Petrolhead and WWI Fighter Ace: Albert BallAlbert Ball lived a full life despite dying in the line of duty at only 20 years of age. One of the very first breed of fighter pilots, he was also a petrolhead and one of the first Morgan customers. We retrace his steps from his home to his final resting...
-Here in Nottingham, 117 years ago, Albert Ball was born. Sort of a self-made man who went on to be Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Albert had quite a happy childhood. He's a bit of daredevil by all accounts-- tinkered with engines, fired his air rifle in the garden. He generally had a good life. Then, the First World War broke out. Albert was assigned in a training role, the Sherwood Foresters. He wrote to his parents to say, "I've just sent five boys to France, and I hear they'll be in the firing line on Monday. It's just my luck to be unable to go." Ball, like most young men at that time, wanted to see some action. So, he signed up for private flying lessons, often leaving the house at 3:00 in the morning to get them in before his military duties. He didn't find flying that easy, to start with. But he eventually got his pilot's wings and joined the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps in February 1916, whereupon he was posted to Northern France-- which is where we're now off in this fabulous brand new Morgan Three Wheeler. A small, open cockpit two-seater powered by a thumping great Harley V twin might not seem the obvious choice for a 300-mile autumnal road trip from Nottingham to Northern France. But there is a very good reason why we chose it. One, that we're certain Albert Ball would have approved it. Morgan Three Wheeler founder, H.F.S. Morgan, launched the original Three-Wheeler over 1910 Olympia Motor Show in London. And within four years, the brilliantly engineered Morgan had clumped up 10 world records in speed events, 24 reliability trials gold medals, and it caught to numerous winds and circus-like [unk] and others across Europe. In his day, the original Three Wheeler was the-- must have a lightweight two-seater. And dashing young men like Albert Ball were desperate to get one. So, in the spring of 1917, when he was on leave, he parked over to his local Morgan dealer and picked up his specially commissioned Grand Prix-bodied Morgan Three Wheeler. And by all accounts, he was absolutely delighted with it. He said it was the closest thing to flying without leaving the ground. But you know what? A century later, I think he still rides. Comparing a car like the Morgan Three Wheeler to an aircraft, it isn't new. I mean, companies like Saab and Spyker have been doing this kind of stuff for years. And-- but with Morgan, it isn't the usual marketing troddle. If you compare the Morgan Three Wheeler to something like Albert Ball's Nieuport 17 aircraft that he flew, it has roughly the same weight, about 560 kilos, the same power, around 115 bhp, and therefore, the same power to weight ratio. And I think they even have roughly the same top speed. And I can imagine it is just as exhilarating. The Morgan Motor Company was actually one of the first motor companies to get up and running after hostilities ended-- partly because, you know, the Morgan Three-Wheeler's simple design. The first car that they launched, the first sports model that they launched was called the Aero, in honor of Albert Ball, the brave young aviator. And that's a tradition that Morgan continues to this day. With its flagship models, the Aero coupe and the Aero SuperSports. But what's this like to drive? Well, the front tires are interesting. I think they're bike tires. They don't seem to have a lot of lateral grid. And the turning cycle is huge. So, you really do need a lot of forward thinking, and you need to be far responsive, too. It's the only vehicle I've driven recently that's really susceptible to side wings. The fat tire on the back isn't quite fat enough to handle all the power that we've got, which makes it even more fun. Albert was a bit of a character. He lived in a hut that he built on the runway. He did a lot of his own aircraft mechanics, and often didn't wear goggles or helmet. He played the violin and enjoyed gardening. You could say he was the typical hero. Soon, though, he had his first kill-- bringing down a reconnaissance aircraft in the Bristol Scouts. He switched to flying Nieuports, and his tally rose to seven. But he's well aware of his own mortality. He wrote home to his parents to say, "men tons better than me go in hundreds every day. He was tasked with dropping a French agent behind enemy lines. Yet on the wide air, he's taking pot shots at various German military installations. -So the machine can [unk]. -Yeah. But by the time he got, though, really given the position away and the French agent refused to get out the aircraft. Can't [unk] blame him. He fitted a special spinner-- he painted a special design on the spinner of his aircraft to help identify his aircraft-- so they could help spot his kills. Shortly after, his [unk] ordered the Military Cross. On his 20th birthday, Albert Ball was promoted to captain. And his tally rose to 17 kills. A month later, and it's [unk] to 31. The war on the ground was a blood bath, too. The Battle of the Somme just finished with hundreds and thousands killed. And the British military really needed a hero. And that hero inadvertently became Albert Ball. He was [unk] at home, on the streets in Nottingham as a hero. He was mentioned in the newspapers and the media. And he really didn't like the attention. And I guess you could say he wittingly became Britain's first of war hero. Ball's Squadron upgraded from Nieuports to S.E.5s. Yet he actually preferred his old aircraft and received special dispensation to fly it occasionally. And the kill still kept coming. He downed seven German aircraft in one five-day spell alone. But the war was getting to him. He wrote to his father to say, "I really am beginning to feel like a murderer." Seven hours after leaving Albert Ball's memorial statue at Nottingham Castle, we finally arrive here, in the outskirts of Annoeullin, a sleepy market town 10 miles southwest of Lille. On the 7th of May, 1970 not far from here, Albert Ball and his Squadron of S.E.5 fighters run into some German Albatrosses-- one of them piloted by the brother of the infamous Red Baron, Lothar von Richthofen. And the ensuing [unk] 5 on Richthofen's tank was punctured, and he was forced to make a landing as he ran out of fuel. As Ball swooped down to investigate, he became disorientating in the cloud. Time is up for Albert Ball. -Ball's plane crashed in this field, which is a potato field today. He was pulled from the wreckage by a young local girl, and he died in her arms. He was aged just 20 years old. The German propaganda [unk] at the time claimed that von Richthofen shot him down. But if you look at the records, it was a completely different aircraft. In living memory of Captain Albert Ball, VC, DSO, 2 Bars, MC. Military Cross. Have you seen this on the back? This part of land is given for the free use of French soldiers by Sir Albert Ball. [unk] condition of this stone is protected. -Didn't his dad buy this field? -He did. -After his son's death. -Yeah. And apparently, these were two stones. One here where-- one in the aircraft ended up, and one a little bit further away. But he bought the Portland and put the stone down in order that people remember his son. I think it's quite touching. I think it's more touching than the military graveyard-- as important as that is-- because this is the actual spot where he met his end-- in a potato field. -It's quite bleak, isn't it? -Because Captain Albert Ball died behind enemy lines, he was interred here in a German cemetery. But one time, there were 23 other British soldiers within this cemetery. But after the war, they moved those to a allied cemetery nearby. However, at Albert Ball's father request, Captain Albert Ball remained here. The RFC erected this monument, and his grave remained undisturbed.