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The Eagle Squadrons were three fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force (RAF), formed with volunteer pilots from the United States during the early days of World War II (circa 1940), prior to America's entry into the war in December 1941.
Before America's entry into the War, many US recruits simply crossed the border and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to learn to fly and fight. Many early recruits had originally gone to Europe to fight for Finland against the Soviets in the Winter War. Some of the recruits were men rejected by the USAAF as "lacking in intrinsic flying ability", who instead enlisted with the RCAF.
Charles Sweeny, a wealthy 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 World War I. Following the Fall of France in 1940, a dozen of these recruits joined the RAF.
Sweeny's efforts were also coordinated 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 United States 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 United Kingdom for training.
The basic requirements for those interested in joining the Eagle Squadron 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 U.S. Army Air Corps, which was a major reason why 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 ostensibly commissioned as RAF officers and posted to front-line RAF fighter squadrons. The American pilots assigned to the Eagle Squadron never renounced their US citizenship, and although they wore the uniforms and held the rank titles of RAF officers, their dress and duty uniform coats were modified with the Eagle Squadron patch, a white bald eagle flanked by the letters "ES" for Eagle Squadron.
Formation and evolution
The first Eagle Squadron, (No. 71 Squadron), was formed in September 1940 as part of the RAF's buildup during the Battle of Britain, and became operational for defensive duties on 5 February 1941. Eventually, a total of three Eagle Squadrons formed and were numbered 71, 121, and 133, respectively. 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 based at RAF Church Fenton in early 1941, before a move to RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey. In April, the squadron transferred to RAF 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 the Netherlands.
Intensity of operations stepped up with a move into No 11 Group of Fighter Command, being based at RAF North Weald by June 1941. On 2 July, William J. Hall became the first Eagle Squadron pilot to become a Prisoner of War (POW) when he was shot down during an escort mission. The squadron's first confirmed victory came on 21 July 1941 when P/O William R. Dunn destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf 109F over Lille. In August, the Spitfire Mk II replaced 71 Squadron's 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.
121 Squadron were formed at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey 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 Spitfire Mk V arrived in November 1941. The following month the Squadron moved to RAF North Weald, replacing 71 Squadron. In 1942, its offensive activities over the English Channel included bomber escorts and fighter sweeps.
133 Squadron was the last Eagle unit to be formed, standing up at RAF Coltishall in July 1941 and flying the Hurricane Mk IIb. A move to RAF Duxford followed in August, and re-equipment with the Spitfire Mk V occurred early in 1942. In May, the Squadron became part of the famed RAF Biggin Hill Wing. On 31 July 1942 during a bomber escort mission to Abbeville, 52-kill Luftwaffe 'ace' Oblt. Rudolf 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 109G-1 over Berck-sur-Mer, France. 133 Squadron claimed 3 destroyed and one probable while losing 3 aircraft. P/O "Jessie" Taylor accounted for 2 of the claims (a Bf 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 USAAF B-17 Flying Fortresses in heavy cloud cover. 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 British pilots taken prisoner, Flt Lt Gordon Brettell, was to be shot as one of the escapees in The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944.
The Dieppe Raid was the only occasion that all three Eagle Squadrons saw action operating together. No. 71 moved from Debden to Gravesend in mid-August in anticipation of the Dieppe action, while No. 121 operated from South End. 133 Squadron moved with No. 401 Squadron of the RCAF from RAF 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 Fw 190s, 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.
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 U.S. Army Air Forces and became the 4th Fighter Group, with the American pilots becoming officers in the USAAF. The Eagle pilots had earned 12 Distinguished Flying Crosses and one Distinguished Service Order. Only four of the 34 original Eagle pilots were still present when the squadrons joined the USAAF. Typical were the fates of the eight original pilots in the third squadron: Four died during training, one was disqualified, two died in combat, and one was a prisoner of war. About 100 Eagle pilots had been killed, were missing, or were prisoners. 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 also had to be negotiated, with most being given a rank equivalent to their RAF rank. For example, a Flight Lieutenant became a USAAF Captain, while a Wing Commander became a Lieutenant Colonel. None of the Eagle Squadron pilots had previously served in the USAAF and did not have US pilot wings. As such, it was decided that they be awarded USAAF pilot wings upon their transfer to the USAAF. By concession, the Eagle Squadron pilots who transferred to the USAAF Fourth Fighter Group were permitted to retain their RAF wings, reduced in size, on the opposite side of their uniform to their new USAAF pilots wings. They had insisted on being allowed to retain their RAF wings, which they had earned, when ordered to wear USAAF wings, which they had not directly earned in the normal way.
