The little man with the scraggly mustache and the drab, faded overcoat banged his hand down on the bar. "I tell you," he said in the ringing tones of the passionate controversialist, "them British ain't any good, Look what they' re doin' to our boys! Sendin' 'em out to fight the Nazis over France without any of their own planes to help 'em. Puttin' 'em in lousy places to live. Taking all the best we send over and givin' our pilots the leftovers. I tell you they sit back and take it easy, and let us get the bloody noses for 'em. It's a sin and a shame!"
Someone in the background asked: "Who told you all this, Bill? It doesn't read that way in the papers."
"Now look," Bill was injured. "My brother-in-law's a barber. Gets some of the best people in his shop. He's heard the Big Shots talking about it lots of times. If you don't believe me, ask him."
The best, and by far the cleverest, German propaganda is done through just such loose mouths in this country. Every time they tell a story, it gets bigger than the last time. Usually it comes fifth or sixth hand, but it's always from an "inside tip" someone "in the know."
I was in England for six months, working at Lieutenant General Dwight D Eisenhower's headquarters. I came into daily contact with such men as Major Generals Carl Spaatz and Ira Eaker, as well as with the RAF top rankers. The only time we've had any trouble with the British in the flying services was when they tried to do too much for us. We'd need new airports in a hurry and they'd want to do too good a job with lighting and water laid on, and all the other comforts they could give us. We wanted to do the job in a hurry so we could get to work, and they were worried because they thought we weren't being treated right.
As a matter of fact, General Eaker was having to have so many conferences with Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris that the Air Marshal finally invited the General to stay with him as his guest. Eaker lived in the Harris home for several months and had a fine time doing it.
We've got a lot to learn in fighting this war. We' re still green hands. The British were the same in the beginning, but they've had three long and grueling years of trial and error, and there's plenty they can teach us. On the other hand, we've got a few tricks up our sleeves that are proving very helpful, now that we' re in it with them. The use of Flying Fortresses for daylight raiding is one example. The Luftwaffe tried day raids in the early days of the war, but found them too costly. Their bombers couldn't take it when they mixed with the fighters. But the big B-17s are so well protected and so heavily armed they nearly always fight through the mosquito-like clouds of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. These raids over France, it must be said, were heavily escorted by American and British fighter pilots in Spitfires. But the raid over Lille, just a few days ago, was a remarkable demonstration of their ability not only to take it, but to hand it out as well. Don't think for a minute that the Germans aren't worried they are nor that the British aren't jubilant. When raiding-round-the-clock on France and Germany becomes a grim reality and not just a matter of scattered mass sweeps, we'll have the Germans so tightly in a corner they won't be able to get out of it.
We've heard a lot about British criticism of our planes. There is no doubt that in the beginning they felt much the way an old fighter does when he sees his younger brother go into the ring for the first time. The youngster may be potentially terrific, but he's got to prove himself. The old fellow knows what a beating he is going to take if he doesn't watch himself, and he wants to hand out good advice. The British knew the German strength and respected it. Until a very short time ago, they had not seen many of our newer and better planes. Their own planes had been advanced in design as the result of pretty costly lessons. They didn't want us to suffer because we still hadn't learned those lessons.
But as our new and improved models came along, and practical demonstrations of their fighting power were given in combat, the British came up handsomely with praise and appreciation. So of our own American correspondents in London have heard only the criticism and not the praise. I've had one of the best newspapermen over there come to my office and say, "Listen. Hinton. I've been talking with a lot of our Air Force men. They say the Spitfire is so much better than anything we can build that it's common gossip we're going to put our entire fighter command into Spits we'll build only bombers in the States. How about it?"
I asked him for his source of information. He still kept saying it was all over the USAAF. Finally, I got him down to cases and he admitted he had talked to two of our pilots who had been over only a few weeks. They had been put. into Spitfires because it was the best plane available at the time for the high-altitude job they were doing. Of course they liked it it's a sweet ship, and the pilot who doesn't. believe in the plane he is flying is in a bad way. I could have duplicated the same story from a dozen different pilots each of them all out for the: type of plane he was flying.
One of the best indications of British willingness to give admiration and respect where it is due, came in a recent talk by Oliver Stewart. leading British air commentator. Mr Stewart said in part. "The outstanding thing about the way the United States forces have used the power of the air is concerned with the ingenuity of their planning. Four operations of interest have occurred in which US machines have played a prominent part. The first was the sortie in the Philippine Islands by big bombers led by General Royce. The second was the remarkable attack led by Brigadier General Doolittle on Tokyo and other targets in Japan. The third was the Coral Sea action. and the fourth was the Midway action.
"In all of these, the Americans have pushed aircraft technique to its ultimate limits. They have made the most urgent calls on the range and speed of their air machines and, by using these qualities to the full, have succeeded in most cases in surprising the enemy. America has accumulated a mass of experience in the operation of commercial aircraft, and her national characteristic tends towards ingenious s planning. Consequently, we'd expect brilliant air achievements from this country. Her natural features have enabled her to develop aviation farther than other countries, and to obtain more extensive experience with it.
"I don't think it would be any exaggeration to say that the Americans, by their use of aircraft in the Pacific region, have shed new light on many of the tactical problems which have been troubling the fighting forces of the Old World."
The other day, another British observer. who has just come over to the United States from England, said that he had been much impressed by the cooperation and keenness shown by the American forces.
