The three American Eagle Squadrons of the RAF were the first answer of American youth to the challenge of Hitlerism. During two years of hard and bitter fighting, they wrought a tradition of valor and skill, setting standards in aerial combat for all American fighter pilots to follow.
Their founder, Charles Sweeney, now a Major in the Army Air Corps, is proud of his eagle pilots, whom he describes as "the first visible token of American fighting participation in this war." Major Sweeney conceived the idea of the Eagle Squadrons during Great Britain's first summer of war, when France was in collapse. He approached the Air Ministry with a plan for a pool of United States pilots to bolster the strength of the then undersized RAF.
Later, however, a group of young American pilots, who had been with the French Air Force and escaped, came to Sweeney with a plan of their own. He followed their advice, revised his plan, and decided on the formation of a single fighter squadron, with reserves, to fight with the RAF as a unit. On July 2, 1940, he had the Air Ministry's official approval.
The following December the first group of American Ayers, who had been trained in the United States and Canada especially for the job, donned the blue-grey uniforms of the RAF, pinned on their eagle insignias and, as the RAF puts it, "became operational."
The first squadron was known officially as No 71 (it was later to chalk up one of the best records of damage to the enemy of any squadron in the fighter command). The second squadron, No 121, and the third, No 133, followed in close succession. The men gradually moved into more active areas, gained experience, suffered losses, and had replacements and transfers.
First Lieutenants John I Brown of Chicago, Illinois, and Fred Cullen Smith of Jackson, Mississippi, both of the 121st Eagle Squadron, tell their story of what it was like to tangle with a flock of Messerschmitts in a raging dogfight over France; to see their pals shot down, to death or internment in Nazi prison camps; to narrowly escape a Focke-Wulf coming right at you with its guns, spitting "like a garden spray;" and to live and fight and play in wartime England, with its total blackouts, and its women doing the work of men.
Lt Brown is twenty-three years old; Lt Smith is twenty-one. Both are considerably younger than most of the men they flew with and fought beside. Of the 250 American pilots who have been with, or trained for, the Eagle Squadrons, the majority were commercial pilots. too impatient to get at the Nazis to wait for their own country's entrance into the war. Those who have come back have come back smiling and asking for more this time with the AAF.
Now they have a new mission to help teach the young United States Army Air Forces pilots who are finishing the job the Eagle pilots began.
Smith: There are plenty of good gremlins, although nobody ever talks about 'em. I had one and, boy, he pulled me out of some tough spots while we were in England flying with the Eagles. After the things Joe did for me, I hate to see the bad publicity gremlins are getting. Some of them are tricky, of course, but there are plenty of friendly ones, too.
Brown: If Joe helped you out of the jam you got yourself into when you tried to fly formation with those Huns, I'll say he was good.
Smith: You would bring that up! It gives you a damn funny feeling to look out and see helmeted German heads in the cockpits all around you, when you've lost your own formation and think you've picked it up again!
Brown: You just thought you'd play nice and friendly for once, didn't you? The Huns are dangerous babies to try that sort of foolishness with. They don't play by the rules.
Smith: I know it. That's one of the first things the RAF taught us. But the Germans were just as surprised as I was too surprised to shoot, I guess.
We'd been out on a sweep, run into a dogfight, and gotten separated from the rest. When I got clear, I looked around for the other fellows. There were some planes nearby in the mist they looked like ours, so I slid into formation arid flew along with them. That's when Joe went to work. He came right up to the cockpit and said, "You'd better take another look around you, Bud." I looked and nearly swallowed my Adam's apple. There on the wing of the plane on my right was a black swastika. I took a cautious look at the plane on my left and my heart hit the floor boards. I was holed in like a rat in a cage. I wasted no time getting out of there I cracked the throttle wide open and peeled off into a dive and fast. I'm sure the Huns saw me but thank God not until I saw them first! Maybe they were too surprised to shoot, or maybe they figured I wasn't worth wasting the ammunition on. But anyway, they didn't shoot or I wouldn't be here telling this story.
Brown: You were always coming back to the base saying that Joe saved your life again. Like that time a German got a direct hit on the tail of your Spitfire . some fun that time, eh?
Smith: Yeah, that was the time we were coming back from a sweep over France. When the tail of my ship took a direct hit, I pushed her nose straight down and that dive was a world's record for speed. All the time I kept yelling, "Joe, hold my rudder for God's sake, hold my rudder." Joe took an awful beating, the way we were whipping around, but he held it. By the time I pulled out, I was so far away from those Heinies they couldn't have found me with a super-magnet.
Brown: I guess neither of us will soon forget the first sweep we made. We were plenty scared and half the time we didn't know what we were doing.
Smith: It was our first formation flying and we were trying to concentrate on about six things at once and, at the same time, dodge the ack-ack. The flak barrage was so thick we couldn't help running into it. But that didn't bother us; what really hurt was that we didn't see anything on the whole trip, and came back feeling let down.
