Non-British personnel in the RAF during the Battle of Britain
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The British Royal Air Force (RAF) and Fleet Air Arm (FAA) had included non-British personnel from before the beginning of the Second World War. There were volunteers from the British Dominions and refugees and exiles from nations in Europe.
The RAF Roll of Honour for the Battle of Britain recognises 574 pilots from countries other than the United Kingdom, as flying at least one authorised operational sortie with an eligible unit during the period from 10 July to 31 October 1940, alongside 2,353 British pilots. The numbers differ slightly from the participants engraved on the Battle of Britain London Monument, unveiled on 18 September 2005. Aviators, regardless of nationality, who flew with British units during the Battle are known collectively, after a phrase coined by Winston Churchill, as "The Few".
Prior to the outbreak of war, in view of the worsening European situation, the RAF had embarked on a series of expansion plans. These included Short-Service Commissions for pilots from the air forces of other British Commonwealth countries, namely Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia.
The governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, under an agreement signed in December 1939, created the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), also known as the Empire Air Training Scheme. The plan had three main effects: first, joint military aircrew training facilities were set up in each member country, as well as Southern Rhodesia; second, these air forces also formed a common pool of aircrew and ground staff, who were posted to units according to operational needs and regardless of nationality and; third, under Article XV of the agreement, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) formed squadrons for service under RAF operational control. These so-called "Article XV Squadrons" were given numbers in the 400-series, to avoid confusion with RAF units. Other squadrons from Dominion air forces served under RAF control during the Battle and other units, composed mostly of RAAF, RCAF and RNZAF personnel were formed within the RAF itself. Most of these squadrons and personnel were still in training and/or were not involved in fighter operations during the Battle of Britain, although No. 1 Squadron RCAF took part in operations from August 1940.
Contribution by country
When the war began, about 450 Australian pilots were serving in the RAF.
Australia was among the first countries to declare war on Germany and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF; previously the Australian Flying Corps) was among the world's oldest air forces, having served during the First World War, in the Middle East and Europe. Under the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS), a total of 37,000 aircrew were trained in Australia during 1939–45.
However, the flow of RAAF personnel to the European theatre was slowed by three factors: first, establishment of the massively expanded training process meant that first aircrews trained by the RAAF during the war did not graduate until November 1940; second, RAAF doctrine emphasised the army co-operation and maritime patrol roles; third, the Australian authorities placed great emphasis on a provision of EATS, that Dominion personnel should serve with units from their own air forces, wherever possible. RAAF Article XV fighter squadrons were not operational in Europe until mid-1941.
Nevertheless, more than 30 Australians served in RAF Fighter Command during the Battle. The highest scoring Australian ace of the Battle was Flight Lieutenant Pat Hughes, of No. 234 Squadron RAF, who claimed 14 kills before his death in September 1940.
Despite having only a small air force of its own before the war, a significant number of Belgian pilots succeeded in reaching Britain after the Belgian surrender in 1940. As of February 2012, the RAF officially recognizes 30 Belgians as having participated in the Battle of Britain, of whom 18 were killed in action. Though two all-Belgian fighter squadrons were formed later in the war, during the Battle of Britain they were mixed into British units. However, Nos. 235 and 236 Squadrons had unusually significant numbers of Belgians, at 8 and 6 respectively.
Many Canadians served in the fighter squadrons which repulsed the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940. In fact, although the RAF only recognises 83 Canadian pilots as flying on fighter operations during the Battle of Britain, the RCAF claims the actual figure was over 100, and that of those 23 who died and 30 more were killed later in the war. Much of this confusion can be attributed to the fact that apart from RCAF members flying in RCAF units, there were those RCAF members who were in RAF units as well as Canadians who were members of the RAF, not the RCAF. Another 200 Canadian pilots fought with RAF Bomber Command and RAF Coastal Command during the period and approx 2,000 Canadians served as ground crew.
