William George Barker: Canada’s most decorated war hero

. Library and Archives Canada

Canada’s most decorated war hero is being publicly recognized 81 years after his death.

On Thursday, a monument to First World War flying ace William George Barker will be unveiled in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant cemetery.

Barker’s family says today’s ceremony will finally give Barker the recognition he deserves. Barker’s grandson, Ian Mackenzie, says one of Canada’s finest war heroes shouldn’t have been hidden away in a family crypt. “They should have built a public monument for him…It’s a very fine day for us and proud day for us,” says Mackenzie.

Although Barker is Canada’s most decorated war hero, few Canadians are familiar with his story, which has been largely eclipsed by legendary military pilot Billy Bishop.

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Barker was born on November 3, 1894 in Dauphin, Manitoba.

As a boy he had an affinity for riding horses and shooting his service rifle at ranges in Dauphin and Winnipeg. It was no surprise then when he enlisted with the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles at the beginning of the First World War in 1914.

In March 1916, Barker transferred to the No. 9 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. He flew in a BE-2 single-engine reconnaissance plane for the No.9, No.4 and No. 15 Squadron. 

On November 15, 1916, Barker and his pilot spotted 4,000 German troops, readying for an attack on Beaumont Hamel, a village in northern France.

Barker sent out an emergency call for all available artillery in the area, effectively breaking up the German infantry. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions.

In 1918, Barker was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on October 27, 1918. While flying in his Sopwith Snipe single-seat fighter plane at 21,000 feet above France’s Forest of Mormal, Barker crossed enemy lines.

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Barker opened fire against 15 enemy aircraft. He was shot three times but managed to keep control of his plane while shooting down three more aircraft. Bleeding and severely injured, Baker landed his Snipe inside Allied territory. He was taken to a hospital in Rouen, France, where he clung to life. His injuries still so severe, Barker was unable to walk a few paces to receive the Victoria Cross at England’s Buckingham Palace until March 1, 1919.

William Barker’s stats

Barker served in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1914 to 1919, and 1922 to 1926.

He is credited with 33 aircraft destroyed, the highest for any pilot during the conflict.

He holds the record for fighting decorations awarded in the First World War, including:

• The Victoria Cross
• The Distinguished Service Order and Bar
• The Military Cross and two Bars
• Mentioned in Despatches three times
• France’s Croix de Guerre
• Two Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour 

After the war

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Following his service in the military, Baker started Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes Limited with fellow flying ace, Billy Bishop. 

In 1922, Barker rejoined the Canadian Air Force as a wing commander, and served at Camp Borden from 1922 to 1924 as Station Commander.

He was appointed acting director of the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924. In between courses at the RAF Staff College, Barker spent two weeks in Iraq to learn more about air power in combat. He is credited with introducing parachutes in the RCAF.

Barker resigned from the RCAF in August 1926. He returned to Canada and worked in the tobacco industry, and became the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team.

Barker died in a plane crash near Ottawa in 1930. He was performing a demonstration flight for the RCAF when he lost control of his plane. He was 35 years old.

Barker’s funeral was attended by an honour guard of 2,000 soldiers, the largest national state event in Toronto’s history. 50,000 people lined the streets to Toronto’s Mount Pleasant cemetery, where he was laid to rest in his wife’s family crypt.

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