Saturday 17 March 2012

The First of The Many

'Red' Tobin, 'Shorty' Keough & Andrew Mamedoff (RAF)
In July 1940, France had fallen and the whole of Europe was under Nazi domination. Britain along with her Empire and Commonwealth stood alone. Across the Atlantic, it was not yet an American war and indeed, there were many within that country that intended things to remain that way. The American Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, felt that Britain was finished and reported back to President Roosevelt that "Democracy is finished in England. It may be here." Kennedy's comments, along with his anti-semitic views and his increasing defeatism were viewed with dismay by Roosevelt and he was to be replaced as Ambassador in November 1940.

Kennedy's views were not representative of most Americans and although at this time most were wary of involvement in what was still seen as someone else's war, some did want to join the fray, whether for reasons of anti-Nazism, for the love of freedom or perhaps just for fun. Despite official disapproval and attempts by FBI agents to stop them crossing into Canada or joining trans Atlantic vessels, some Americans managed to avoid these attempts and joined the RAF in ones and twos. An amazing trio who were amongst the first to join up were Pilot Officers Eugene 'Red' Tobin, Vernon 'Shorty' Keough and Andrew Mamedoff. They had initially travelled to France with the intention of joining the French Air Force but having arrived there during the death throes of that country, managed to escape to England by the skin of their teeth on the final ship to depart from St Jean de Luz before it fell to the Nazis.

Once in London, the American Embassy, no doubt under the influence of Kennedy's defeatism tried without success to send the trio back to the States but they evaded 'capture' and managed eventually to enlist in the RAF. All three were already accomplished civilian flyers but Keough almost failed his entry medical, because at 4 feet 10 inches, the medical board were not convinced that he would be able to see out of the cockpit of a modern fighter plane. Keough was prepared for this eventuality and proved to the medics that with the aid of two cushions, he could see over the edge of the cockpit, albeit with only his eyes and helmet showing!

All three were accepted into the service and after training on Hurricanes and Spitfires were posted to 609 Squadron based at Warmwell, Somerset in time to participate in the Battle of Britain, with Tobin being credited with two shared 'kills'. By September 1940, there were so many American pilots who had joined the RAF, it was decided to form dedicated 'Eagle Squadrons' formed only from Americans and this trio had the honour of being the first three pilots of 71 Squadron based at Drem in Scotland. Within a year though, all three had been killed in action or in the case of Mamedoff, in a flying accident.

Billy Fiske (RAF)
However, the first American to serve with the RAF was Billy Fiske, who in other lives was also a film producer, stockbroker and a double Olympic bobsleigh champion. Fiske was an anglophile, who had attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he studied Economics and was also married to Rose Bingham, Countess of Warwick. Fiske turned down the opportunity to represent his country again at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany on account of his disapproval of Nazism and settled down to work for the New York bankers Dillon, Reed & Co., in their London offices, remaining until recalled to the States in mid 1939. However, in late August 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war he returned to London and enrolled in 601 (County of London) Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, also known as the 'Millionaire's Squadron' on account of the many prominent and wealthy society members who formed it's membership.

In order to satisfy US neutrality laws, Fiske had to masquerade as a Canadian but having been admitted into the RAF in March 1940, he wrote in his diary "I believe I can lay claim to being the first US Citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities."

On 16th August 1940, whilst based at RAF Tangmere, 601 Squadron was vectored to intercept Ju87 Stukas which were heading to attack this important RAF Sector Station. The Hurricanes took a heavy toll of the attacking Stukas, shooting down eight of the lumbering but deadly dive bombers. However, a German gunner firing back managed to put a bullet through the fuel tank of Fiske's Hurricane. Despite serious damage to his aircraft and extensive burns to his hands and ankles, Fiske chose not to bail out but instead nursed his Hurricane back to Tangmere and landed safely. He was extracted from his damaged fighter just before it's fuel tank exploded and taken to the Royal West Sussex Hospital in Chichester but died 48 hours later from surgical shock. Billy Fiske was 29 years old and had the sad honour of being the first American citizen to die during the Second World War.

By July 1941, there were three Eagle Squadrons; 71, 121 and 133 and with the Battle of Britain having ended in November 1940, these squadrons became engaged in Fighter Command's offensive fighter sweeps over German occupied Europe. Following the official entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, the Eagle Squadrons continued within the RAF for the time being but it was clear that many of the American pilots wanted to join the fight against the Japanese.

However, this was not to be and it was not until September 1942 that the Eagle Squadrons were formally transferred to the USAAF and became part of the fledgling Eighth Air Force of the USAAF, becoming the 334th, 335th and 336th Squadrons of the 4th Fighter Group, retaining their Spitfires until they were eventually replaced by American Thunderbolts in 1943. It is a telling statistic of the attrition rate of air warfare at the time to observe that out of the 34 original Eagle Squadron pilots in September 1940, only 4 were still present to witness the transfer to the USAAF. The remainder were either dead or prisoners of war.

Eagle Squadron memoral (author's photo)
The 334th, 335th and 336th live on today, still as part of the 4th Fighter Wing as it is now called, based at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The wartime Eagle Squadrons are commemorated in London with a memorial located in Grosvenor Square, close to the American Embassy.

Apart from British pilots, 'The Few' was a force comprising many nationalities. As we have seen above, there were Americans present but there were also pilots from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South African, Rhodesia, Jamaica, Ireland, Poland, Czechoslavakia, Belgium, France and Palestine. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.

Published Sources:

Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange: Grub Street 2008
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay: Aurum Books 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster: Tri Service Press 1990

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