The Lost Eagles

Through the first half of 1942, American servicemen began to disembark en masse in Liverpool, paving the way for the build-up of forces that would eventually provide sufficient muscle to liberate North Africa, Italy and Occupied Europe. A significant number of Americans were already in Britain, however, having volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force (just as they had in World War 1), whether it be under their own flag or adopting Canadian citizenship for the purpose.

Initially the call-to-arms had been made by Charles Sweeny, a wealthy businessman living in London, who took it upon himself to recruit American citizens to fight as a US volunteer detachment in the French Air Force, echoing the Lafayette Escadrille of WW1. When France collapsed under German invasion in May 1940, a dozen of Sweeny’s volunteers made their way to Britain, where they would be joined by 6,700 applicants from across the USA seeking to join the RCAF or RAF.

As a result of this recruitment drive, there were sufficient American pilots to form the three ‘Eagle’ squadrons of the RAF between September 1940 and July 1941 – these being nos. 71, 121 and 133.  With the arrival of the US Army Air Force in strength, however, these units were due to be transferred back to American control and renamed the 334th, 335th and 336th squadrons of the 4th Fighter Group USAAF; their battle-hardened pilots intended to provide a finishing school for the eager recruits flowing across the Atlantic.

A month before the transfer took place, 133 Squadron was re-equipped with the new and top-secret Spitfire Mk.IX, featuring a two-stage supercharger to give better performance above 20,000 feet and provide a much-needed answer to the Focke-Wulf 190. Not all of the pilots were thrilled about becoming repatriated – not least the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Carroll McColpin, who repeatedly delayed and fudged his transfer until the last possible moment on 25 September. He was replaced by a temporary unit leader, Flight Lieutenant Gordon Bettrell, who found his new command somewhat unhappy about the situation.

As the unit had been declared operational on the Spitfire Mk.IX it was decided that 133 Squadron should give the type its operational debut the following day: 26 September 1942. On paper it looked like a relatively straightforward job of escorting American B-17 Flying Fortresses on a raid over the French town of Morlaix.

Spitfire_Mk_IX_EN133_FY-B_611_42-43

A Spitfire Mk.IX

A total of 14 Spitfire Mk.IXs shuttled down to RAF Bolt Head near Salcombe in Devon in readiness, of which only 12 were eventually required for the mission.  One pilot from each flight – Ervin ‘Dusty’ Miller and Don ‘Buckeye’ Gentile – were ordered to remain on the ground.  They were rather put-out by this news, having been keen to see how their new Spitfires would perform against the FW190s, but dutifully watched their squadron take off into low cloud. They were:

A Flight                                                               
F/Lt  E.G. Brettell        ES 313
P/O  L.T. Ryerson       BS 275
P/O W.H. Baker          BS 446
P/O D.D. Smith           BS 137
P/O G.B. Sperry          BR 638
P/O G.G. Wright          BS 138

B Flight
F/Lt  M. E. Jackson    BS 279
P/O R. E. Smith          BS 447
P/O C.A. Cook            BR 640
P/O R.N. Beaty           BS 148
P/O G.H. Middleton    BS 301
P/O G.P. Neville         BS 140

Gentile and Miller waited.  Then they waited some more.  Eventually they heard approaching aircraft but these proved to be Spitfire Mk.Vs of 401 Squadron RCAF, which were also deployed on the mission.  They were almost out of fuel and had seen neither the Fortresses or the Mk.IXs in the impenetrable cloud.  Very clearly, something had gone disastrously wrong.

Word reached Bolt Head that one of the Eagle Squadron Spitfires had crash-landed on the coast just a few miles away.  This turned out to be the only one of the 12 machines ever seen again.

The official squadron diary recorded: The 12 aircraft  took off with 401 to make a rendezvous with the Fortresses in mid-channel at a point approximately half-way between Bolthead and Morlaix.   It is not yet clear as to what exactly happened but some of the Fortresses were seen after our aircraft had been flying  for 45 minutes.  The pilot of one aircraft (P/O Beaty)  alone returned from this operation and owing to petrol shortage crash landed in a small field near Kingsbridge, Devon.  From his account and what he overheard on the R/T it seems probable that the rest of the Squadron force landed on the Island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.

It transpired that this was a rather optimistic view of the outcome.  Following a strenuous board of inquiry, it became clear that 133 Squadron had never broken free of the cloud and was thus unaware of the fact that the north-easterly wind was blowing at 100 knots instead of the predicted 35. The increase in wind speed had been recorded but not communicated effectively to the squadrons. With no reference points to call upon, the flight leader, Flight Lieutenant Brettell, called for directions home and received a heading back to base from Morlaix – rather than from where he actually was.

