‘The Few’: The tale of American pilots in the Battle of Britain

“The Few, The American Knights of the Air Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain,” by Alex Kershaw, details the exploits of American pilots who risked criminal prosecution, not to mention their lives, to fight in the Battle of Britain.

At the time America was neutral, and those who joined in the hostilities lost their American citizenship. Getting to England involved subterfuge, going through Canada and other countries and sometime elaborate lies about their citizenship. Some claimed to be Canadian to avoid alerting the American authorities. Others denied that they were pilots.

All were colorful characters, most coming from the ranks of barnstormers and adventurers. They went to England and joined the ranks of the Royal Air Force for a variety of reasons.

Eugene Tobin, who called himself the first latchkey kid in Los Angeles, went to fly a Spitfire. Having grown up during the Golden Age of aviation he was enamored with flying and anxious to get his hands on a hot airplane.

The story begins as Tobin and Andrew Mamedoff, a white Russian, travel from Los Angeles to France by way of Canada to defend the French against the Nazis. Mamedoff’s motives are darker than Tobin’s as he seeks to avenge the loss of his family.

Soon Tobin and Mamedoff encounter other adventurer pilots like themselves, including Billy Fiske, who won a gold medal in the 1932 Winter Olympics in the bobsled competition, and Vernon “Shorty” Keough who was so small that he carried two cushions with him in his Spitfire and needed a boost to climb aboard.

What sets Kershaw’s book apart from others written about the plight of fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain is that he balances the accounts of the American and British pilots with the exploits of their German counterparts. Particular attention is paid to the sometimes not-so-friendly competition between pilots to be Germany’s top ace.

Kershaw does a great job describing the tension felt both in the air and on the ground as the pilots await the order to scramble. You find yourself getting into the heads and the hearts of these pilots, wondering how they found it within themselves to go up every day with the knowledge that they or perhaps several of their friends would not be coming back.

Reading the details of the armament and tactics used on both sides you can really see how close the Battle of Britain was and, had it gone another way, how differently the war might have turned out when Hitler launched Operation Sea Lion, his failed invasion of England.

The Few, The American Knights of the Air Who Risked Everything in the Battle Of Britain, by Alex Kershaw; DaCapo Press; 301 pages, including 32 pages of photographs; $25.

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