Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight
April 29, 2014
Review By Andrew Iarocci
Raymond Collishaw (1893-1976), a native of Nanaimo, began his career in uniform as a teenager with the Canadian Fisheries Protection Service. In 1915 Collishaw volunteered for the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). He qualified as a pilot in early 1916, embarking on a career in military aviation that was to last until 1943, when he retired from the Royal Air Force (RAF) with the rank of air vice marshal. During the First World War, Collishaw flew with the RNAS until it was amalgamated with the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) to form the RAF in 1918.
In Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight, Roger Gunn focuses primarily on Collishaw’s experience during and immediately after the First World War, a conflict that took him from Canada to Britain to the Western Front, and then to Russia and Mesopotamia. Gunn addresses Collishaw’s interwar and Second World War service only briefly, in an epilogue.
Employing a heavily narrative approach, Gunn leads the reader through Collishaw’s various wartime postings while illuminating some key themes in his career. In particular, Gunn’s rendering of Collishaw’s war service sheds light on the material culture of First World War flying and the everyday routine of aircrew. Readers who are familiar with Great War aviation will be reminded that surviving flight training was a feat in itself, not to mention two or three years of active operations.
Drawing on primary evidence from Library and Archives Canada, Gunn also cites a broad selection of memoirs and other published material. Scholarly readers will note that lengthy tracts of the text are less than fully cited, a deficiency that obscures Gunn’s specific use of evidence at many points. Gunn also makes rather frequent use of lengthy block quotes, from primary and secondary sources, which tend to interrupt the narrative flow. A portion of these might well have been cut back or paraphrased.
This study leaves room for further analysis of certain aspects of First World War aviation and Collishaw’s career. Gunn acknowledges, for example, that the official scores credited to air aces in the British flying services were likely inflated or otherwise distorted. It would have been beyond the scope of Gunn’s research, and probably beyond the available evidence, to offer any concrete revisions for Collishaw’s score (which may have been under-reported). At the same time, Gunn would have done well to explore more fully the various factors that influenced official scoring, as well as the role that air aces played in wartime propaganda. In this regard, the reader is left to wonder why Billy Bishop (with seventy-two official victories) is so widely remembered today, while Collishaw (with as many as sixty-one official victories) is far less well known, certainly outside his home province of British Columbia.
Given Collishaw’s significance as an aviator and a leader during the First World War, it is perhaps unfortunate that Gunn did not examine his postwar career in greater detail. As it stands, the book is relatively compact, and there is certainly space for a chapter-length examination of Collishaw’s role in the RAF between 1919 and 1943. For example, it would have been interesting to learn more about how Collishaw’s experience during the First World War shaped his approach to command during the Second World War. Gunn offers no explanation for Collishaw’s apparently sudden retirement from the RAF in 1943.
Concise and accessible, Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight will appeal to general readers and aviation enthusiasts. Scholars may find that the book invites further fruitful questions about Collishaw’s postwar career and his role in Canadian public memory.
Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2013. 272 pp. $26.99 paper