Remembering the Mighty Eighth – Pt.4 – Profile: IWM Duxford’s Eagle Squadron
IWM Duxford will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the US 8th Army Air Force in Europe with a series of events staged over the weekend of 25 to 27 May 2013. The centrepiece of the celebrations is the first-time appearance by the Eagle Squadron, a unique formation presented by The Bremont Horsemen comprised of Hurricane, Spitfire, P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang , piloted by aviators from the UK and USA. Elliott Marsh looks at the history behind the Eagle Squadron, the men and aircraft involved, and the plans for IWM Duxford’s tribute to the 8th Army Air Force.
The Eagle Squadron formation comprises four of the key Allied fighters of World War Two; Hurricanes and Spitfires were flown by American volunteers before the USA entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, and these airmen were formed into three squadrons within the RAF, christened ‘Eagle Squadrons’. It is these volunteers whom the formation is named in honour of. The Thunderbolt and Mustang represent the fighter aircraft operated by the USAAF in Europe; thousands of these aircraft were operating from airfields across the UK during 1942-45.
Piloting the Hurricane, Spitfire, Thunderbolt and Mustang are a combination of British and American pilots, as airmen from both sides of the Atlantic once again fly alongside one another, this time in the spirit of peace and remembrance. British pilot Paul Bonhomme – a former Red Bull Air Race champion who has displayed vintage fighters since 1991 – will lead the formation in the Hurricane, with American pilots Dan Friedkin, Steve Hinton and Ed Shipley alongside him.
Messrs Friedkin, Hinton and Shipley are known amongst the airshow fraternity in the USA as the Bremont Horsemen Flight Team, flying Mustangs, Bearcats, Sabres and other combinations of historic aircraft in an evocative aerobatic display. Friedkin has worked alongside renowned aviation photographer and historian John Dibbs to develop the Eagle Squadron concept, and the formation promises to be a stunning, evocative tribute to the fallen American airmen who fought in the skies over the UK and Europe during World War Two.
Dan Friedkin says of the formation, “It is a great honour to present the Eagle Squadron, a vivid aerial tribute to the 70th anniversary of American involvement in the Second World War. We look forward to débuting this tribute, flying in the vintage fighters which once soared over Europe, in memory of the brave aces who piloted them and the greater Anglo-American air power alliance.”
The Eagle Squadron will form the centrepiece of the IWM Duxford Spring Air Show 2013 on Sunday 26 May, opening the show at 1400 with a four-ship routine before splitting into pairs, followed by a formation with B-17 Preservation Ltd’s Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’. The Eagle Squadron will take to the skies for a second time during the Air Show’s three and a half hour flying programme when they fly in formation with the RAFAT The Red Arrows prior to the Reds’ show-closing routine. This one-off formation looks set to end the IWM Duxford Spring Airshow 2013 on a high.
The Spring Air Show coincides with the 70th anniversary of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visiting RAF Duxford to welcome the 78th Fighter Group to the UK. Richard Ashton, Director of IWM Duxford, said, “I’m thrilled that the Eagle Squadron will be presenting its début flying display as the centrepiece of our flying programme at the Spring Airshow. The Eagle Squadron represents, in one flying display, Duxford’s Second World War American air force history, from the Eagle Squadron volunteers flying Spitfires and Hurricanes with the RAF, to the 78th Fighter Group flying Thunderbolts and Mustangs.”
The following day, the Eagle Squadron will take to the skies for a tour of former USAAF bases in East Anglia, once again joining the B-17 for an evocative formation which will fly over the sites of a number of former USAAF bomber and fighter stations before returning to Duxford. The formation, alongside ‘Sally B’, will depart Duxford, overflying the sites of World War Two military bases in Suffolk and Essex, including Bassingbourn, Mildenhall, Bodney, Snetterton, Thorpe Abbots, Halesworth, Leiston, North Weald and Debden, before returning to Duxford.
Shepherding the formation in The Fighter Collection’s (TFC) TF-51D Mustang ‘Miss Velma’ is Colonel Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson, a triple Ace and former 357th Fighter Group pilot. Anderson – now 91 – will fly alongside the Eagle Squadron as it makes its way across the East Anglian countryside.
The main formation itself is made up of four classic World War Two Allied fighters: Hawker Hurricane Mk.X, Spitfire Mk.IA, P-47G Thunderbolt and P-51C Mustang. These aircraft represent not only the types flown by Eagle Squadron and USAAF pilots during the conflict, but they are also painted to represent the mounts of some extraordinary men, whose valour and sacrifices exemplify that of thousands of young airmen who fought in the skies above occupied Europe.
Leading the formation is Hawker Hurricane Mk.X AE977 G-CHTK, owned by Peter Monk. The Hurricane has been painted as P3886 specially for the celebrations, wearing the codes UF-K of No.601 (County of London) Squadron. Hurricane P3886 was flown by two American volunteers during the Battle of Britain – Williams M. L. Fiske III and Carl R. Davis.
