Chapter III: Falling off the American nest.

In the previous chapter, I described how the idea of American squadrons composed of volunteers, well before the actual involvement of their home country, came to be. Charles Sweeny, nephew of Colonel of the same name, had promoted it from the start of the Battle of Britain. His reputation in finance affairs in London and his marriage to a duchess were surely factors in opening those crucial doors of the British government and Armed Forces.

Thus, early July 1941, the formation of a fighting squadron, mainly made of American pilots, was approved by the RAF that had already successfully incorporated men who had retreated from their own countries to go on fighting from the English shores. Among those, some of the most noteworthy were the Polish squadrons created around the same date from the veterans of the Air Force of the vanquished Poland, such as the first fighter groups, 302 and 303 squadrons (the Polish pilots would eventually represent up to 16 units of bombers and fighters). The first unit of fighting American volunteers was quickly given a name and soon advertised locally and back home, where recruitment was urgently needed. They were publicised as the American Eagle squadrons.

Initially, the only significant opposition in Britain came from the Under Secretary of State for Air, Captain H. Balfour, who was concerned that such project could impair other recruiting efforts for instructors in the USA to serve in the Empire Air Training Scheme (to be later known as British Commonwealth Air Training Plan which aim had been to teach aspiring pilots throughout the British Empire and the United States since December 1939). The scheme proposed that the UK provide the aircrafts and a core of key support individuals and the host countries the rest, including those necessary pilots. Schools were successfully opened in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (Southern Rhodesia and South Africa participating too) to teach various jobs related to the support and deployment of Air units. The first classes had begun in April of 1940 and such program reached up to 333 flying schools 3 years later. Balfour eventually consented to the initiative of the Eagle when he accepted that both projects were not conflicting.

But as Sweeny worked on his Eagle idea, other people were busy too recruiting potential American aviators. One of them was Clayton Knight, a combat pilot of WWI, shot down and made prisoner through the end of the conflict, who already had the backing of the British and Canadian governments. In September 1939, the Canadian Air Vice Marshal, W. Bishop, himself a war ace of the Great War, had contacted Knight, who, at the time, was still flying as an aviation artist for the Cleveland Air Races, to consider recruiting Americans to join and reinforce the RCAF and the RAF. Knight accepted but first focused on enrolling instructors able to train the new pilot recruits of the Empire Air Training Scheme. Another WWI Canadian pilot, H. Smith became Knight’s assistant, under the official title of RCAF wing commander. Anticipating that they would get the approval of the local officials to recruit American men, he set up office in New York. Meanwhile, Knight was meeting with the chief of the Army Air Corps, the Major General H. Arnold, and the Navy’s chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral J. Towers, whom he knew already. The two US officials did not oppose his recruitment as long as it would interfere with their own selection. Naturally, men already serving were off the table too. Fortunately, as I describe in the early pages of “Aquilis Serenade”, the standards of recruitment differed greatly between the US and the Commonwealth Air Forces. This was partially due to the fact that, before and in the early years of the war, the US Air Corps was rather small, poorly equipped, and under-developed. This would radically change after Pearl Harbor. However, for the time being, the US officials could afford to be peaky and prefer only younger, perfectly healthy and college educated officers. On the other hand, the standards of the RCAF or RAF were much more flexible, such as for age limitations or marital status. For example, they did not prevent married men from flying.

So, it seemed that Knight could get his pick from the rest of a vast litter of promising men, both young and more experienced in flying airplanes. But although the Roosevelt administration did not oppose his plans, he was still asked to tread carefully and be discreet, in the context of the political neutrality of the USA. The form of communication from the US officials illustrated such a prudence when the highest ranks of the US government stated that they did not object to Americans traveling to Canada for enlistment purposes. To address the existing laws that prevented from actively recruiting individuals into foreign service, military or aboard a ship, Knight announced that he would not advertise a recruitment per se, but instead he would promote in counselling and assist in organising travels for training purpose to Canada or the UK.

But there was still one major legal impediment to surmount for Knight and it would plague anyone committing to join the future Eagles. This issue in itself takes us to the core of the exception of the early members of the Eagle squadron (I mean those men who served as RAF pilots not the later recruits from late 1942). They were not merely volunteers of the first hours and facing odds so great that even the US ambassador in London believed in a successful endurance of England against the waves of Nazi assaults. Their desire, against their own comfort, security and peace, also faced the perspective of, first, breaking the law, in the context of the Neutrality Laws described in Chapter II of this series of narratives, and, secondly, compromising their citizenship. Such was the citizenship issue that it would remain a legal problem even after the end of the war. The Citizenship Act of 1907 was clear and stated that any American citizens who took an oath to any other government would automatically lose their citizenship. This was a problem for Knight and would be a price to pay for many Eagles to come.

This issue is important to our story and would affect the lives of the members of the Eagle squadron, their expatriation, their status as citizen, but also, down the road, for some, their allegiances. For Knight though, the issue was temporarily resolved, even if in an imprecise and borderline fashion. His organisation started its work of “cautious recruitment in disguise” in California (in Oakland and LA) where the largest pool of pilots could be found (i.e. in “Aquilis Serenade”, the protagonist who has joined the 121 squadron is from the California valley) but quickly expanded its offices in most major cities, such as New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Kansas City. The applicant were asked to meet specific criteria, although loose by American Corps standards. They included a high school diploma or equivalent, to be 20 to 45 years old, demonstrate at least 300 documented flying hours, and hold a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) license. However, recruits applying for the RAF needed to be younger than 31 and unmarried. During its two-year existence, the Knight Committee (later known as the Canadian Aviation Bureau) selected 6,700 men out of the 49,000 volunteers to staff the flying schools of the RCAF and RAF in the British Commonwealth Air Training Program.
In parallel, in spite of earlier proclamations and a population still strongly opposed to commit to the war, the US government´s leniency for Knight´s work, thus in enforcing the Neutrality Laws, mirrored the wish of the Roosevelt administration to join the war effort and, if not, for lack of popularity, to assist Britain or the Soviet Union, the last standing countries that opposed the Reich. Through the middle of the Battle of Britain, in August 1940, Britain had ordered, and paid, partly in basing rights, 20,000 aircraft and 42,000 engines, including parts to enhance the performance of the famous Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that powered the British Hurricane and later Spitfire planes (two models used by the Eagle squadrons).

