Chapter II: The Hatching of the Eagles under the sky of the Battle for Britain
So who were the members of the Eagles squadrons? Aside from a certain required logic in the selection of protagonists for the divided Berlin in “Aquilis Serenade,” which of the singularities of their engagement attracted me?
How and why the Eagle squadron came to exist? It seems self-evident that the outbreak of a new conflict in Europe, which rapidly spread to the colonies and the Mediterranean dominion of the two decaying empires of Britain and France, motivated the calling of young men from the new generation. It is true when it comes to the recruitment of the sons of the countries at war, most men of the European continent whose country had not yet folded under the heels of the advancing German Wehrmacht. But it is not so obvious and was not so easy for the few Americans who decided against many oppositions to enrol before they were called.
War broke out again in September 1st, 1939 and the first assaults on Poland were soon followed by the invasion of the Central and Western European territories. Most of Europe was quickly swept under the tracks of the Blitzkrieg. Nine months later, only England still stood unconquered but battered by a war of exhaustion at its borders on the seas and in the air.
So what differentiated the Eagles from the other squadrons at war? What factors, what sacrifices, what in their commitment marks them apart and provides for a distinct story?
It is in 1940, only a generation away from the horrors of the Great war, which had decimated an entire generation, that the first Americans joined World War II. They came to England. But in truth, they were very different from nay other foreign groups such as the Polish, French or Czech pilots of the early hours of 1939 who had fled their countries, joined the RAF, had been professionals in their own air forces, and by then, had grown to become veterans in opposing the Luftwaffe. Their motivation and sense of obligation was unlike any of the fighters who composed the growing number of squadrons in charge of defending England and its population from bombing and potential landings of enemy troops.
Weeks before the conclusion of the first act of the Battle of Britain waged over the British shores from July to October 1940 (the “air battle over England” as the German Luftwaffe called it, which would be extended through a year of blitz from June 1940), the first American volunteers were incorporated into the RAF. Mixed with few Canadians and Brits, led initially by officers of the RAF, they formed a first American squadron, the 7-1 (the RAF pronounces numbers as 7, 1; not as in the better known American fashion that would be 71st). There would soon be three of such squadrons. They would be known as the Eagles.
But even if the first of their squadron was formed late September 1940, shortly before the main uninterrupted fiercer air battle centered on the English channel and the North Sea shores, it really became operational in February of the next year and would be mostly engaged in roles of patrolling the shores and escorting ships. The first Eagle was actually shot down in June 1941 and their first victory was claimed a month later over France. The second and third (the 1-2-1, on which I chose to focus in “Aquilis Serenade”) were later created in the spring and summer of 1941. They would be made operational more rapidly following the example of the first unit that had provided the foundation for a better preparation of their equipment, leadership and logistics for such a disparate and unique group of mavericks.
In the initial couple of years of their engagement, which would lead to the date of the 29th of September 1942, they performed various missions of defence, escort, or even baiting Jerries above and across the English Channel. They began to fly on the Brewster Buffalo, an American plane that Englishmen were not particularly fond of, but were later assigned several versions of the Hurricane or later Spitfire, as they became available, sometimes salvaged from other original RAF squadrons which were expectedly given the latest Kites.
Their mottos: First from the Eyrie for the 7-1, For Liberty for the 1-2-1, and Let us do battle for the 1-3-3.
The 121 RAF “Eagle” squadron (cited in “Aquilis Serenade”), formed on the 14th of May 1941. As for the inspiring Lafayette Escadrille, its badge illustrated an Indian head with head dress (although free of the swastika). The code of the body of their planes (see cover of the book) were the letters AV.
At this stage, you are probably still wondering why the Eagle squadron drew my attention and led me to select their group for one of my key protagonist. We are getting there but to better understand, I would like to introduce these pilots, exceptional in their deeds as in their abnegation with a succinct historical background for their singularity that lays in the way they behave themselves in the political context of their epoch.
On the 4th of June 1940, the British Forces that had been fighting in France retreated. They left (or were saved from) the beaches of Dunkirk, often under the protection of the remaining French troops who had preferred to bravely stand their ground. Not long after, on the 22nd of June, France surrendered and the German troops paraded on the Champs Elysées. By then, the RAF had lost nearly 900 planes over the fields of France or Belgium, including 453 fighters (1,400 men) against the Luftwaffe, which losses happened to be higher with 1,300 of which 300 fighters even if their capacity and technological progression would prove superior through 1943.
The German High Command was eager to deliver a last blow on the weakened RAF, one of the last ramparts against an invasion of the whole of the British Isles. The campaign that would be known as the “Battle of Britain” was aimed to reduce all defences and cripple the logistics of England to prepare a possible landing of German troops on its southern beaches in the operation “Sea Lion”.
It was well understood across the channel that if such invasion was successful, the whole of Europe would fall to the Nazis and with it, all the colonial territories of Asia and Africa. Even if the German historians differ, it is accepted that the Battle of Britain started on July 10 of 1940. It lasted thru October 31 of the same year, but in reality, it would go on for another year of Blitz until the RAF supported by the involvement of the USA on the European theatre (at least in the air) slowly turned the tide of the air supremacy and was finally able to go on the offensive.
