RAF, French pilots trained at Maxwell

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Across the United States on Monday, Americans will host solemn ceremonies to honor millions of men and women who have served in the American armed forces and sacrificed much in defending this country and freedom-loving people across the globe.

In Montgomery, Veterans Day takes on additional meaning. On that day, known as Remembrance Day in Britain and Armistice Day in France, officers of the Royal Air Force and French Air Force, attending courses at Maxwell, hold special memorial services at the graves, located in Oakwood Cemetery, of the 78 RAF and 20 FAF flight cadets who died from training accidents in the southeast United States during World War II.

During that war, the United States Army Air Forces provided flight training, funded by the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941, to more than 21,000 members of 31 Allied countries by late 1945. The largest programs were for RAF and FAF flight cadets - 78 percent of the total.

Because of ongoing German air attacks on Britain, overcast weather and the need to use available airfields for defense, Britain had limited facilities, airfields, instructors and aircraft to conduct flight training for new flight crews for the RAF. Thus, the British government in early 1941 asked the United States to provide facilities to train RAF flight crews.

From June 1941 through February 1943, about 6,000 RAF flight cadets trained at the flight schools of the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, headquartered at Maxwell Field. Another 6,000 RAF flight cadets trained at contracted flight schools across the country.

About one-third of these RAF flight cadets trained at the Gunter Field basic school (phase 2 of the USAAF flight training program). These graduates wenton to an advanced flying school (phase 3) at Maxwell and Turner Field near Albany, Ga. The Maxwell advanced flight school trained more than 400 basic school graduates until it closed in July 1942.

In addition to basic and advanced flight training, 457 RAF graduates of the advanced schools returned to Maxwell Field to complete the Central Instructor's School that trained flight instructors for the SEACTC flight schools. After graduating from the Instructor's School, most of these pilot officers went to flight schools to help relieve the shortage of flight instructors in the early years of the war.

During this 20-month period, the local Montgomery population welcomed the RAF cadets. The cadets participated in military parades in the city and on base. A number of local organizations hosted groups of American and RAF flight cadets at teas and dances, and many local Montgomerians invited the cadets into their homes for dinners. A number of RAF cadets, such as Richard Ian Trotter from Newcastle-on-Tyne, and John Clark from Surrey, married Montgomery women.

By mid-1942, flight schools in various British Commonwealth countries, particularly Canada, were graduating large numbers of Commonwealth aircrew members. As a result, the RAF notified the USAAF that it would terminate its training program at the SEACTC schools with the class graduating on Feb. 28, 1943.

Training the French

As the RAF flight training program was ending in early 1943, the Allies cleared North Africa of German and Italian forces, and the Free French government-in-exile, headed by Gen. Charles De Gaulle, asked the USAAF to train pilots for its young air force. The subsequent training of more than 4,000 members of the FAF from June 1943 through November 1945 constituted the second-largest international flight training program by the USAAF during the war.

The first French flight cadets arrived at Craig Field in Selma, Ala., for in-processing in June 1943. They then went to Van de Graaf Field near Tuscaloosa, Ala., for primary (phase 1) flight training and then to Gunter Field for basic training. After graduating from the Gunter basic school, the French cadets went to advanced schools elsewhere in the Southeast. The USAAF ended the French training program in November 1945.

The most significant problem in training the French was that they spoke little to no English, and the SEACTC (now the Eastern Flying Training Command) had to search the command for French-speaking flight instructors to conduct the French training program and for translators to translate training manuals and aids into French.

Interestingly, the RAF flight cadets had about the same elimination rate, accident rate and graduation rate as the American flight cadets. As a testament to their determination to succeed, given the language issues, the French cadets also had about the same performance rates as the American and RAF cadets.

The flight training of these British and French pilots significantly contributed to the war effort, positively impacted inter-Allied relations during the war and foreshadowed the far more extensive flight training and education programs that the U.S. Air Force would conduct for Allied air forces from 1947 to the present. These training programs have left their mark on Maxwell and Montgomery, as exemplified by the Veterans Day ceremonies at Oakwood Cemetery.