My three-part Weekend Wings series about the Supermarine Spitfire, which concluded last weekend, led to a number of e-mails from readers asking for more information about the Eagle Squadrons of US citizens serving with the Royal Air Force (RAF) prior to the United States officially joining the war. Several expressed amazement at never having heard about them in US publications and sources. I thought the subject would make a useful Weekend Wings topic to follow the Spitfire series.
The presence of volunteer US airmen in foreign wars was nothing new, of course. They formed the renowned Lafayette Escadrille which served with the French Air Force during World War I, and the Polish 7th Air Escadrille (better known as the Kosciuszko Squadron) which served during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. The famous 1st American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, would continue this tradition and serve in China against the Japanese in 1941-1942. All three of these organizations deserve their own individual Weekend Wings tributes, which I'll try to write in due course.
The first American volunteers for service in Europe during World War II didn't intend to join the RAF. Some came to join Finland in her fight with the Soviet Union in the Winter War: but this lasted only four months, and many did not arrive in time to participate. A businessman in London, Charles Sweeny, raised memories of the Lafayette Escadrille and appealed for American fliers to join the French Air Force. About a dozen of these volunteers joined the RAF after the fall of France.
The enormous response to Sweeny's advertisements indicated a groundswell of support for the Allied cause, and led to a rapid expansion of his ideas. The World War I Canadian ace and winner of the Victoria Cross, Billy Bishop, assisted his efforts in Canada. (Click the picture for a larger view.)
With Homer Smith and artist Clayton Knight, Bishop formed the Clayton Knight Committee. During the period before the fall of France the Committee tried to attract American pilots to serve as flying instructors in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. They were extremely successful, but found that many of the volunteers wanted to serve in combat, not just as instructors. The RAF was all too willing to offer them the opportunity, as it was very short of trained pilots and aircrew.
The neutrality of the United States posed a diplomatic problem. The US could not be seen as sending combatants to assist one side in the war, and any US citizen who took an oath of loyalty to another nation ran the risk of losing his citizenship. A diplomatic subterfuge took care of the problem: volunteers joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) or RAF using a specially-composed oath to obey the orders of their superiors (not mentioning national loyalties at all). Many also adopted false names to further confuse the issue. Some were even issued Canadian or other British Commonwealth identity documents.
During the first two years of the Second World War, before the US became a combatant, many recruits were obtained from washed-out US Army Air Force (USAAF) and US Navy flight students. The standards of the US armed forces were extraordinarily high - unrealistically so, as would be proved when the US went to war and the standards were drastically modified - and the RAF and RCAF were happy to offer washed-out US students another chance. Many of them went on to stellar careers in the latter services. Indeed, at the main USAAF training base at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, AL, the Committee set up an enlistment booth near the Bell Street gate of the air base. Instructors allegedly "unofficially" encouraged washed-out aviation cadets to drop in there on their way to the railway station. (It's rumored that some USAAF instructors earned a bottle of whiskey per head for every promising candidate they referred in this way!)
Other volunteers were crop-dusters, barnstormers and experienced private pilots who were put off by the rigid rules of the US services (which insisted that they forget all they had learned and start flying training from the beginning). The RAF and RCAF were delighted to give them a quick conversion course and put them into operational squadrons as soon as they'd proved themselves competent, which was much more to their taste.
The Committee's efforts were spectacularly successful. Thousands of US volunteers were accepted into the RCAF and RAF. To give just one indication, when the US entered World War II in December 1941 the RCAF had over 8,200 US volunteers in service in Canada alone at that time - not counting those already serving in the RCAF and RAF in Europe (numbering several thousand more). Those who wished to transfer to the USAAF were accommodated, but only about two thousand of those in Canada chose to do so. The rest remained with the RCAF and RAF throughout the war.
The vast majority of the US volunteers were not grouped into national formations such as the Eagle Squadrons. They served as pilots and aircrew in normal RCAF and RAF squadrons, many rising to senior rank during the course of the war. (For example, one of the RCAF pilots in the RAF's 617 Squadron during Operation Chastise, the famous "Dams Raid", was Joseph McCarthy of Brooklyn, NY. He continued to serve in the RCAF for many years after the war. His remarkable story may be read here.)
No-one is sure whether the formation of the first Eagle Squadron was for propaganda purposes, to encourage the British public with the news that American pilots were openly flying on their side, or because the US pilots involved wanted to serve together in a more openly American unit. There's probably some truth in both factors. Certainly British newspapers proclaimed the presence of American pilots with great pride.
Eagle Squadron pilots wore RAF uniform and were appointed to RAF ranks, and wore in addition a special Eagle Squadron shoulder insignia - which earned them plenty of free beer from grateful Britons whenever it was spotted in a pub!
Eagle Squadron pilots were initially trained on the Miles Master and then on the Hawker Hurricane. British officers were appointed as Flight and Squadron commanding officers until the American volunteers gained the necessary combat experience.
