Birth Of The Eagles.

Written by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver .

1. The Beginning.

2. Combat With The RAF.

3. The Morlaix Disaster.

The Beginning.

The 4th Fighter Group originated as The Eagle Squadrons, "the Yanks in the RAF," - 71, 121 and 133 Squadrons of RAF Figher Command - American pilots in the RAF before the United States entered the Second World War. The idea went back to the Lafayette Escadrille, the Americans who flew for France in World War I. Canada's great ace Billy Bishop contacted his old First War flying comrade, the American aviation artist Clayton Knight, to head a recruitment effort to bring Americans into the British forces as propaganda. By the time the U.S. entered the war, the Knight Committee, had approved 6,700 Americans to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force. 10 percent of the RCAF consisted of Americans; 92 percent of the Americans who became Eagles did so through the Committee.

P/O Bob Mannix (71 Sqn) Expresses A Common Feeling

Many could not qualify for the U.S. Army or Navy air forces due to lack of a college education or inability to meet the strict physical requirements of the time, or who had washed out of the strict flight training. By the time the three squadrons were transferred to the U.S.A.A.F. they had 100 victories and were the most combat-experienced group of American fighter pilots in the world. To this day surviving Eagles distinguish themselves from the American Volunteer Group - "The Flying Tigers" - who they consider mercenaries. According to Barry Mahon, "The pay of an RAF Pilot Officer, after coughing up your mess bill each month, did not qualify as a mercenary's paycheck."

L to R: Red Tobin, Shorty Keogh, Andy Mamedoff

Several Americans flew in the Battle of Britain, including Andy Mamedoff, Shorty Keogh and Red Tobin who were members of 609 Squadron, and Arthur Gerald Donohue who flew in 64 Squadron. Following the Battle of Britain, these men and several others including Gus Daymond and Chesley "Pete" Peterson joined 71 Squadron, the first Eagle Squadron. 121 followed in the spring of 1941, and 133 that summer.

Chesley "Pete" Peterson (top)
First American To Command An Eagle Squadron
and Gus Daymond, officially the first Eagle ace.

Chesley Peterson, who at age 23 became the first American commander of 71 Squadron, recalled that "Six or seven of us volunteered together, out of a sense of adventure, primarily. But everyone I knew in the group had a fairly deep innate sense of patriotism. We felt strongly that the United States was going to get into this war sooner or later, and we knew which side America would be on."

HRH George VI visits the Eagles, October 1941

The trip to England began with a violation of the U.S. Neutrality Act, and they were subject to arrest by the F.B.I. if caught. John Trevor Godfrey, for example, was arrested three times when his mother turned him in to the F.B.I. and only managed to get to Canada when his parents were convinced he would not stop trying. For James A. Goodson, however, getting to Canada was more difficult. An American born and raised in Europe, Goodson was in England when the war broke out in 1939. He was told he would have to go to Canada to enlist. He boarded the liner S.S. "Athenia," which became the first British ship sunk by a U-boat in World War II when she was torpedoed by U-30 on September 3, 1939. Goodson survived to become the top-scoring ace of the 4th.

Barry Mahon (121 Squadron)
the day he scored his first two victories

Many had flight experience, but in light civilian aircraft. They padded their logbooks to qualify for the RCAF. According to Barry Mahon, "I really had about 70 hours, but I told them I'd been a ferry pilot for Douglas Aircraft and had 500 hours. The instructor told me to solo a Harvard. I'd never been in an airplane that big, but fortunately I managed to carry it off without embarassing myself too badly."

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Combat With The RAF.

The Eagles were soon equipped with Spitfires and participated in the cross-Channel fighting, with 71 Squadron flying their first mission on April 5, 1941. The three squadrons did not serve together, but were members of other RAF wings. 71 Squadron performed so well that in September 1941 they were made members of the Biggin Hill Wing, the premiere outfit in Fighter Command.

Bill Dunn (71 Squadron)
First American Ace of World War II

The first American ace of World War II was William R. Dunn, who shot down his fifth enemy on August 27, 1941, and was severely wounded himself. It would be 30 years before he was finally recognized as the first American ace of the war. Gus Daymond, a former set decorator for MGM studios in Los Angeles, was officially the first Eagle to become an ace, followed shortly thereafter by Pete Peterson.

The squadrons participated in "Operation Jubilee," the Dieppe Raid of 15 August 1942. Barry Mahon became the fourth Eagle Squadron ace, but was subsequently shot down. At Stalag Luft III, Mahon became "The Cooler King" and only failed to take part in "The Great Escape" because he had escaped earlier and been recaptured in Czechosolvakia, after walking 400 miles. Mahon served as Technical Advisor on the movie "The Great Escape," and was the inspiration for the character played by Steve McQueen.

Jim Daley does a low altitude "beat-up" on return from Dieppe

Carroll "Mac" McColpin, who would be the only American to command all three Eagle Squadrons, originally had no interest in the idea. He was offered a flight leader's position in 71 Squadron but declined since the unit wasn't operational. He was one of two pilots in 607 Squadron who intercepted Rudolf Hess when he flew to England in 1941. Don Blakeslee, whose name would become synonomous with the Fourth Fighter Group, wanted nothing to do with the Eagles when he got to England in 1941. "They were getting all kinds of publicity," he remembered with disdain, "they were newspaper fighter pilots." Jim Goodson flew with 416 Squadron RCAF. After Pearl Harbor there were already rumors that the Eagles would join the U.S.A.A.F., but he made no move to change his assignment.

First Americans To Win the RAF's D.F.C.
L to R: Carroll W. McColpin, Chesley G. Peterson, Gregory "Gus" Daymond
with AVM Sholto Douglas, OC, Fighter Command.

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The Morlaix Disaster.

Ironically, the last mission of an Eagle Squadron ended in nearly total disaster. 133 Squadron had distinguished themselves at Dieppe and were given Spitfire IXs. They transferred to the Biggin Hill wing, where Mac McColpin was drafted as their Commander. In a mission that was more public relations than operational, the unit flew escort to newly-arrived USAAF B-17s on a mission to Brest on 7 September 1942. All members of 133 except Squadron Leader McColpin had already transferred to the USAAF; McColpin went down to London on 6 September to take care of his own transfer and was not present when the mission came up.

Shortly after takeoff, the fighters were over solid overcast; when they reached the rendezvous point, the B-17s were nowhere to be seen. The bombers had unwittingly overflown the cloud-covered Brest peninsula by the time join-up was effected. None knew they were being blown south by a 115 m.p.h. tailwind. The lead navigator later estimated the bombers had reached the Pyrenees before breaking out of the cloud and turning back.

When the fighters turned back, they mistook the southern shore of Brittany for the South Coast of England. They broke out of the clouds right over Brest harbor. Fuel exhausted, they crashed all over the peninsula. Only Dick Beaty made it back to England, crash landing at Bolt Head. Officially, they were "lost in adverse weather conditions."

September 25, 1942, 71, 121 and 133 Eagle Squadrons, RAF, became 334th, 335th, and 336th Fighter Squadrons of the Fourth Fighter Group, U.S. Eighth Air Force.

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1998.05.31, WW II Ace Stories.