Monthly Archives: January 2013


By Alex Kershaw

Over many years I have spoken to audiences at universities, veterans’ associations and at myriad events to commemorate the sacrifice of young Americans in WWII, the greatest conflict in history with a final butcher’s bill of over fifty million lives. Among students in particular, I have found a great desire to learn about the unknown men and women who earned victory in WWII, not the strategy, not the games of the generals, not the weapons that enabled mass industrial slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Thankfully, because of the nature of my work, I have been able to share with many students as well as readers the often deeply moving and inspiring stories of a generation that bought America more goodwill around the globe than any other and which is now passing away at a tragically accelerated rate.

At one college recently, I was asked why 135,576 Americans died to liberate Europe. Was their death absolutely necessary? Why did young Americans have to lay down their lives in such huge numbers just a generation after the last bloodbath in Europe?

The answer to this question lies at the heart of The Liberator, my new book, which follows the fortunes of a maverick infantry officer, Felix Sparks, who fought throughout the time it took to liberate Europe, from the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 to the war’s end in May 1945. No American endured more heartbreak and violence for longer to free more people from the greatest evil of modern times. On 29 April 1945, after five hundred days of combat, he commanded the American unit which seized Hitler’s first and most notorious concentration camp, Dachau, liberating over 32,000 people from over forty nationalities amid scenes, he recalled, “that robbed the mind of human reason.” After one of the longest and most dramatic marches to victory in WWII, he understood and saw why the sacrifice of so many of his men – his regiment alone had suffered 20,251 casualties – had been necessary.

Before too long, there will be no living eyewitnesses to the liberation of Hitler’s camps, no more old men who remember the day they landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, no widows who recall the true cost of the war in Europe that killed more people more quickly than at any time in history – more than nineteen million civilians alone. America’s greatest achievement – the defeat of Nazi Europe – will no longer be an experience to be recounted by people who were actually there.

As with my other books, The Liberator tries to capture the voices and emotions of ordinary people in the crosshairs of history, at the epicenter of a conflict in which the future of mankind itself was a stake. Based on interviews with dozens of living eyewitnesses, it reveals the full horror and debasement of war, how it corrupts even the noblest of spirits. Only by understanding the true nature of the trauma involved in defeating Nazism – the so-called “good war” – can we begin to appreciate the magnitude of what Felix Sparks and his fellow liberators achieved. He and his kind defeated immense barbarism – a victory whose significance will still be understood, hopefully through books like mine, when the last of their generation have passed away.





1928. Billy Fiske becomes the youngest ever winner of a Winter Olympics gold medal for the bobsled, aged sixteen.

1932. At the Lake Placid Winter Games, Fiske carries the Stars and Stripes for the Americans at the opening ceremonies, presided over by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York. Fiske wins his second gold medal for the USA.

January 1936. Fiske refuses to attend the Winter Olympics, having vowed never to perform in front of Adolf Hitler.

1 September 1939. Fiske crosses the Atlantic aboard the Aquitania as the Nazis invade Poland. WWII begins.

18 September 1940. Fiske illegally joins the RAF, becoming the first American pilot to do so.

10 May 1940. Winston Churchill becomes British Prime Minister. All of Europe, except France, is now under Nazi subjugation.

30 May 1940. Three American flyers – Eugene Tobin, Andy Mamedoff and Vernon “Shorty” Keough – arrive in France, having crossed the Atlantic, intent on flying with the French Air Force.

23 June 1940. Tobin, Mamedoff and Keough escape France on the last boat to leave the country before the Armistice with Hitler is signed. Only Britain remains defiant, all alone in the fight against Hitler.

7 July 1940. Minnesotan pilot Art Donahue arrives in Liverpool. An experienced barnstormer, within 48 hours he has sworn allegiance to King George VI and been fitted with a dark blue uniform.

9 July 1940. Tobin, Mammedoff and Keough join 609 Squadron at RAF Middle Wallop. The squadron quickly accepts the American trio as “honorary Brits”. To the young British pilots, the lanky and wisecracking “Red” Tobin looks and speaks like a cowboy in a Hollywood movie. Four foot ten inch Keough earns plenty of laughs as he runs to his Spitfire on practice scrambles, a cushion under each arm – he needed to sit on two to be able to see out of the plane’s cockpit.

10 July 1940. The Luftwaffe begins a daylight bombing campaign against Britain. The Battle of Britain has officially begun.

11 July 1940. Billy Fiske is asked to return to the US on a propaganda tour to drum up support for the British. He refuses, arguing that he must see combat before he has any credibility.

13 July 1940. Billy Fiske is posted to No 601 (County of London) Auxiliary Air Force Squadron at Tangmere on England’s south coast. There is some apprehension in 601 about “the untried American adventurer” according to the squadron’s official record book.

21 July 1940. Fiske sees combat for the first time and manages to damage a Heinkel bomber.

5 August 1940. Minnesotan Art Donahue, 27, is almost killed in his first dogfight – just six weeks after leaving his family’s farm in St. Charles, Minnesota.

