The Story of the American Pilots Who Snuck Their Way into the Royal Navy

July 27, 2020 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Air ForceRoyal Air ForceBritainPilotsWorld War II

The Story of the American Pilots Who Snuck Their Way into the Royal Navy

During the 18 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, from June 1940 to December 1941, several hundred American citizens volunteered to join the Royal Air Force.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Part of the reason the Yanks received so little attention from British historians is because so many of them disguised themselves as either Canadian or Commonwealth pilots. 

As they boarded the train for Montreal, the two Americans tried to look as inconspicuous as possible. They were well aware that if they were caught they would be in trouble. At the very least, they would be sent back to the United States. There was also the possibility that they could be sent to prison, as well as fined more money than they had seen in their entire lives.

At the Canadian border, the train stopped and several sinister looking officials got on board. They wanted to know where the two were going and why.

“We’re on our way to Montreal to see a cousin who runs a fish hatchery,” was the reply. One of the unsmiling officials—probably an FBI agent—wanted to know if they were fliers. “Don’t be silly. Do we look like fliers?”

The officials were apparently satisfied by the reply. One of them opened the suitcases of the two travelers and rummaged through the top layer of clothing. He did not look any deeper. If he had, he would have found what he was looking for—flying helmets, goggles, and logbooks. Instead, he closed the lid and wished the young fellows a pleasant trip.

The two Americans, Eugene “Red” Tobin and Andy Mamedoff, were not smuggling contraband. They were going to Canada to enlist in the air force of a foreign country which, in the early weeks of 1940, was against the law. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation kept a pretty close check on all Americans going to Canada,” Red Tobin later said, “so we had to watch our step.”

During the 18 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, from June 1940 to December 1941, several hundred American citizens volunteered to join the Royal Air Force. Some served in RAF Bomber Command as pilots, navigators, or air gunners with squadrons that flew Vickers Wellingtons or Avro Lancasters. Many were attached to Fighter Command and flew Supermarine Spitfires or Hawker Hurricanes against the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Me-109s.

The Yanks who received the most publicity were the Eagle Squadrons, all-American units that served with RAF Fighter Command from September 1940 to September 1942. There were, however, other Americans in Fighter Command before the first of the three Eagle Squadrons was formed on September 19, 1940. These Yanks flew with all-British squadrons during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. Most of them received no recognition at all—by their own choosing. The reason that most of these pilots kept their nationality a secret was a very practical one: They did not want the U.S. authorities to find out that they were American citizens.

In 1940, the United States was a neutral country and was determined to stay that way. Congress passed three Neutrality Acts in the 1930s. One of these acts made it a criminal offense to join the armed forces of a belligerent country, including Britain. It was against the law for an American to join the RAF. Anyone caught trying to join faced a $20,000 fine, 10 years in prison, and loss of U.S. citizenship.

Six potential volunteers from California found out about the Neutrality Act the hard way. They had been recruited by an RAF contact and, in late 1940, headed for Canada, their first leg on the way to England.

When their train made its first stop inside Canada, the six young fellows were met by two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI men gave them a choice—either go back home or go to jail. The volunteers went back to California, but they tried again and succeeded in getting over to England the second time.

No One Knows How Many RAF Fighters, Listed as Canadian or From the Commonwealth, Were Actually American

According to the official records of the Royal Air Force, only seven Americans served with Fighter Command in the summer of 1940. They gave their nationality as Canadian or said that they had come from one of the Dominions to get around the Neutrality Act. These seven American volunteers fought the Luftwaffe as members of RAF fighter squadrons.

Nobody knows how many pilots, officially listed as Canadians or from the Commonwealth, were actually American. Especially suspect are those with Anglo-Saxon names, like Johnson or Mitchell or Little. Ministry of Defense records list them as Canadian, which is no proof that they really were.

