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The Royal Air Force in Texas: Training British Pilots in Terrell during World War II

The Royal Air Force in Texas: Training British Pilots in Terrell during World War II by Tom Killebrew. University of North Texas Press, 2009, 208 pp.

In his contribution to the University of North Texas Press’s War and the Southwest series, author Tom Killebrew examines a little-known element of the vital and historic “special relationship” forged between the American and British governments during the Second World War. The monograph opens with varied accounts of British wartime hardships and endurance in the face of the widening Nazi political and military advance across Europe. As continental nations fell to Nazi expansion, Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe set its sights on Britain during the summer and fall of 1940, subjecting it to the oft-accounted aerial punishment of the Battle of Britain. Although “the Few” of the Royal Air Force (RAF) valiantly halted the German onslaught, flight schools in the British Isles and across the Commonwealth states could not effectively meet the operational demand for pilots in the expanding war. Airspace congestion, notoriously dismal and uncertain isle weather, and austere operational conditions at overseas training locations prevented them from doing so. Given the ever-present risk of raiding German fighter and bomber formations further compounding the problem of fielding effective daily flight training, the RAF had to find a better solution.

The end of 1940 found British military forces girding themselves to repulse the later-abandoned German invasion across the English Channel. Filling the ranks of the RAF took on even more importance during this time since the subject of flight training beyond the confines of the British Empire had become a topic of conversation during the lend-lease discussions held in Washington, DC, in early 1941. Maneuvering around the fading façade of American neutrality, flag-officer luminaries of the US Army Air Forces, US Navy, and a British delegation agreed to host a four-element training scheme for British student pilots in the United States. One of these elements involved the pairing of British training detachments with existing civilian flying-training facilities throughout the American South and Southwest. Thus, the British Flying Training Schools (BFTS) scheme was born, with No. 1 BFTS taking root at the Kaufman County Airport in Terrell, Texas, in 1941.

The Royal Air Force in Texas relates the four-year history of the No. 1 BFTS in meticulous detail, thoroughly describing the school’s early days, including site selection, the administrative trials of standing up the new unit, and the logistical challenges of keeping aircraft and pilots flying over foreign soil. The thorough treatment of these subtle contextual details—one of Killebrew’s demonstrated strengths as a researcher and author—greatly enhances the story. His inclusion of considerable primary source material enlivens the tale with such comic details as cold-weather flying gear mistakenly provided to initial classes for use during the Texas summer, together with illustrative descriptions of the British cadets’ most frequented establishments in downtown Terrell. However, most fascinating are the author’s accounts of the nuances of the odd yet very functional command relationship between the on-site British officer cadre and host civilian flight school. Although many individuals in senior RAF circles feared that the cultural and professional divide would make for complications in the execution of vital military training, Killebrew notes the mutual respect and resolve demonstrated by both American and Briton alike. This understanding between aviators became the hallmark of an extremely successful effort to produce top-quality aviators for Britain’s first line of defense.

Although the book offers impressive details about the administrative and structural attributes of the No. 1 BFTS, it gives less consideration to the crucial account of the British aviation cadets as individuals. Throughout, Killebrew effectively captures student issues with individual aircraft types, the comedy and tragedy of in-flight incidents, and favored off-duty activities, among other details. For all its strengths, however, The Royal Air Force in Texas would have benefited greatly from deeper exploration of the motivations, fears, and personal struggles of the British cadets as they left their loved ones to confront wartime hardships during their rigorous six-month training regimen. That said, Killebrew does not ignore the personal dimension entirely, in that his story includes accounts of cadet interactions at social functions and hospitality visits with Terrell residents, descriptions of the distinctive characters among the 26 total classes of the No. 1 BFTS, and praise of selected graduates’ wartime heroics. Further, one must acknowledge that recounting the individual hopes and fears of British cadets was likely hindered by the sheer passage of time, incomplete record keeping by the US government during wartime, and contested claims that structural fires consumed school records in the postwar years.

Despite its isolated shortcomings, The Royal Air Force in Texas is an impressive and effective account of the interaction of two seemingly opposite worlds brought together in the name of liberty and embodying the greatest tradition of Anglo-American cooperation. By documenting and recounting the events of over 70 years past, Killebrew vividly reminds us of the “special relationship” that still endures, perhaps best captured on the No. 1 BFTS patch: Mare nos dividit, Set Caela Conjungunt (what the sea divides, the skies unite).

Capt Walter J. Darnell III, USAF

US Air Force Academy

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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