Billy Fiske had the distinction of being one of only 11 American pilots to fly for the RAF in the Battle of Britain. Fiske trained at RAF Yatesbury and latterly RAF Brize Norton before flying the Hurricanes of No.601 (County of London) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force, at RAF Tangmere from 12 July 1940. Fiske was acknowledged as a superior fighter pilot during his brief period as a combat pilot of RAF Fighter Command. Indeed, his flight commander, Sir Archibald Hope, wrote of Fiske:
“Unquestionably Billy Fiske was the best pilot I’ve ever known. It was unbelievable how good he was. He picked up so fast it wasn’t true. He’d flown a bit before, but he was a natural as a fighter pilot. He was also terribly nice and extraordinarily modest, and fitted into the squadron very well.”
During combat with Ju-87 Stukas on 16 August 1940, Fiske’s Squadron downed eight enemy aircraft before Fiske’s Hurricane was struck in the reserve fuel tank by a bullet. Despite flying a heavily damaged aircraft and suffering burns, Fiske nursed his Hurricane back to RAF Tangmere rather than opting to bail out. He made it to Tangmere, arriving during a Luftwaffe bombing raid. He landed safely but his aircraft exploded before he was able to extract himself; he suffered further severe burns to his hands and face before he could be pulled from the burning wreckage.
Billy Fiske was taken to the Royal West Sussex Hospital for medical treatment. 48 hours later, he died from shock – the first American to die in RAF service during World War Two, at the age of 29. He was buried close to his home base of RAF Tangmere. His tombstone bore the epitaph, ‘He died for England’.
A plaque in Billy Fiske’s memory was unveiled the following year in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, enscribed:
‘An American citizen who died that England might live.’
The plaque was unveiled by Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for Air. At the ceremony, Sinclair honoured Fiske’s sacrifice:
“Here was a young man for whom life held much. Under no kind of compulsion he came to fight for Britain. He came and he fought and he died.”
The second pilot to fly P3886 during the Battle of Britain was Carl Davis. Born in South Africa to American parents, he was educated in the UK and Canada before naturalising as a British citizen in 1932. In a twist of fate, Carl married Anne Hope, sister of 601 Squadron’s Sir Archibald Hope, who married Carl’s sister Ruth!
Carl Davis returned to the UK in 1935 after a spell in America. He joined the RAF in 1936 and joined World War Two early on, partaking in the 28 November 1939 six-Blenheim raid on the German seaplane base at Borkum on the Frisian Islands. The Blenheims returned to the UK safely with no casualties, at a cost of five German seaplanes.
In March 1940, 601 Squadron began converting to the Hawker Hurricane. Carl Davis scored his first kill in the type on 11 July 1940 when he downed a Bf110. He would go on to become a Double Ace, with nine-and-a-half kills on Me109, Me110, Ju87 and Ju88 aircraft; a claim which equalled the total number of kills by the other ten American airmen who flew with the RAF during the Battle of Britain. For his efforts, Carl was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in August 1940.
Carl Davis was killed in action at 0930 on 6 September 1940. It was his 12th consecutive week of operations and he was due to take leave imminently. 601 Squadron’s Hurricanes were intercepted that day by large numbers of Bf109s over the Kent countryside. Carl’s Hurricane, along with three others from the Squadron, was shot down during the dogfight.
His crippled Hurricane broke in two and crashed, inverted, in a back garden of Canterbury College in the village of Matfield, near Tunbridge Wells. Carl’s body was still strapped into the Hurricane, with his feet still on the rudder bars at the point of impact.
Carl Davies was 29 years old when he died for his country.
On 12 September 1940, Carl Davies’ wife received the following letter from Eric Hubbard, whose house was near the crash site of his Hurricane:
12 September 1940
Dear Mrs Davis
I hope you will not mind receiving this letter from a stranger, one who saw the air battle in which your husband gave his life on Friday morning last, his plane falling in a cottage garden within a hundred yards of this house.
I am able to tell you that he died in the air instantaneously as a result of two bullets through the brain, his machine afterwards breaking in two and falling.
I was the first to enter the cottage garden and saw him sitting in his place, with his feet on the rudder bar and the belt still fastened round his waist, clearly showing that he had not moved again after being attacked. I placed a covering over him. An ambulance was summoned and he was removed to the mortuary of our local hospital. His pocket book, containing his identity card, a snapshot and one or two licences, was taken by the company commander of the Home Guard who has forwarded it to the RAF authority.
In order to be certain of my facts I visited the hospital two days later, where I found him lying with a bunch of roses on his breast, and, in company with the Matron, I examined his head and she agreed with me that death had been instantaneous.
