The Few

The American "Knights of the Air" Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain


By Alex Kershaw

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From the author of national bestsellers The Bedford Boys and The Longest Winter comes “a rousing tale of little-known heroes” (Booklist).

The Few tells the dramatic and unforgettable story of eight young Americans who joined Britain’s Royal Air Force, defying their country’s neutrality laws and risking their U.S. citizenship to fight side-by-side with England’s finest pilots in the summer of 1940-over a year before America entered the war. Flying the lethal and elegant Spitfire, they became “knights of the air” and with minimal training but plenty of guts, they dueled the skilled and fearsome pilots of Germany’s Luftwaffe. By October 1940, they had helped England win the greatest air battle in the history of aviation. Winston Churchill once said of all those who fought in the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” These daring Americans were the few among the “few.” Now, with the narrative drive and human drama that made The Bedford Boys and The Longest Winter national bestsellers, Alex Kershaw tells their story for the first time.


"This is a book about uncomplicated men and motivations . . . that often reads like the screenplay of a reverential Hollywood blockbuster."
Washington Post
"A vivid, well-researched story . . . [and] a complete picture of the battle itself, with detailed accounts from both sides."
San Antonio News Express
"[Kershaw's] tight focus on real people makes war, and war's inevitable sacrifice, more real, more personal."
Roanoke Times
"One of the most affecting short histories . . . a rare combination of objectivity concerning what happened and tribute to its subject, the brave fighter pilots."
St Petersburg Times
"The adventures of the handful of known pilots who volunteered to help Britain before the United States entered the war are recounted in depth and with great humanity. . . . They come alive on the page."
Smithsonian Air & Space
"With his customary narrative drive, Kershaw spotlights the handful of American pilots who joined the Royal Air Force and its fighter squadrons during the Battle of Britain . . . Using personal vignettes to convey the extraordinary routines of life in the cockpits, in the squadrons, and in England, Kershaw evokes the heroism of these pilots, only one of whom survived the war whose tide they helped turn."
Publishers Weekly
"A rousing tale of little-known heroes . . . The Few marks Kershaw as a master storyteller."
"[A] fine study of this titanic aerial struggle and the Americans who participated. . . . [Kershaw's] history hits the mark."
Library Journal
"A great read."
Colorado Springs Independent
"Alex Kershaw succeeds brilliantly . . . In Kershaw's skilled hands, the seven young Americans are portrayed in lively, exciting prose."

The Bedford Boys
The Longest Winter
Blood and Champagne
Jack London

For Felix

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Nineteen-year-old American pilot, killed December 11, 1941

Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe Dispositions

The Fall of France
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
William Shakespeare, Richard II

