The Eagle Squadrons of WWII: American Volunteers Fly with the Royal Air Force

The ill-fated Dieppe Raid on the northern cost of occupied France on August 19, 1942 did not go as Allied forces had hoped. Unable to successfully penetrate the German coastal defenses that day, the landing forces suffered incredibly high losses to include the deaths of U.S. Army Rangers. But they were not the only Americans fighting there. Heavy bombers, which would officially become part of the 8th Air Force the next month, made one of their early raids on the region that day. Of the 24 Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter squadrons in support of the Dieppe Raid, three were “Eagle Squadrons” of American volunteer pilots.

The concept of American volunteers fighting with combatant nations, and serving international relief agencies before the United States declared war dated back to World War I. The Lafayette Escadrille of the French Aéronautique Militaire was the most famous, and led to an American fascination with these “cowboys of the air.” When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, Americans were encouraged by their example to volunteer for service in the new war. 

An odd group of men gathered to collect Americans bent on flying for the Allies. One recruiter was Charles Sweeney, an American mercenary and friend of Ernest Hemmingway. He managed to dodge the FBI and Axis agents while illegally seeking pilots in the United States, risking $1000 fines and prison. Still, Sweeney had a reputation for entertaining candidates in nightclubs and seeking newspaper coverage, playing on a nation intrigued and fascinated with adventurous pilots.  After the fall of France the United States relaxed its concern over British recruiting.  In July 1940 the FBI found there was no wrong done by Sweeney’s recruiting.

Meanwhile in Canada, WWI Ace Billy Bishop, a recipient of the Victoria Cross, and a WWI American pilot volunteer and artist Clayton Knight created the Clayton Knight Committee with the purpose of recruiting and training Americans for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).  Before the end of 1941 Bishop and Knight had recruited over 7,000 Americans, though fewer than 15 percent became pilots. Almost all the pilots went to Britain to serve with the Royal Air Force (RAF). While the motivation to serve as a recruiter or early pilot varied greatly from person to person, many of these people thrived on adventure and their love of flying.  

 By July 1940 France had fallen. England was under aerial attack. The RAF decided to group acceptable American pilots into one unit, 71 Squadron, known as “The Eagle Squadron,” which became operational in February 1941. Sweeny had designed a unit shoulder patch bearing an American Eagle, the source of the unit’s name. Enough American volunteers followed to form 121 and 133 Eagle Squadrons, operational by fall 1941. By the beginning of 1942 all three American-piloted Eagle Squadrons were flying sweeps over France, escorting bombers or performing strikes.

Among the first and the most experienced pilots in these squadrons were Vernon “Shorty” Keogh, Andrew Mamedoff, and Eugene “Red” Tobin.  Each of them went to Europe in 1940 to fly with eight other Americans in British squadrons throughout the Battle of Britain that same year. All three Americans died before the United States officially entered World War II. Mamedoff was forced down in bad weather. Keogh died defending a coastal convoy. And Tobin lost his life in a dogfight between 71 Squadron and German fighters near Boulogne, France.

A fellow pilot of 71 Squadron was William Dunn, a U.S. Army veteran. He was credited with destroying five German fighters, and becoming the first American ace of World War II in Europe.  Wounded in August 1941, he recovered and returned to American service as a fighter pilot in 1943.

The pilots of the Eagle Squadrons were highly motivated. Ira Eaker, famed Air Force Commander said of the Eagle Squadron pilots: “They realized…they should do their gallant best to see that Great Britain survived.”  Don Blakeslee, a famous American fighter leader, remarked that he joined because a friend wrecked his plane and, without insurance, he could only fly by joining the RAF. Another pilot, Ervin Miller joined to “get my hands on a really high performance aircraft.” Their love of flying did not detract from their patriotism to the United States.

 After the attack on Pearl Harbor, 71 and 121 Squadrons contacted the U.S. Embassy to request transfer to American service. They remained with the RAF until September 1942 when all three squadrons were turned over to the American 8th Air Force as the 4th Fighter Group. The 71, 121, and 133 Squadrons became respectively the 334th, 335th, and 336th Fighter Squadrons. (By special order, former Eagle Squadron members in the 4th Fighter Group were allowed to wear their RAF pilot’s wings on their American uniforms.) They flew combat missions from October 1942 until April 25, 1945. As the top scoring Allied Fighter Group, they were the first with missions into Germany and the first over Berlin.

Today the names of Tobin, Keogh, and Mamedoff are among the 260 pilots and squadron staff engraved on the Eagle Squadron Memorial in Grosvenor Square, London not far from the American Embassy.

Recommended Reading

Philip D. Caine, Eagles of the RAF – The World War II Eagle Squadrons (Washington, National Defense University Press, 1991).

Kenneth C. Kan, First in the Air – Eagle Squadrons of World War Two (Washington, Air Force History and Museum Program, 2007).

Imperial War Museum, American Air Museum in Britain