The Fortresses were equally lost and equally far off course. When they broke free of the cloud they found themselves over the Pyrenees. They turned around and slogged back to Britain being more grateful for the cloud cover than on their outbound leg.

Meanwhile, having followed the prescribed heading for what was deemed the correct amount of time, Brettell closed up the formation and they dropped out of the cloud to see what they all assumed was the British coast.  While looking for landmarks, the squadron passed over a large town – and immediately found themselves in a barrage of anti-aircraft fire that destroyed one Spitfire and damaged several others just before the defending FW190s swept in to savage them.

They had in fact made their way to the Germans’ prized port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended areas of the French coast.  German sources reported all 12 of the Spitfires were shot down – although there were only 11 as the sole 133 Squadron Spitfire to get away, that of Pilot Officer Bob Beatty, had turned back early after suffering a misfire.  Beatty made landfall in Devon by luck alone after gliding in to the coast when its fuel ran out, where it crashed near the village of Kingsbridge.

One other airman, Pilot Officer Robert Smith, made it back to Britain on foot after passing through France and into Spain undetected. Six pilots were killed in action and eventually four were taken POW. On 29 March 1944, Gordon Brettell was one of the officers involved in The Great Escape – he was later recaptured and summarily executed.

The element of surprise that was hoped for the Spitfire Mk.IX had been lost, as well as some of the most valuable combat experience available to the fledgling USAAF.  Three days after the Brest raid, 133 Squadron transferred to American command with a compliment of earlier Spitfire Mk.Vbs (pictured top) and, following the board of inquiry, those ground controllers and met. officers who were responsible for the mission found themselves posted to the worst available hellholes in the Far East and North Africa as penance for their sins.

The USAAF continued to operate Spitfires on bomber escort duties for a number of months but R.J. Mitchell’s masterpiece was by design a short-range interceptor rather than a long-range escort fighter for offensive missions.  On each occasion the Spitfire pilots were forced to watch German fighters circling until their own fuel became critical and they were forced to turn away… at which point the Germans would wade into the bombers without interference. This was a situation that would only change with the arrival of the P-47 Thunderbolt.

2 thoughts on “The Lost Eagles

  1. For interest, some additional comment from a good friend:

    Yes – this is a very sad story and was a major cockup! Gordon Brettell was known to my good friend Charles Clarke (had lunch with him on Monday) who was also in Stalag Luft III but was too big to go through the tunnel and worked the air pump on “hut end”. Charles had been shot down in his Lancaster on his 19th mission over Berlin at the age of 19 and subsequently survived the Death March from Sagan to Bremen in the winter of 1944/45! He never refers to the lost POWs as having ben executed – always his word is “murdered”!! The mind boggles at the resources, skill and sheer bravery of those (often) mere teenagers!!

    Squadron Leader Carroll McColpin was a pretty extraordinary chap – 25 when he joined the RAF, the only American pilot to fly with all three Eagle squadrons, scoring 12 kills, 5 probables, and 12 damaged and being awarded the DFC, which was pinned on his chest by King George VI personally at “Buck House”. He went on to be credited with another 10 “destroyed” during subsequent ground attacks and got a fistful of American decorations to boot, and then another 8 confirmed “sky-kills” when he was transferred to the USAF. That brought his total for WWII to 28 kills (including 8 by ground attacks), 5 probables and 12 damaged. He eventually retired as a Major-General (USA).

    One minor qualification to this excellent article, the aircraft that transformed bomber escorting to and from Germany was more the P51 Mustang than the P47 Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt was effective but it had been intended primarily as a ground attack fighter-bomber and only for short-to-medium range missions although its range was later extended by the addition of drop tanks. The P51 Mustang, introduced a little later, had both long range and higher speed (once they switched from the American Allison engine to the RR Merlin with 2 stage 2 speed supercharging!) and basically gained near total air superiority and all but knocked the Luftwaffe out of the sky – probably the best fighter of the War other than the Spitfire, the latter being the only aircraft that went right though from 1939 to 1945 in its various development guises.

    Rog

    Neil Oatley

    • Thank you, Neil. Lovely extra background there on both COs – few can claim that!!

      Point taken on the P-47, too – and if tanks could have been fitted to the Spitfire it might have been more of an effective tool for the job. Some pilots might have preferred it: Tom Neil was rather taken aback by the Jug’s bulk and suggested to its pilots that ‘if a Hun gets on your tail, you can just run around inside it he’ll never hit you!’

      But you’re right, of course, a P-51 was really the finest of the breed.

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