Soldiers of Fortune
This is the story of some of our countrymen who did not wait to be stabbed in the back. Long before the rest of us realized it, these boys, with that deep wisdom given to the very young, knew that this too, was our war. They were no adventurers, killing for gain. They couldn't resist the call of their blood; liberty and tolerance and love for freedom had been bred in them.1
Quentin Reynolds, radio broadcast
WINSTON CHURCHILL sat in the back of a black Daimler, dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, late on the afternoon of May 10, 1940. He was on his way to Buckingham Palace, where he would be officially invited by the king to lead a new government. After a decade in the political wilderness, the sixty-five-year-old statesman's hour had finally arrived: Neville Chamberlain, the conservative prime minister, had stood down that morning, and Churchill had been selected by party bosses as the best man to lead the country in what were bound to be its most trying hours.
That morning, just after dawn, it had been reported that Nazi Germany had launched massive surprise attacks on Luxembourg, Holland, and Belgium and had pierced the French border. More than 1,700 German Luftwaffe bombers had filled the skies above northern Europe, taking so many citizens by surprise that some even waved up at the planes, not seeing the black crosses on the bombers' fuselages.
As thousands of panzer tanks continued to storm across northern Europe, Churchill accepted the king's invitation to become prime minister. It was drizzling as he was then driven back to his residence at the British Admiralty. His bodyguard, Inspector William Thompson, was also seated in the Daimler as it passed through the heart of Whitehall. He congratulated his new boss on becoming prime minister, the culmination of more than forty years in Parliament. "I hope it is not too late," Churchill replied. "I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best."2 To his amazement, Thompson saw that Churchill was on the verge of tears.
UNION STATION IN LOS ANGELES was busy, full of passengers bidding farewell to families before boarding trains. Among those holding tickets were two nervous young men: twenty-three-year-old Eugene "Red" Tobin, the son of a real estate broker, who had spent most of his wayward youth in Los Angeles, and twenty-seven-year-old Andrew Mamedoff, a White Russian, inveterate gambler, and womanizer. From a distance, Tobin was the more striking with his flaming red hair and lanky frame.
Both were about to embark on what they knew would be the most exciting and dangerous chapter of their lives. The 8:15 p.m. train would eventually take them to Canada, then on, they hoped, to Europe, to fight against the Luftwaffe. In so doing, they would break several strict neutrality laws and become outlaws in their own country.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, a presidential proclamation had made it illegal for any American citizen to join a warring power's military and also to "hire someone to go beyond the territorial limits of the United States—to Canada, for example—to enlist in a foreign country's military." The penalties were severe: Tobin and Mamedoff had been warned that, if caught, they could be fined ten thousand dollars, jailed for several years, and stripped of their citizenship and passports.
Tobin was leaving behind his girlfriend, a tall Irish beauty named Anne Haring. In California, he could have continued to fly every day in skies clear of Messerschmitts diving out of the sun to kill him. So why was he now risking everything? There were several reasons. Like Andy Mamedoff, he was certain that the war in Europe would come to America sooner or later, and he didn't want to be drafted into the army as a grunt when it did. Above all, he was looking to fly the "sweetest little ship" in the world, the Supermarine Spitfire, designed by Englishman Reginald Mitchell, first flown in 1936, and now capable of over 350 mph, three times faster than any plane Tobin had flown: "I just felt I wanted to fly some of these powerful machines . . ."3 But only by risking his neck in someone else's war would he ever stand a chance of flying the "hottest" machine he had ever set eyes on. The gamble seemed well worth it.
Like so many young Americans in the age of Lindbergh and Earhart, Tobin was obsessed with flying. Nothing else made him feel quite so alive. It was all he had ever wanted to do with his life. And it had enabled him to escape the shadow of his childhood: his earliest memories, other than of marveling at silver biplanes circling lazily above Hollywood, were of watching his mother as she lost a long battle with tuberculosis. Three years later, as an eight-year-old, he had attended an air show and stared in awe as barnstormers performed aerobatics at Roger's Field, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. "My pappy gave me a dollar and I wandered off toward an airplane, an old Fairchild cabin job," he recalled. "I told the pilot I wanted to go for a ride and he said, 'Is it all right with your parents?' My father's back was turned, but a man near him swung around and looked at me at that moment and the pilot thought he was my pappy. We popped around the airport and I just knew I was born to fly. I failed practically every year at school from ditching classes and going out to airports. Finally, when I was older, I realized my ambition—I learned to fly. I did my first solo over Hollywood and I flew a great deal over the Sierras."4 Eventually, he had saved enough money from working as a mechanic to buy his own plane. That had led to glamorous employment with MGM as a pilot ferrying the studio's stars and other VIPs around California—"a heck of a job." But it had not satisfied his restless spirit.
