At mid-day on June 18, 1940, just as Big Ben began to toll the hour, Winston Churchill stood before a packed House of Commons to make an ominous announcement: “ . . . the battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin”.
It had taken the Nazi military machine only six weeks to roll over and defeat a well-armed but recumbent and politically-fractured France. With the miracle of Dunkirk, England had just barely escaped Hitler’s blitzkrieg by evacuating more than 338,000 of its now-precious Expeditionary Force from that country’s beaches at the very last minute. Now, with virtually all of western Europe, Norway, Denmark, Holland and the low countries under the Nazi heel, England stood alone. Across the English channel, the Germans were preparing troops, equipment and landing barges for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain. Having made a temporary ally out of Russia, and with the United States committed to the policy of non-intervention, Hitler felt certain that even if Churchill was so foolish as to ignore the offer of a negotiated armistice, England would fall easily.
The only remaining obstacle to Sea Lion was English air power; air superiority had to be established before any invasion and occupation could hope to succeed. On August 1, 1940, Hitler signed the famous Directive No. 17, a fuehrer order directing the Luftwaffe to destroy the Royal Air Force, in the air and on the ground. What was about to take place was the first major military campaign in history to take place entirely in the air, and the outcome of this epic battle could change world history itself.
Herman Goring’s Luftwaffe had every reason to anticipate a swift and easy victory. They flew the Messerschmitt bf 109 fighter, one of the world’s best fighting aircraft, powered by a Daimler-Benz 12 cylinder liquid-cooled and fuel-injected engine which had proved itself in two years of aerial combat. Besides that, they possessed a cadre of pilots who had gained valuable combat experience in the Spanish Civil war and in the conquest of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and France. What was even more important, their numbers dwarfed England’s first-line fighter force nearly five to one.
In the early days of 1940, England’s RAF Fighter Command was made up largely of young pilots from college flying clubs, and a smattering of eager students from the volunteer reserves. On the other hand, they flew the new Supermarine Spitfire and the older but more numerous Hawker Hurricane, both powered by the Rolls Royce 12 cylinder liquid-cooled aircraft engine destined to become a mainstay of the Allied air war. (One of the technological ironies of this “stand-off” was that while the German engines functioned on the more-readily available 85 octane fuel, the British had designed an engine requiring 100 octane aviation fuel which could only be obtained from the United States.)
As the world watched the approach of this seemingly-lopsided campaign, a quiet but important recruiting effort was underway: experienced and highly-motivated pilots from many countries were arriving in London, ready to suit up in the distinctive dark blue uniform of The Royal Air Force. For obvious reasons, men from Commonwealth countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, Australia and South Africa were among the first, totaling nearly 300. The largest – and most-under-publicized – contingent of BofB volunteers came from Poland and Czechoslovakia; experienced and dedicated fighter pilots who had escaped the Nazi take-over after having flown courageously against a superior enemy force. Although their numbers represented a relatively small percentage of the 2900 airmen who flew for the allies during the period of July 10 to October 31, 1940, their “kill” ratio was extraordinary. In fact a Polish pilot was the leading ace of the battle, and the all-Polish Kosciuszki squadron accounted for 125 enemy planes shot down.
In America in 1940, the isolationist sentiment ran high, and a Neutrality Act passed by a pacifist Congress threatened stiff penalties for any U.S. citizen who sought to fight for a “belligerent” nation. Consequences for offenders included automatic loss of citizenship, a ten thousand dollar fine and imprisonment for up to five years. Despite this, seven American airmen flew for the RAF in The Battle of Britain. The story of one of these – Olympic Champion Billy Fiske – was featured in an earlier column (see NEIGHBORHOODS May 20, 2009). Fiske was also the first American to die in WW II.
While Fiske was wealthy, famous, well-educated and had close ties to England, a trio of Americans who also became “Eagles” were cut from a different mold and followed a far more twisty course. Twenty-three-year old Eugene “Red” Tobin had learned to fly in the 1930s, and had been lucky enough to glam onto a flying job near his Los Angeles home ferrying movie stars and VIPs around for MGM studios. Listening to the news, he felt certain the United States would ultimately be forced to fight Hitler’s Germany. Besides that, he dreamed of flying the world’s fastest fighting plane, the Spitfire. En route to Canada, he met another train passenger with the same idea. Born in Connecticut to white Russian immigrant parents, Andrew Mammedoff was a broad-shouldered bear of a man who had made his living flying acrobatics and “barnstorming” across the country in his own plane.
Mamedoff and Tobin would soon join up with Vernon “Shorty” Keough, a 29-year-old licensed civilian pilot from Brooklyn, N.Y. who was also a parachutist who had made 500 jumps at circuses and road shows. Together the three would suffer the agonies of cramped quarters on storm-tossed tramp freighters, a welcome in the form of gun fire as they tried to fly for the foundering French Air Force, and a last-minute escape across the channel to England.
On August 8, 1940, the three determined Americans would finally join RAF Squadron No. 609 at Middle Wallop and would fly their beloved Spitfires in the Battle of Britain. On September 18th, the three would be posted as “founding” members of No. 71 Squadron, the original “Eagle Squadron”, along with fellow American Art Donahue.
Pilot Officer Vernon “Shorty” Keough was killed in action on Feb. 15, 1941 on convoy protection duty. His body was not recovered. He was 29 years old.
Pilot Officer Eugene Tobin was killed in combat with a flight of Me-109s on Sept. 18, 1941. In his belongings, they found a total of about twenty-eight cents. He took with him the secret knowledge of his fatal case of lupus disease rather than endanger his flying career. He was 24 years old.
Pilot Officer Andrew Mamedoff was killed in action near the Isle of Man on Oct. 8, 1941. His body was never found. He was 29 years old. He was the first Jewish American pilot to fight against the Nazis in World War II.
In October and November 1941, No. 71 “Eagle Squadron” downed more enemy planes than any other unit of the entire Royal Air Force Fighter Command.
Fewer than half of all those allied pilots who helped to save England in the Battle of Britain survived the war. This column is dedicated to those “FEW” and the thousands who followed.
Lord, hold them in thy mighty hand
Above the ocean and the land
Like Wings of eagles mounting high
Along the pathways of the sky
Receiving their squadron pins are Andy Mamedoff, left
"Red" Tobin, rear, and 4'11" "Shorty" Keough who sat on
two cushions to fly his Spitfire fighter.