Pilot Officer Hugh Reilley was one such American pilot. He crossed into Canada and managed to get himself a Canadian passport, a highly illegal act. Nobody is quite sure how Reilley, who was born in the United States, obtained a Canadian passport. He made everyone connected to his little plot swear to secrecy. If either the Canadian or the American authorities ever got wind of it, those who helped him get the passport would be in serious legal trouble.

Reilley was commissioned as a pilot officer (the equivalent of 2nd lieutenant in the U.S armed forces) and was posted to 64 Squadron in September 1940. He was transferred to 66 Squadron later in the same month and took part in the great air battle of September 15, which has come to be known as Battle of Britain Day.

On September 19, Pilot Officer Reilley shot down a Messerschmitt Me-109. Three weeks later, Reilley was himself shot down and killed by German ace Werner Mölders. Because of his illegal Canadian passport, Hugh Reilley’s true citizenship was buried with him in a small churchyard in Gravesend, Kent, close to the airfield where he was based.

Another American in Fighter Command is mentioned by Pilot Officer Donald Stones of 79 Squadron. Stones remembered a Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Davis, “an American who had been commissioned in the RAF before the war.” According to Stones, Jimmy Davis was killed on the same day that King George VI visited Biggin Hill, 79 Squadron’s base, to award decorations. Davis was to have received the Distinguished Flying Cross that day. When the king asked about the remaining DFC on the table, he was told about Davis. Stones thought that the king was “quite moved.”

Actually, Pilot Officer Stones had his names confused, which was not difficult in those days when so many faces came and went as pilots were killed and replaced by other new faces. The pilot Stones had in mind was Jimmy Davies, who was born in Bernardsville, NJ, in 1913 and attended Morristown High School. Davies went to live in England in the 1930s, and took a commission in the RAF Reserve.

Davies is credited with shooting down the first German aircraft by a Biggin Hill-based pilot, in November 1939—a Dornier Do-17 “Flying Pencil,” a victory that he shared with a sergeant pilot named Brown. Although he has never been credited as such, Flight Lieutenant Davies is probably the first American ace of the war, having shot down eight German aircraft by June 1940.

There was an American pilot named Davis in Fighter Command in the summer of 1940, Carl Davis of 601 (County of London) Squadron. Davis’s parents were both American, but he was born in South Africa. There is also evidence that he became a British subject. When he joined the RAF, Davis emphasized the fact that he was born in South Africa. His brother-in-law, Sir Archibald Hope, the commander of 601 Squadron, probably also had a hand in getting Davis into the RAF. Between July 11 and September 4, 1940, he was officially credited with 11 German aircraft destroyed.

Number 601 Squadron flew Hawker Hurricane fighters from Tangmere in West Sussex. On September 6, two days after he shot down his last German airplane, Pilot Officer Davis was shot down. His Hurricane crashed, upside down, near the town of Tunbridge Wells, Kent. He is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Storrington, West Sussex.

Other Americans undoubtedly served in Fighter Command as well. The only traces they left are their nicknames: Uncle Sam, America, or Tex. Because of the Neutrality Acts, there is nothing official that will reveal their real citizenship.

“They Were Arrogant and Looked Terrific and Probably the Other Squadrons Hated Their Guts.”

One American who did not make any effort to cover up his U.S. citizenship was Billy Fiske. Chicago-born William Mead Lindsley Fiske III was the son of a very wealthy international banker, attended Cambridge University, and married the former wife of the Earl of Warwick. During the 1930s, Fiske did weekend flying. With his connections, he had no trouble joining the RAF Auxiliary in 1940.

In July 1940, Pilot Officer Fiske was posted to 601 Squadron, the same unit as Carl Davis. Auxiliary squadrons were made up of wealthy and socially prominent young men. Number 601, nicknamed the “Millionaire’s Squadron,” was no exception. Its members wore custom-tailored uniforms, which featured tunics lined with red silk. “They were arrogant and looked terrific,” remembered Mrs. Fiske, “and probably the other squadrons hated their guts.”