It was time to leave. Passengers began to file across Union Station's terra-cotta and inlaid marble floor and through the exit to the platform where the 8:15 p.m. train was waiting. Tobin and Mamedoff were soon boarding the train. For all they knew, they might never see the Mission Revival splendor of Union Station, or indeed Los Angeles, again. They were now bona fide soldiers of fortune, making their way illegally to fight in a war that their government had done its best to prevent any American from joining.
TOBIN AND MAMEDOFF had been hired by America's most colorful and notorious mercenary, fifty-nine-year-old Colonel Charles Sweeny, friend of Ernest Hemingway and several Latin American revolutionaries, described by The New Yorker that year as a "tall, ruddy, hawk-faced, clipped-voiced man who does not mind his collar button showing."5 It was Sweeny who had seen to it that discreet notices advertising "opportunities" with certain European air forces had been posted at airfields and had appeared in newspapers around the U.S., and to which Andy Mamedoff and Eugene Tobin had eagerly responded.
As soon as the Nazis had invaded Poland, Sweeny had set about organizing a group of flyers modeled after the legendary Esquadrille Squadron of WWI, a unit of dashing young American pilots who had volunteered to fly with the French Armée de l'Air and tangled above the trenches with the Baron von Richthofen's Flying Circus. But Sweeny's plans faced fierce opposition from the State Department and from several politicians, most of them from the Midwest, where there were large communities of German immigrants. "Many obstacles soon cropped up," he recalled. "The more apparent ones were the Neutrality Law and the attitude of hostility assumed by a large and influential part of the American press. For months I was hounded like a criminal. I began to have a friendly feeling for Baby Face Nelson [Lester J. Gillis, a notorious gangster who was then being hunted by the FBI]. The more real obstacle was the complete apathy of the American people."6
Wanting to escape the attentions of the FBI, Sweeny had gone to Canada in late 1939. But even though Canada was at war with Germany, this move had provided only a temporary refuge. After just a few weeks, the authorities had started asking tough questions, and then Sweeny had been grilled at length by no less than Canadian Attorney General Frank Murphy. Time was running out if Sweeny was to avoid being deported to the U.S. to face charges of breaking neutrality laws.7 Sweeny had quickly arranged passage to Europe but not before managing to set up a secret network, stretching from Los Angeles and other American cities to Montreal and then via Nova Scotia to France.
As soon as Sweeny had arrived in Europe, the network had been activated. Tobin and Mamedoff had then been contacted at Mines Airfield in Los Angeles by a man involved with Sweeny's illegal venture. Would they be interested in going to Finland? The Finnish air force needed every pilot it could get as it waged a fierce battle against the invading Soviets, who had forged a notorious pact with the Nazis the summer before. They would be paid all expenses to Helsinki and one hundred dollars a month as long as they lasted.8 "I was certainly the guy to go flying up around the arctic circle," Tobin later recalled. "I'd seen snow about twice in my life. But flying is flying I told myself. Finland can't be so different."
The next day, Tobin had quit his job with MGM and had bought gear for flying in subzero temperatures. Mamedoff had sold his plane. But less than forty-eight hours later, the friends had rued their hasty decisions. "I was back, trying to talk the boss into putting me on the payroll again," explained Tobin. "Andy was trying to figure out how he could [get] another crate. It seemed that something had happened up there in Finland. There wasn't a war anymore."9 In early April 1940, the Finns had been defeated after a bitter and valiant winter campaign. Tobin and Mamedoff would not be going on their great adventure after all. For three days, now unemployed and without planes, they had hung around Mines Airfield, trying to work out what to do next.
They had been too late to fight for a free Finland. But the forces of repression were on the march elsewhere. "There was another war going on," Tobin recalled. "Perhaps we could get into that one. They say if you go looking for a fight you can always find one."10 A week later, Tobin and Mamedoff had signed up to join the French Armée de l'Air. Another nameless contact, this time a Frenchman, had then arrived at Mines Airfield and given them each a train ticket to Montreal and "a warm though limp handshake."11
THE 8:15 P.M. CHICAGO TRAIN began to pull out of Union Station. Later that evening of May 10, 1940, Eugene Tobin opened his diary and jotted: "I don't know what's going to happen, but it's sure as hell going to be an adventure."12 The journey from Los Angeles to Chicago and then to Montreal would take several days, plenty of time for him and Mamedoff to share their anxieties: If they were caught, would they go straight to jail or would Sweeny be able to get them off the hook? And if they did get to Canada without being arrested, how would they get to Europe? Would they fly or take a boat across the Atlantic, where Hitler's U-boats were busy sinking dozens of ships each month?
