Albert Ball is one of the most famous fighter pilots in British History. A World War One hero, aerial ace and winner of the Victoria Cross, Albert had a celebrity-like following across the Nation. But Albert was also local boy, Nottingham born and bred, and educated in Erewash at Long Eaton’s Trent College.
Albert’s early life was comfortable. His father, also called Albert, was a successful businessman who started life as a plumber and ended knighted and Lord Mayor of Nottingham. His father indulged his love of engines and machines: Albert had a garden shed where he could tinker away. He was also raised to be at ease with firearms and was utterly unconcerned with heights, skills that would come in handy in his career. There is a telling story of Albert on his 16th birthday as a steeplejack, strolling along a high factory chimney without a care in the world. His family lived in Lenton so he was sent to the Church School, then Grantham Grammar, Nottingham High School and finally aged 14, in 1911, Albert transferred to Trent College, Long Eaton.
When war broke out he was only 18. He joined the Sherwood Foresters, the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire regiment, and then the Royal Flying Core. In the following year he distinguished himself as one of the best flyers in the country. He started with reconnaissance missions and then moved to a fighting unit. He gained recognition for his bravery by Distinguished Service Orders, the Military Cross and eventually a Victoria Cross. He once landed a horribly damaged aircraft, immediately tried to borrow another to get right back in the air. His commentators said he showed ‘conspicuous gallantry and skill’. Albert shot down 43 German aircraft with his incredible proficiency and tenacity. His bravery, youth and fantastic talent made him a national hero.
He was sent home for a short while to recuperate but returned to the Western Front in April 1917. On the night of the 7th May 1917 in Douai 11 British aircraft led by Ball in encountered German fighters. In the fading light they began a running dogfight and the aircraft were scattered. Ball was last seen by fellow pilots chasing the red Albatross fighter of Lothar von Richthofen and flying straight into a thundercloud. A German officer on the ground said he saw Ball's plane falling upside-down out of the cloud with obvious mechanical damage. The plane’s wreckage was found in a farmer’s field nearby. Ball had suffered a broken back, crushed chest and broken limbs.
There was a national outpouring of sympathy for the brave young man who died before his 21st birthday. He was posthumously awarded the VC. Tributes poured in from politicians like David Lloyd George, army men such as Field Marshal Haig, and his fellow pilots. Even the famous German ace, Manfred von Richtofen ‘the Red Baron’ said that he was undoubtedly the best English flying man.
After the war the British discovered Ball's grave behind enemy lines in the Annoeullin Cemetery and erected a new cross. At his father's request Ball's grave was left there and Albert Sr. paid for a proper memorial to be erected over the grave. Ball's father also bought the field of the crash site to erect a memorial stone.
Locally there are some memorials to his fame. A statue in the grounds of Nottingham Castle by the sculptor Henry Poole shows a life-size image of Ball with a female figure. The monument was unveiled in 1921 with military honours including a RAF flypast. The Albert Ball VC Scholarships were instituted at his old school, Trent College in 1967. He has been remembered nationally too: in 2006 Ball was featured on a commemorative stamp of Royal Mail marking the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross.
Although Albert’s career was cut brutally short his bravery and skill make him one of Nottingham’s most famous sons. This year, as the centenary of the Armistice that ended World War One, we think about the many young lives that were lost in that brutal conflict. Albert may have died young but his skill, bravery and pluck earned him a lasting place in the history books.