Of these, 26 were in No. 1 Squadron RCAF, flying Hurricanes. The squadron arrived in Britain soon after Dunkirk with 27 officers and 314 ground staff. This squadron would later be re-numbered as No. 401 "City of Westmount" Squadron RCAF, in line with Article XV of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (see above). It was the only fighter unit from the Commonwealth air forces to see combat in the Battle of Britain.
No. 1 Squadron made an inauspicious start to its service with Fighter Command, when on 24 August 1940 two of its Hurricanes mistook a flight of Bristol Blenheims for Junkers Ju 88s, shooting one down with the loss of its crew; an example of what is now known as friendly fire. No. 1 became the first RCAF unit to engage enemy aircraft in battle when it met a formation of German bombers over southern England on 26 August 1940, claiming three kills and four damaged, with the loss of one pilot and one aircraft. By mid-October the squadron had claimed 31 enemy aircraft destroyed and 43 probables or damaged for the loss of 16 aircraft and three pilots.
Other Canadians were spread across RAF squadrons, and on the second day of the Battle, 11 July, Canada suffered its first fighter casualty. In a Luftwaffe attack on the Royal Navy Dockyard naval base at Portland Harbour, Plt Offr D. A. Hewitt of Saint John, New Brunswick, flying a Hurricane with No. 501 Squadron RAF, attacked a Dornier Do-17 bomber and was hit himself. His aircraft plunged into the sea. Another Canadian pilot, Richard Howley, died eight days later.
The dispersed Canadian airmen included one who flew with No. 303 (Polish) Squadron. A total of 12 Canadian pilots in the Royal Air Force including Willie McKnight flew with No. 242 Squadron RAF at various times through the Battle. On 30 August, under the command of Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, nine 242 Squadron aircraft met 100 enemy aircraft over Essex. Attacking from above, the squadron claimed 12 victories for no loss.
Canadians also shared in repulsing the Luftwaffe's last major daylight attack. On 27 September, 303 Squadron and 1 Squadron RCAF, attacked the first wave of enemy bombers. Seven aircraft were claimed destroyed, one probably destroyed and seven were damaged.
Many of the Czech pilots had fled to France after the annexation of their country in March 1939 and had fought in the short Armée de L'Air in the Battle of France, gaining important combat experience. The rapid fall of France then led to Czechoslovak soldiers and airmen leaving France for Britain, where established their own squadrons. Almost 90 Czechoslovak pilots flew in the Battle of Britain, with No. 310 and No. 312 (Czechoslovak) Squadrons, RAF, formed in Summer 1940, which became operational during the battle. At the start of the battle, some of Czechs were distributed also throughout other Fighter Command squadrons. Nos. 310 and 312 units were equipped by Hurricanes and later by Spitfires.
Czech fighters earned a reputation for aggressive aerial combat and for skills and bravery. Together with Czechoslovak pilots serving in other RAF units, a total of 88 - 86 Czechs and 2 Slovaks - served, claiming almost 60 air kills. Nine pilots were killed. The top Czech ace was Sgt. Josef František, flying with No. 303 (Polish) Squadron, RAF who claimed 17 confirmed kills, which made him the highest scoring allied pilot in the Battle of Britain.
Among the approximately 15 Irish from the Republic of Ireland, and 26 from Northern Ireland who played key roles in the Battle of Britain, it was Brendan "Paddy" Finucane, an air ace who went on to claim a total of 32 enemy aircraft before being shot down and killed in 1942. The eldest of five children, Brendan grew up in Co. Dublin, and his father was involved in the Easter Rising of 1916. He and his family moved to England in 1936, and joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 17. He became operational in July 1940 and shot down his first Bf 109 on 12 August, getting a second Bf 109 the following day. In a 51-day period in 1941, Finucane claimed 16 Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters shot down, while flying with an Australian squadron. "Paddy" Finucane went on to become the youngest wing commander in the RAF, a rank he received at the age of 21. He was killed on 15 July 1942. Although the Republic of Ireland was neutral, many men joined the British Royal Air Force by either going to Britain or to Northern Ireland, which was a part of the United Kingdom and at war with Germany.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) was set up as a separate service in 1937, but numbered less than 1,200 personnel by September 1939. The Empire Air Training Scheme (as the BCATP was known in New Zealand and Australia), had resulted in about 100 RNZAF pilots being sent to Europe by the time the Battle started. Unlike the other Dominions, New Zealand did not insist on its aircrews serving with RNZAF squadrons, thereby speeding up the rate at which they entered service. An annual rate of 1,500 fully trained pilots was reached by January 1941.
