Wing Commander Barker continues to inspire today’s RCAF leaders

News Article / April 25, 2018

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The Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Studies was recently renamed in honour of the Commonwealth’s most decorated war hero, Wing Commander William George Barker. In the following speech, delivered during the renaming ceremony on April 12, 2018, the school’s commandant reflects on Wing Commander Barker’s enduring legacy and the strong parallels between the First World War Ace and the modern RCAF school that is now named after him.

From Lieutenant-Colonel William Snyder

I am honoured to be here today on the auspicious occasion of the renaming of the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Studies [CFSAS]. Under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Hood, the Royal Canadian Air Force has moved forward in regaining our historical ties. One important way of doing this is by ensuring that our past innovators and leaders are recognized.

Without a doubt, Wing Commander William G. Barker, Victoria Cross, is a standout amongst this group.

We are honoured today to have Wing Commander Barker’s three grandsons – Ian, Alec and David Mackenzie – join us for this ceremony. Thank you for being here and all of the efforts you have put forth to ensure the memory of your grandfather is preserved. I can assure you that my staff are excited at the prospect of being the first instructors at the RCAF W/C William G. Barker VC Aerospace College and we will proudly continue to ensure his name and his story is not forgotten.

I would like to address one of the first questions I was asked after the announcement that CFSAS was being renamed to RCAF Barker College. Why Barker? He was a First World War flying ace. What does he have to do with a school that teaches officer development, electronic warfare, space operations, and other technical courses.

At first I wasn’t sure how I could relate what was done by a First World War pilot, flying small biplanes only 15 years after the Kittyhawk’s first flight, to a technical school 100 years later. I started by researching Barker and reading the definitive biography, Barker VC, written by Mr. Wayne Ralph who is also present today. His excellent explanation of Barker’s First World War and post-war exploits helped to solidify my view that this renaming is appropriate.

There is no doubt that Barker was an innovator. Having grown up on a farm near Dauphin, Manitoba, he was quite comfortable using his hands and enjoyed tinkering with machinery. This was evident when he began his flying career. Unlike some pilots who tended to look down on the ground crew, Barker worked closely with the mechanics, getting his hands dirty as he working on modifications to his aircraft. Barker almost exclusively flew a single Sopwith Camel during the war: tail number B6313.

By the end of the war, this aircraft was extensively modified. The engine had been upgraded, leading other pilots to notice that Barker’s aircraft was always the fastest in battle. He also worked on modifications to make it more manoeuvrable and cut a section of the centre of the upper wing to improve his sight lines in battle.

This was not the only aircraft he modified. In the fall of 1918 [he modified an aircraft] to support the dropping of an Italian soldier behind enemy lines. Paradropping of personnel was not common and Barker immediately went to work with a group of mechanics to modify the Italian SP4 Bomber by cutting a hole with a trap door in the bottom of the fuselage. The actuation of this trap door at the right time allowed the accurate dropping of the soldier, without injuring him the process. The mission was highly successful and resulted in Barker being awarded the Italian Medaglio D’Argento.

This all sounds very close to the types of skills taught at RCAF Barker College during the operational test and evaluation course and the aerospace studies program. These courses teach current RCAF officers and non-commissioned members to identify shortfalls in equipment and research the required improvements. They learn how to organize and run a project in support of purchasing or designing equipment to remedy the shortfall. Finally, they are taught the procedures necessary to have the aircraft modified and properly tested for final implementation of the solution.

During the First World War, the aeroplane was a new addition to the battlefield. Initially employed by the army for ground observation, other uses of this new technology were discovered as the war progressed. Wing Commander Barker, along with other pilot on both sides, were instrumental in the development of the fledgling doctrine.

Barker quickly became involved in this process when he was initially employed as an observer in the back of the airplane, in charge of identifying targets and calling artillery to strike them. It was dangerous work as the Germans effectively employed anti-aircraft fire to deter or shoot down the observer aircraft before they could direct friendly artillery. Barker developed a process whereby he would call in artillery to supress enemy anti-aircraft fire, allowing him and his pilot time to identify targets behind enemy lines before calling in strikes against those targets. Once he became a scout pilot himself, Barker continued to develop tactics and doctrine, such as always turn towards your enemy, use of the sun or clouds for concealment and use wingmen and formations to support each other in attacking and to protect each other when under attack. These cornerstones of basic fighter manoeuvers are still in use today.

I can relate this to current RCAF Barker College Air Force officer development curriculum. During this time, junior RCAF officers are introduced to air force doctrine. Once they gain a basic understanding of the current doctrine, they are challenged to think about future developments in technology and tactics and how that will ultimately lead to changes. In this way, we continue the work started by Wing Commander Barker and others during the First World War, ensuring the RCAF of tomorrow is ready for new challenges and threats.

Perhaps the most difficult parallel to draw with Wing Commander Barker and the current college is in the realm of leadership. Anybody who knows anything about Barker knows he was, to put it lightly, a bit of a maverick.

The most infamous demonstration of this was probably the Piccadilly Circus event, where he flew a Sopwith Pup low over the war office in downtown London, snarling traffic and scaring people on the streets. Barker may not have had much time for staff officers and their rules, but when it came to leadership in the field, Barker was second to none. Other pilots relished the thought of being posted to a flight led by Barker. It became a bit of a badge of honour to say that you flew with Barker. Barker was known to take care of his wingmen, ensuring they were well versed in tactics so they too could improve their skill and become even more deadly fighters. Ultimately, no wingmen of Barker ever died while flying with him and none of the aircraft he escorted were ever shot down. Barker received his Croix de Guerre from France in 1918 for demonstrating outstanding day-to-day leadership.

After the war, Wing Commander Barker was appointed the commander of Borden [in Ontario], the largest air base in Canada. His hard work and leadership were instrumental in the formation of the fledgling Canadian Air Force and he was ultimately appointed the first “director” of the newly formed RCAF on April 1, 1924.

Through the Air Force officer development program, RCAF Barker College facilitates the preparation of junior officers for the challenges of command and leadership as senior officers. Although the current RCAF may not support the maverick style of Barker, we cannot dismiss the fact that he was an inspirational leader to his subordinates. Having the dedication, drive and tenacity of Barker are admirable traits that we need to instill on our future RCAF leaders.

This is only a few examples of how I can relate Wing Commander Barker to the newly-dedicated RCAF Barker College; there are many more. We can guarantee that Wing Commander Barker’s influence on the RCAF will continue, supported by having his name associated with an innovative, forward thinking unit, staffed by the best personnel in the RCAF.

I am proud to be the first commandant of the RCAF W/C William G. Barker VC Aerospace College. I know I speak for all of my staff here today when I say that we will continue the legacy of this great Manitoban, Canadian and RCAF pioneer.

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