David Alan Johnson

The Battle of Britain: The American Connection

This story has appeared in WW II History Magazine.

And as desperate as the pilot shortage was at the end of August, it looked to become even worse in the near future. RAF Fighter Command decided to look for pilots outside of their own training units. This notice began to appear in American newspapers during July and August. (This particular advertisement appeared in the New York Herald Tribune):
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.
Fighter Command had acquired some pilots from occupied countries: Belgians; French; Czechs; and Poles. The problems was that there were so few of them – only 12 French pilots and 29 Belgians managed to escape to England. And these pilots also had their drawbacks. Many were not accustomed to advanced fighters like the Spitfire and Hurricane. Most had flown out-of-date bi-planes without retractable landing gear – which is one reason that the Luftwaffe had enjoyed such success. After giving an expert demonstration of rolls and loops, these foreign pilots would sometimes wreck their planes when they forgot to lower their wheels before landing.

Another drawback was language difficulties. The Poles, for instance, were among the best and most determined in Fighter Command. But no one could communicate with them; they did not understand ground controllers, and could not be vectored to intercept an incoming enemy raid. Before they could be classified as operational, the Poles would at least have to learn the basic rudiments of English. They also had to learn flight jargon, such as ‘angels,’ vector,’ ‘bogey,’ and ‘bandit.’ Without the ability to communicate with ground control, the Poles were as good as useless, in spite of their experience and skill.

Which is one of the reasons that Fighter Command decided to accept American volunteers. The Yanks might not have the combat experience of the Poles or the Czechs, but at least they spoke a language that was roughly similar to English. They could be vectored toward an incoming enemy formation by ground control, and could sometimes even be understood when they spoke. (They would also prove useful as a propaganda device, to sway the opinion of neutral America.)

Nobody knows how many ‘secret Americans’ served in the Royal Air Force during the summer of 1940, or how many Canadians who joined the RAF were actually Americans who kept their nationality a secret. (The official number is 7.)* But the real figure is probably many times higher. The only trace of their true nationality are buried in squadron rosters – ‘Tex,’ or ‘America,’ or ‘Uncle Sam.’

One of the Neutrality Acts made joining the armed forces of a ‘belligerent nation’ a criminal offense. The punishment for anyone unfortunate enough to be caught trying to join the RAF was stiff – a $20,000 fine, a ten-year prison sentence, and loss of US citizenship. To protect themselves from harassment by border patrols and the FBI, American volunteers simply declared themselves to be Canadian. Others simply went to Canada and disappeared. A volunteer from New York told a customs officer that he was going to Newfoundland ‘for some shooting.’ Americans who crossed into Canada and made their way across to England and the RAF lost their US citizenship, and technically became fugitives from justice.

Between June 1940 and December 1941, several hundred Americans volunteered to join the RAF. The best known are the fighter pilots, but others served in Bomber Command as pilots, navigators and air gunners. Among those who are known to have served with Fighter Command in the summer of 1940 was Flight Lieutenant James Davies of Bernardsville, NJ, who joined the RAF in 1936. By June 1940, he had shot down six enemy aircraft, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On 25 June, the day on which he was to have received the DFC from George VI, Davies was shot down and killed.

The best known, and most aggressively publicized, of all the Yanks in the RAF was Pilot Officer Billy Fiske. 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 a champion bobsledder, and entered society when he married the former wife of the Earl of Warwick. Fiske settled in England, where he did week-end 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.

On 16 August, Fiske’s Hurricane was hit by enemy fire, but he was able to crash-land at Tangmere, 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. (The US Air Force equivalent to Pilot Officer is Second Lieutenant.) The reason that Fiske was given so much space was mainly because he was American. His death in combat with the Luftwaffe presented Britain with a golden opportunity – now that a well-known American citizen had been killed in the Battle, Winston Churchill, speaking through the Ministry of Information, could say to Americans that their fellow countrymen were already involved in the war.

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. By the beginning of September, most American journalists had given up on Britain and the RAF, and Winston Churchill’s plan of allowing American newsmen to report the Battle seemed to be backfiring. They could see for themselves which way the Battle was going. Edward R. Murrow of the Columbia Broadcasting System was, in the words of his wife Janet, ‘one of the few who felt that somehow, by some miracle, they were going to win.’ Most of Murrow’s fellow reporters would have agreed that the RAF needed nothing short of a miracle.

Reporters in England were not the only ones who had given up; many in the United States also had little hope. Newsman Vincent ‘Jimmy’ Sheehan was asked to do a 25,000 word magazine article describing the entry of German forces when they occupied London. But Sheehan turned down the offer – when Hitler arrived in London, he did not want to be there.
* The seven ‘official’ Americans in Fighter Command in the summer of 1940 are:
Pilot Officer Arthur Donahue, 64 Squadron
Pilot Officer J.K. Haviland, 153 Squadron
Pilot Officer W.M.L. Fiske, 601 Squadron
Pilot Officer Vernon Keough, 609 Squadron
Pilot Officer Phil Leckrone, 616 Squadron
Pilot Officer Andrew Mamedoff, 609 Squadron
Pilot Officer Eugene Tobin, 609 Squadron

Selected Works

Civil War Non-Fiction, Psychology
How the backgrounds of Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant influenced their campaign against each other in Virginia in 1864 and 1865.
Abraham Lincoln's re-election in 1864 was decided on the batlefields of Virginia and Georgia as much as at the ballot box.
J. Edgar Hoover sends an innocent man to prison to save his own reputation. Includes chapter on the Bush Administration's use of this case as a precedent for military tribunals to try terrorist suspects.
The relationship between Britain and the United States has been long, frequently contentious, and sometimes comical.
How anti-Nazi Intelligence officers tricked Hitler regarding the time and place of D-Day.
Britain not only had to fight the German Luftwaffe, but also had to battle isolationism in the US.