Eagle Squadrons

As activity in the Battle of Britain began to gain a lot of attention in October of 1940, Americans came to the British call to fly Hurricanes and Spitfires and fill the depleted ranks in the RAF. Nearly 250 men were selected by the Knight Committee to fly in what became known as the "Eagle Squadrons."

Part of the Royal Air Force Fighter Command, the squadrons were numbered 71, 121 and 133. Their squadron and flight commanders were British RAF men. The training for these Yank aces was brisk. Once they arrived in England, the new recruits were sent to an operational training unit (OTU) for two to four weeks, where they learned to fly Miles Master trainers, Hurricanes, and Spitfires before being posted to a squadron. Once they arrived at their new squadron, they would learn to fly in formation as well as the squadron's fighter tactics against the Luftwaffe. In essence, the tactics came down to getting in close, firing in short bursts, using height for advantage, turning to face an attack, maintaining high cover and hitting hard and quickly before getting out.

The Dieppe Raid or Operation Jubilee was the only occasion that all three Eagle Squadrons saw action operating together. On the northern coast of France, the Germans occupied the port of Dieppe. Some 6,000 Allied soldiers, mostly Canadian, were sent into the area to capture the post. This was meant to draw heavy air attack from the Luftwaffe. The operation was a disaster as only 3,600 men made it ashore, the Royal Navy had over 500 casualties and some 119 planes were lost.

One of the heroes of the Eagle Squadrons was Captain Don Gentile. He was a pilot with squadron 133, claiming two air victories. By March 1944 he became the Fourth Fighter Group's top ace in WWII with 22 air kills. On April 8, 1944, Gentile surpassed Eddie Rickenbacker to become the highest-scoring fighter pilot in American history. Chesley 'Pete' Peterson had 130 sorties with the Eagle Squadrons before becoming the youngest Squadron Commander in the RAF. Duane Beeson was credited officially with shooting 25 planes, was the second ranking ace at the time he was shot down over Germany on April 5, 1944, after 150 missions. He was imprisoned in Stalag No. 1 prison camp at Barth, Germany for 13 months and liberated by Russians at end of war, April 19, 1945.

In the two years that the squadron saw action, before being disbanded and incorporated into the USAAF's Fourth Fighter Group, they destroyed 73.5 German planes. Some 77 American and 5 British members of the Eagle Squadrons were killed.

Sources

Caine, Philip D. American Pilots in the RAF: The WWII Eagle Squadrons. Washington: Brassey's. 1998.

Childers, James Saxon. War Eagles, The Story of the Eagle Squadron. London: Heinemann. 1943.

Haughland, Vern. The Eagle Squadrons: Yanks in the RAF 1940-42. New York: Ziff-Davis Flying Books. 1979.