Brown: You also came back with dirt and grease all over the back of your neck don't forget that. I still don't know how or where you got it.
Smith: Hell, I don't know where it came from. I remember that before we started on that first raid, I was positive we'd all get killed. Then when we got back and I felt something trickling down the back of my neck, I was sure it was blood that I'd been shot and didn't know it. I think I was disappointed when I discovered it was only grease!
Brown: You know, a lot of people still ask us why we left home two years ago and joined the American Eagle Squadron of the RAF. It makes us feel pretty good when somebody says we went over to let Hitler know what Americans thought about him or that we wanted to help out the RAF. Actually we just wanted to fly! We didn't want to sit around and watch someone else have the fun and see the sights. One thing is sure nobody can say we were veteran flyers when we joined up. Neither of us had had more than the fundamentals.
Smith: I got my initial training by paying for lessons which was a mistake. If I had waited, I could have taken CAA training when it was installed at Mississippi State College. But by that time, I already had my private license and wasn't eligible for CAA. Brown was luckier he got his training free under CPT at Coe College, Iowa. We both quit school after a year, joined the RAF, and met at the Training School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In fact, we met a lot of boys at Tulsa who were later in our same squadron. Brown got to England about a month before I did.
Brown: When our squadron was formed on May 10, 1941, we had Hurricane Is which were armed with only eight machine guns. But after a month and a half, those were supplemented with Hurricane IIs with twelve machine guns. Finally, we got our Spitfire Vbs, which we prefer to the lot of them. When we started fighting, we still hadn't piled up much flying time, but the British were short of time and men and so let us take part in raids after giving us very little additional training compared to what they require nowadays.
Smith: Hold on, you make it sound as if we started going on raids as our first fighting jobs. Even though the RAF was undersized, we couldn't help out on the sweeps until we were thoroughly orientated. We got our orientation from constant patrol duty, both at night and at dusk, which not only gave us more hours in the air but trained us in alertness and perception. And we had to stand by every night, ready and damn anxious to go up against attackers. Finally, the British figured we were ready to escort bombers and participate in diversion sweeps.
Brown: We flew and fought all over England and were stationed at four different British bases and one in Ireland. The less said about that Irish assignment, the better. The weather was awful! Boy, were we happy when we got a wire telling us to come back to England. We had gone to Ireland to help train some American pilots and it was there we got our first chance to compare our Spits with American planes. The Spits were pretty battered up by that time, but they compared favorably with those P-38s we flew.
Most of the British stations were pretty swell. The first was brand new, with all modern conveniences, a new officers' mess, and good food. The food was the best there was in England, but if you didn't like Brussels sprouts and cabbage, you were sunk. We had to take vitamin pills and so at each meal we just grabbed a handful out of a jar.
We went to a station in Essex, in December of '41. While we were there the sweeps started in earnest. That station was a lot like the first one new and plenty of comfort. Our third station, also in Essex, was an old country home and it was like living in a fraternity house on a college campus. But the fourth one gad, that was awful mud and mire and nothing but huts to live in.
All the fighter stations were only an hour or two by train from London. If we wanted to have any fun, that's where we had to go. The local villages didn't have much to offer and even if they did, we never would have found it in the blackout. The whole country is so completely blacked out that half the time we didn't know whether we were flying right side up or upside down!
Smith: We had to do almost all our flying by instruments something none of us liked because we hadn't had enough training. One fighter pilot used to get so scared when he was flying on instruments, he'd freeze at the controls and scream, "I can't do it." He made me damn jittery. The weather was lousy soupy most of the time. If your radio wasn't working brother, you started praying. There was plenty of wisecracking over those radios. and the language got. pretty nasty after the American boys got there. We had a commanding officer with an unlimited vocabulary of choice words which we couldn't repeat. After the Americans had been there a while, he began getting mixed up with his combination of British and American swearing, and we never knew what he'd come out with next. He had his favorite phrase, which he put together from all the worst words he ever heard a Britisher or American say, and none of us could copy it no matter how hard we tried. He was furious when they put girls in the radio-telephone stations and he had to clean up his language. I'll never forget the first day we had females at our base. I didn't know they were there and turned on the radio and asked for directions and got a giggle instead. But they were good workers, conscientious and accurate, and once we got used to them, they didn't cramp our style too much. We cut out the wisecracks, of course, whenever enemy planes were around.
Brown: Yes, we had our serious moments and our share of close shaves. We swear by our Spitfires. They never let us down. Both of us think they can outfight anything in the air provided we don't get the bad breaks. We were up against a tough enemy, too. During the summer of '42, the flying ability, the daring and cunning of the Germans was at its peak far better than it had been the year before. The Huns have good planes there's no denying that. The construction of their Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs was far superior to what it had been claimed to be. There is no overlapping of armor plates; their engines are well thought out; and although sacrifices were often made in construction, what was gained by these sacrifices more than made up for it. They sacrificed wing stress to pick up speed and maneuverability, but we were always able to outmaneuver them in our Spits. They wanted height and they got it; our best chance was to pick them off as they came up to meet us. We had to work fast to do it because the Focke-Wulf is notable for its speed in initial rate of climb. It's the man on top who has the advantage, no matter how fast or how maneuverable is his plane, no matter how many guns he has to fire, and no matter how good a pilot he is.
