Three brothers join the Royal Flying Corps

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Combat in the air was still a novelty when Canada went to war in Aug 1914. It started with a need for improved reconnaissance and quickly escalated into aerial confrontations to prevent an army’s movements being discovered from the sky, as happened to the Germans at Mons, an event that is credited with helping prevent the encirclement of Paris and initiating the static trench war that followed. After the importance of aerial reconnaissance became apparent, it wasn’t long before interceptor aircraft were developed to stop this intelligence from being gathered and delivered by observation planes. These developments came within a matter of months of the start of the war and, by early 1915, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were recruiting as far afield as Canada for men who could fly, or had the requisite qualities to learn how. In these early days, if they didn’t already have a pilot’s certificate, suitable candidates were expected to be at least from the gentlemanly class and so it was with the Sisley brothers who all found their way into the new air arm. “Max”, “Bud” and Donovan Sisley were from a well off family and would all become participants in the ongoing struggle to scout enemy positions from the air and prevent him from doing the same.

Arthur ‘Bud’ Sisley, one of three Sisley brothers to join the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War.

Their father, Dr. Opie Sisley, was the medical officer of health for Scarborough Township for 17 years before moving his practice in 1912 to the big house at the corner of Main Street and Kingston Road in Toronto where he remained for the next 40 years, eventually becoming an active Liberal politician. He and his wife Sarah were well known in the Beach community, where the two younger boys, “Bud” and Don, attended Malvern Collegiate Institute, and they were all members of the congregation at nearby Emmanuel Presbyterian Church. The eldest, Malcolm Millard “Max” Sisley, was an avid horseman and the youngest, Donovan Laurier Sisley transferred to University of Toronto School where he studied with other young men of status who met the criteria laid out by the Royal Flying Corps’ Canadian recruiters.

Although he was younger than “Max” by two years, Arthur Jackson Smith “Bud” Sisley was the first to enlist when he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force as an artilleryman with the 14th Battery in January 1915. Although the extent of his interest in flying isn’t known, there was one reason for certain why he didn’t become an airman from the beginning: He had failed his high school matriculation three years earlier and was working as a travelling salesman when war came. The Royal Flying Corps would eventually relax its standards for recruits, allowing “Bud” to sign up but in 1915 he did what many men of his station did and joined the army. By May, he was on his way to England and training at Westenhanger, Kent, just a matter of weeks before his older brother first entered the Curtiss Flying School in Toronto in July. “Max” was among the first volunteers for air service and sought to become a flyer before Imperial recruitment schemes had really begun in earnest. In these early days, preference was given to men with pilot’s training and the Curtiss school had been set up to help those who could afford it acquire a licence. The training course was four months after which recruits were sent to England for training as an officer before joining a flying training squadron.

As “Max” was learning to fly in Toronto, brother “Bud” was in Wales with his artillery unit preparing to ship over to the Western Front and he arrived in Flanders in September. It would be two more months before “Max” left for England and a posting to the No. 1 School of Military Aeronautics at Reading in January 1916, where flying recruits were sent to receive officer’s training. Youngest brother Don was still in school at Malvern Collegiate Institute where he would stay until the fall of 1916. As the first brother to see action, “Bud” was lucky to be with the 14th Battery, which had suffered few casualties although it saw continuous service throughout the winter. In March however, he was sent to the field hospital at Camiers suffering from an abscess in his neck. He was returned to England for treatment where the cause of his abscess was discovered: he had tonsillitis and surgery was promptly performed at the Duchess of Connaught Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Cliveden. In these days before antibiotics, he spent several months convalescing, spending time at Hillingdon House Military Hospital in London and the Canadian Convalescent Hospital in Monks Horton, Kent, where he remained until July. After so much time out of action, a medical board determined “Bud” would need four weeks’ physical training before he was fit enough to return to the front and he was sent to the Canadian reserves at Shornecliffe. In November, he applied for six weeks’ furlough and was sent home to Canada on escort duty, but by this time he had other plans for his military career.

