The Royal Air Force in American Skies

The Royal Air Force in American Skies

The Seven British Flight Schools in the United States during World War II

Tom Killebrew

University of North Texas Press, Denton, Texas, 2015, 464 pages

Book Review published on: June 9, 2017

In 1940, as the war in Europe was looking grim for Great Britain and it became apparent that the war would continue for the foreseeable future, Royal Air Force (RAF) leaders became concerned with pilot production and took steps to increase training capacity despite the limitations of training on the home island. Borrowing from a well-established scheme of RAF pilot training in Canada, British leaders looked to the United States for the next step of pilot production growth.

Drawing deep from his previous book, The Royal Air Force in Texas, and Gilbert Guinn’s catalogs of former RAF pupils’ diaries of their American exploits, Tom Killebrew does some right historical legwork to tell this story in The Royal Air Force in American Skies. He finds that the challenge of selecting just seven sites for training bases proved near impossible given the limitations of space, drainage, air traffic congestion, and perhaps most importantly, a civilian operator willing to run a school to churn out as many as three hundred pilots per month. Initially operating in a grey area of international law prior to Lend-Lease, RAF students wore their uniforms while traveling to Canada, but changed into and remained in civilian clothes while in the United States. During training they were not allowed to do “warlike” things in their training like target practice or aerial gunnery.

All of that changed with the coming of Lend-Lease, which opened not only more options for and availability of training aircraft but also relaxed many such restrictions and set the groundwork for the whole program in the United States. With bases in England limited for training due to the massive scale of the bomber and fighter operations over Germany and at home, bases in British protectorates like Senegal were too far away, and a Canadian prime minister more interested in Canadian nationalism than training British pilots, Lend-Lease proved to be a most significant turning point in this portion of Britain’s war effort.

In the United States, British students found all sorts of peculiarities and entertainments alike. The usual lexicographic differences led to some expected awkwardness with the locals and the students were feted not just upon arrival but throughout the war, particularly in the midwestern and southern bases. Locals sympathetic to Britain’s war against Germany threw in their full support upon American entry into the war.

The program changed over time, as the haste with which the schools opened gave way to a more programmatic approach, better staffing, and the kind of bureaucratic steadiness typically ascribed to a military organization. Total flying hours in the program increased, the facilities received necessary improvements with a massive influx of U.S. government money, and personnel like navigation officer instructors, doctors, dentists, and even a few female flight instructors brought the training bases up to a standard similar to any proper pilot training base in the United Kingdom or the United States. The program was abruptly ended in June 1944 on account of the massive pilot production throughout the British Empire on a scale unimaginable just a few years prior.

The narrative is engaging and intriguing, and Killebrew’s technical knowledge of the flying that occupies much of the story is simply flawless. However, he never coalesces his research into an argument despite ample opportunities. One wonders, for instance, what his assertion is about how the coming of Lend-Lease impacted the schools. The matter is discussed but not argued. One also wonders whether American-trained students fared better or worse once flying in combat, and despite his research in English archives, the availability of such material, and most significantly, the long catalog of those pupils’ lives after the war in the final chapter, no such argument exists. Finally, there is still much more space to go beyond merely saying the hospitality was great and the British pupils remembered it fondly by arguing why and when it changed from some initial reticence by both student and host alike.

Readers of The Royal Air Force in Texas would view this work as an expanded, second edition for all the similarities to the first book, and readers new to both could skip the earlier book in favor of The Royal Air Force in American Skies. The additions, while welcome, read more like notes and summaries of oral interviews at times than a book of passages that synthesize much of the material in the other monographs about the other American RAF schools and draws too deeply from Guinn’s notes and student questionnaires and interviews by the author. But readers are left to themselves to find where this research fits into those monographs and how it relates to Guinn’s more comprehensive The Arnold Scheme. They would likely conclude that Killebrew coalesces much but adds little new research to the subject of RAF pilots training in the United States.

This is a clear improvement over his earlier work if readers approach it as such and not as new research. They must also overlook some odd paragraph spacing and forgive the very sparse footnotes and long stretches of “ibid.” With these cautions, one can use this book as a modest synthesis of RAF flight schools in the United States during World War II.

Book Review written by: Jeffrey Copeland, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado