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Posted on Feb 25, 2006 in Books and Movies

Spitfires, Thunderbolts, and …: An American Fighter Pilot over Europe – Book Review

By Richard N Story

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Book Review: Spitfires, Thunderbolts, and Warm Beer: An American Fighter Pilot over Europe.
Potomac Books, 2005, Paperback.

Americans have long supported foreign governments both financially and in blood for causes they support. Some of the more famous units include the Lafayette Escadrille flying for the French in World War I, The George Washington Legion in the Spanish Civil War and, perhaps the most famous unit of them all, the Eagles of the Eagle Squadrons flying for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II prior to the entry of the United States into the war. The Eagles were pilots recruited for their ability and for many of the young men who volunteered it was for a mixture of adventure and a chance to do something to strike a blow at Nazi Germany. LeRoy Gover was one such pilot.

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LeRoy (Lee) was fascinated by flying from an early age. Doing odd jobs to pay for flying lessons, he became a qualified pilot. He finally owned and modified a Piper Cub with wheel spats and a propeller hub to increase its speed. Lee worked in construction while trying to find a full time flying job, but as his prospects decreased the need for pilots in the RAF increased. Unable to get a job flying in the Army Air Force or the United States Navy due to a lack of a college degree; Lee searched for other opportunities. The Clayton Knight Committee had been set up to recruit pilots for the RAF with the connivance of the United States government. The requirements were relatively simple: a minimum of 200 flying hours (Lee had nearly 800) and a flying test. Lee passed the test and waited for his calls to arms for the RAF.

Sent to Bakersfield, California for refresher training; Lee and his squadron mates trained in both PT-17s and AT-6 ‘Texans’ in American markings. Lee and an instructor pilot both survived Lee’s only crash in 65 years of flying. When Lee had finished with his refresher training; Lee and his classmates embarked for Canada and then shipment to England. For the next three weeks Lee and his classmates would call the steamer Emma Alexander home. Lee and his mates disembarked from the Emma Alexander on December 7th, 1941. Lee signed the paperwork and, carefully avoiding any issues that would cost them their American citizenship, agreed to obey the orders of the King and anybody appointed by the King for the duration of their time in the RAF. Next for Lee came the Operation Training Unit (OTU) into Spitfires. The accident rate at OTU during Lee’s time was approximately four out of ten pilots. The Spitfire was a hot plane for a rookie to fly and only Lee’s greater than average experience kept him from being one in that number. One thought provoking photograph in the book is of Lee’s unit at OTU shows the pilots and the administration staff officers of the unit. Of the pilots in the picture only Lee and two others survived the war on flying status. The rest were either killed in combat or wrecks or were so badly injured they were taken off flying status. So out of 42 pilots; the survival of three meant that OTU squadron had a seven percent survival rate for the war. This is a staggering number and one wonders how the RAF could survive that attrition rate.

Unlike many of the American pilots; Lee’s first operational squadron was not one of the American Eagle squadrons (Numbers 71, 121 and 133), but instead sent to 66 Squadron, RAF. There Lee went to war and fired real bullets at the enemy. Lee was credited with two enemy aircraft while flying for the British. It was not until September, 1942 that the American Eagles were transferred to the USAAFE along with their Spitfires into the 4th Fighter Group. Lee was assigned to the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force, United States Army Air Forces Europe. The book answered one question that had always puzzled the reviewer. Why were Spitfires transferred to the USAAF? The simple answer was that there were no suitable fighters to assign the former RAF units at that time and so the United States borrowed the planes till American fighters were ready.  Transitioning from the Spitfires into P-47 Thunderbolts; Lee continued to fly and claim another two enemy aircraft destroyed. Lee was promoted to Major during the war and Squadron Commanding Officer before rotating back to the United States as an instructor. Lee finished the war with 159 combat sorties with 233 hours and 55 minutes of combat flying time. At the time of the book was first written Lee had over 28,000 flying hours. His complete war record was 4 confirmed kills, 3 probables, 9 damaged. He had flown over the hell that was Dieppe and was awarded the Silver Star, 3 DFCs, 8 Air Medals, British DFC, French Croix de Guerre and a handful of victory and campaign medals. Lee went into the United States Air Force and retired a Colonel.

Spitfires, Thunderbolts, and Warm Beer was originally printed in 1995 by Brassey’s Books. This edition was printed in 2005 by Potomac Books (formerly Brassey’s) for the new ‘The Warriors’ series of books. Philip D. Crane, a former Air Force Brigadier General and pilot, interviewed LeRoy Gover and had access to his dairies and other sources. The text is flawless and absorbing and was very hard to put down. The illustrations substantially add to the text and they are plentiful for the size of the book. In fact; the illustrations are frequently referred to in the text. With a list price of $8.95 the book is well within the reach of every reader and is highly recommended for anybody who is interested in the RAF, Eagle Squadrons or the air war in Europe.

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