The Few: The American "Knights Of The Air" Who Risked Everything To Save Britain in the Summer of 1940. By Alex Kershaw. Philadelphia PA: Da Capo Press, 2006. Maps. Notes. Photographs. Illustrations. Bibliography. Appendix. Index. Pp. xix, 310. $15.95 paperback ISBN: 978-0-306-81572-0
The recent motion picture, The Darkest Hour, a World War II story of British Prime Minister Churchill and the Battle of Britain, has raised the question of whether American pilots were in this historic battle. Indeed there were, The number most often cited is nine, but the number is elusive as some volunteers declared themselves to be Canadian: Yankee participation would have violated American law.
In those dark days following the defeat of France and the British evacuation at Dunkirk in the spring of 1940, some British leaders led proposed reaching an accommodation with Hitler. Winston Churchill declared, "We shall never surrender." The American pilots who volunteered for service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) placed their lives on the side of Churchill.
The story is told around the first American pilot known to have flown--and died--with the RAF in the Battle of Britain--William Mead "Billy" Fiske III. Born in 1911, the scion of a wealthy Connecticut family, he apparently spent more time in Europe than in the US. When 16 he won a place on the US Olympic team and, as captain of the American bobsled team, became the youngest male to win a gold medal. A second gold medal was won at the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Games. He declined to participate in 1936, as that might have meant being honored by Hitler. When not pursuing Olympic gold, Fiske was earning a degree in economics and history at Cambridge and spending time in Hollywood producing a movie and learning to fly.
With a passion for flying as well as sports, he sought membership in RAF Reserve Fighter Squadron 601. Its pilots were predominantly wealthy young Londoners; it became known as the "millionaires squadron." First denied membership as "not in the interests of Britain," he overcame that obstacle by recreating himself as a Canadian (fooling few due to his Olympic medals). He formally joined the RAF on September 18, 1939, 18 days into the Second World War.
Short on solo hours, Fiske was first assigned to a pilot training unit. On April 12, 1940, he was awarded pilot's wings and...