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Yanks in the RAF: The Story of Maverick Pilots and American Volunteers Who Joined Britain's Fight in World War II.

Yanks in the RAF: The Story of Maverick Pilots and American Volunteers Who Joined Britain's Fight in World War II. By David Alan Johnson. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2015. Pp. xvi, 281. $25.00.)

When the British Royal Air Force advertised for help in 1940, several hundred Americans braved possible fines, imprisonment, and loss of US citizenship to join up. David Alan Johnson lists the names of 271 Americans who served in RAF squadrons between 1940 and 1942. He can identify only seven who flew in the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940, though he speculates that the number was higher. Most Yanks in the RAF served in three "Eagle Squadrons" organized later in 1940 and in 1941, equipped with Hurricane and Spitfire fighters.

The American volunteers bolstered the spirits of the beleaguered British and so were accorded a good deal of publicity--perhaps more than was good for them, according to Johnson. The Eagle Squadrons acquired a reputation for recklessness and indiscipline that contributed to the death of seventy pilots and the capture of another fourteen (see name lists, 247-256). For their part, the American volunteers found senior RAF officers to be stuffy and unimaginative. Still, the cross-cultural contacts forged in the Eagle Squadrons were to prove useful when the Yank volunteers were ordered into regular US Army Air Forces units in 1942.

This is a traditional fighter pilot-centered aviation history, told in terms of "kills" and "aces." There is no critical attention given to the actual value of the attritional "circus" and "rhubarb" fighter sweeps over northern France that generated most of the Eagles' casualties, nor are other aspects of air power, like strategic bombing or aerial reconnaissance, given much attention. Although Johnson suggests that Yank pilots developed an egalitarian attitude towards the lowly "erks" who serviced their aircraft (one of the several ways the Americans appalled their British commanders), he does not research this interesting point (122-224). Were there American volunteers to be found in RAF repair hangars and machine shops as well as cockpits?

Finally, the Internet Movie Database ( lists three motion pictures celebrating the Eagle Squadrons. Johnson discusses only one of them. Strangely, it is not A Yank in the RAF, starring Tyrone Power and Betty Grable, presumably the source for the title of this book. Nor is it International Squadron, which starred Ronald Reagan. Instead, Johnson takes up only the 1942 film Eagle Squadron that featured Robert Stack and Diana Barrymore, with screenplay by C. S. Forester, which he pans as "awkwardly overemotional." Indeed, Johnson charges that this film was so bad that a publicity screening for the flyers of an actual Eagle Squadron embarrassed them to a drinking session--with dire consequences in combat the next day.

John R. Breihan

Loyola University Maryland

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Author:Breihan, John R.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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