Eagle Squadrons: Wikis

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The Eagle Squadrons were fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force formed during World War II with volunteer pilots from the United States. While many US recruits simply crossed the border and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force to learn to fly and fight, many of the early recruits had originally come to Europe to fight for Finland against the Soviets in the Winter War.

Eagle Squadron 133 Badge

Charles Sweeny, a well-heeled socialite and businessman living in London, began recruiting American citizens to fight as a US volunteer detachment in the French Air force, echoing the Lafayette Escadrille of the Great War. With the fall of France a dozen of these recruits joined the RAF. Sweeny's efforts were also co-ordinated in Canada by World War I air ace Billy Bishop and with artist Clayton Knight who formed the Clayton Knight Committee, who, by the time the USA entered the war in December 1941, had processed and approved 6,700 applications from Americans to join the RCAF or RAF. Sweeny and his rich society contacts bore the cost (over $100,000) of processing and bringing the US trainees to the UK for training.

Contents

Training

The basic requirements for those interested in joining the Eagles were a high school diploma, being between 20 and 31 years of age, eyesight that was 20/40 correctable to 20/20, and 300 hours of certified flying time. These requirements, with the exception of the flight time, were not as strict as those required for service in the USAAC which is the reason some of the pilots joined the squadron. Most Eagle Squadron pilots did not have a college education or prior military experience.

Once in Britain, and having passed basic flight training the newly qualified pilots were sent for advanced operational training to an operational training unit (OTU) for two to four weeks to learn to fly Miles Master trainers, Hawker Hurricanes, and Supermarine Spitfires before being posted to a squadron.

Formation and evolution

The first Eagle Squadron (No. 71) was formed in September 1940, and became operational for defensive duties on 5 February 1941. The three Eagle Squadrons were numbered 71, 121, and 133. Of the thousands that volunteered, 244 Americans served with the three Eagle Squadrons; 16 Britons also served as Squadron and Flight commanders.

71 Squadron commenced operations base at Church Fenton in early 1941, before a move to Kirton-in-Lindsay. In April the Squadron transferred to Martlesham Heath in Suffolk for operations over Europe. During May they suffered their first loss when Mike Kolendorski was killed during a fighter sweep over Holland. Intensity of operations stepped up with a move into Fighter Command's 11 Group, being based at North Weald by June 1941. On 2 July William J. Hall became the first 'Eagle' pilot to become a POW when he was shot down during an escort mission. The squadron's first confirmed victory came on 21 July 1941 when P/O W. Dunn destroyed a Bf 109-F over Lille. In August the Spitfire Mk II replaced their Hurricanes, before quickly re-equipping with the latest Spitfire Mk V. The unit soon established a high reputation, and numerous air kill claims were made in RAF fighter sweeps over the continent during the summer and autumn of 1941. In December the Squadron was rested back at Martlesham Heath, before a move to Debden in May 1942.[1]

121 Squadron were formed at Kirton-in-Lindsay in May 1941, flying Hurricanes on coastal convoy escort duties. On 15 September 1941 it destroyed its first German aircraft. The Hurricanes were replaced with Spitfires and the Mk V arrived in November 1941. The following month the Squadron moved to North Weald, replacing 71 Squadron. In 1942 it its offensive activities over the channel included bomber escorts and fighter sweeps. [2]

133 Squadron was the last Eagle unit to be formed , at Coltishall in July 1941 flying the Hurricane Mk IIb. A move to Duxford followed in August, and re-equipment with the Spitfire Mk V early in 1942. In May the Squadron became part of the famed Biggin Hill Wing. On 31 July 1942 during a bomber escort mission to Abbeville, 52-kill 'ace' Oblt. Rudi Pflanz of 11./JG 2 engaged in combat with 133's Spitfires, and after shooting down one was then shot down and killed in his Bf 109 G-1 over Berck-sur-Mer, France; 133 claimed 3 destroyed and one probable while losing 3 aircraft. P/O "Jessie" Taylor accounted for 2 of the claims (a 109F and a FW 190) and P/O W. Baker was credited with a FW 190 destroyed. On 26 September 1942 11 of the unit's 12 brand new Spitfire Mk Ixs were lost on a mission over Morlaix, when escorting B-17s in heavy cloud. Strong winds blew the unit further South than realised and short of fuel the Squadron let down directly over Brest. Six of the squadron were shot down and taken prisoner, four were killed, one bailed and evaded capture while one crash landed in England. One of the English 133 pilots taken prisoner, F/L Gordon Brettell, was to be shot as one of the escapees in The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944.[3]

