Prior to the United States’ entry into WWII many Americans volunteered for service in the RAF and RCAF.
The Battle of Britain raged from May though October 1940. Most Americans followed the battle in the news and knew that in time the US would become involved in the war. The stories of the RAF pilots flying their Hurricanes and Spitfires inspired many to look into joining the RAF.
As a result of the Battle of Britain the RAF was short on pilots so a call went out for pilots to replace the RAF’s depleted ranks. Of the thousands that volunteered, 244 American pilots were to fly for the Eagle Squadrons; Number 71, 121, and 133 Squadrons of the Royal Air Force Fighter Command.
It was the RAF’s policy to pick Englishmen as squadron and flight commanders and 16 of these British pilots served with the Eagle Squadrons.
From the time the first Eagle Squadron was formed in September 1940 until all three squadrons were disbanded and incorporated into the USAAF in September 1942, they destroyed 73 1/2 German planes while 77 American and 5 British members were killed.
An organization named the Knight Committee was responsible for recruiting nearly 90 percent of the Eagle Squadron members. The basic requirements for those interested in joining the Eagles were a high school diploma, 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 were somewhat less strict than those required for service in the USAAF which is the reason some of the pilots joined the RAF or the RCAF in the first place. Most Eagle Squadron pilots did not have a college education or prior military experience.
The reason most of the pilots volunteered was quite simply for adventure.
Leo Nomis wrote “I think that all of us, with very few exceptions were simply adventurers and romanticists, and perhaps idealists.”
Robert Patterson noted “I joined the RAF not primarily for patriotic reasons. We all knew a war was coming. I used this as a quick way for some flying excitement.” Howard Stickland observed “We were all motivated by the thought of high adventure, the excitment of combat flying, and a desire to help the British. Red McColpin wrote that some “could not take the long routine in the U.S. services to become military pilots, when they were already experienced aviators.”
Once in England the new recruits were sent to an operational training unit (OTU) for two to four weeks, where they learned to fly Miles Master trainers, Hurricanes, and Spitfires before being posted to a squadron. After OTU some of the men went straight to one of the Eagle Squadrons while others first served with other RAF squadrons before being transferred to an Eagle squadron.
Having arrived at his squadron, the new eagle pilot had to become proficient in formation flying and knowledgeable of the current tactics.
The formation most commonly used was the line astern formation where the squadron’s planes flew in three lines of four, with each section spaced 200 to 300 yards apart. Each line of four, or flight, was referred to as either white, red, or blue flight. Also used was the the line abreast formation with the planes again divided in flights of four with the middle flight out in front of the other two. In the area of tactics the pilots were instructed to get in close, fire in short bursts, use height for advantage, turn to face an attack, maintain high cover, and hit hard quickly and get out.
Once operational the squadrons took part in a variety of missions.
Convoy escort patrols were common, long, and monotonous. Usually convoy escort was done by 2 planes flying circuits around the ships at an altitude as low as 100 feet. Given poor weather, fog & haze it was not uncommon for planes to crash into the sea.
Rhubarbs were two plane low level ground attack missions. McColpin wrote “Of all the missions, the rhubarb was the most fun. Flying a few feet off the ground, you shot up railroads, troops, tanks, ships, or anything else of military value.” A hit to a Hurricane or Spitfire’s glycol system however meant a bail over enemy territory.
A Circus was a combined bomber & fighter mission designed to draw out the LW. Ramrods were bomber escort missions. The bombers escorted were generally Blenheims, Bostons, Hurricane bombers or B-17s.
A Balboa had the fighters serving as decoys while bombers hit a nearby target. Among the German-occupied targets over which the pilots flew were Ostend, Belgium; and Dunkirk, Lille, Abbeville, St Omer, Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe and Cherbourg, France.
A fighter sweep was referred to as a Rodeo. Those squadrons based at the larger bases such as Biggin Hill and North Weald usually flew sweeps as part of a three squadron wing while those based at smaller bases such as Martlesham Heath flew solo sweeps or top cover for the wing in their sector.
When informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor most of the Eagle Squadron pilots wanted to immediately join the Air Corps. 71 and 121 Squadrons sent representatives to the American Embassy in London and offered their services to the US the following day. 71 squadron then decided they wanted to go to Singapore to fight the Japanese and a proposal was put to Fighter Command but turned down. It would take some time however for the USAAF to organize and ship to England the elements necessary to support air operations. HQ 8th Air Force opened on 18 June 1942 in London with Major General Carl Spaatz commanding.
On 26 June 1942 air echelons of the 31st Fighter Group (307th, 308th, 309th FS) were established at Atcham and High Ercall, England. These were the first combat personnel of the VIII Fighter Command to reach the UK. These squadrons were equipped with Spit Vs and flew thier first mission on 17 August 1942. The first USAAF air operation over W Europe took place on 4 July 1942 with the 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) flying 6 Bostons belonging to No. 226 Squadron RAF.
Negotiations regarding transfer to the USAAF between the Eagle Squadrons, USAAF and the RAF had to resolve a number of issues.
Determining what rank they would assume in the USAAF had to be negotiated with most pilots given a rank equivalent to their RAF rank. None of the Eagle Squadron pilots had served in the USAAF and didn’t have US pilot’s wings. It was decided to give them US pilots wings upon their transfer. General Spaatz wanted to spread the experience of the Eagles amongst various new US fighter squadrons but the three Eagle Squadrons wanted to stay together as units.
The RAF wanted some compensation for losing 3 front line squadrons that they had invested heavily in. Compensation to the RAF had to be negotiated. An agreement had to be reached between the English and the Americans to supply the squadrons with aircraft after they transfered to the USAAF. The US did not have any suitable aircraft in 1942. Part of the agreement called for the new squadrons to be equipped with Spitfire VBs.
Although transfers between the Eagle Squadrons were common they were not under the same type of unified command structure that they would later find themselves under as members of the Fourth Fighter Group. In fact the only operation that all three squadrons participated at the same time was the Dieppe raid of 19 August.
On 29 September 1942 the Eagle Squadrons were incorporated into the Fourth Fighter Group, USAAF as the 334th(71), 335th(121), and 336th(133).