Speaking of guns, there again the Huns had the advantage. A German plane, with fire spitting from all of its guns at once, looks like a garden spray. But none of us envied them that. What they gained in firepower they lost in speed and maneuverability. Give me a Spit any day, with its two cannons and four machine guns. If you can't get into position fast enough to shoot your guns, there's no sense in having any. A Spit has guns and speed.
Smith: He knows from experience. Tell 'em about the time you were coming back from France and almost didn't make it.
Brown: That was the closest shave I ever had I never was so scared in my life! When you fly back from France, you have to keep looking behind to make sure no Jerry will sneak up on your tail. I was flying alone over the English coast, keeping an eye out in back just like the instructor said when over my radio I heard, "Look out in front of you." Well, I took my time about looking because I figured I was being told to look at the pretty scenery. Then I gasped and gaped. There staring me in the face was a Focke-Wulf 190. It was coming right at me with guns blazing. For about two seconds I couldn't move I just stared back. Then I poured on the coal, kicked the rudder and got out from under in the kind of sweet maneuver that has made the Spitfire famous. And it wasn't a gremlin, either, Smitty, that got me out of there. It was just that a Spitfire is a damn good ship in a tight spot.
We didn't spend all our time just dodging Germans, either. Actually, the number of our planes shot down was less than one-third the damage we did to the enemy, counting planes downed, ships sunk, and railroad cars wrecked. There weren't just British and Americans doing the job. We also had Norwegian and Canadian squadrons and I, personally, think Norwegians and Americans are the best fighter pilots in the world. Next to the steel nerves of those Norwegian lads, the Germans looked sick. There was always perfect cooperation and coordination between the various squadrons. This made it all the tougher to decide whether we wanted to stick with the RAF or join our own Air Forces after we got into the war. It was left up to us as individuals. There was no wholesale transfer as there was in the last war when the entire Lafayette Escadrille went over to the American forces. We had been flying with the RAF long enough to have grown pretty well attached to them; we had learned to fly the RAF way (and a damn good way it is, too) and some of us were afraid we wouldn't feel as much at home in the AAF. On the other hand, it was only natural for us to want to fly under our own flag. So we changed from the blue-grey uniforms of the RAF to the khaki of the AAF last September.
Smith: It was swell fun while it lasted, though, and it wasn't all fighting Germans, either. We fought the Civil War over at least a dozen times. Those of us from the Southern states would take on a "Damn Yankee" any day. Some Yank dug up a record of "Marching Through Georgia" and every now and then it would mysteriously find its way to the phonograph. Then there really would be a battle! But one of the funniest things that happened was when the Fourth of July rolled around. A lot of us decided it was a good time to make our British cousins remember we hadn't forgotten the Declaration of Independence. That morning, bright and early, we slid out of the barracks and took up our Spits. We had a hell of a lot of fun, chasing all over a nice blue English sky. We landed and refueled at another field and went up again. Finally, we got it out of our systems and landed at our base. The Old Man was waiting for us. He yelped, "What do you think you were doing?"
We said, meekly enough, "It's the Fourth of July, sir remember? We licked the British, too, once." The CO smiled a little grimly (he was a good egg). "All right, let's see if you're as good as your ancestors were. Full packs and parachutes and leg it four times around the flying field. And run all of you."
We ran with full packs and parachutes and it was a damn big field. When we were on the last lap, we saw the CO standing there grinning, and he had a photographer with him. We just about fell across the last few feet, but we came in standing up and every last one of us thumbed our noses at the camera as we went by. They got the picture, too!
Brown: Right now there's only one member of the original squadron still flying with the RAF. We lost quite a number as we went along not from accidents but through transfers. A lot of them transferred to the Middle East, and some to Malta, and others to the Training Command. They all wanted to get more experience, just like the rest of us, and a number of times those of us who didn't want to leave the squadron tried to get it transferred as a body to another combat theater. But they'll never move the Eagle Squadron from England. Now that we're a part of the AAF, we'd both like to train for another theater, using other tactics and different equipment. If I had my choice, I'd fight the Japs in China.
Smith: Well, you won't be fighting the Japs in China or anywhere else until you finish the job the AAF has lined up for you. We're supposed to show other American pilots how it's done. Well, it's different and it's swell to get home but we'll still take a good battle any day.
This article was originally published in the April, 1943, issue of Skyways magazine, vol 2 no 4, pp 44-47, 76-78.
The original article includes 9 photos.
Photos credited to British Combine, Wide World.