The Dieppe Raid was the only occasion that all three Eagle Squadrons saw action operating together.[4] No. 71 moved from Debden to Gravesend in mid August in anticipation of the Dieppe action, while No. 121 operated from Southend. 133 Squadron moved with No. 401 RCAF from Biggin Hill to Lympne, on the English south coast. 71 Squadron claimed a JU 88 shot down, 121 a single FW 190, while 133 claimed 4 FW190s, a Ju 88 and a Dornier Do 217 downed. Six 'Eagle' Spitfires were lost, with one pilot taken prisoner and one killed.

Through to the end of September 1942, the squadrons claimed to have destroyed 73½ German planes while 77 American and 5 British members were killed. 71 Squadron claimed 41 kills, 121 Squadron 18 kills, and 133 squadron 14½ kills. [5]

When informed of the attack on Pearl Harbor, most of the Eagle Squadron pilots wanted to immediately join the fight against Japan. Representatives from 71 and 121 Squadrons went to the American Embassy in London and offered their services to the United States. The pilots from 71 Squadron decided they wanted to go to Singapore to fight the Japanese and a proposal was put to RAF Fighter Command, but it was turned down.

On 29 September 1942, the three squadrons were officially turned over by the RAF to the fledgling Eighth Air Force of the USAAF and became the 4th Fighter Group. Negotiations regarding the transfer between the Eagle Squadrons, USAAF, and the RAF had to resolve a number of issues. The RAF wanted some compensation for losing three front-line squadrons in which they had heavily invested. Determining what rank each pilot would assume in the USAAF had to be negotiated, with most being given a rank equivalent to their RAF rank. None of the Eagle Squadron pilots had served in the USAAF and did not have US pilot wings. It was decided to give them US pilot wings upon their transfer.

Major General Carl Spaatz, head of the USAAF in Europe, wanted to spread the experience of the Eagles amongst various new US fighter squadrons. However, the pilots of the three Eagle Squadrons wanted to stay together. The squadrons were respectively designated by the USAAF as the 334th, 335th, and 336th and transferred as complete units, retaining their Spitfires[6] until P-47 Thunderbolts became available in January 1943. The 4th Fighter Group flew Spitfires until its conversion to P-47s was completed in April 1943.

Individual pilots

The first three members of the Eagle Squadron obtained their transfers to No. 71 Squadron RAF in September 1940. They were:

  • Vernon Charles "Shorty" Keough
  • Andrew B. Mamedoff
  • Eugene Quimby "Red" Tobin

All three men were Battle of Britain veterans, having served together in No. 609 Squadron RAF, at RAF Middle Wallop.
They had joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) together (receiving consecutive service numbers), having been posted to 609 Squadron together, having fought the Battle of Britain together, and having transferred to 71 together. The trio had also all been killed by the time of the transfer of the Eagle Squadrons to the USAAC in 1942:

Another Battle of Britain veteran was Phillip Howard Leckrone. He had served in another squadron with an Auxiliary Air Force heritage: No. 616 Squadron RAF. He was another who was killed early:

  • 84653 P/O. Phillip H. Leckrone was killed in January, 1941. Age 28.cwgc

The lives of these four pilots has been described in THE FEW by Alex Kershaw[7].

It is reported that Pilot Officer Art Donahue DFC stayed with the Eagle Squadron only a short time before requesting a transfer back to his original RAF unit. He did not appreciate the unruly behavior of many of the American pilots. He was KIA in 1942.[8][9]

Captain Don Gentile was a pilot with 133 squadron, claiming 2 air victories, and by March 1944 became the 4th FG's top ace in WWII with 22 air kills.

Chesley 'Pete' Peterson had 130 sorties with the Eagle Squadrons, he then became the youngest Squadron Commander in the RAF. When the Eagle Squadrons were transferred to the USAAC 4th Fighter Group, Peterson became the group's executive officer, succeeding to command of the group in April 1943, and at 23 years of age the youngest (at the time) Colonel in the US Army Air Corps.