max sisley

Malcolm ‘Max’ Sisley, RFC

While his brother was recuperating, “Max” Sisley completed his time at Reading and went on to continue his flying training at No. 5 Squadron in Catterick, Yorkshire, from March 1916 until he was sent to 36 Squadron at Cramlington, Northumberland, in April to train on aircraft such as the BE2c and BE12. He was then transferred to 58 Squadron, which had been formed from a nucleus of 36 Squadron men, and received his appointment as Flying Officer on July 10. There was to be no gradual introduction to operational flying, however, as “Max” was then sent to No. 10 Squadron at Choques, France, to take part for the next four months in what was then called army cooperation duties in the Battle of the Somme. During that time, “Max” flew the BE2 series of aircraft, bombing rail stations and equipment. It was dangerous stressful work, flying in soon-to-be-obsolete planes that were hunted with considerable success by the early German scout planes, such as the Fokker Eindecker. But the “Fokker Scourge” of 1915 and early 1916 had come to an end by this time and Sisley was lucky indeed to miss it by just a few months, although his squadron did report its first significant attacks by enemy aircraft in October. In November 1916, “Max” spent a short time at No. 16 Squadron, stationed at Bruay, but returned to 10 Squadron on Dec. 4 and was given 10 days leave.

In an interview, he described his experiences fighting the Germans to the Toronto Star: “We never get a chance to fight them singly any more…. There was a time when the old Hun would stand up to a good square scrap in the air; but now they always travel in flocks of 20 or 30 – go scouting around together for safety. We have got it all over them. We have machines that can climb higher and travel faster than theirs, and we never get in a scrap on our side of the lines at all. We always have to go over their lines.” The stress of almost daily missions over enemy territory took its toll on pilots and, although post-traumatic stress disorder was unheard of at the time, commanding officers of operational squadrons were aware that even good men could lose effectiveness if pushed beyond their limits. “Max” had flown more than 300 hours in combat in 18 months. In the same article, when pressed to say more about his exploits, he began to describe an action in which his squadron destroyed seven of the enemy, but lost two of their own, but ended his narrative abruptly – a sign even the eager reporter picked up on as telling. In the early spring of 1917, “Max” had developed symptoms that were making it difficult for him to continue operational flying. He was suffering from enteritis, diarrhea, nervous tremors and rapid pulse, and on April 13, was declared unfit for flying duties for three months and sent to Lady Moungarret’s Hospital in Cadogan Gardens, southwest London. It was the beginning of “Bloody April”, a downturn in the cycle of aerial dominance that saw a sharp spike in British casualties. Fortune was smiling on “Max” Sisley and, although he didn’t know it at the time, his life had been saved. He would survive the war to serve again in the next one.

Lady Mountgarret’s home had been converted to a hospital, as had many aristocratic residences, but as a residence in the city, it catered exclusively to officers. “Max” had been declared unfit for flying and was prescribed rest in a manner befitting his rank. After a short stay, he was transferred to Lady Cable’s Lyndridge House at Teignmouth in Devon, to recuperate in the healthier air of a seaside resort. In May, “Max” requested a medical board hearing where it was decided he should be restricted to light flying duties for two months. A further hearing in June determined that he should do no flying for two months and only office work or light flying for one month after that. In view of the length of time he would be grounded, and hoping to see his family after being overseas for almost two years, “Max” applied for leave to return to Canada and sailed in July, just as his brother “Bud” arrived to begin his own career as a pilot.

Sopwith Camel

With the need for trained aircrew increasing, “Bud” Sisley decided – as did many who had experienced the squalor of the ground war – to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. He applied in Toronto in December 1916 and was struck off strength from the Canadian Field Artillery so he could return to England to attend No. 6 Officer Cadet Battalion at Balliol College, Oxford – his failure to matriculate was no longer a hindrance, so great was the need for pilots. After stops at training squadrons in Lincolnshire (nos. 40, 69 and 45) and Surrey (no. 40), where he would have flown a number of single-seat aircraft, ranging from the already outclassed FE8 to the more nimble Nieuport Scout, he was posted to 70 Squadron at Liettres, Pas de Calais, on Aug. 15, 1917. The squadron, which could eventually boast of 19 aces among its members, had received the new Sopwith Camel scout four weeks earlier, the second British squadron to receive the type. Liettres was just 60 kilometres from Langemarck, Belgium, which the Allies attacked the day after “Bud” arrived in the opening month of “Third Ypres”. It did not take him long to be involved in combat and on Sept. 9, after the squadron moved closer to the front at Poperinghe the day before, he was involved in a major melee, led by Capt. Clive Franklin Collett, a New Zealander, against aircraft from Jastas 4, 26 and 35, in which he claimed an Albatross Scout sent down “out of control”. However, the next day’s patrol proved to be his last. He was attacked at 4:50pm near Langemark by no less an opponent that German ace Ltn. Werner Voss, leader of Jasta 10, which was part of Baron Manfred Von Richtofen’s Flying Circus. The confrontation with five enemy aircraft took place over Houthulst Forest and two 70 Squadron men were seen to go down. On the patrol’s return, it was discovered that “Bud” and 2nd Lt. Oliver Charles Pearson were missing. “Bud” had only just turned 24 in July. It was Voss’ 43rd victory and one of three he achieved that day, just 13 days before he himself was shot down and killed, with his tally sitting at 48.

