12 December 2014 — Hundreds of Americans enlisted with the Royal Air Force at recruiting centers in major American cities or crossed into Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force circa 1941. Setting the precedent for this subsequent generation, during World War I men visited Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) establishments in New York, Boston and Canada to offer their services to defend the Mother Country and democracy before the United States officially entered the Great War.
Gavin Mortimer’s engrossing book, The First Eagles: The Fearless American Aces Who Flew with the RAF in World War I, addresses this subject and provides some stirring accounts of the aviators’ experiences. In the early pages Mr. Mortimer points out that the United States was reticent with regard to the promotion and development of military aviation. Leaders held to standard doctrines of warfare and exhibited little foresight or enthusiasm related to the potential provided by airplanes.
In addition to providing general information about the volunteers who served with the RFC (which merged in 1918 with the RNAS to become the Royal Air Force), and details related to the British and American flying services, Gavin Mortimer proceeds to more thoroughly introduce readers to 17 members of the group.
One of the biographies presented by Mortimer is that of Frederick (Fred) Libby, a young man from Sterling, Colorado, who, in 1914, enlisted in the Canadian Army and subsequently transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). On 13 December 1916 Libby was awarded the Military Cross by King George V during a ceremony in Buckingham Palace. By the time he transferred to U.S. service in September 1917, “Libby,” according to the Royal Air Force Museum, “had at least 14 and maybe as many as 24 victories. He was arguably America’s first ace, although as he was an observer at the time. . .”
Sadly, these men never received the recognition and accolades due them. Mortimer, on page 220, comments that “as many as three hundred American pilots served in operational British squadrons during World War I, and from that total, twenty-eight aces between them shot down 294 enemy aircraft.” On page 221 the author quotes Canadian Air Vice Marshall Raymond Collishaw, a WWI ace himself. He once stated the following: “It always struck me as peculiar and rather unfair that the Americans who flew with the Lafayette Squadron should have received such great public acclaim whereas the many hundreds of Americans who flew as members of the British air forces, mostly with the RFC and the RAF, remain completely ignored.”
Gavin Mortimer’s The First Eagles: The Fearless American aces Who Flew with the RAF in World War I is a worthy effort to rectify the inexcusable oversight. The offering holds the readers interest and is a significant contribution to America’s rich legacy of aviation history. The work is highly recommended.
Sources, Suggested Readings & Viewings
Captain Frederick Libby
Mortimer, Gavin. The First Eagles: The Fearless American aces Who Flew with the RAF in World War I, Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2014.