"Extensive cooperation between the United States and British in the field is being promoted, not merely by staff liaison, but by the interchanging of officers and non-commissioned officers in order that the battle training and tactics can be harmonized between the two. Each has something to learn from the other. There are many obvious reasons why this cooperation is so essential, but there is one that should be especially emphasized. We in England have been fighting for three years. We have made many mistakes, but people sometimes forget how much is learned by mistakes. We have been, so to speak, a great research laboratory of war, slowly. perhaps, but inevitably, we have learned some lessons. What we have learned is freely at the disposition of our Allies, and if the wonderful cooperation of willingness to learn, which has been displayed by the Americans in England, can be maintained and established, many good American lives can be saved. That is only one reason why a spirit of mutual understanding is of such vital importance. Anything that promotes it is actually saving life."
I can think of no place in which such an attitude of mutual respect and helpfulness is as important as in the air. When a sweep is made over enemy territory, the greatest necessity is absolutely accurate timing and maintenance of the plan. If a formation that is supposed to stay together, for instance, breaks up into separate dogfights, the chances for the pilots accomplishing their purpose or of returning safely to base are lessened to a point of being almost negligible. There was room in the last war, when aviation was still new, for individual aces to develop. There isn't room now, with modern planes and tactics. You've got to have team play all the way. or you aren't going to live to tell about it.
It's interesting to watch a cocky young pilot just over from America. He's perfectly sure that the RAF boys are highly overrated and he's going to fly rings around them. But let him get into a couple of sweeps and he comes back wanting more instruction. There's only one way to learn evasive flying in the face of enemy planes and ack-ack and that's to go out and do it. You can practice all the tactics in the world at home, over a nice safe field where the enemy is only imaginary, but once you get into a sky full of nasty black puffs of bursting flak and two or three Huns are on your tail, you suddenly discover that you've got to have more tricks up your sleeve than you ever dreamed could be gotten out, of any one man or machine.
I haven't been in Egypt. but I've talked with some of the men who've been out there. They say the necessity of cooperation is even greater there in the desert than it is in England. RAF Flight Lieutenant L C Wade from Tucson, Arizona, has just come to Washington from Cairo. and he has had some interesting stories to tell. Lieutenant Wade was recently awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses by the British. He will return shortly to Egypt to rejoin his squadron. He's an American who went over to join the Eagle Squadron nearly two years ago. but asked to be transferred to an ordinary RAF squadron. He was sent to the Mediterranean almost immediately and has had fourteen months of desert fighting. He has seen the first of our own air squadrons come over there. and he has seen the way they reacted. He speaks with authority because he was sent meet them and work with them. There is probably nothing more terrible than this air warfare in that desert, where men and machines choke with the dust. We've tried preparing our boys for it by training some of them on our own California desert. But observers with experience in both regions say that it can't be compared with the Western Desert beyond Cairo. We've even brought over a couple of shiploads of the sand to experiment with at our aircraft factories to see if something new and more effective in the way of filters could be devised. The only good thing about this whole bad business is that the Germans don't have it any easier time of it than the rest of us do.
According to Flight Lieutenant Wade, our boys in Egypt have been anxious to get going immediately upon arrival. But the RAF has worked out a careful plan, in cooperation with our own officers, by which the new men from the States are worked into British squadrons until they find their way around. The average number of times that they are sent out to fight with the British pilots is ten. Then, Wade says,
"they know a tiny bit about what they're up against and the importance of realizing when it is necessary to run away. On some occasions uninformed valor can be far more disastrous to an Air Force than actual cowardice. You've got to have a rubber neck on the desert you've got. to learn to look not only close about you, but also train your eyes to watch for the enemy a long way off. The first thing we make a point of teaching a keen young pilot," said Flight Lieutenant Wade, "is not to go out and attack everything he sees. The sky over the desert is almost always slightly hazy blue, and you can sit up on top and watch what is happening all the way to the horizon. In this way you are in a position to be on the alert when a Nazi fighter is coming.Rubber Necking
"I remember," the Flight Lieutenant continued, "one youngster whose name I have forgotten. He tried to fight it out with too many Nazis and ended up in the sea. When he came back, he commented ruefully on the fact that he didn't even see what hit him. If he had been watching, as we had tried to teach him to do, the chances are he wouldn't have lost his ship and had an unpleasant experience. He was back fighting a few days later. Since then he has one victory to his credit. He's learned to use that rubber neck!
"Our boys and the RAF fellows get along remarkably well. I've never heard y argument, because men pull together much closer in the desert than elsewhere as a result of the terrible loneliness. There isn't jealousy and bitterness, because you've got to depend on your mates for all the company there is. There were seven different nationalities represented in my squadron and I have never heard a discussion with a bite in it.Fight Together
"Of course, as soon as our Americans have gotten their induction experience, they go back to their own squadrons and work together as a unit. But that doesn't mean that the RAF doesn't fly with them we're all in the fight together, and we act accordingly. If you could realize what cooperation and understanding is required when one squadron of fighters flies with another, you would know exactly what it means when you read of the RAF and the USAAF flying together. Everything has to be perfect."
Desert flying has problems not met in England, and it doesn't take long to break in our pilots over there. When an American flier has. been over the Channel twice, he's. usually about ready to be turned loose in his own unit. He still has a lot of tricks to learn, but he's got the feel of the thing. He's found out how useful it is to pal around with the RAF pilots and do a lot of hangar flying on the ground. The RAF's savvy saves AAF lives.
Altogether, it's a sweet setup. Our men are doing a magnificent job. The RAF record needs no apologists. As. long as we keep on flying wingtip to wingtip, we're well on our way to winning the war.
This article was originally published in the December, 1942, issue of Skyways magazine, vol 1, no 2, pp 24-25, 48, 78.
The original article includes portraits of the author and Flight Lieutenant Wade, a photo of Eisenhower's air staff, and a paste-up of a B-17E and a Lancaster flying wingtip-to-wingtip.
Photo credits to Press Association, Wide World Photo.