LONDON July 15 : The Royal Air Force is in the market for American flyers as well as American airplanes. Experienced airmen, preferably those with at least 250 flying hours, would be welcomed by the RAF.
The skies above Britain were azure blue, but the summer sun was obliterated by a carpet of planes. Wave upon wave of bombers crossed the Channel, raining hell and ruin on a trembling nation.
Dover was already known as Hell’s Corner by hard-pressed Royal Air Force pilots. The air was thick with exhaust trails from dog fights and the acrid scent of burning planes and scream of straining engines. England was buckling and groaning from the fury of the Nazi onslaught.
This was Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in preparation: the Battle of Britain, softening up England for invasion. It was a terrifying war machine that had swept all before it in a few short months. With the collapse of Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Low Countries and, almost unbelievably, France, by June 1940 – after frantic evacuation from Dunkirk – Britain was the last bastion of democracy left in Western Europe.
“The Fat One”, Luftwaffe chief and Gestapo creator, Herman Göring, had promised his beloved Hitler victory by air and by early summer that year his bombers were busy sinking ships and pounding the naval bases and airfields which were the country’s last line of defense. The RAF was losing men and machines faster than it could replace them.
The desperate situation had led the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to announce:
“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward to broad sunlit lands.
“But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say 'This was their finest hour'."
10 May, 1940, and Union Station in Los Angeles was busy, full of those bidding farewell to relatives before boarding their trains.
Among those holding tickets were two nervous young men: 23-year-old Eugene ‘Red’ Tobin, the son of a real estate broker, who had spent most of his wayward youth in Los Angeles, and 27-year-old Andrew Mamedoff, a White Russian whose family had fled the Bolsheviks, and an inveterate gambler and womaniser.
Tobin was an MGM studio pilot, ferrying the stars around California to their engagements. He was leaving behind his girlfriend, a tall Irish beauty named Anne Harding. Like Mamedoff, he was convinced war in Europe would come to America sooner or later. Neither wanted to be drafted into the Army as regular “grunts” when it did. Above all, Tobin was looking to fly “the sweetest little ship” in the world , the Supermarine Spitfire. “I just felt I wanted to fly some of these powerful machines,” he wrote in his diary. He was obsessed by flying.
As the train pulled out towards the border, Mamedoff was leaving no loved ones behind. His was a diaspora, the losing side of the Russian revolution. His father had once arrested Stalin when the latter was a mere rabble-rousing petty criminal. Like Tobin, he’d been a bit rough at school and expelled several times. But he was charismatic.
Meanwhile, in a hotel in Montreal, sat one of the smallest men ever to fly in the RAF: Vernon “Shorty” Keogh, a 26-year-old Brooklyn-born professional parachutist. He’d blown all his savings on his first plane, only to see a friend wreck it in a landing. At four feet ten inches tall, many thought he was too small to be a pilot. He soon proved them wrong.
They were en-route to France and there, they hoped, to fight the Luftwaffe. Originally intending to fly for the Finnish against Russian invasion, when the Finns capitulated they opted to join the Armée de l’Air.
Their recruiter was one of the most colourful mercenaries of the age: 59-year-old Colonel Charles Sweeney, friend to Ernest Hemingway and several Latin American revolutionaries. It was Sweeney who had placed notices for “opportunities” with European airforces at airfields and newspapers across the USA. For his efforts, Sweeney was chased by the FBI and Nazi spies, and hounded out of the country by an American press eager to stay out of the war.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, as German armies stormed across Europe in the “lightning” warfare of Blitzkrieg, a presidential proclamation had made it illegal for any American citizen to join a warring power’s military and also to “hire someone to go beyond the territorial limits of the United States – to Canada, for example – to enlist in a foreign country’s military.”
Yet between June 1940 and December 1941, several hundred Americans volunteered to join the RAF. The best known were the fighter pilots, but others served in Bomber Command as pilots, navigators and air gunners.
If caught the penalties were severe. They could be fined $10,000, jailed for several years, and stripped of their citizenship and passports. Since the last war America had pursued a policy of isolationism and many of its politicians were keen to avoid entanglement in another conflict.
As Alex Kershaw writes so powerfully in his account, The Few – which is to be made into a Hollywood film – there were only seven Americans who flew in the select ranks of the RAF during those early Battle of Britain days.