The first American unit, 71 Squadron, was formed in September 1940.
It did not go into action immediately, as its pilots had to learn RAF methods of operation and grow accustomed to their new aircraft (which were far higher in performance than anything they'd flown before). It was declared operational on February 5th, 1941. Their aircraft wore standard RAF roundel insignia.
71 Squadron carried out convoy protection patrols and, once it had gained experience, cross-Channel operations over German-occupied France. It claimed its first enemy aircraft shot down on July 2nd, 1941, and suffered its first loss (Flying Officer William Hall, taken prisoner) on the same date. In September that year the Squadron was re-equipped with Spitfire Mark Vb's. In November Chesley Petersen took command as the first American Squadron-Leader in the Eagle Squadrons, making 71 Squadron an all-American outfit.
The second Eagle Squadron, no. 121, was formed in May 1941.
Equipped with Hurricane II's it became operational in July of that year, and saw action in convoy patrols and over France almost immediately. It claimed its first combat victory, a Junkers 88 bomber, in August. In September it was re-equipped with Spitfires. In the photograph below 121 Squadron pilots are being debriefed next to one of their Spitfires after a cross-Channel mission.
The third and final Eagle Squadron, no. 133, was formed in August 1941.
Its first Commanding Officer, George Brown, had been a Flight Commander in 71 Squadron before being promoted to lead the new group of American volunteers. Initially 133 Squadron patrolled the Atlantic approaches, flying Hurricanes from a base in Northern Ireland. In October the squadron was re-equipped with Spitfire Mark Va's and transferred to mainland Britain for offensive operations. Don Blakeslee, an American, took over as Squadron Leader in August 1942.
The fact that all three Eagle Squadrons began their service with convoy patrols should not be taken as an indication that this was easy duty. It rapidly taught them to fly and fight their aircraft under extremely difficult conditions. As Jim Griffin of 121 Squadron observed:
The weather was always treacherous, and there was never anything between the ships and enemy territory but a stretch of open water. Convincing yourself that flying endlessly between a hostile sky and deadly sea was boring was better than listening to the nagging voice of your subconscious reminding you of the unpleasant features of such a patrol: the fact that survival time in the icy water below would be a matter of minutes; that engine failure beyond gliding distance to land would leave you with two grim choices: ride the Spit down to what would be a quick merciful end... or bail out, knowing that even if there was enough altitude for your chute to open and lower you gently into the sea you would probably perish before help could arrive.
There appears to have been considerable rivalry between the Eagle Squadrons, who flew together on only one occasion: Operation Jubilee, the Dieppe Raid of August 19th, 1942. The operation was a tactical disaster, with heavy losses to British and Canadian forces, but it taught many valuable lessons that were later applied during the invasion of France in 1944.
When the USA entered the war in December 1941, most of the Eagle Squadron pilots naturally wanted to help their homeland in its fight against Japan. Representatives of 71 and 121 Squadrons visited the US Embassy in London, and also pleaded for a transfer to Singapore to fight the Japanese invaders of Malaysia. Fortunately for them, their request was declined (Singapore surrendered in February 1942, and a large proportion of those taken prisoner there by the Japanese did not survive the war). The USAAF was already planning to move forces to England for the air campaign against Germany, and realized that they would need every experienced fighter pilot they could get. The three Eagle Squadrons would continue in RAF service until the USAAF could establish its own infrastructure in England and absorb them into its ranks.
The transfer finally occurred in September 1942. The three Eagle Squadrons were formed into the 4th Fighter Group of the USAAF. 71 Squadron RAF was re-numbered to 334th Squadron USAAF, 121 Squadron RAF to 335th Squadron USAAF, and 133 Squadron RAF to 336th Squadron USAAF. The pilots were transferred to the USAAF in ranks corresponding to their RAF rank: Pilot Officers became Second Lieutenants, Flying Officers became First Lieutenants, Flight-Lieutenants became Captains and Squadron Leaders became Majors. They also switched to US rates of pay, which instantly made them much wealthier - a Flying Officer in the RAF drew the equivalent of $76 per month, whilst a US First Lieutenant drew $276! As one of the Eagle pilots said thoughtfully to his former (RAF) Wing Commander, "Y'know, Boss, I can't afford to stay with the RAF. As of right now I earn more than you do, and you're three ranks senior to me!"
During their service with the RAF the three Eagle Squadrons attracted a total of 244 American volunteers, with 16 British pilots acting as Flight and Squadron Commanders. They claimed a total of 73½ German aircraft destroyed in combat, losing 77 US and five British pilots killed in action or in accidents (the latter particularly during training). The photograph below shows 133 Squadron parading at the funeral of Sam Whedon, killed in a flying accident on April 3rd, 1942.
