‘Yanks’ in the RAF

  • Published
  • By Gerald White
  • 99th Air Base Wing Historian
On June 18, 1940 Winston Churchill stood before the House of Commons and spoke. One day before, the French requested an armistice, and scant weeks earlier, the miracle evacuation at Dunkirk saved more than 338,000 British and French soldiers from German POW camps or worse. 

In closing, Churchill made the stakes clear, saying "What Gen. (Maxime) Weygand (a French military commander in World War I and World War II) called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin." 

He then finished with these immortal words: "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.'"

As the storm clouds of World War II gathered in 1939, the Royal Air Force had expanded quickly, bringing to active service a number of regionally-based Auxiliary Air Force fighter squadrons. Among these pilots numbered three Americans, all long time dual citizens and UK residents; James W.E. Davies, Carl R. Davis and Cyril D. Palmer.

Seeing the threat, they had joined and were operational RAF pilots before the war started on Sept. 1, 1939.

Two saw combat in the Battle of France and "Jimmy" Davies was the first American RAF pilot to die in action, killed on a Channel sweep just before the Battle of Britain. 

John K. Haviland, another long-time UK resident, joined the RAF in July 1939, as did William M.L. "Billy" Fisk and both went operational in time to fly in the Battle of Britain as did Hugh W. Reilly, American born but raised in Canada.

Behind them were the first pilots to come through what would become the Royal Canadian Air Force "pipline." Otto J. Peterson and Arthur G. Donahue both arrived in England in June 1940, the first of over 9,000 Americans who served in the RCAF with the RAF in World War II, followed soon after by Philip H. "Zeke" Letrone. 

Also joining up were Eugene Q. "Red" Tobin, Vernon C. "Shorty" Keogh and Andrew "Andy" Mamedoff, all civilian pilots who had traveled to London after escaping France and wanting to get in the war as soon as possible. Their audacity was rewarded and they joined the RAF in time for the Battle of Britain.

The Battle of Britain raged in the skies over England from July 10 to Oct. 31, 1940 as the Luftwaffe attempted to pave the way for an expected German invasion of England. 

After significant losses over France and later sparring over the Channel, the RAF had built its strength back up to 640 fighters to take on an estimated 2,600 Luftwaffe bombers and fighters. 

American pilots joined others from across the British Empire and refugees from Poland, Czechoslovakia and France, all sharing in the sacrifice as the RAF found its back to the wall against unremitting Luftwaffe attacks.

By Sept. 7, when Hitler broke off the campaign against the RAF and its stations and ordered the bombing of London and other cities, the RAF lost more than 420 pilots who were killed, seriously wounded, missing and presumed dead or captured.

Of these, Billy Fiske was the first American pilot to die on Aug. 16 from injuries after crash-landing. He was followed by double ace Carl Davis who was killed in combat on Sept. 6. Otto Peterson and Hugh Reilly died in crashes on Sept. 27 and Oct. 17.

By then, Red Tobin, Shorty Keogh and Andy Maedoff had been pulled from combat and sent to RAF Church Fenton on Sept. 19, 1940, to be the first pilots for the No. 71 (Eagle) Squadron. Zeke Letrone and Art Donahue soon followed, although Donahue returned to his RAF unit shortly thereafter. 

Of these original "Yanks in the RAF," all but one died in combat or accidents along the way with only John K. Haviland surviving the war. These Americans were among that thin blue line of the RAF who Churchill praised when he said "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

When the war first broke out in Europe, an American philanthropist, Charles Sweeney, started recruiting pilots for a "Lafayette Escadrille" type unit in France. The first recruits were redirected to England when France fell so quickly. The RCAF established the Clayton Knight Committee, originally to recruit civilian instructors for their part of the Empire Air Training Scheme.

These groups put the word out quietly through the American flying community that the RAF and RCAF needed pilots, a message reinforced by intense media coverage of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz bombings that followed.

Many young men were eager to apply who may not have met the very high pre-war standards of the Army Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps, or who were not willing to wait for their place in a still-slowly expanding American military.

To avoid legal issues of neutrality and citizenship, these pilots very quietly made their way to Canada and joined up there before crossing the Atlantic.

With more American pilots (RCAF trained and others) arriving in England, the RAF established the first of what would be three Eagle Squadrons, manned primarily by U.S. pilots and led, at least initially, by RAF commanders.

No. 71 (Eagle) Squadron formed up at RAF Church Fenton in Sept. 1940 but did not go operational until Feb. 1941. The second, No. 121 (Eagle) Squadron, formed up on May 14, 1941 at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey, and No. 133 (Eagle) Squadron formed up in Aug. 1, 1941 at RAF Coltishall. 

Except for the Dieppe Raid on Aug. 19, 1942, the units did not fly together in combat. 

Once the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor, it was only a matter of time before these combat-tested veterans joined the USAAF. 

On Sept. 29, 1942, standing on a rain-swept tarmac at RAF Debden, most RAF Eagle Squadron pilots transferred en-masse to the USAAFs newly activated 4th Fighter Group. 

Two hundred forty four American pilots flew in the Eagle Squadrons and 77 were killed; another 31 later died in USAAF service. 

Beyond the Eagle Squadrons, other pilots and aircrew transferred to the USAAF, but some stayed with their RAF/RCAF units for the rest of their combat tour and some Americans in the RAF/RCAF chose to remain part of the RAF for extended periods, some for the rest of the war and beyond.

Because of equipment shortages, 4th FG pilots continued to fly their beloved Spitfires through early 1943 before converting to the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt (for a short period) and then the North American P-51 Mustang. 

The pilots of today's 4th Fighter Wing wear, as heritage patches, the crests of RAF 71, 121 and 131 (Eagle) Squadrons, reflecting the valor and sacrifice of their predecessors.