As a fighter of the last war, I pay homage to a fighter of today, and while I know that nothing I may say can be of any real comfort to you, I do ask you to think of him as soaring into the sky, on that glorious sunny morning, with a smile on his lips and a song in his heart, to do battle for this England of ours, and then making the Supreme Sacrifice.
Please believe that there is no need for you to acknowledge this letter, if you would rather not. I shall be thinking of you, and of him, at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.
Eric W Hubbard
Shall we not offer of our best and highest?
When Duty calls, can we forbear to give?
This be thy record, where in peace thou liest,
“He gave his life, that England’s soul should live”.
Rest well, dear son, for at the Great Awaking
When Christ shall call His Soldiers to his side,
His promise stands, there shall be no forsaking
Of those who fought for Him, and fighting, died.
Leading the formation in the Hurricane is Paul Bonhomme, known for his two Championship wins in the Red Bull Air Race and flyer of any warbird that he’s allowed to sit in… he thoroughly enjoys formation aerobatics.
Number two in the formation is Spitfire Mk.IA AR213 G-AIST, owned by Comanche Warbirds LLC and operated in the UK by TFC. The Spitfire has also been painted for the occasion and it now wears the No.71 (Eagle) Squadron codes XR-D of Pilot Officer William R. Dunn and the serial P7308.
Bill Dunn was born on 16 November 1916 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He served as an infantryman in the US Army from March 1934 to November 1935, after which he enlisted in the Canadian Army (it was his intention to join the air force, but the Royal Canadian Air Force was not accepting American pilots at that time).
His military service saw him posted to the UK, where he soon responded to an Air Ministry notification to all Commonwealth armed forces asking for those with adequate flying experience to join the RAF.
Whilst Bill only had 160 hours’ flying experience – some 340 hours short of the minimum required to join the RAF – his “pencil sort of slipped on the application form” (as written in his memoirs) and he joined the RAF on 13 December 1940. After only four days’ training on type at RAF Debden, Bill was posted to No.71 (Eagle) Squadron, the newly formed unit for volunteer American pilots. He commenced operations in Hurricane XR-D, claiming his first kill in July 1941, thus giving him the credit of being the first Eagle Squadron pilot to down a Luftwaffe aircraft.
Bill Dunn converted to the Spitfire Mk.II in late-July 1941 and shortly thereafter, he attained Ace status when he downed two Bf109s on 27 August 1941 during a bomber escort sortie flying top cover to a Blenheim raid on the Lille steel factories. It was during this sortie that Bill and his Spitfire were badly damaged; Bf109 bullets struck Bill in his legs and head, and 20mm cannon fire blew the toes off his right foot and tore his instrument panel apart.
Bill’s combat kills may have made him both the first Eagle Squadron Ace and the first American Ace of World War Two, but his severe wounds saw him hospitalised for a number of months. Doctors were, however, able to save his right foot, and he was eventually granted a leave of absence in the USA, after which he enjoyed a posting as an instructor in Canada.
Bill returned to No.71 (Eagle) Squadron to collect his kit and belongings before returning to the USA. However, his war was not yet over, as in 1943, he was enlisted in the USAAF. By March 1944, Bill was back in England, flying P-47 Thunderbolts with the 513th Fighter Squadron of the 406th Fighter-Bomber Group.
In June 1944, Bill scored his sixth, final, kill. Bill fought over Europe for the remainder of World War Two. He stayed in the Air Force, and retired a Lieutenant Colonel.
Bill Dunn died in 1995.
Piloting the Spitfire and Mustang over the Bank Holiday weekend is American aviator Ed Shipley. Ed will be well known to many warbird enthusiasts as the founding member of The Bremont Horsemen Flight Team and he has been a familiar face in the UK over the last 13 years. He has displayed at Duxford on several occasions during the Flying Legends airshow, and he has also taken part in Heritage Flight formations at Duxford and the Royal International Air Tattoo.
The third aircraft in the Eagle Squadron formation is Curtiss P-47G Thunderbolt ‘Snafu’ G-CDVX, owned by TFC. ‘Snafu’ is one of only a pair of airworthy razorback Thunderbolt variants in the world, the other being flown in the USA. ‘Snafu’ also has the distinction of being one of two surviving examples of the Thunderbolt licence built by Curtiss, and she was the 129th P-47G to roll out of the Curtiss factory in Buffalo, New York, in 1944.
The Thunderbolt is painted to represent the mount of 1st Lieutenant Severino B. Calderon, who flew with the 84th Fighter Squadron of the 78th Fighter Group based at RAF Duxford in World War Two. The story of the 78th Fighter Group’s exploits over Europe can be found in our recent article on the Group’s history, run as part of our ongoing ‘Remembering the Mighty Eighth’ series.