The train left California and then headed into the darkness of Nevada. Unlike Tobin, Andy Mamedoff was not leaving loved ones behind. He had no blood ties to the state or, for that matter, to America. He belonged instead to a pitiful diaspora—the million-odd Whites who had been forced to flee Mother Russia when the Bolsheviks had ruthlessly crushed their forces during the Civil War of the early 1920s. Had he and his parents tried to hide in some far-flung corner of Siberia, as Cossacks and others had, they would have been hunted down and killed: Lev Mamedoff, Andy's father, had been a marked man. It was said that in 1908 he had arrested a Georgian Bolshevik called Iosif Dzhugashvili, later known as Joseph Stalin, in the Caucasus when the future Soviet Union dictator had been nothing but a long-haired petty criminal and rabble-rouser.
California's clear skies had lured Mamedoff from his previous exile in Thompson, Connecticut, where he had earned a reputation as a foolhardy show-off who had sped around in a flashy Ford convertible, impressing many local girls. Like Tobin, he had not cared much for school, and had been expelled several times from Tourtellotte Memorial High School, where, according to a classmate, he had been the charismatic leader of "a rowdy crew, not necessarily crude, but always looking for action."13
WINSTON CHURCHILL STOOD at the dispatch box in the House of Commons. It was early afternoon on May 13, 1940, as the chamber fell silent and he began his first speech as prime minister by briefing the assembled members on developments in Europe. The news was far from encouraging. The Germans were waging a stunningly successful campaign of blitzkrieg—lightning war—coordinating massed tank attacks with strikes from the air, in particular from a new dive bomber, the Junkers 87, which had V-shaped wings and a siren that wailed as it swooped down on the Allies' front-line positions. In just three days, thanks in large part to the Luftwaffe, the Germans had swept through territory that had been contested for four years during the Great War of 1914–18. Britain now faced the greatest threat to her survival in a millennium.
Churchill concluded his first speech with words that would set the tone of his oratory in the crucial weeks to come. "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. You ask what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God has given us, to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalog of human crime. You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word. Victory, victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror; victory however long and hard the road may be."14
THE TRAIN FINALLY pulled into a station near the Canadian border. Officials boarded and began to check the papers of occupants in each carriage.
Tobin and Mamedoff waited anxiously.
An official finally stepped into their compartment.
"Where are you boys going, and why?"
"We're on our way to Montreal to see a cousin who runs a fish hatchery," lied Tobin.
"Are either of you flyers?"
"Don't be silly. Do we look like flyers?"
Another official entered and began to check their luggage.
Mamedoff and Tobin tried to appear calm.
The official examined a top layer of clothing but delved no deeper. If he had, he would have discovered goggles and logbooks.
"That's OK," he said. "Have a good time and tickle a trout for us."15
Tobin and Mamedoff had been given instructions to go to the Queen's Hotel in Montreal, an impressive seven-floor stone building in the city's center. There they were to ask for letters addressed to them, containing cash and train tickets for the next leg of their trip. They arrived at the hotel late the following afternoon, but there were no letters. They decided in any case to check into the hotel. Sooner or later, they would be contacted.
In his hotel room, Tobin pulled out a piece of stationery from his bedside table and began to write a letter to his father in Los Angeles: "By the time you get this I will be well on my way to France?! Now hang on Pa, it's not as bad as that. I am going to get six months of the best training possible, and by then I'll get out (yes I will). The reason I did not tell you before was because I knew you would be against it, and I didn't want a big argument Pa—honest . . . When I get back I will be a damn good pilot, and will have no trouble getting a job, because I will have something to offer whereas now I'm nothing but a nothing . . . I guarantee you Pa I will not take any unnecessary chances . . . all I want is the training—nothing more. I can't get in the lousy U.S. Army [Air Corps] so I'll go to France where I can. This is no 'foolhardy stunt'—you may think it is but it isn't . . . your little boy Gene."16
In the lobby, Tobin and Mamedoff asked a clerk if any other Americans had also asked for envelopes and checked into the hotel. The clerk pointed to a man seated a few yards away, looking glum and engrossed in an aviation magazine. It was immediately obvious that he was very small: the man's feet did not even touch the ground.
Tobin's younger sister, Helen Maher, would later vividly recall her brother's first encounter with the shortest man ever to fly in the RAF: twenty-six-year-old Vernon Charles Keough. "Gene thought: 'I wonder whether this is the guy we are supposed to meet?' The more Gene looked at Keough, the more he thought: 'I bet that's him. But he surely can't fly. He's too little.' He kept looking at Keough and Keough kept looking back. And finally Gene said to him, 'You're the meanest looking dude I've seen in a long time.'"17