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 71, 121, and 133 squadrons were respectively designated by the USAAF as the 334th, 335th, and 336th and transferred as complete units, retaining their Spitfires 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. The 4th Fighter Wing, along with the 334th, 335th, and 336th Fighter Squadrons, exist today as F-15E Strike Eagle units at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina and are part of the Ninth Air Force.
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, service number 81620
- Andrew B. Mamedoff, service number 81621
- Eugene Quimby "Red" Tobin, service number 81622
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 Squadron together. The trio had also all been killed by the time of the transfer of the Eagle Squadrons to the USAAF in 1942 (from the database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC):
- Pilot Officer Keough was killed in February 1941 – age 29. record
- Flight Lieutenant Mamedoff was killed in October 1941 – age 29, by then transferred, with a promotion to be a Flight Commander in another Eagle Sqn., No. 133 Squadron RAF. CWGC record
- Flying Officer Tobin was killed in September 1941 – age 24. CWGC record
Another Battle of Britain veteran was Phillip Howard Leckrone, service number 84653. He had served in another squadron with an Auxiliary Air Force heritage: No. 616 Squadron RAF. He was also killed before the USAAF took charge of the Eagle Squadrons:
- Pilot Officer Leckrone was killed in January 1941 – age 28. CWGC record
The lives of these four pilots have been described in THE FEW by Alex Kershaw.
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.
Captain Don Gentile, USAAF, was a pilot with 133 Squadron, claiming 2 air victories, and by March 1944 became the 4th FG's top ace in World War II with 22 aerial kills.
Colonel 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 Forces.
Colonel Donald Blakeslee was a pilot in 121 and 133 Squadrons during 1942, making 120 sorties and claiming 3 air kills. He 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.
Flt Lt Charles A. Cook Jr. was a member of 133 Squadron. Shot down in September 1942, he was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III until 1945 and was a member of what was known as "The Long March", when German forces decided to empty the Allied POW camps in the face of the Soviet advance.
- Pilot Officer ; from ; transferred to USAAF Second Lieutenant 85341; assigned to Africa; shot down, taken prisoner in Germany for two years.
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.
- Flying Tigers – American volunteers who fought for the ROC in the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945).
- Kościuszko Squadron – American volunteers fighting for Poland in the Polish-Soviet War (1919–1921).
- Lafayette Escadrille – American volunteers in the French Air Service during World War I.
- No. 164 Squadron RAF—Argentine volunteers in the RAF during World War II
- Non-British personnel in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain.
- in Charing Cross Road, London.
- "Eagles Switch to U. S. Army". Life. 1942-11-02. p. 37. Retrieved November 22, 2011.
- 'Aces High', Shores and Williams, 1994
- Franks, 1992.
- 'Aces High', Shores and Williams, 1994, pages 31, 38, 40
- Tumult in the Clouds: James A Goodson
- 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.
- Kershaw, 2006.
- CWGC :: Casualty Details
- Donahue, 1942.
- 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.
- Goodson, James A. Tumult in the Clouds. NAL Trade, 2004. ISBN 0451211987
- 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 0-306-81303-3.
- 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.
- Peter Provenzano: A Digital Memoir of World War II as a Pilot in the RAF and USAAF
- List of Eagle Squadron Aces
- RAF Eagle Squadron (historic video)
- Eagle Squadrons at RAF North Weald, UK
- Eagle Squadron pilots buried at Brookwood Military Cemetery & Charles Sweeny's grave marker
- Eagle Squadrons became the USAAF 4th Fighter Group on 29 September 1942