After what the eldest brother “Max” had been through during his time in the air force, he wrote to his younger brother Don, now 19, to dissuade him from going to war but it was too late. The RFC recruiters had already interviewed him in February of that year at the University of Toronto School, which he had transferred to from Malvern CI the year before. He was one of eight students in a Toronto Star article published on Feb. 22 who had impressed the RFC’s Lt. Col. Cuthbert Hoare as “prospective air-fighters”. (See story on page 19.) Don was selected to become a cadet and enlisted on April 26, 1917. At the time, both his older brothers were in hospital: Max for stress symptoms and Bud for a case of German measles that delayed his officer’s training for eight weeks.

Donovan Sisley

Unlike his brothers, Don was able to do his initial training at an RFC Canada base near Barrie, Ontario, now known as Canadian Forces Base Borden and, after a waiting period spent at home until he turned 19, he reported to Camp Borden on July 26, the same day as “Max” arrived in Canada on leave. By Aug. 19, Don had been given his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and was on his way overseas to No. 2 School of Military Aeronautics at Oxford, where arrived on Sept. 3, 1917 – just one week to the day before his brother “Bud” was shot down.  Barely three weeks later and already aware “Bud” was missing, Don, now promoted to Flying Officer, reported to 82 Squadron at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire for training as a pilot in an army co-operation unit tasked with observing enemy positions from a two-seater aircraft with an observer. The squadron had only been formed in January at Doncaster and was already training in the aircraft it would use for operations, the Armstrong-Whitworth FK8. The “Big Ack”, as it was known, was a sturdy, reliable mount that was popular with the men who flew her, although somewhat pedestrian in its performance. The squadron moved to the RFC’s cross-channel waypoint at St. Omer on Sept. 17, stopping just long enough to be fitted with the new radio equipment just coming into use, and then moved on to Savy, Aisne, for more operational training.

On Jan. 22, 1918, 82 Squadron was declared operational and began flying out of Golancourt Aerodrome at Bonneuil Ferme, Oise, Picardie. It was tasked with artillery spotting and photo-reconnaissance over a section of the front near St. Quentin, opposite the St. Gobain forest, in response to the German spring offensive. For the next five weeks, Don Sisley flew with his observer to record enemy positions. On March 6, he and Lt. Arthur Clair Gilmore, a native of St. John, New Brunswick on appointment to the RFC from the 11th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops, were on a mission southwest of Itancourt, near Séry-lès-Mézières, in FK8 B5838 when they were attacked by a patrol of five Fokkers from Jasta 48. Their aircraft was hit and burst into flames sending both men to their deaths and never to be found. The victory was claimed by the Jasta leader, Ltn. Kurt Küppers. Don was still only 19 when he was killed and confirmation of his death from the RFC came on May 16, just two weeks after what would have been his 20th birthday. Both he and Gilmour are remembered on the Arras Memorial, like so many others who were stricken from the sky over the battlefield, never to be found. Officially, however, both Don and “Bud” were still listed as simply “missing” and the effort to discover what happened to them would eventually bring “Max” Sisley back to England to investigate.