That broke the ice. Keough and the other pilots introduced themselves. "I came up from New York expecting to join the French air force, and instead I become a lobby squatter," said Keough. "My luck sure isn't getting any better."
They went to the bar, and Keough, just four foot ten, bought drinks and then told Tobin and Mamedoff they should call him Shorty. He'd been a professional parachute jumper before becoming a pilot.18
A fortnight back, explained Keough, he had borrowed five hundred dollars for a down payment on a new plane. He had then allowed a friend to take it up the very day it had been delivered.
Keough paused. He looked grief-stricken.
"What happened?" asked Tobin.
"The dope goes and cracks it up, landing. About the only thing left is the stick, which he's still got in his hand when he crawls out. So I joined the French air force to get away from it all. And now this!"19
Tobin ordered more drinks. He liked the look of Shorty, with his wry smile and eyes that didn't miss a thing, darting about like mice.
Keough had grown up in Brooklyn. By his early twenties, he had been scraping by as a barnstormer. Then he had become one of America's first skydivers, eventually risking his life in more than five hundred jumps. "I was talked into making my first jump," Keough would later recall. "I was twenty-four then. It didn't seem so good at first. I didn't like the idea of leaving a perfectly good airplane up there and jumping for no reason at all. Well, I did it at four shows, because the guy I was working for wanted me to. I was so light, you see! Then I found I liked it."
Keough had often landed in the wrong place and a couple of times so far off course that it had taken several days before his mother learned that he was still alive. As a fellow pilot recalled: "People who came to comfort his mother in Brooklyn were in turn consoled by her calm words: 'He'll come back. He always does.' And he always did."20 There had been good times: bright and windless summer days and large crowds below. And then there "would be a wet Sunday, after we'd built up a show. Then things wouldn't be so hot and I would have to eat on the cuff and put my airplane in hock."21
Over more drinks, Tobin learned that Shorty had also volunteered to fight with the Finns. He didn't mind now what air force he joined so long as it wasn't the Luftwaffe.
The Americans were interrupted by a bellhop who handed them the letters they had been promised by their contacts in the States. They ripped them open, discovered train tickets to Halifax in Nova Scotia, knocked back their drinks, and read the instructions accompanying the tickets: "You will take the night train to Halifax. Upon arrival, remain at the station after the other passengers have departed. Discuss flying in a loud voice so our agent can identify you."22
IN LONDON, the long day was also drawing to a close. Before turning in for the night, Winston Churchill met in his rooms at the Admiralty with the American ambassador, Joseph Kennedy. According to Kennedy, Churchill was worried that Italy, under the dictator Mussolini, would soon seize the chance to enter the war, thereby introducing the nightmare scenario for Britain of having to fight on two fronts—in France and in the Mediterranean. It seemed likely that France would fall quickly to the Germans, and then the Luftwaffe would throw everything it had at Britain in a bloody prelude to invasion. "He said that regardless of what Germany does to England and France," Kennedy cabled President Roosevelt after the meeting, "England will never give up as long as he remains a power in public life, even if England is burned to the ground. Why, he said, the Government would move to Canada and take the fleet and fight on."23 In the meantime, counseled Kennedy, it was imperative that America not be dragged into the war: "It seems to me that if we had to protect our lives, we would do better fighting in our own back yard."24
This was not what Roosevelt wanted to hear, but it was entirely to be expected from Joseph Kennedy, a defeatist for whom the pursuit of profit and power was all-consuming. To remove him from the domestic political scene, where he was touted by some as a possible presidential candidate, President Roosevelt had sent Kennedy and his photogenic family to London in the late thirties. As a blinkered isolationist, Kennedy had provided one-sided reports on the worsening European situation, missives in which Roosevelt now had begun to place little faith, knowing Kennedy was more interested in furthering his political ambitions back in America than in being an effective liaison between the British government and the White House. "I thought my daffodils were yellow until I met Joe Kennedy," was one British reaction to the future American president's father.
THE TRAIN TO HALIFAX was crowded with Canadian troops. In his diary, Tobin wrote: "Everybody talks about the war. They ask us why Americans haven't come in the war. We say pay us the dough and we sure will. They look astonished—adieu."25


On Sale
Aug 28, 2007
Page Count
360 pages
Da Capo Press

Alex Kershaw

About the Author

Alex Kershaw is the author of the widely acclaimed bestsellers The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter, The Few, and Escape from the Deep, among others. He lives in Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author