The most prominent New Zealander in the Battle was Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, a high scoring air ace in the First World War and a member of the RAF since its creation. He was Commander of No. 11 Group RAF, which was tasked with the defence of London and south-east England.[N 1]
If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgment and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world.—Lord Tedder, Chief of the Royal Air Force, February 1947 about Keith Park.
The RAF recognises 135 Fighter Command aircrew from New Zealand as having served in the Battle. Several New Zealanders became high scorers, including Plt Offr Colin Gray (No. 54 Squadron RAF) with 14 claims, Fg Offr Brian Carbury (No. 603 Squadron RAF) 14 claims and Plt Offr Alan "Al" Deere (54 Squadron), 12 claims. Carbury shot down the first German aircraft over British territory since 1918 and was also one of two aces in a day in the Battle.[N 2]
Following the German invasion of Poland, many Polish pilots escaped and made their way to France and Britain. During the German invasion of France in May 1940, of the 1,600 Polish pilots available to the Armee de l'Air it is estimated that only about 150 took an active part in combat. Many of these personnel escaped to the UK around the time of the fall of France. By mid-1940 some 35,000 Polish airmen, soldiers and sailors had made their way to Britain, making up the largest foreign military force in the country; of these some 8,500 were airmen. Many were members of the Polish Air Force which had fought the Luftwaffe. However, the Air Ministry and the RAF underestimated their potential value in fighting against the Luftwaffe. Most of the Poles were posted either to RAF bomber squadrons or the RAF Volunteer Reserve.
On 11 June 1940, the Polish Government in Exile signed an agreement with the British Government to form a Polish Air Force in the UK. Finally, in July 1940 the RAF announced that it would form two Polish fighter squadrons: 302 "Poznański" Squadron and 303 "Kościuszko" Squadron were composed of Polish pilots and ground crews, although their flight commanders and commanding officers were British.
The two fighter squadrons went into action in August, with 89 Polish pilots. Another 50 Poles took part in the Battle, in RAF squadrons.
Polish pilots were among the most experienced in the Battle; most had hundreds of hours of pre-war flying experience and had fought in the September Campaign and/or the Battle of France. The Polish pilots had been well trained in formation flying and had learned from combat experience to fire from close range. By comparison, one Polish pilot referred to the close formation flying and set-piece attacks practised in the RAF as "simply suicidal".
The 147 Polish pilots claimed 201 aircraft shot down. 303 Squadron claimed the highest number of kills (126) of all Allied squadrons engaged in the Battle of Britain. Witold Urbanowicz of 303 Squadron was the top Polish scorer with 15 claims. Sgt Tony Glowacki was one of two Allied pilots in the Battle to shoot down five German aircraft in one day, on 24 August (the other being New Zealander Brian Carbury). One Polish veteran, Stanislaw Skalski, became the top-scoring Polish fighter ace of the Second World War.
There continues to be a perception that "fanatical" Polish pilots, inspired by hatred caused by the German invasion of Poland, often rammed enemy aircraft. However, with their combat experience, Polish pilots would have known that the quickest and most efficient way to destroy an enemy aircraft was to fire from close range. For instance:
"After firing a brief opening burst at 150 to 200 yards, just to get on the enemy's nerves, the Poles would close almost to point-blank range. That was where they did their real work. "When they go tearing into enemy bombers and fighters they get so close you would think they were going to collide," observed Athol Forbes.
In all, 30 Polish airmen were killed during the Battle. One of them died at the hands of an angry crowd in east London. He had baled out of his fighter and landed, injured in Wapping. His incoherent rambling was mistaken for German and he was set-upon by the people who had gathered round him. They were incensed by recent Nazi raids on civilian targets, but he was a member of the RAF.
