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When war broke out on 3rd September, 1939 there was no mad rush of support for the causes espoused by Britain or for Poland and other occupied European countries. Americans were very much of a mind to remain out of any European war. There was no universal feeling of kinship towards Britain and there was, in fact, quite a lot of sympathetic support for Hitler. The second most common language spoken in the USA at the time was German and to cap it all the Neutrality Act prevented any engagement, let alone involvement, by Americans with any belligerent country. That included Britain and France as well as Germany.

Amongst all that however there was a core of sympathetic support for Britain and an eagerness by those who had learned how to fly to enter the fray. Among the various means of getting around the rigours of the Neutrality Act was to cross the border into Canada and proceed from there.

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After the end of WW1 there was a rapid expansion of flying. People learned how to fly and barnstorming became a popular source of entertainment. Great strides were made in aircraft design and production and feats of pilots such as Lindberg and Kingsford-Smith were on everybody’s lips.

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Many of these qualified daredevil-type pilots became frustrated that they were denied the opportunity to engage an enemy by a domestic law. There was also a large number of young men with a passion for flying. They wanted to learn how to fly but could not meet the recruitment standards of the American Air Force. The solution was to join the RAF which had less stringent standards of education and physical fitness. Add to that there was the excitement of flying advanced military aircraft in combat.

 

 Following the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain a wealthy American living in London persuaded the government to form an RAF squadron composed entirely of Americans.

His name was Charles Sweeny. Young Sweeny had an uncle, also named Charles Sweeny who had been a soldier of fortune from before WW1, Sweeny Snr. had held commissioned rank in the Mexican Army, US Army, French Foreign Legion, the Polish Army and in 1939 was also an officer in the RAF.

Sweeny Snr. had been recruiting volunteers to join the Canadian Air Force (RCAF) since 1939. These recruits then transferred to the RAF flouting the Neutrality Act. Sweeny Snr. and his nephew then began a co-ordinated campaign to enlist volunteers through Canada where they were trained, then transfer to the RAF squadron organised by Sweeny Jnr. This squadron was named The Eagle Squadron. It had its own distinctive flash and after its numbers were filled two more similar squadrons were formed. Collectively they were known as The Eagle Squadrons.

 

The Sweeny’s funded the recruitment of the applicants to the RCAF from their own resources. The Canadian organisation was one organised by a well known WW1 air ace named Billy Bishop and an artist by the name of Clayton Wright. Together they processed nearly 7,000 applications before America entered the war. The cost of this was estimated to exceed $100,000. Those who could fly were transferred to the RAF in short order. Those who could not entered training with the RCAF and transferred when qualified.

Once in England these recruits were assigned to an operational training unit (OTU) for conversion to combat aircraft, mainly Hurricanes and Spitfires. Once qualified they were commissioned into the RAF as officers and transferred to frontline fighting units.

The first Eagle Squadron was formed in September, 1940 and became operational in February, 1941.

 

The Battle of Britain ended on 15th September, 1940 but the Blitz continued long after that. Initially the squadron, designated 71, was equipped with Hurricanes and used for homeland defence duties. In August it was re-equipped with Spitfires and then undertook offensive sweeps into Europe where it established a high reputation for its number of “kills”.

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The second squadron, designated 121 was formed in May 1941 and was equipped with Hurricanes. It was assigned to convoy escort duties. It downed its first kill in September and in November was re-equipped with Spitfires and assigned to bomber escort duties, fighter sweeps over Europe and general offensive activity over the English Channel.

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The third and final squadron, number 133, was formed in July, 1941, also equipped with Hurricanes. Six months later it was re-equipped with Spitfires and assigned to become part of the Biggin Hill Wing where it was employed in bomber escort duties.

These three squadrons operated independently with in other RAF formations. The one and only time they fought together was flying cover for the Dieppe raid in August, 1942.

When Japan entered the war by the attack on Pearl Harbour many of the Eagle Squadron’s members wanted to transfer to units fighting the Japanese but could not return to the USA for fear of arrest for contravention of the Neutrality Act. Representations were made by 71 and 122 squadrons for transfer to Singapore but the proposal was refused.

 In September, 1942 a compromise was reached whereby the Eagle squadrons were transferred from the RAF to the USAAF. An amnesty was reached with the US government to forgive the transgressions against the Neutrality Act and all personnel were transferred into the USAAF with equivalent rank.

At the time of the transfer only 4 of the original 34 pilots who had formed 71 squadron remained.

The USAAF wanted to spread these pilots among its own operational units to spread the benefit of their combat experience but the pilots wanted to stay together in their same units. They had established an impressive record with the RAF and wanted to retain their unique identity. This wish was granted and all three squadrons were transferred as complete units, as the 4th Fighter Group, designated with USAAF squadron numbers and retained their Spitfires. They lost their distinctive Eagle Squadron flashes but were allowed to retain their RAF wings as part of their US uniforms. They were no longer called Eagle Squadrons.

In January, 1943 the group was re-equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts, A heavy and very powerful fighter with elliptical wings just like the Spitfires. In March, 1944 they were all again re-equipped with P-51 Mustangs, one of the outstanding aircraft of WW2 which had the capability of escorting bombers all the way to Berlin and back and changed the whole face of the bombing of Europe.

 

During their time with the RAF, the Eagle squadrons had lost 100 pilots either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. They had been awarded 12 DFC’s and one DSO. The 4thFighter Group, now known as the 4th Fighter Wing remains intact today as part of the 9th USAF and with the same squadron designations intact.

No sanctions were ever made against Charles Sweeny Snr for his recruiting activities between 1939 and 1942 much to the chagrin of J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI at the time who exerted strenuous efforts to curtail his activities until June, 1940 after the fall of France when the US ceased prosecution of violations of the Neutrality Act. Sweeny Snr had done no wrong and Sweeny Jnr was beyond the jurisdiction of US law.

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Charles Sweeny Jnr was granted a commission in the British Army as a colonel. And nominated as honorary commander of 71 squadron. He took no part in the operational activities of any of the Eagle Squadrons.

LEST WE FORGET

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