took part in an aerial battle in which not a shot was fired? Apparently his flight was attacked by a squadron of German Scout planes and as the oil in both sides machine guns had frozen due to the altitude, both sides flew around each other in an aerial ballet until their fuel ran low and then both sides turned for home.
Collishaw had yet another miraculous escape from death one day while flying over Messines Ridge. His aircraft was attacked and the enemy bullets smashed into his engine cowling causing it to jam itself into the aircrafts wing struts! Collishaw craft spun out of control and turned upside down this caused the seat belt to snap throwing him out of the cockpit? As he fell out, he reached for and grabbed the wings centre strut and held on for his life. His hands were getting frostbitten and he was losing his grip, but somehow he managed to succeed in kicking the joystick and the aircraft flipped forward throwing Collishaw back into the cockpit, giving him only seconds to regain full control of his aircraft and level out before it hit the muddy ground behind his own lines, typically Collishaw was back in the air the very next day.
Towards the end of the war Collishaw was given promotion to major and given command of 203 Squadron flying Sopwith Camels, although his ‘official’ tally of ‘kills’ was 60. His unofficial tally was a lot more. Collishaw would ‘help’ an inexperienced pilot by giving him a ‘kill’ to boost his confidence. He also ‘downed’ 8 observation balloons, these were considered to be the most dangerous thing to attack because they were always heavily protected by batteries of Anti-aircraft guns. Collishaw was shot down and injured many times but always managed to walk away.
His service in the Great War was exemplary enough but his further adventures afterwards in Revolutionary Russia, deserves some telling. I will be happy to relate them in another article at another time if there is any further interest. His exploits in the Post WW2 years and his service during that war are worthy of note as well.
Raymond Collishaw could well have been the blueprint for Biggles, and certainly the basis for a Hollywood blockbuster. Although Collishaw’s links with the Garw were arguably slender, his remarkable story needs telling.
I believe he did visit the Garw on several occasions times to visit relatives in Pantygog? If anyone has a personal memory of the great mans visit I would be pleased to hear it..
Gerald Jarvis pp G.V.H.S.
Edited by Jean Fowlds.