The close range tactics used by the Poles led to suggestions of recklessness, but there is little evidence for this view. For example, the death rate in 303 Squadron was almost 70 percent lower than the rate for other RAF squadrons, despite the squadron having been the highest-scoring Allied squadron during the Battle.
One of the RAF's leading aces, and one of the highest scoring pilots during the Battle of Britain was Adolph "Sailor" Malan DFC, an RAF pilot since 1936, who led No. 74 Squadron RAF at the height of the Battle of Britain. Under his leadership No. 74 became one of the RAF's best units. Malan claimed his first two victories over Dunkirk on 21 May 1940, and had claimed five more by the time the Battle started in earnest. Between 19 July and 22 October he shot down six German aircraft. His "Ten Rules for Air Fighting" were printed and pinned up in crew rooms all over Fighter Command. He was part of a group of about 25 pilots from South Africa that took part in the Battle, eight or nine of whom (depending on sources) died during the Battle.
Other notable pilots included P/O Albert "Zulu" Lewis, who opened his account over France in May with No. 85 Squadron, shooting down three Messerschmitt Bf 109s in one action. With No. 85 in August, and then in September with No. 249 Squadron under Squadron Leader (later Air Chief Marshal) Sir John Grandy, at North Weald. Lewis flew three, four and five times a day and 15 September 1940 got a He 111, and shared in the probable destruction of another. On 18 September he got his 12th confirmed enemy aircraft. By 27 September, flying GN-R, Lewis had 18 victories. He was shot down and badly burned on 28 September. Lewis missed the rest of the Battle and his recovery to flying fitness took over three months. Basil Gerald "Stapme" Stapleton, with several probables to his credit, survived a crash on 7 September, trying to stop bombers getting through to London. Both men would later command RAF squadrons.
The most senior officer of South African origin during the Battle was Air Vice-Marshal Sir Christopher J. Quintin-Brand KBE, DSO, MC, DFC, Air Officer Commanding No. 10 Group RAF covering the South-West; a long service RAF officer, he had joined the RFC in 1916.
The RAF recognises seven aircrew personnel who were from the United States of America as having taken part in the Battle of Britain. American citizens were prohibited from serving under the various US Neutrality Acts; if an American citizen had defied strict neutrality laws, there was a risk of losing their citizenship and imprisonment. It is believed that another four Americans misled the British authorities about their origins, claiming to be Canadian or other nationalities.
(Acting) Plt Offr W. M. L. "Billy" Fiske was probably the most famous American pilot in the Battle of Britain, although he pretended to be a Canadian at the time. Fiske saw service with No. 601 (County of London) Squadron and claimed one (unconfirmed) kill. He crashed on 16 August 1940 and died the following day.
According to Kenneth G Wynn's Men of the Battle of Britain published in 1999, and the list currently held by the Royal Air Force, 11 American pilots qualified for the 1939-1945 Star with Battle of Britain clasp:
- De Peyster Brown – No. 401 Squadron RCAF
- Carl Raymond Davis – No. 601 Squadron (born in South Africa to American parents. Took British citizenship in 1932)
- Arthur Gerald Donahue – No. 601 Squadron
- William Meade Lindsley Fiske – No. 601 Squadron
- John Kenneth Haviland – No. 151 Squadron
- Vernon Charles Keough – No. 609 Squadron
- Phillip Howard Leckrone – No. 616 Squadron
- Andrew Mamedoff – No. 609 Squadron
- Otto John Peterson – No. 401 Squadron RCAF
- Eugene Quimby Tobin – No. 609 Squadron
- Alexander Roman Zatonski – No. 79 Squadron
Wynn's list omits Whitney Straight, who although in Britain and a member of No. 601 Squadron, may have not flown an operational flight during the required dates (for the Battle of Britain clasp) due to recovering from injuries sustained in the Battle of Norway in 1940.
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