8 August 1940. Donahue makes his first kill – a Messerschmitt Me 109.

12 August 1940. Donahue is shot up in a dogfight and forced to bail out, suffering burns to his hands and face.

13 August 1940. The Luftwaffe launches its first mass attack, codenamed Eagle Day. Above the English Channel, Billy Fiske destroys a German bandit’s underbelly but is unable to claim the kill because he does not see the German hit the “deck” or burst into flames.

16 August 1940. Fiske’s base at Tangmere is singled out for attack. Fiske and his fellow 601 pilots chase the Germans out to sea and down several bandits. Fiske’s plane is hit. He manages to land but is badly burnt.

17 August 1940. 29-year-old Fiske dies from his wounds, becoming the first American pilot to be killed during the Battle of Britain.

18 August 1940. The Germans attempt to finish off the RAF, launching the greatest air attack in history. 609 Squadron’s Mamedoff, Tobin and Keough are in the thick of the action. All three engage the enemy but none are able to claim a kill, much to their frustration.

20 August 1940. Six members of Tangmere’s ground staff carry Billy Fiske to his final resting place. His coffin, covered in the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, is borne on a bier to Boxgrove Priory Church. Churchill sends flowers and a note of condolence. Up above, Fiske’s fellow American pilots fend off yet more Stuka attacks as the Battle of Britain rages on. Eugene Tobin attacks Me 110 fighters escorting Junkers 88 bombers and badly damages two of them.

21 August 1940. Cannon shells and machine gun bullets from a German fighter smash the tail wheel of Andy Mamedoff’s Spitfire and pierce his plane’s armor plating and seat. Mamedoff manages to land safely, miraculously uninjured except for heavy bruising on his back.

7 September 1940. The Germans attack London en masse for the first time. The Blitz begins. Thankfully, the Luftwaffe’s shift of attack from airdromes and radar stations to London means the RAF is saved from destruction. In ordering his air force to strike at a civilian target, Hitler has made his first great strategic mistake of the war.

15 September 1940. The Germans send more than a thousand planes across the Channel, again headed for London, aiming to terrorize the British into submission and to finally deal RAF’s Fighter Command the knockout blow. The battle’s climax has arrived. The American few play their part in the most crucial day of air combat in history. Tobin shoots down a Dornier bomber. Mamedoff and Vernon Keough also fight with enormous courage and stamina, claiming kills of their own.

16 September 1940. Losses from the previous day’s battles are so great that the Luftwaffe ceases mass attacks on London.

17 September 1940. Grand Admiral Raeder records in the official German War Diary: ‘The enemy air force is by no means defeated. On the contrary, it shows increasing activity…. The Führer therefore decides to postpone Operation Sea Lion indefinitely.’ The planned invasion of Britain is in fact cancelled. The Battle of Britain is won.

19 September 1940. Tobin, Mamedoff and Keough become the first Americans to join the new 71 ‘Eagle’ Squadron, the first all-American unit in the RAF’s history.

15 February 1941. Vernon ‘Shorty’ Keough fails to return from a scramble. After several hours, a coast guard unit finds a pair of size five flying boots floating amid wreckage in the Channel. ‘Nobody but little Shorty could wear such small boots,’ reports 71 Squadron’s Operations Record Book. ‘There can be little doubt that Shorty’s plane dived into the sea at great speed and that he was killed instantly.’

March 1941. Art Donahue returns to the US and enjoys a brief vacation. He is disgusted that he cannot wear his RAF uniform because of strict Neutrality Laws.

August 1941. Andy Mamedoff becomes the first of the American ‘few’ to take a war bride: Penny Craven, a member of the hugely wealthy Craven cigarette family.

7 September 1941. Eugene Tobin is killed on a sweep over France.

8 October 1941. Andy Mamedoff loses his way in thick fog and crashes, dying instantly.

7 December 1941. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. America joins WWII.

29 January 1942. Art Donahue arrives with 258 Squadron in Singapore, which is under attack from the Japanese.

16 February 1942. Donahue is severely wounded while attacking Japanese invasion barges but manages to land his plane with one hand – his other is curled into a first and stuffed into a hole in his calf caused by enemy flack.

August 1942. Donahue has recuperated sufficiently to become 91 Squadron’s commanding officer – the first and only American in the RAF’s history to lead an all-British Squadron.

29 August 1942. Donahue is shot down and killed on a dawn patrol over France.

September 1942. The Eagle Squadrons are folded into the US Army Air Force, becoming the 4th Fighter Group. The group will eventually destroy more than 1,000 enemy aircraft.

8 May 1945. WWII in Europe ends.

4 July 2012. Fresh flowers are placed on the grave of Billy Fiske, the first American to die in the Battle of Britain. ‘The King of Speed’ lies between two British soldiers, a Sapper in the Royal Engineers and a Corporal in the East Lancashire Regiment. On his headstone the following words are inscribed for all to see:

An American Who Died That England Might Live.

On 16 August 1940 Billy Fiske, 601 Squadron pilot, although badly burnt, manages to land his damaged Hurricane. He died of burns the next day, becoming the first American pilot to die in the Battle of Britain.


Unable to display Facebook posts.
Show error

Error: Error validating application. Application has been deleted.
Type: OAuthException
Code: 190
Please refer to our Error Message Reference.