This initial Battle was sustained and fought with every pilots flying several missions daily thru exhaustion (often diminished by the use of stimulating amphetamines). Both sides took heavy losses, 1,000 planes for the RAF but nearly the double for the Luftwaffe (1,900).
England resisted, the momentum of the Luftwaffe was blunted and the plans of invasion of the German Reich discouraged. This small temporary reaction would become a psychologically important advantage as well as it would provide more time for the UK to develop a stronger war industry and call to arms troops from the Commonwealth.
Amongst those who heard the call to rally to push back the Nazis were some Americans, ready to volunteer out of their peaceful civilian lives to help the last of the country standing in the way of Hitler in Northern Europe. However, the USA were not at war. The country was and would remain neutral until the stab of the Japanese air force on Pearl Harbor a year later in December 1941.
In 1935 and 1939, economical reasons bound to Germany and a politic of isolationism had led to voting the Neutrality Law and later Presidential Proclamations. An important one was the 2348 that “proclaimed the neutrality of the USA, in September 1939, the same week as when Germany began its invasion of Poland. But what did this proclamation exactly imply? And did it imply it for the volunteers willing to come to the help of their fellow Europeans who opposed the Nazi expansion (not everyone was against the Nazi regime in the USA, including Ford who had befriended and been decorated by Hitler)?
It prohibited Americans from “Accepting a commission or enlisting in the service of one of the belligerent nations . . . against an opposing belligerent.” The document also forbade “Hiring another person to go beyond the limits or jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted . . . .” The same pro- scription applied to those wishing “. . . to be entered into service . . . .”
Some Americans however were ready to ignore such Acts and Proclamations of Neutrality. One of them was Colonel Charles Sweeny. He had served in the French Foreign Legion then the US Army during the first big war. Because he was a soldier by nature, he joined other battles afterwards, in Poland in 1920, in Morocco in 1925 or in the Spanish Civil War in the 30s. When it became obvious that war would be inevitable, assisted by the Brigadier General Reilly, he worked a plan to recreate a contemporary version of the Lafayette Escadrille (see chapter I of this series of articles). The French government was receptive but, unwilling to contradict the Neutrality Act, accepted American volunteers as ambulance personnel. But Sweeny set to repeat the Lafayette experience wanted to form a combat unit. Late 1939, the war had started. Having secured the approval of the General Armengaud, former commander-in-chief of the French Air Force, Sweeny travelled back to California to recruit volunteers for his “French” group of American pilots. At the time, he was already under the surveillance of the FBI that kept an eye on his violation of the Neutrality Laws.
The colonel was careful and, walking a fine line, he managed nonetheless to bring 32 pilots to France in April and May 1940. Some of them never made it though. They were immediately turned back at the Canadian border, on a route to avoid the American rules prohibiting association with countries at war. But their arrival was short-lived. It was too late for France that was soon overwhelmed, its Maginaux line circumvented, its tactics and equipments outdated, its organisation outdated in the game of warfare. Of the first unit, 5 men were killed and 11 made prisoners. Only a handful reached England. What happened to the remaining ones is unknown.
At this stage, the colonel C. Sweeny ended his task of recruiting but not before passing his ideas on to his nephew, also named Charles, and his brother, both involved in finances in England. These two Americans, living and trading from England, were already active with helping the war efforts since the outbreak of the conflict. Over the objection of the US ambassador in London, J. Kennedy (father of the later president), they formed a Home guard motorised unit composed of American citizens recruited from the United Kingdom. Kennedy believed that the initiative was vain and England would soon fall too.
But it is their next project that is of interest to us. The following unit that the pair decided to create was a squadron of fighter pilots. From June 1940 through the first month of the Battle of Britain, Charles Sweeny (the nephew) lobbied extensively the British key figures at the government to suggest the launch of an American Air Defense Unit on the basis on his uncle´s experience, his contacts and a large and available pool of pilots that he was confident were available back home. He met with Sir Hugh Seeley at the British Air Ministry but also Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, and Churchill’s personal assistant Brendan Bracken. He eventually presented his project to the British Air Council. It was quickly approved as early as July 2nd, 1940, as long as he could demonstrate that 25 operational pilots and 25 reserve pilots were on-hand.
Anecdotally, the new unit acquired its name from a shoulder patch that Sweeny designed for these American pilots to wear on their RAF uniforms. The patch featured an eagle as the one that illustrated the cover of his passport. Upon seeing the patch, Charles’ father thought of naming the squadron the American Eagle Squadron (AES). Charles presented the name and it was approved by the British Air Ministry. The first patches were ornamented of a spread eagle and the letters AES but the A was later dropped and, from then on, the units would simply be known as the Eagle Squadrons.
To be continued… (below a gallery of newspaper front pages and articles related to the Battle of Britain of 1940).