Col. Donald Blakeslee was a pilot in 121 and 133 Squadrons during 1942, making 120 sorties and claiming 3 air kills, became deputy commander of the 4th Fighter Group under Chesley Peterson, then commanded the group from January to October 1944. Blakeslee flew briefly with the 354th and 357th Fighter Groups in January 1944 when the P-51 Mustang was introduced to combat in Europe and immediately became the driving force behind conversion of all but one of the Eighth Air Force fighter groups to the Mustang. His insistence on converting to the Mustang resulted in a rapid turnover of airplanes, with the former Eagle squadrons flying their first Mustang mission on February 24, 1944.

F/L. Charles A. Cook Jr. was a member of 133 Squadron. He was shot down in September 1942 and was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III until 1945. He was a member of what was known as "The Long March", when German forces decided to empty the camps in the face of the Russian advance.

Dedication

British composer Kenneth J. Alford wrote a march, "Eagle Squadron", in honour of the pilots of the squadron. It is also a "thank you" to the American pilots: small sections of the Star Spangled Banner can be heard in the low brass during the trio.

See also

References

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Notes

  1. ^ 'Aces High', Shores and Williams, 1994
  2. ^ 'Aces High', Shores and Williams, 1994
  3. ^ 'Aces High', Shores and Williams, 1994
  4. ^ Franks, 1992.
  5. ^ 'Aces High', Shores and Williams, 1994, pages 31, 38, 40
  6. ^ 133 Squadron had been re-equipped in September 1942 with Spitfire IXs. These aircraft did not transfer to the USAAF, and 336th Fighter Squadron formed with Spitfire Vs.
  7. ^ Kershaw, 2006.
  8. ^ CWGC :: Casualty Details
  9. ^ Donahue, 1942.

Bibliography

  • Caine, Philip D. American Pilots in the RAF: The WWII Eagle Squadrons. Brassey's, 1993. ISBN 0-02-881070-8.
  • Childers, James Saxon. War Eagles: The Story of the Eagle Squadron. Windmill Press, 1943.
    • Republished by Eagle Publishing in 1983, ISBN 0-941624-71-4. Same as the 1943 edition, except it has an epilogue of the members as of 1982.
  • Donahue, Arthur Gerald. Tally-Ho! Yankee in a Spitfire. McMillan & Company, 1942.
  • Dunn, William R. Fighter Pilot: The First American Ace of World War II. University of Kentucky Press, 1982. ISBN 0-8131-1465-9.
  • Franks, Norman. The Greatest Air Battle: Dieppe, 19 August 1942. London: Grub Street, 1992. ISBN 0-948817-58-5.
  • Fydenchuk, W. Peter. Immigrants of War: Americans Serving With the RAF and RCAF During World War II. WPF Publications, 2005. ISBN 0-9737523-0-0.
  • Goodson, James A. and Norman Franks. Over-Paid, Over-Sexed and Over-Here. Wingham Press Ltd., 1991. ISBN 1 873454-09-0.
  • Haughland, Vern. Caged Eagles: Downed American Fighter Pilots, 1940-45. TAB Books, 1992. ISBN 0-8306-2146-6.
  • Haughland, Vern. The Eagle Squadrons: Yanks in the RAF, 1940-1942. Ziff-Davis Flying Books, 1979.
    • Republished by TAB Books in 1992, ISBN 0-8306-2146-6, with all the photos different from the 1st edition.
  • Haughland, Vern. The Eagles' War: The Saga of the Eagle Squadron Pilots, 1940-1945. Jason Aronson, Inc., 1982. ISBN 0-87668-495-9.
    • Republished by TAB Books in 1992, ISBN 0-8306-2145-8, with all the photos different from the 1st edition.
  • Holmes, Tony. American Eagles: American Volunteers in the R.A.F., 1937-1943. Classic Publications, 2001. ISBN 1-903223-16-4.
  • Kershaw, Alex. The Few. Da Capo Press, 2006. ISBN 0-306-81303-0.
  • Morris, John T. The Lives of an American Eagle. Mulberry River Press, 1999. ISBN 0-9636529-9-0.
  • Nelson, Kenneth James, CD. Spitfire RCW: The Wartime Exploits of Wing Commander Royce Clifford Wilkinson OBE, DFM & Bar, C.de G.(France). Hignall Printing Ltd., 1994.
  • Sweeny, Charles and Colonel James A. Goodson. Sweeny: The autobiography of Charles Sweeny. Harrop Press Ltd., 1990. ISBN 1-872809-00-6.

External links


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