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Vanished Airfields – Barker Field and the war hero behind the name

July 2016

Toronto was once a beehive of aviation activity, with numerous small public and private airfields in the area, most of which have vanished from the landscape with little to remind people today of the property’s aviation past.  Barker Field is one of those vanished airfields.

Originally named Century Airport, the privately owned aerodrome opened in 1927, in Downsview, North York Township, Ontario.

The name was changed to National Air Transport Airport, but on 6 June 1931, aerodrome was re-named Barker Field in honour of World War I fighter ace, LCol William (Billy) Barker, VC, DSO and Bar, MC and 2 Bars, Canada’s most decorated serviceman who died in an aeroplane crash in Ottawa the previous year.

In attendance at the official opening ceremonies of Barker Field were several military and non-military dignitaries including Barker’s friend and fellow WWI pilot Colonel William “Billy” Bishop, VC, fellow WWI pilot Captain Roy Brown, DFC, Minister of National Defence Honouray Colonel Donald M. Sutherland and Toronto Mayor William J. Stewart.

The airfield, located on the northwest corner of Lawrence Avenue and Dufferin Street, made use of grass and dirt surfaces for the three runways, positioned in a triangle shape that would later become the standard for airfields of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in World War II.

Several air operators made Barker Field their home, including Toronto Airways and Century airways.  National Air Transport built a hangar and administrative offices for their operations in 1931.  Also in 1931, Canadian Colonial Airlines commenced a Toronto to Buffalo passenger service from Barker Field.  In 1937, Leavens Brothers Air Service re-located to Barker field and ran an aviation training school from the aerodrome.  Additional hangars and workshops were built for their use.

Cyril L. Murray owned Barker Field from 1937 until the late 1940s, operating his company, Murray Aeronautical Corp Limited, from the aerodrome.

Marion Orr was the last owner of Barker Field, operated her flying school, Aero Activities Limited, from the aerodrome from 1950 until 31 December 1953, when the aerodrome closed due to increased development in the area.

The property is now used for commercial, warehouse and light industrial operations.  Nothing remains of the aerodrome, nor are there any hints as to the property’s aviation past.

While there is no longer an airport in Ontario named after Billy Barker, the airport in Dauphin, Manitoba, a former World War II training base, was re-named the Lieutenant Colonel W.G. (Billy) Barker, VC Airport in 1998.

The man behind the name

So who was William George (Billy) Barker?  He was a World War I fighter pilot who would go on to win the Victoria Cross and become Canada’s most decorated serviceman.

Born in Dauphin, Manitoba, at his family’s farm on 3 November 1894, Barker developed a passion for flying in his teens after watching pioneer aviators flying Curtiss and Wright Flyer aircraft at farm exhibitions.

In December 1914, Barker enlisted in the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles and went to England in June 1915 with the regiment.  From there he went to France the following September.  Barker served as a Colt machine gunner with the regiment’s machine gun section until late February or early March 1916.

Barker then transferred to No. 9 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps as a probationary observer, flying in the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 aircraft.

He was commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant in April 1916 and assigned to No. 4 Squadron, but by 7 July was transferred to No 15 Squadron.

On 21 July, Barker claimed a Roland scout “driven down” with his observer’s gun, and in August claimed a second Roland, this time in flames. He was Mentioned in Despatches around this time.

He officially qualified as an Observer on 27 August 1916 and on 15 September he worked for the first time with Canadian troops, including his old regiment.

On 15 November Barker and his pilot, flying very low over the Ancre River, during the Battle of the Somme, spotted a large concentration of 4000 German infantry massing for a counter-attack on Beaumont Hamel. They sent out a signal to nearby artillery regiments to fire on the troops.  Barker was awarded the Military Cross for this action.

In January 1917, Barker commenced pilot training and on 24 February 1917, returned to serve a second tour on Corps Co-operation machines as a pilot flying B.E.2s and R.E.8 aeropanes.

On 25 March Barker claimed another scout ‘driven down’ and on 25 April 1917, during the Arras Offensve, Barker and his observer Lieutenant Goodfellow, spotted over 1,000 German troops sheltering in support trenches. Barker and Goodfellow directed artillery fire into the positions, thereby nullifying a German counter-attack.

A month after being awarded a bar to his Military Cross in July 1917, Barker was wounded in the head by anti-aircraft fire.

Barker spend a short time as an instructor in the United Kingdom as an instructor before being transferred to “C” Flight of No. 28 Squadron as a scout pilot, flying the Sopwith Camel. Although Barker was reportedly not a highly skilled pilot, sufffering several flying accidents during his career, he was an aggressive pilot and a highly accurate marksman.

