On the 18th of August this year, a formation of 18 Spitfire and 6 Hurricane vintage fighter aircraft flew over South Eastern England to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. This battle is without a doubt one of the defining moments of World War II, widely reported on and documented over the years. It even has its own movie starring none other than Sir Laurence Olivier! What is not so well known, however, the outstanding contribution made by a small group of American volunteers.
The Battle of Britain was fought over the skies of England during the Summer and Fall of 1940, in response to Hitler’s push to invade the shores of Great Britain and complete his domination of Europe. Wave upon wave of German bombers and fighter escorts crossed the English Channel, hoping to pave the way for ground forces to invade Britain. The only way to prevent an invasion was to establish air superiority, a task falling on Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force.
German offensive actions commenced in late June with limited night and day attacks and coastal mine-laying sorties. This escalated over the months of July and August to widespread attacks on infrastructure and towns. Action peaked on 18th August 1940 in what is now known as “The Hardest Day.”
On this day, the Luftwaffe flew offensive raids on RAF airfields using 2200 crew flying 850 sorties using Heinkel, Dornier and Junkers bombers, escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109 and 110 fighters. These attacks were met with defensive action from the 600 aircrew of the RAF who flew 927 sorties in their battle weary Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircraft.
By the end of the battle on 31st October 1940, the RAF had lost 1,012 aircraft and 537 airmen against the Luftwaffe’s losses of 1,918 aircraft and 2,662 airmen. But more importantly, the British had decimated the German Air Force and pushed them back across the English channel. The tide had turned against Nazi Germany.
Despite the fact that it was illegal for US citizens to join foreign armed forces at the time, hundreds of Americans volunteered to fly for the RAF–well before the US officially entered the war in December 1941.
The origins of the Eagle Squadrons can be traced back to 1939, when American Charles Sweeney began recruiting US citizens to form a squadron to fight in Europe. At the same time, Sweeney’s nephew was also recruiting and in talks with the UK Air Ministry in a hope to persuade them to form American squadrons within the RAF. He succeeded and this led to the formation of No. 71, 121 and 133 squadrons – otherwise know as the “Eagle” Squadrons.
Working in secret, an organization known as the Clayton Knight Committee ended up recruiting almost 7,000 Americans who had to be smuggled across the border to Canada for processing. They would be joining either the RAF or Royal Canadian Air Force; of these, 250 found their way into the Eagle Squadrons.
The Battle of Britain would see 7 of these brave men in action over the skies of Southern England: Billy Fiske; Eugene “Red” Tobin; Andrew Mamedoff; Vernon “Shorty” Keough; Arthur Donahue; John Haviland; and Phil Leckrone are the 7 US pilots credited with service during the battle. Sadly only Haviland would survive to tell the tale.
Billy Fiske was a Cambridge graduate and Olympic Bobsledder, settling in England in the 1930s. Flying soon became a passion and it was not long before he was accepted in to the RAF Auxiliary. On the 16th August 1940, his Hawker Hurricane was hit by enemy gunfire; he managed to limp home and crash landed, but sustained burns to his face and hands. He succumbed to his injuries on August 17th.
Hailing from Los Angeles, Eugene Tobin was already a qualified pilot when he came to Europe, initially to fight for Finland against the Russians. He was too late for that, but joined the French Air Force as the battle of France was ending. Pushed across the channel with the fall of France, he joined the RAF and wasted no time in taking the fight to the Germans in his Supermarine Spitfire. Sadly on 7th September 1941, he was shot down and crashed into a French hillside.
A friend of Tobin’s, Andrew Mamedoff was a roguish gambler a founding member of No. 71 Squadron. In August 1941 he became flight commander of No. 133 Squadron at RAF Duxford. Sadly, on the 8th October 1941 during a transit flight to Northern Ireland Mamedoff’s Hurricane crashed on the Isle of Man in bad weather.
Vernon Keough was born in Brooklyn, New York holds the distinction of being one of Americas first professional parachutists. By the time he joined the RAF in 1940, he had completed 500 jumps. At only 4 foot 10 inches tall he soon inherited the nickname “Shorty” and was initially considered too short to fly. With the aid of two cushions, he flew his Spitfire into many dogfights throughout the conflict. He was last seen on 15th February 1941 spinning off into the sea during the chase of a Heinkel He 111.
Arthur Donahue was Minnesota’s youngest commercial pilot. Under the pretense of being Canadian, he enlisted with the RAF and was soon engaged in combat with Messerschmitt Bf 109’s off the coast of France. He is credited with two confirmed kills and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On 11th September 1942, whilst in pursuit of a Junkers Ju 88, he was hit and crashed into the Channel.
Phil Leckrone travelled from Illinois to Britain in 1940 and joined No. 616 Squadron, flying the Spitfire and ended up flying over two dozen sorties above the English Channel. On the 5th January 1941, whilst flying with No. 71 Squadron, he collided with another aircraft. As he plummeted toward the ground Vernon Keough was heard over the radio shouting “Bail out! Bail out!“, but there was no response.
Born in New York, John Haviland was educated in Britain from an early age. He joined the RAF Auxiliary at the outbreak of war in 1939. He spent his time in the Battle of Britain flying Hurricanes with No. 151 squadron. A mid-air collision in September 1940 brought his involvement in the battle to an end. He served the rest of the war as an instructor and bomber support pilot. He was awarded the RAF Distinguished Flying Cross on 16th February 1945, and returned to the U.S. after the war.
Britain owes a debt of gratitude to these individuals and thousands of others like them who displayed great courage and sacrifice in order to help this small country in its hour of need.
“My life may not be long, but it will be wide.“
~Arthur Donahue, in a letter to his parents.
(Featured photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)