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The Royal Air Force in American Skies: The Seven British Flight Schools in the United States during World War II

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By early 1941, Great
Britain stood alone against the aerial might of Nazi Germany and was in need
of pilots. The Lend-Lease Act allowed for the training of British pilots in
the United States and the formation of British Flying Training Schools. These
unique schools were owned by American operators, staffed with American
civilian instructors, supervised by British Royal Air Force officers,
utilized aircraft supplied by the U.S. Army Air Corps, and used the RAF
training syllabus.

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1. Overseas Training

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Chapter 1

Even before the beginning of World War II, British Air Ministry officials, drawing on the flight training experiences of World War I, recognized the need to move some aircrew training out of Great Britain in the event of war. Drawbacks to flight training in Britain during wartime included the limited size of the country, an urgent need for airfield and support facilities for operational squadrons, the often abysmal weather, and the very real possibility of enemy attack.1

In spite of the advantages of moving some flight training to Commonwealth countries, officials also recognized several drawbacks to any overseas training plan. The distances involved were in many cases daunting, literally involving potential locations on the other side of the world. Another concern involved dealing with other governments.

Initial discussions with Commonwealth governments before the war concerning aircrew training produced mixed results. Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, and Southern Rhodesia responded quickly and favorably. Other Commonwealth nations were agreeable. Even with the favorable responses, the extreme distances flight students would have to travel to and from training sites and the associated supply and support problems would be sizable. The political climate in South Africa, not always friendly to Great Britain, precluded negotiations with that country. Even in the best of political climes, the sheer distance between South Africa and Great Britain, along with primitive conditions and limited facilities in much of the country presented considerable disadvantages to training at the bottom of Africa.

 

2. The American Offer

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Chapter 2

Even after implementation of the Empire Air Training Scheme and finalization of the Canadian training agreement, British officials still had many concerns. As impressive as the final Canadian phase of the overseas training plan appeared on paper, British officials worried that the magnitude of the program might prove beyond the capabilities of the Canadians or that such an immense undertaking might run into difficulties that could result in unacceptable delays. Officials sought alternative training plans not only as an additional source of pilots and aircrew, but also as a safeguard against the possible failure or lengthy delay of the Canadian plan. Even though other Commonwealth governments were agreeable, even desirous, of expanding their training plans (and later expansion would occur), the distances involved and in some cases the extremes of nature and geography limited these considerations. As a result, the British looked to the United States for possible assistance.

 

3. Royal Air Force Delegation

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Chapter 3

Air Ministry officials realized that the sheer magnitude of the proposed training schemes in the United States would require considerable coordination and liaison between British and American military commands, as well as a close working relationship with the individual civilian school operators. Besides the obvious need for training supervision, accounting personnel would need to be involved due to the financial aspects of the new training programs and the complexities associated with payments to the civilian schools. Detailed records would be necessary to account for Crown funds as opposed to lend-lease expenditures. Many decisions would require approval by the British Treasury. Consideration had to be given to the maintenance of personnel records and the issuance of the necessary movement orders for the British students training in the United States, as well as the RAF officers assigned to the various schools.

The work load required by these tasks far surpassed the capacity of the limited staff of the air attache at the British Embassy and the tasks were not compatible with the British Purchasing Commission or British Council. These organizations were departments of the Ministry of Aircraft Production (later the Ministry of Supply) under the direction of Lord Beaverbrook. The relationship between the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aircraft Production had not always been the most harmonious. Obviously a new organization would be required.

 

4. Journey to America

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Chapter 4

At the beginning of the war in 1939 young men across Britain rushed to join the armed services. These were joined by Englishmen living overseas who reported to British embassies, legations, and consuls around the world. Some faced arduous journeys just to enlist. Denys Rowland Ding lived in Kiangsi Province more than 400 miles into the interior of China. Ding traveled to the British Legation in Shanghai to volunteer for the Royal Air Force. The legation arranged for Ding to travel by steamship from Hong Kong through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, then around the southern tip of Africa, and back to England. Denys Ding had no trouble convincing a board of officers of his desire to become an RAF pilot.

This effort was not limited to Englishmen. Volunteers from Argentina traveled to Britain and enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Some of these young men later trained at No. 3 British Flying Training School in Oklahoma. Several hundred Argentinians eventually served in both the RAF and RCAF and formed the nucleus of 164 (Fighter) Squadron.

 

5. New Schools

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Chapter 5

At ten o’clock on Monday morning, 2 June 1941, a Southern Pacific passenger train pulled into Dallas Union Terminal under a low gray overcast sky threatening rain. The train contained the first contingent of 100 Royal Air Force students destined for the British Flying Training Schools. Fifty of those on board, designated for Major Long’s No. 1 BFTS, stepped down from the high cars and onto the station platform. Each student wore the same gray civilian suit and the only discernible difference within the group was that several of the young men wore hats while several others smoked pipes.

After a short time, a tired conductor called out the traditional “all aboard” and with several short blasts of its whistle, the train started to move. Many of the fifty British students remaining on board hung out of the open windows and called “cheerio” to their recent traveling companions, now standing awkwardly on the platform. They then started to sing “Bless ’em All” as the train pulled out of the station, continuing westward to Major Moseley’s No. 2 BFTS in California.

 

6. Training

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Chapter 6

Within a few days of their arrival, British students assembled on the school flight lines, met their instructors, and had a first look at the aircraft in which they would learn to fly.

All of the British Flying Training Schools, except No. 3 BFTS, received the Stearman primary trainer. Officially the Boeing Kaydet, the trainer had been designed by the Stearman Aircraft Company before the company became a division of Boeing Aircraft and would forever be known simply as the Stearman. The Army Air Corps accepted the trainer in 1935 and production included several models that differed only in the engine and minor details.