No. 28 Squadron moved to France on 8 October 1917, and then onto Italy.

One of Barkers most successful but controversial raids was on 25 December 1917, an event which was fictionalized by Ernest Hemmingway in the short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, saw Barker and his observer Lieutenant Harold Hudson, shooting up the airfield of Fliegerabteilung, setting fire to one hangar and damaging four German aircraft before dropping a placard wishing their opponents a “Happy Christmas.”

Barker was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in March 1918.

Barker was passed over as Commanding Officer of No. 28 Squadron, owing primarily to his tendency to ignore orders by flying many unofficial patrols. Barker requested a transfer to No. 66 Squadron in April 1918, where he claimed a further 16 kills by mid-July and then moved on to become Commanding Officer of No. 139 Squadron.

By this time, Barker’s personal Sopwith Camel (serial no. B6313) had become the most successful fighter aircraft in the history of the RAF, having used it to shoot down 46 aircraft and balloons from September 1917 to September 1918, for a total of 404 operational flying hours. It was dismantled in October 1918, with Barker keeping the clock as a memento, although he was asked to return it the following day.

Having flown more than 900 combat hours in two and one half years, Barker was transferred back to the UK in September 1918 to command the fighter training school at Hounslow Heath Aerodrome.  During his service in the Italian theatre, Barker claimed some 33 airplanes destroyed and nine observation balloons downed individually or with other pilots.

Barker was awarded the Victoria Cross, highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth militaries in time of war, for his actions on 27 October 1918.  While serving as a temporary member of No. 221 Squadron, Barker attacked a German Rumpler, destroying it, but was wounded three times in the legs and one in his left elbow.  Despite being badly wounded, he managed to control his Snipe aeroplane and shoot down three more enemy aircraft. The dogfight took place immediately above the lines of the Canadian Corps. Severely wounded and bleeding profusely, Barker force-landed his aeroplane inside Allied lines and was quickly rushed to a field dressing station.

The fuselage of his Snipe aircraft was recovered from the battlefield and is preserved at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario.

After being hospitalized, he was in grave condition and was not able to be transported back to England until January 1919.  He was awarded his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace on 1 March 1919, although he was still having trouble walking at the time.

The Overseas Military Forces of Canada recognized Barker as “holding the record for fighting decorations” awarded in the First World War and the most decorated Canadian of the war, with the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and two Bars, the French Croix de guerre and was mentioned in dispatches three times.

After the war, Barker went into the aviation business, founding Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes Limited with fellow Victoria Cross recipient and Canadian fighter ace Billy Bishop, although the venture lasted for only about three years. In 1922 he re-joined the fledgling Canadian Air Force at the rank of Wing Commander and served as the Station Commander of Camp Borden from 1922 to 1924.

In early 1924, Barker was appointed Acting Director of the RCAF and one of his achievements in the RCAF was the introduction of parachutes for pilots.

After leaving the RCAF he became the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club.

For the remainder of his life, Barker continued to suffer from the physical effects of the gunshot wounds he received in 1918.  His legs were permanently damaged and he suffered severely limited movement in his left arm. He also struggled with alcoholism in the last few years of his life, likely due to what we would now consider as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Barker died on 12 March 1930 while doing a demonstration flight at RCAF Station Rockcliffe, near Ottawa, when he lost control of his Fairchild KR-21 bi-plane and it crashed.  He was 35 years old and was the President and General Manager of Fairchild Aircraft of Montreal at the time.

Barker’s funeral in Toronto was the largest state funeral the city had ever seen, with an honour guard of 2,000 soldiers.  The procession stretched for more than a mile and a half and included the Chief of the General Staff and his senior officers, Lieutenant-Governor William Ross, Toronto Mayor Bert Wemp, three federal cabinet ministers, six other Victoria Cross winners and an honour guard from the United States Army.  Over 50,000 spectators lined the streets of Toronto along the procession route to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where Barker was interred in his wife’s family crypt in the mausoleum.

A plaque on his tomb in the mausoleum, officially unveiled on 22 September 2011, describes him as “The most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth of Nations.”

In the years after his death, numerous honours have been bestowed upon Barker.  In his hometown of Dauphin, Manitoba, an elementary school is named in his honour as is local Royal Canadian Air Cadets squadron.  The Dauphin Airport (a former WWII British Commonwealth Air Training Plan training school location), was re-named the Dauphin – LCol W.G. (Billy) Barker, VC Airport in 1998.

The Southport Aerospace Centre, formerly RCAF Station Portage La Prairie and current home of No 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School, named their new flight student barracks after Barker in 2012.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/vanished-airfields-barker-field/

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