Hurricane planes in the RAF (XR marks the body of the 71 Eagle squadron):

Spitfire or Supermarine Spitfire planes in the RAF (XR marks the body of the 71 Eagle squadron, AV of the 121 Eagle squadron):

At this stage, we returned to the main of our story, which is the Eagles effectively joining the fray and rubbing feathers with their German cousins in a battle of Aquilis. 

Emboldened by the development of the initiative of Knight and the relative tolerance of the American administration, the colonel Charles Sweeny proceeded with his own idea to bring American volunteers to Britain. But these men were not to not train Commonwealth recruits. They were to actually fight on the front line of the war that raged in the sky of Europe, above and on either sides of the Channel. At the onset of the famous battle of Britain, in the summer months of 1940, some Americans had already reached the UK by way of travelling through Canada. In the UK, these first American recruits received a basic training in flying but only as far as aerobatics and formation flying. According to one of the early Eagles, the acquisition of combat skills was “woefully inadequate” and such training was to be learnt literally “on the job”. By mid-1941, two of the first Eagle squadrons had been created (the 71 and 121), and as with the most immediate urgent need to replace the lost pilots of 1940 temporarily addressed, new imported recruits were given more formal training in the RAF flying methods and military discipline and then first assigned into preparation groups known as operational training (OT) unit. At end of 1941, training had progressed to providing 3 weeks of advanced flying training before reaching an OT unit.

Amongst those who had no proper flying training, half of them had had their first opportunity to fly through the Civil Pilot Training Program, an initiative from the US Congress to provide civilians with the possibility to enter schools intended to form civilian pilots after the Great Depression. Such formation was organised by schools approved by Civil Aeronautics Administration, amongst which various American colleges and universities. However, such program did not meet the standards of the contemporary Air Corps. Roosevelt even regretted a year before his country entered the war, in January 1941, that the availability of such program did not come with any obligation to serve for a time the military in return for the federal government funding their training. Thus, the graduates did not possess any military knowledge but their civil degree provided the foundation of their inclusion in the Eagles squadron. The rest, as some declared, was a matter of real experience and learning the hard way. On the other hand, this lack of military background would translate in the perception of their fellow English pilots who judged this heterogeneous group of Americans undisciplined and loud.

Meanwhile, from November 1940, thus few weeks after the constitution of the 71 Eagle squadron, the first of the three, Knight successfully opened 4 flying schools, including 2 in California (the other ones in Oklahoma and Texas), under Air Corps civilian contracts to improve and refresh the skills of his volunteers. From their opening, all Eagle recruits, who signed in from the USA, would undergo such training. The main exception was for those who, from their own initiative, had, of their own accord, chosen to cross the Canadian border to join the RCAF without relation to either Knight´s or Sweeny´s programs.

Strangely enough, in contrast with the initial reluctance and caution imposed by the laws prevailing in the USA, little efforts were made, after the summer of 1940, to conceal the reality that American volunteers were enrolling as pilots in the RAF. In August, the New York Times wrote an article announcing that a group of 40 Americans volunteers, much alike their predecessors of the Lafayette Escadrille, would soon be joining the RAF under the command of Colonel Charles Sweeny. However, this initial statement was incorrect in suggesting their roles would be to fly two-engine Lockheed-Hudsons aircrafts for anti-submarine and reconnaissance duty as part of the UK Coastal Command. A month later, in September 1940, the British Air Minister Sir A. Sinclair officially divulged that Colonel Sweeny was setting up a fighting “Eagle Squadron” in the RAF, made up of American volunteers. In fact, Colonel Sweeny did not take on any operational duties nor did he play a major role in the creation of the squadron, besides in the recruitment of its men. Nevertheless, for the purpose of publicity, he was made an honorary commander of the 71 RAF squadron with a temporary rank of RAF Group Captain.

On September 19, 1940, the first of the Eagle squadrons, the 71, under the authority of the RAF’s Fighter Command was effectively formed at Church Fenton, near York. But because of the unusual nature, birth and composition of this Eagle Squadron, its command would take some time to be settled. The first candidate suggested by Sweeny, an American RAF pilot living in London, killed himself in a crash landing in August 1940. To the second choice of Sweeny, Taylor, a US Navy and Marine Corps veteran who had flown for the Royal Navy, was however preferred a decorated English fighter pilot. Walter Churchill had already served, earning himself 8 aerial victories to his credit and had participated in the deployment of the two first fighting squadrons of Polish volunteers. Taylor only found out the choice of Churchill iron arriving on base and asked for reassignment. He would eturn to assume the position of commander of the 71 at a later date but would find Churchill still firmly in place. He pressed the matter but would only succeed because of Churchill´illness in January 1941 within days of the operational deployment of the first Eagle squadron.

To be continued…
After the creation of the first squadron, some back stories about the out-of-the-ordinary recruitment of such volunteers, Chapter IV will describe the lives of the Eagles, growth of their group and their war battles.