To the first British students, most of whom had never been in an airplane, and even later students who had been through a grading course on the RAF Tiger Moth elementary trainer, the Stearman, an open cockpit fabric-covered biplane, presented an imposing sight. With a maximum loaded weight of 2,717 pounds, the Stearman towered more than nine feet to the top of the upper wing.

 

7. American Hospitality

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Chapter 7

British flight students arriving in Canada had experienced generous and abundant hospitality. This much-appreciated warm welcome, although surprising, was still understandable because Canada was a Dominion country, a member of the British Commonwealth, and totally engaged alongside England in a devastating war with a common and deadly foe. Nothing, however, could prepare those British students destined for the British Flying Training Schools for the overwhelming hospitality soon to be encountered in the United States.

Ever mindful of Anglo-American relations, British officials gave each student a small blue book. The book began, “You are going to America as guests” and then explored various aspects of American life, defined the different geographical regions of the United States, recommended several books on American history, and offered tips on conduct. The small blue book described America as a “great, friendly, yet different nation” and warned students, “you will not be expected to tell your hosts and hostesses what is wrong, in your opinion, with them and their country.” Students were also advised to be careful when asked about American aid to Britain, or to compare the relative merits of British and American aircraft. The book ended on a lighter note by advising students to “mingle freely with the people and partake generously of their natural hospitality.”1

 

8. Changes

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Chapter 8

The British Flying Training Schools began from the simple concept of utilizing American civilian flight schools to train pilots for the Royal Air Force. When the first schools opened in 1941, Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany, the war news was anything but good, and the need for trained aircrew acute. The schools opened in an atmosphere of haste and urgent need. The British Air Ministry had to create a new organization in the United States, the Royal Air Force Delegation in Washington, abbreviated RAFDEL, to administer the new training programs. Staffing for the Royal Air Force Delegation, staffing for the individual schools, and the school facilities all reflected this expedience.

As the war progressed, the Royal Air Force Delegation and the contract flight schools never remained static and in fact continued to grow and evolve. In many ways this evolution mirrored the changing war situation. As the Allied war effort slowly gained momentum around the world, the role of RAFDEL expanded and its staff increased. Enrollment in the British Flying Training Schools also increased, staffing levels rose, bolstered by combat veterans, the flight training curriculum expanded, and the individual school facilities were enlarged and improved.

 

9. Operations

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Chapter 9

Graduates of the British Flying Training Schools, now Royal Air Force pilots, undertook a journey back to Britain that in many ways mirrored the original journey to the schools. Shortly after graduation, the new pilots assembled at the train station, said goodbye to local townspeople and traveled back to Moncton, New Brunswick. From the Canadian Personnel Centre the new pilots traveled to Halifax and boarded ships to Britain. There they undertook additional training before being posted to an operational unit or other duties. This later training and service assignments varied depending on the stage of the war.

One of the grim realities of wartime service for RAF pilots is that graduates of early courses suffered heavy losses after posting to operational squadrons due to the strength of the Axis forces, the intensity of the fighting during the early war years, and the limited manpower of the RAF. As the various training programs turned out a surplus of aircrew and the status of the war grew more favorable for the Allies, many graduates of later courses encountered delays reaching operational squadrons, while graduates of the last courses saw little or no action.

 

10. The Final Year

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Chapter 10

British and American citizens followed the course of the war on their radios and in newspapers and national magazines, which regularly published situation maps depicting the positions of the Allied forces on the various war fronts. By late 1944 Allied armies that had landed in Normandy six months earlier were now advancing across northern France toward Germany. Allied forces that had landed in southern France were rapidly moving northward, while other Allied armies battled up the mountainous spine of Italy. Numerous massive Soviet armies steadily drove German troops back all along the broad eastern front. The situation maps graphically depicted a relentless tightening of the noose around Nazi Germany, which would lead to ultimate Allied victory.

The only exception to this unremitting advance came with a German counteroffensive through the Ardennes Forest toward the Belgian port of Antwerp, which was eerily reminiscent of the first German advance into France in the spring of 1940. Caught off guard by Hitler’s last gamble, American forces were temporarily thrown back by a combination of surprise along a front weakly defended by second-line troops, poor and complacent intelligence, and vicious winter weather that grounded Allied air support. By the beginning of 1945, however, the German advance had literally run out of gas and had been forced back with heavy losses. The Luftwaffe was also running out of fuel, as well as aircraft and trained pilots as Allied air forces roamed over Germany in massive formations by day and by night striking targets at will.

 

11. After the War

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Chapter 11

When No. 3 BFTS closed at the end of the war, Spartan School of Aeronautics put together a small looseleaf booklet. This informal publication contained responses from each employee in the school’s various departments to a short questionnaire. Flight instructors listed personal information such as permanent addresses, a summary of experience, ratings held, and total flight hours. Designed as a means for these now former employees to stay in touch, one question stands out. Among the flight instructors, all of whom had anywhere between 2,500 and 6,000 hours of flying time, in the space for “Future Plans” some had jobs, a few were returning to previous jobs, but the most prevalent answer was “Indefinite.”

Following the end of the war, the former students of the British Flying Training Schools and the RAF officers and enlisted men who had served there, along with the schools’ civilian employees, dispersed literally around the world. Most of the British students returned to various civilian occupations, married, and raised families; some remained in the Royal Air Force, while some returned to Canada or the United States to live. Many of the former students and staff who remained in the RAF rose to high rank during the cold war. The schools’ former civilian employees usually entered various commercial or aviation fields.

 

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