The relatively low number of enemy aircraft shot down by the Eagle Squadrons, and their relatively high casualties in comparison to their success rate, should not be taken as a negative indicator of their skill. Remember that in 1941-42 the RAF was only just beginning to develop its offensive doctrines and had not yet established the air superiority that it and the USAAF would enjoy in 1944-45. Furthermore, it was fighting over German-occupied territory where any damaged aircraft had to get back across the English Channel to safety. Many were too badly shot up to make it. The Eagles' casualty and success rates are comparable to those of other RAF units at the time, and their combat record in subsequent years shows that they learned their lessons well.
The transfer to the USAAF was not without its difficulties. The Eagle pilots had been trained in RAF drill and discipline, and almost gave heart attacks to several by-the-book USAAF commanders by stamping their feet when they came to attention, saluting with open hands and wearing the rather informal items of clothing often worn in RAF operational squadrons. It's reported that a USAAF colonel nearly had apoplexy when he saw a former Eagle pilot dismounting from his aircraft after an early-morning mission - still wearing his pajamas and slippers! Naturally the Eagles were not very receptive to attempts to make them "straighten up and fly right" in the approved USAAF style. After all, they were the only combat-experienced pilots in the entire Eighth Air Force, and they made sure the new arrivals from America weren't allowed to forget it.
Nevertheless, the Eighth Air Force top commanders knew how fortunate they were to have the Eagle Squadrons dropped into their laps as fully combat-ready and experienced units. They immediately began to spread their knowledge around, transferring many of the Eagles to other units and promoting them to lead rookie US pilots and teach them the tricks of the trade. The Eagles didn't like this, as they wanted to stay together, but over time the system worked very well. On February 24th, 1943, Major-General Frank Hunter, Commanding Officer of Eighth Air Force Fighter Command, told the Eagles:
Five months ago I came here when the first group of you were transferred to VIII Fighter Command. You will never know what it meant to us to receive a group of fully trained operational pilots. It has formed a nucleus around which we have built our fighting machine.
We have been able to select men from among you to send to other units to train and lead them. All this, and everything the RAF has learned in three years of fighting the Hun, has been of invaluable aid.
In 1944 Major-General Kepner observed: "The 4th Fighter Group has been the stem whence Fighter Command doctrine has sprung."
The 4th Fighter Group built on the success of the Eagle Squadrons throughout the rest of World War II. It initially continued to operate Spitfires, although the RAF roundel insignia was replaced by the USAAF star, as seen on this Spitfire Mark Vb of the 334th Squadron.
The Group transitioned to the P-47 Thunderbolt in April 1943, which was very unpopular with the pilots - the large, heavy Thunderbolt was an unwelcome contrast to the light, agile Spitfire. As Lieutenant-Colonel Blakeslee snorted after being congratulated on shooting down a Fw 190 and in so doing demonstrating that the P-47 could dive faster than the German aircraft: "By God, it ought to dive - it certainly won't climb!" Later, in February 1944, the Group was re-equipped with the P-51 Mustang, which proved much more popular with its pilots.
The 4th Fighter Group became the longest-serving fighter unit in the Eighth Air Force and in the European Theater of Operations. It was the first fighter Group to escort USAAF bombers over Berlin on March 4th, 1944, and participated in the first shuttle-bombing mission from Britain to Russia in June of that year. In these missions USAAF aircraft flew from Britain to bomb targets in Germany, then flew on into Russia and landed there. After being refuelled and re-armed they flew back to Britain via more German targets, bombing them en route. 4th Fighter Group took part in Operation Market Garden, the airborne invasion of Holland in September 1944, and participated in the Battle of the Bulge in December of that year. It covered Operation Varsity, the airborne assault across the Rhine in March 1945 (and still the largest single airborne drop ever accomplished).
The 4th Fighter Group lost 248 aircraft in combat. Out of 533 pilots who served in its ranks, 125 were killed or missing in action and 105 were taken prisoner of war. This amounts to a 43% overall casualty rate. To balance this, the Group achieved the most combined victories over German aircraft of any fighter group in the Eighth Air Force (583 in the air and 469 on the ground), and scored the fourth-highest number of air-to-air victories of any USAAF fighter group in Europe.
The video below shows a series of newsreel clips of the Eagle Squadrons from their arrival in England to their hand-over to USAAF control in 1942.
The RAF was forever grateful to the Eagle Squadrons for coming to their aid at the darkest time of the war for Great Britain, and today maintains a memorial to them in London.
The 4th Fighter Group memorial is located at the USAF Museum.
Surviving pilots of the Eagle Squadrons and 4th Fighter Group still gather at reunions from time to time. The photograph below shows them at their 2002 reunion, during which the memorial above was dedicated.
Amazingly, a Spitfire Mark Vb once flown by 133 Squadron is today in the Royal Air Force's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. AB910 flew 29 missions with that squadron, including four on August 19th, 1942, in support of the Dieppe mission. It's still flying today.
All in all, the Eagle Squadrons and their successors in the 4th Fighter Group were a remarkable group of airmen. May we always honor their memory.