Armstrong Whitworth FK8

In a story by the Toronto Star published on July 26, 1917, after an interview with “Max” on his return to Canada, it describes him as “getting his” (being wounded) by anti-aircraft fire while flying at 10,000 feet, “his knee was shattered, one plane of his machine was shot away, and he was forced to descend. ‘Nothing worth speaking about’,” he assured the reporter. It is possible he was bending the truth slightly, covering up the fact that he had been grounded for stress, which at the time was regarded as less honorable than being wounded in action. There is no medical record indicating he was wounded. Shortly after his arrival in Canada – and as became standard practice in the Second World War – he was assigned to lighter duties, taking a position with No. 82 Canadian Training Squadron (CTS) at Leaside in Toronto. It was the first of several stops in his new career as a flying instructor that would keep him in Canada until the end of the war. In September, he was transferred to No. 88 CTS at Armour Heights and then to Camp Borden and CTS No. 82 in February 1918. In May, following a promotion to Lieutenant, he was made Examining Officer for 42 Wing at Deseronto, a role that sent him travelling to various training stations and rising in rank to Major.

Max Sisley, Air Provost Marshall RCAF

Malcolm ‘Max’ Sisley, Air Provost Marshall of the RCAF

“Max” remained in Desoronto until December, when he was again granted leave. He used the time off to travel to England to wind up his brothers’ affairs and investigate what had become of “Bud”. Many families whose loved ones went missing held out hope that they might still be alive and held as prisoners of war. It was almost always a faint hope, but in this case, the family had received a telegram from France that seemed to confirm it. The first word came to the family in September, shortly after he went missing. By December 1917, three months after his disappearance, the Star reported the family had received a message by cable from a squadron mate confirming that “Bud” was “alive and well, but a prisoner in Germany.” However, in an interview, 2nd Lt. R. S. Ashby, a squadron mate who was an eye-witness that day, confirmed that he saw two planes go down in flames and that “Max” and another pilot were the only two men missing. Still, by May 1918 the family wrote to the RAF asking for news of him and the casualties section replied on May 24, that they had received none since they had sent Dr. Sisley a letter in March indicating they were prepared to declare him dead, if the family wished to accept that conclusion in order to wind up his estate. With the war finally over and the matter of his brothers’ accounts with the air force still unsettled, “Max” arrived at Royal Air Force headquarters in March 1919 to sort it out. By this time, the family had all but given up hope that “Bud” was alive and had formally requested that the £30 16s 8p still owing to him be paid to the family. Although no settlement was decided on before “Max” had to return to Canada, the air force eventually declared his death official on March 29, 1919 but took another six months to pay out his account. The following year, on Aug. 20, 1920, some news about “Bud” finally came. The RAF wrote to the family informing them that some of Bud’s personal effects, a ring, cheque book and cigarette case, had been returned by the Germans through diplomatic channels, but with no mention of how they were recovered.

During all this time, “Max” continued his air force duties and took on a new role that would establish his credentials for service in the Second World War. After returning to Canada, he was seconded to the British Embassy in Los Angeles as a member of the British War Mission to the United States of America serving as Assistant Provost Marshal, a post he held until he was finally demobilized on Sept. 9, 1919. His work there was noted by the Chiefs of Police in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and would stand him in good stead when war came again in 1939.

On July 16, 1918, Malcolm Millard Sisley had married Elizabeth Marguerite Kennedy and during the interwar years worked in various sales positions for the Ford Motor Company (1920-1922) and General Motors Corp. (1922-1924) before finally finding a more permanent position with Packard Ontario Motors from 1924 until the start of the Second World War. On Oct. 12, 1939, he re-enlisted, accepting a place in the Royal Canadian Air Force Special Reserve with the rank of Pilot Officer/Temporary Flight Lieutenant assigned to Air Training Command. But with his experience and a need for senior men to run a growing national air force, “Max” was quickly promoted to Wing Commander and became the first Provost Marshall of the RCAF in 1940, thanks largely to his work in the U.S. in 1919. By June 1942, he had made Group Captain and was travelling back and forth between the United States and Canada, working with other military police operations on behalf of RCAF Headquarters until he was demobilized for a second time on Jan. 6, 1946. On leaving the air force, “Max” returned to the automotive business and established a Dodge dealership in Toronto. The business grew and prospered, eventually passing to his son Arthur Donovan Sisley, and is still operated today by his grandson, Hugh Sisley, who is president of the company, which has as its motto “Family Driven”.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2104 issue of The Maple Leaf, the magazine of the Central Ontario Branch Western Front Association.

Author: David Fuller

MRBS Webmaster and parent of two MCI graduates (2011 & 2015) and another very bright son. Decade representative for 1903-1939 and Service Personnel.

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