So Far from Home: Royal Air Force and Free French Air Force Flight Training at Maxwell and Gunter Air Fields during World War II

  • Published

So Far from Home: Royal Air Force and Free French Air Force Flight Training at Maxwell and Gunter Air Fields during World War II by Robert B. Kane. New South Books (http://www.newsouthbooks.com), 105 S. Court Street, Montgomery, Alabama 36104, 2016, 152 pages, $23.95 (softcover), ISBN 987-1-60306-369-2.

Robert Kane’s study explores the training of British and French pilots and other aircrew members at the Maxwell and Gunter Fields in the Montgomery, Alabama area during World War II, and, in so doing, opens a window into a relatively underappreciated but relevant aspect of US aid to Allied powers through the Lend–Lease policy. Kane identifies the Goodwill Act of 1938 as the origin of American interest in training foreign pilots, and Lend–Lease allowed a vast expansion of the concept and the inclusion of more pilots, especially from Britain, France, and China.

Appropriately, the early section of the book provides a primer on the emergence of Lend–Lease, since it was Lend-Lease funding that was arranged to defray Army Air Force (AAF) expenses in conducting the training. One of the early hurdles in establishing the aircrew training program under Lend–Lease auspices was that “‘training’ was not a weapon, a piece of equipment, a munition, or defense information as specified in Section 2 of the Lend–Lease Act.”  This obstacle was overcome by a liberal interpretation of the still-fresh Lend Lease Act by Attorney General Robert Jackson (p. 19). British pilots represented the lion’s share of those foreign nationals trained under the project, and about half of the Britons trained in the United States were trained directly by the AAF, while the remainders were trained in contract schools.

Following a replacement training phase that was renamed “Pre-Flight School” in early 1942, crewmembers were given nine weeks of primary education in flying and landing light aircraft, followed by nine weeks—including night and formation flying at a basic training school— followed by eleven weeks of advanced training to perfect skills in formation flying and to learn aerial gunnery. British elimination rates were closely comparable to elimination rates for aspiring US pilots, although contemporaries apparently considered the initial elimination rates to be high. Although French students brought language challenges and required the introduction of translators, Free French policies for selecting personnel for training compensated for this challenge by sending particularly eager and diligent students to the United States for pilot training.

Kane makes special use of the historical records in the Air Force Historical Research Agency located at Maxwell AFB, as well as area newspapers, to provide a picture of the formal training and also conditions for the trainees and relations between them and the local population. The author finds that cultural differences, both for the British and the French trainees, did arise but they generally represented more in the way of novelty than difficulty. The book momentarily observes that French cadets “could not understand why Americans like American jazz, given the dislike of some Americans for blacks (p. 74)” There is no other reference to race relations or the foreign trainees’ impressions of the issue anywhere else in the book, although it is difficult to imagine that the foreign trainees did not take note of contemporary segregation policies.

The author acknowledges that trainees came to the United States from more than two dozen other countries in addition to heralding from Britain and France. Kane explains that he chose to focus his study on British and French training, however, because the 12,300 and 4,100 of these respective nationals constituted three-quarters of all the foreign aircrews trained in the United States. The training effort for British pilots provided “a bridge between the start-up of the flight training” method of the larger British Commonwealth Air Training Program (p. 79) and the more modest number of French pilots trained nonetheless represented “undoubtedly ‘a substantial fraction of the existing French Air Force’ ” by the close of the war (p. 76). While interested readers will be disappointed that more information is not provided about the other foreign nationals, including 2,000 Chinese and 1,500 from various Latin American countries who were granted wartime training in the United States, Kane offers a brief section at the end of the book that describes more modern professional military education for foreign pilots, and the book is supported by nine helpful appendices.

In conclusion, in its study of British and French experiences in the Maxwell AFB area, So Far from Home sheds some important light on the topic of foreign pilot training in World War II. As such, it deals with the history of Lend–Lease in a way that is too seldom done, and it touches on interesting and important issues related to the maintenance of international coalitions through avenues such as training and professional military education.

 Nicholas M. Sambaluk, PhD
Air Command and Staff College eSchool

"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."