Severino Calderon joined the USAAF in February 1943 at the tender age of 22. He flew ‘Snafu’ regularly throughout World War Two and survived the war, later transferring to the 56th Fighter Group. Tragically, war’s end did not mean the end of danger for the Allied airmen and Severino Calderon was killed in a P-51 Mustang crash in August 1946, at the age of 25.
The Thunderbolt’s pilot for the Eagle Squadron formation is Steve Hinton. With more than 35 years of airshow flying, 150 aircraft in his logbook and 40 warbirds restored to flying condition, Steve Hinton is truly one of the leading lights in the aviation industry and, with more than 7,000 hours on World War Two fighter aircraft, he is one of the world’s most experienced historic aircraft pilots.
The fourth of the Eagle Squadron’s aircraft is a particularly special visitor to Duxford. P-51C Mustang ‘Princess Elizabeth’ N487FS, also owned by Comanche Warbirds LLC, has been shipped to Duxford to take part in the Eagle Squadron formation, an indication of the significance of the Bank Holiday events to all those involved.
‘Princess Elizabeth’ wears the markings of 1st Lieutenant William T. Whisner’s 487th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group Mustang. She is painted in D-Day invasion stripes, which ‘Princess Elizabeth’ wore only on D-Day itself, when Lieutenant Robert Butler was shot down in the aircraft (parachuting to safety) after being shot down by ground fire.
Bill Whisner joined the war flying P-47 Thunderbolts with the 487th, flying bomber escort missions in the ‘Jug’ during which time he scored his first kills of the war. The 352nd was equipped with P-51 Mustangs from March 1944, after which the Group’s success rate rapidly increased – indeed, by the end of April 1944, Bill had already made Ace.
Bill had not named his Mustang, rather unusually for a USAAF fighter squadron, and his aircraft was therefore one of very few ‘clean’ fighters which was not adorned with the personal markings of its pilot and it was the only unmarked squadron aircraft. Unfortunately for Bill, this meant that his Mustang was chosen by an 8th Air Force Press Officer to be named ‘Princess Elizabeth’, in honour of the Princess’ impending visit to RAF Bodney, without Bill’s knowledge. Bill certainly wasn’t happy with his fighter’s name, and he later fought back against the decision by naming a later Mustang ‘Moonbeam McSwine’, the shapely, unwashed Li’l Abner comic character; about as far from a princess as one could imagine!
Bill Whisner was awarded his first Distinguished Service Cross on 21 November 1944, following a bomber escort mission over Germany during which he was credited with downing six Fw190s and a further two ‘probable’ kills. Bill was also awarded the Silver Star for valour in combat following a courageous strafing attack against a heavily defended German railway junction, on 24 May 1944.
Bill’s Mustang was damaged, and he had been separated from his squadron, but he rallied and took the fight to the enemy regardless, destroying ten locomotives in a single-aircraft assault that saw him flying so low on one strafing run that oil from an exploding train sprayed over his canopy. The official dispatch stated, “This outstanding record attests to Lieutenant Whisner’s gallantry, indomitable fighting spirit and skill as a pilot.”
Bill was awarded his second Distinguished Service Cross for the defence of an airfield in Belgium on 1 January 1945. Following a Luftwaffe attack on the 362nd Fighter Group’s base, Bill and his comrades scrambled to intercept the raiders and engaged them in an hour-long dogfight at low level; Bill destroyed a Fw190 and downed a further two Me109s and another Fw190, despite 20mm cannon fire damage to his aileron and a canopy covered in oil.
By war’s end, Bill Whisner was responsible for 15 and a half kills, placing him in the top 20 USAAF Aces in the European Theatre of Operations. His Fighter Group had claimed some 519 enemy aircraft destroyed in air-to-air combat, and 287 destroyed on the ground. He would go on to achieve Ace status in the Korean War, making him one of seven pilots to make Ace in both World War Two and the Korean War. He was also awarded a third Distinguished Flying Cross in Korea, one of only three pilots to receive the award thrice.
Bill Whisner retired a Colonel and died in July 1989.
Piloting both the Mustang and Spitfire over the weekend is US pilot Dan Friedkin. Dan and his father Tom fly a number of warbirds in the USA, including Texan, Mustang, Lightning, Hellcat, Bearcat, Spitfire, Corsair, Hurricane and Sabre. He flies the right wing position for the Bremont Horsemen Flight Team alongside Steve Hinton and Ed Shipley.
More than 450,000 USAAF personnel converged on the UK between 1942 and 1945. The Eagle Squadron salutes all those who contributed towards the war effort, and remembers the 30,000+ men who gave their lives for the freedom of Europe during World War Two.
This weekend, the sacrifices of 70 years ago will be remembered as the Eagle Squadron flies in formation with the ghosts of Eagles, and the sounds of freedom echo throughout eternity in the long-quiet skies above East Anglia.
With thanks to Rachel Morris, Paul Bonhomme, David Whitworth and Edward McManus (Battle of Britain London Monument).