Beer, Brotherhood and The Battle of Britain
The English pub where America and Britain’s wartime history lives
The United States and the United Kingdom have a unique relationship among nations. Few nations have experienced a closer partnership , or one as ironic, as the U.S. arose from a bitter rebellion and renunciation of British power.
But a shared history and culture, and the experience of the world wars—in which American and British troops often lived and worked together—helped overcome this divide. It’s also appropriate that few other places exemplify this relationship other than a pub, where Yanks and Brits can bond over their shared appreciation of getting shitfaced.
The Eagle Pub, seen above on a busy night, combines both the drinking and that peculiar relationship.
So consider this our first (and perhaps only) bar review. It’s also a piece of living history from one of the lesser-known aspects of the Anglo-American role in World War II—the American volunteers who would leave their country to enlist in the Royal Air Force.
Britain’s American legion
On Sept. 1, 1939, the forces of Nazi Germany began a war of conquest against Poland. Britain and France—Poland’s allies—were at war. But America stayed neutral.
This neutrality would prove unsustainable, of course. Nor could official neutrality in Washington prevent Americans from making their way to the battlefields on their own. Thousands of U.S. citizens would do exactly that.
Many initially went north to Canada and enlisted in the Canadian forces. Some were motivated to defend democratic values under fascist assault, others searched for adventure—or both. Scattered American volunteers were soon engaged on all Allied fronts, usually under Commonwealth command though several served among the French Foreign Legion.
As France capitulated on June 22, 1940, it was widely feared Britain would be next. But Germany first had to overcome the Royal Air Force. One of history’s most spectacular air campaigns was set to begin. By this point, American pilots were traveling directly to Britain. Indeed, there were enough that—under order from Prime Minister Winston Churchill—the RAF formed “Eagle Squadrons” composed entirely of American volunteers.
For Britain, the American volunteers filled a manpower need but also served a propaganda purpose. Namely, it showed the people of Britain that they were not alone in their struggle against the Nazis. It also drew the attention of neutral Americans abroad who would now be rooting for their compatriots.
The first official Eagle Squadron, No. 71 Squadron, was formed in Sept. 19, 1940—one of three created in the war. The Eagles saw action throughout the Battle of Britain and were widely deployed. The only time all three squadrons served together was during the ill-fated raid on Dieppe.
Less publicized were Americans serving with RAF Bomber Command. Though in fact, there were more Americans among British bomber crews than serving as fighter pilots.
The Eagle Pub and RAF Bar
Pubs always come and go, but the Eagle Pub—a popular gathering spot in Cambridge for British and American pilots—is still serving pints today. During the war years, pilots from both nationalities congregated there.
You can still see signs of war life. The pilots (and their dates) left marks on the ceiling with cigarette lighters and lipstick—graffiti commemorating the names of pilots and formations that had been there. The late James Chainey, an RAF veteran, later researched the numbers and names. Today, his list hangs on the wall.
Its historical significance is not just limited to military history. It’s the spot where English biologist Francis Crick interrupted everyone’s lunch to announce he’d discovered the structure of DNA. The RAF Bar inside the pub actually represents only a small portion in the back.
Cambridge is a bustling college town and a draw for tourists, and as the Eagle is one of the town’s largest pubs, it manages to continually pull a crowd.
Likewise, American and British pilots still drink at the RAF Bar. The tradition of graffiti also persists among younger airmen. Unit insignia, challenge coins and sharpied signatures have begun to cover the walls and the bar. The walls are filled with old photos and newspaper clippings of planes and pilots.
But frankly, the Eagle Pub is more than just a bar—although it is a pretty nice bar. It’s an enduring symbol of Britain’s and America’s shared history, and of the young men and women of both nations that have been lost in the service of their countries. It is simultaneously a welcoming and relaxing place as well as a place for deep reflection.
Proud to serve
By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, 100 members of the Eagle Squadrons had been killed or captured or were missing in action.
When the U.S. Eighth Air Force arrived in Britain, many Americans serving in British units were transferred back to U.S. command, including the three Eagle Squadrons.
Gen. Carl Spaatz, commander of U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe, wanted to disband the squadrons and disperse the pilots. This made sense, as their experience could benefit new formations. The Eagles, however, resisted.
Their experiences had bound them into a tight-knit units, and they wanted to serve out the rest of the war together. They also insisted on retaining RAF flying wings on their uniforms. Though proud to serve under their own flag again, they were equally proud of their service with the British and earned those wings—they would be damned if they’d give them up.
So the Eagle Squadrons were kept together, transferred to U.S. command and re-designated.
American pilots based in Britain would continue to play an important role in the war, and at great cost. Half of U.S. Army Air Forces casualties during World War II were members of the Eighth Air Force. Thousands of pilots and aircraft were lost during operations over continental Europe.
Remember that. But if you love the history of aerial warfare, enjoy a good beer and some acceptable pub grub and ever find yourself in or around Cambridge, stop by the Eagle.