The Few: The American 'Knights of the Air' who risked everything to fight in the Battle of Britain
Alex Kershaw

Alex Kershaw is a new star in the field of popular military history. His previous books, “The Bedford Boys” and “The Longest Winter”, have received critical acclaim, and having read the former book I can only agree. His new book tells the story of the eight American pilots who joined the RAF in time for the Battle of Britain, flaunting US neutrality laws. They were a diverse lot, with characters like Olympic gold medalist Billy Fiske, barnstormer “Shorty” Keough, and the easygoing “Red” Tobin. Most of them wanted to strike against Hitler’s war machine, having an adventure in the process. Some of them tried to join the French air force, but the collapse of France forced them to cross the Channel and try their luck in the RAF instead. The grim realities of war caught up with them, though, and of the eight only one survived the war. The enemy and accidents took a heavy toll, and the losses among the first Americans were considerably higher than the average.

Kershaw uses a lot of contemporary sources, like personal and war diaries, letters, articles and official histories, fusing the many facts into a flowing narrative that almost reads like a novel. His book is not just about the eight pilots and their friends, but also about the Battle of Britain on a strategic level, with the higher leadership, British civilians and German pilots getting their share, too. While his portrayal of the American and British pilots cast them in a very positive light, he doesn’t go to the other extreme and demonize the Germans. Given the subject matter, it is a balanced account. There are a few minor errors, but as my review sample was the advance reading version, it is possible that they have been corrected in the final edition.

If there’s anything I have a problem with, it is the publisher’s blurb on the back of the book, which misrepresents it (a major faux pas when trying to sell a book). I quote:

They flew the lethal and elegant Spitfire, and became "knights of the air." With minimal training and plenty of guts they dueled the skilled pilots of Germany's Luftwaffe in the blue skies over England. They shot down several of Germany's fearsome aces, and were feted as national heroes in Britain. By October 1940, they had helped England win the greatest air battle in the history of aviation.

To begin with, several of them flew Hurricanes, the oft-forgotten workhorse of the Battle of Britain. None of the American pilots bagged any “fearsome ace”. While statistics are very hard to come by, it seems like their contribution to the German losses was minimal – confirmed, probable and shared kills appear to have been no more than a score. And considering the number of planes involved, surely the air battle over Germany was bigger?

Publisher’s hype aside, their greatest contribution – apart from being there when Britain stood alone – was to help turn the American opinion from an isolationist stance to a willingness to play a more active part. More than a year before Pearl Harbor, they were trailblazers in what was to become (using Eisenhower’s words) a “great crusade” against Hitler. As only one of them survived to see the end of the war, their story deserves to be told, something Alex Kershaw does exceedingly well. This is a welcome addition to any aviation history bookshelf.

(Reviewed by B Hellqvist)

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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