As the stories made their rounds among the British pilots and crews early in the Second World War, much conversation hung on the legend of a Canadian pilot, Henshaw, who flew and fought in the First World War. Was his full name William Henshaw? I was unable to confirm the full name, but there is no question of his being Canadian, or a pilot, with the last name Henshaw. Nor is there any question that Henshaw was near mad to shoot down an enemy plane in battle - and that he failed to do so. Instead, on his first combat patrol, when he was very much "meat on the table" to experienced German pilots, Henshaw got the hell shot out of him. Badly wounded, his aircraft shot to ribbons, he managed barely to make a crash landing between the German and the British lines. No-man's-land is no place to be caught when that area if under the guns of both sides, with everyone trigger-happy and willing to lob high explosives in the direction of anything that moved.
Henshaw paid the full price. For more than two days he lay low in a deep shell crater, his wounds driving him mad and sapping his strength. It rained and he lay in cold water, unable to crawl back to the British lines, and a target for the Germans no matter which way he moved. Any attempts to rescue him would be suicidal; German machine guns had the area covered in a vicious cross fire. Then, the same rain that almost killed him became a blessing; it rained so hard, visibility went to near zero. Henshaw crawled and dragged his battered body back to friendly trenches and safety.
He never flew combat again. He spent months in a hospital and was finally sent home to Canada, where he waited out the end of the war, his dream of an air kill against a German plane unfulfilled. The story ends on a quiet note Henshaw died in 1929.
Then came the next world war, the great early battles between the British and the Germans, and Henshaw was somehow resurrected in memory and connected to the new area of combat. He became known as Old Willie, although the exact connection has never been satisfactorily explained.
But there was not a shred of doubt in the report of a young pilot of RAF Fighter Command:
"When the Blitz began, we really had our hands full. During one night patrol our squadron got quite a surprise. We were preparing to attack a large formation of Heinkels [a type of German bomber aircraft] when we noticed another plane in our formation. It was British, all right. Our squadron leader saw the cockade insignia, but it wasn't the latest-type machine by any means. We tried to signal, but there was no response. Then our squadron leader recognized the other plane as an old Canadian biplane that was somehow managing to keep up with our fast pursuits.
"Suddenly, it peeled off our formation and screamed straight for the two lead Heinkels. They saw it coming, too, and they swerved in their tight formation, collided, and went down in flames. The Canuck pilot veered over towards us, waved a snappy 'thumbs-up', and simply disappeared into the mist.
"He's been seen at night many times by other RAF pilots. They say he always uses the same trick - Diving straight for the enemy planes until the collide, or unnerving their pilots until they get careless and become an easy mark for our lads."
The reports of Old Willie leave much to be answered and asked. Dozens of British fighter pilots saw the ancient plane - they saw a British aircraft. And in the report you just read, the young RAF fighter pilot seems quite sure the man flying the World War I aircraft is a Canadian flier. An assumption unproven, obviously.
Yet, even for many years after the war, investigations of such reports repeatedly substantiated the eyewitness reports of the pilots. So many questions remain unanswered, and there are many gaps left in the explanations, especially how Old Willie came to select certain groups over others, and why this long-deceased fighter pilot would remain in ghost form with a phantom aircraft that fired very live rounds of ammunition, seen not only by the protected British pilots but by an obviously hated enemy.
Label this item as "mysterious" and perhaps add the word "perplexing".
Through the kindness of...
Ghosts of the Air - True Stories of Aerial Hauntings by Martin Caidin
Published: Bantam Books, February 1991