They were adventurers and idealists, looking for the hottest planes to fly and a chance to serve, as they saw it, the cause of freedom against Nazi tyranny. Their contribution was not only physical: their sacrifice was to help sway public opinion back home in America.
And by the war’s end, only one of the seven would be left alive.
Once the Americans docked, France was already under invasion. The country would collapse in just six weeks. There was chaos all around, as the airmen fought not the Germans but French bureaucrats. When they finally got near an airfield, after a week of frustration and drinking in a bombed-out Paris, the planes were near-unusable and the country in meltdown.
After a hellish retreat, they eventually arrived in Britain – only to be told by their embassy they had to return to the USA. Risking all, they managed to persuade a friendly MP to pull some strings: within a few days they were inducted into 609 Squadron out of Warmwell at RAF Middle Wallop.
As the men settled in, perhaps the most famous American pilot of them all was getting into action. Chicago-born William Meade Lindsley Fiske III was one American who made no secret of his US citizenship – he had enough money and social connections to ignore both the Neutrality Act and its consequences. He was the son of an international banker and had attended Cambridge University. After leaving Cambridge, he lived a live of leisure, became an Olympic bobsledder, and entered society when he married the former wife of the Earl of Warwick. Fiske settled in England, where he did weekend flying in the 1930s. Because of his influential friends and family connections, he had no trouble at all in joining the RAF Auxiliary in 1940.
His commanding officer would later say: “Without a doubt, Billy Fiske was the best pilot I’ve ever known. It was unbelievable how good he was.” With the Battle of Britain now in full sway, on 16 August, Fiske’s Hurricane was hit by enemy fire, but he was able to crash-land at Tangmere, his 601 Squadron’s base in Sussex. He was burned on the face and hands, but did not seem to be seriously injured. But on 17 August, he unexpectedly died of shock.
Fiske’s obituary in The Times of 19 August ran for 39 lines – highly unusual for such a junior officer. American reporters from all the major news services, as well as most of the leading American newspapers and broadcasting services, went on filing their stories about the strange new war that was being fought – hundreds of feet above southern England by a relative handful of men.
Like Fiske, Tobin, Mamedoff and Keogh also relished the chance of action against the Nazis. Writing in his diary, the adventurous Tobin recalled:
“When you come right down to it, flying a fighter in combat is just about the greatest game in the world – even if you are playing for keeps. You’re up there patrolling. Suddenly you sight those silvery specks coming toward you from the across the Channel. You hold them for an instant framed in the circle of your gunsight against a background of blue sky. You can’t help admiring the picture made by those 300 planes in tight formation. Then you remember those boys aren’t out for a ride and you start climbing to get above them. From then on, as the old saying goes, you don’t have to be crazy, but it helps.”
There was little to protect them from explosion and fire: the fuel tanks of their planes were only a few feet away. In daily, sometimes hourly sorties, they flew time and again against the power the Luftwaffe. 609 Squadron got its chance not long after Billy Fiske died, with Tobin, Mamedoff and Keogh – using special cushions to prop him up – flying “tail end charlie” at the rear of the squadron.
As Göring switched his attention more and more to the cities, it became a desperate war of attrition. At the Square Club in Andover, where Tobin and his comrades drank, the cocktails became so strong that pilots would be plastered after just one round.
They survived for the formation of the all-American Eagle Squadron, which went operational in January 1941 at the height of the Blitz.
Yet by the end of that year, all three young Americans were dead.
Shorty Keogh crashed into the waves of the cold North Sea in February. Tobin tangled with the formidable German ace Joachim Müncheberg over northern France in September – and never returned. All his sister now has are his numerous letters, the excitement and exuberance of his youthful words undimmed by the passage of time.
The playboy Mamedoff, who had a reputation as a survivor, was killed instantly on 8 October 1941 when his plane simply dropped from the air onto fields near Ramsey. He was his parent’s only child.
Two hundred and forty four US citizens eventually flew with RAF Eagle Squadrons. But according to RAF rosters from 1940, just seven of them totaled among “the few” – those who fought for Britain’s survival in the greatest air battle in history. More than 60 years later, in July 2002, the only survivor of these few, John Kenneth Haviland, died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Virginia.
As Winston Churchill said on 20 August, 1940: "The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen, who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and devotion.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
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