- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

THE FEW: THE AMERICAN ‘KNIGHTS OF THE AIR’ WHO RISKED EVERYTHING TO FIGHT IN THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN

By Alex Kershaw

DaCapo Press, $25, 301 pages

REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER

Two cheers for absolutes, for hard-and-fast rules and black-and-white standards. During the Vietnam era many of “the greatest generation” called any kid a traitor who opposed the war and went to Canada, while today an American who fights for a foreign cause is grist for Guantanamo. No decent American disobeys his country, right? Sorry. Absolutes are false, even that one.

Back in the good old days (circa 1939), in deference to our international neutrality a presidential proclamation barred Americans from joining any warring nation’s military — even a friendly nation’s — on pain of fines, prison and loss of citizenship. But some men broke the law, sneaked across the Atlantic and swore allegiance to a foreign power, thus abdicating their American birthright. This book calls those turncoats heroes. Rightly so.

They are the title characters of “The Few” — a handful of Americans who joined the Royal Air Force in the year after Hitler wantonly ignited the inferno of World War II in Europe and the year before Japan attacked us in Hawaii. They fought in the Battle of Britain, helped repel the Nazi juggernaut to turn the tide and literally save democracy for the western world.

They were among the RAF fighter pilots whom Winston Churchill immortalized in declaring “Never in the history of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” But they were freelancing, and by joining the righteous fray before their nation sent them they “became outlaws in their own country,” writes Alex Kershaw.

Compelled by the just cause of opposing Hitler, and seduced by a lust for flight (or for Spitfires, then the hottest planes aloft), there were eight of them:

Arthur Donahue, teetotaler, devout Catholic, flying instructor; 4-foot-10 “Shorty” Keough who sat on pillows just to see out of the cockpit; Zeke Leckrone, deserter of a wife and children in Illinois; blueblood Billy Fiske, boasting an Olympic gold medal (bobsled) and a titled English wife; Andy Mamedoff, gambler and Casanova whose White Russian father once arrested a thug named Joseph Stalin; Michigan-born Hugh Reilley who passed as Canadian; Los Angeles native Red Tobin, formerly a pilot who skylarked with movie stars for MGM; New Yorker John Haviland, who survived a midair collision in training, won a DFC late in the war, and lived to come home again. He was the only one who did.

Most of them died too soon to leave enough substance for a meaty collective biography, a problem the author overcomes by relating both their 15 minutes of flying fame and the ever-changing big picture. (Mr. Kershaw also wrote the well received group history “The Bedford Boys.”)

He spices this narrative with curious details, such as a mess steward’s regret that some his pilots died “before he had even had a chance to change their sheets.” However heroic these fliers’ exploits in the air, their world remains pedestrian, tellingly so, such as in the aside that even aces “tucked their feet under their rudder bars to stop their knees knocking.”

Even mythic symbols arose for reasons rooted in mortal flesh: For example, these dashing pilots wore those famous silk scarves on purpose — to avoid chafed necks as they wrenched their heads around during the terrifying moments of combat, looking out for Messerschmitts over their shoulders. Yet a more crucial fact comes clear: “On both sides of the Channel, pilots knew they were in a desperate battle of attrition.” Only one force, RAF or Luftwaffe, might survive the other. Who would be the last men flying?

In Mr. Kershaw’s telling, this gruesome shared fact looms all the more horrific. A truism of history books is that the people who are going through the historical experience — the human subjects being written about — do not know how events will play out. To this author’s credit, the reader can feel the inevitable terror as it affects both sets of adversaries. When the RAF, with its tiny contingent of American exiles, starts to take the upper hand, almost every reader will applaud — even as we regret the dying of brave young German fliers doing their duty for their country.

While championing Anglo-American valor in the epic Battle of Britain, indeed while championing our cause, Mr. Kershaw respects the skill and courage of his subjects’ enemy. This leads to some epically sad points. For one, in his evenhandedness about the mingled ferocity and fear of fighting men on both sides of the battle, he demonstrates that not only innocent civilians die useless, awful deaths in wars. So also do skilled and willing combatants.

For another, in proving the cliched rule of good writing, “show, don’t tell,” he reminds that what we have come to call “the last just war” involved enormous bloody, agonizing, unspeakable waste.

Of course, we don’t admire all the men who joined other armies before Pearl Harbor, such as those Americans of German extraction who answered the Fuehrer’s call to come home to fight for the Fatherland. (Some would use their fluent English to penetrate our lines at the Battle of the Bulge.) But this book is not about them. It is about eight disobedient men and the hell they entered for good reasons when their country forbade it.

Hitler appears only as a specter here, but one can’t read this book without hating him all the more — for compelling his intended victims to fight back with all they had, for sacrificing all these lives on both sides, for starting this war that didn’t need to happen.

Philip Kopper, an author and publisher, writes about history and the arts.

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