A fighter cockpit is a small cold place. Metal the thickness of a soup can separates you from frigid air. Even in summer, heavy clothes are needed to keep from freezing at high altitude. But when the action starts and the adrenaline surges, the sweat pours.
A dogfight is swirling chaos where one wrong move could be your last, and the enemy that gets you is the one you don't see. The strain is so great that sometimes pilots have to be lifted from their planes after landing.
During the Battle of Britain, pilots did this three, four, and five times a day - day after day. Until their luck ran out.
If they had a little luck left, they parachuted to safety and lived to fight again. If luck betrayed them, they became another chapel service for their buddies to attend.
Frank Capra's film "The Battle of Britain" provides a first-hand view of the battles waged in the skies above England. It was part of a series titled "Why We Fight," commissioned to help Americans understand what was at stake in the war and to solidify their support for Britain and the Allied cause.
First Lieutenant John F. Lutz 1918-1943
John F. Lutz was born August 18, 1918, in Fulton, Missouri. After graduating from Fulton High School, he attended Westminster College for one year. He transferred to Brawley Junior College at Brawley, California, graduating the following year.
Lutz enlisted in the RAF as a member of the 71st Eagle Squadron in September 1941 at the age of 23. He took part in many air battles with the Eagle Squadrons over Europe, and continued on with the U.S. 8th Air Force after the Eagle Squadrons' transfer in September 1942.
On 4 May 1943, after engaging several Nazi fighters during a bomber escort mission to Holland, he was forced to bail out of his crippled aircraft over the English Channel.
A letter to Lutz's parents from his friend, First Lieutenant H. D. Hively, told the story of his last flight.
"We were doing escort for a number of bombers and got into a mix-up over Flushing. ...the last I saw of him, he was diving down on six F.W. 190s. ...John made good his attack, but in the melee evidently got a bullet in an oil line or such. He definitely was all right then, for he called me on the radio and said his engine was acting up and he was going home. ...but when about halfway across, John called again and said he was bailing out."
"He bailed out at 2,000 feet, but his chute only partially opened and he never got in his dingy. [Another pilot] stayed with him for over fifteen minutes, but I'm afraid I can offer no hope, for I have non myself. Everything was done that was possible. The Airsea Rescue was out 'til dark and again this morning, but there was no sign."
One third of the pilots who served with the Eagle Squadrons never returned home. Over 20,000 American airmen died while on active service in Britain. Most parents did not receive even this much information about their lost child.
"They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not be faint." –Isaiah 41:31
When Britain stood alone, pilots from other countries felt compelled to help. Some came from the British Empire and Commonwealth: Canada, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, Jamaica, Australia and New Zealand. Others came from German-occupied countries such as Czechoslovakia, Belgium, France, and Poland. Indeed, Polish pilots suffered the highest percentage of combat fatalities of all the nationalities in the Battle of Britain.
Americans also joined the fight even before their country was at war. Although the FBI tried strictly to enforce the United States Neutrality Act, these pilots found their own way to Britain, typically through the Royal Canadian Air Force. About ten American pilots fought with the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, but were usually listed as Canadian or South African. More Americans soon followed.
Finally, Winston Churchill personally intervened, paving the way for the Air Ministry to officially organize the American - or Eagle - Squadrons in September of 1940.
Walter M. Churchill [no relation to Winston] led the first Eagle Squadron, 71. By spring of 1942, three Eagle Squadrons were firmly established as part of RAF Fighter Command, posted at stations in the thick of the action: 71 Squadron at Debden; 121 Squadron at North Weald; and 133 Squadron at Biggin Hill. The Eagle Squadrons proved themselves in the toughest combat - one third of the pilots never returned home.
With the formation of the United States 8th Air Force in England, the Eagle Squadrons were absorbed into the "Mighty Eighth" as the 4th Fighter Group on 29 September 1942.