A Minnesotan farm boy in the Battle of Britain
The heroic life of Art Donahue
Today - 15 September - is the day we remember the Battle of Britain in 1940. Not everyone flying in the skies above Britain during that long hot summer were British or empire pilots. Eleven Americans managed to find their way into the ranks of ‘the few’, including one of my personal heroes, Pilot Officer (later Flight Lieutenant) Art Donahue.
Donahue was awarded the DFC on 27 March 1942. He was killed in action over the Channel on 11 September 1942.
This is a piece I wrote on him for my book Under A Darkening Sky.
Art “Donny” Donahue couldn’t quite believe it when he clambered into his green-brown Spitfire on the grass strip at RAF Kenley in Surrey on the morning of August 5, 1940. Only five weeks earlier he had been cultivating corn on his father’s farm in faraway St. Charles, Minnesota. Now he was about to go into combat against the waves of black-crossed bombers flying across England’s clear summer skies, trying to attack the RAF’s airfields. It was all very surreal. An experienced pilot, Donahue had taken easily to the superb Southampton-built fighter, even though the fastest plane he had flown back home had ambled along at 110 miles per hour. The Spitfire—on which he had just finished his meagre eighteen days of advanced fighter training—made nearly four hundred miles per hour when on its full twelve hundred horsepower supercharge. He was excited. He had never seen France before and was eager to catch his first view of what was now enemy-occupied country. But he still couldn’t imagine that all this was serious, and not something from a dream or Marvel comic. He was going to war.
He had made his way to Canada and thence to Britain, “drawn into the struggle like a moth to a candle,” as he described it—a devout Roman Catholic driven by a deep anger against the “hate-crazed, power-maddened little man in Berlin who wanted to take the place of God.” Those Nazis and their black-crossed machines, which had been so much a part of his youthful imaginings plucked from the pages of the Winona Daily News and Minneapolis Journal, would now be swooping and swirling the skies around him, trying to kill him, just as he was trying to do to them. It was something he found hard to comprehend, but he didn’t dwell on it too long. “Stick together!” his squadron leader instructed as the twelve raw pilots left to climb into their waiting aircraft. “Fly wide enough apart from your leader so that you won’t be in danger of colliding with him, but don’t lag behind if you can help it. If you see a Hun, don’t go after him until I give you the OK. And if we sight a bunch of them, stay in formation until I call out the battle cry ‘Tally-Ho!’”
The twelve sleek, round-winged beauties roared into the air behind the deep drone of their twelve-cylinder, 1050-horsepower Rolls-Royce engines, with orders to head southeast to patrol above Dover at a height of ten thousand feet. Not waiting to line up to take off, or bothering to calculate the direction or speed of the wind, the planes simply pointed down the grass strip and took off “like a stampeding herd of buffalo.” Better a bad take-off than a late one. Every second counted when they were hastening to repel the invader. Donahue could never quite believe the power of that amazing engine as it pulled him skywards at a speed he could only dream of a month or two before. Sitting embedded in the wings aside him were eight belt-fed Browning 0.303-inch machine guns, fired in pulsating unison and to devastating effect at the push of the red firing button atop the control column between the pilot’s legs. The radio crackled in his ear. The squadron’s radio call sign was “Tiger.” He heard the instructions from the calm, clipped tones of his squadron leader, something that gave him deep confidence in the Englishman, and turned his aircraft in unison with the remainder of the squadron. The fighter controllers back at RAF Kenley were guided by the new top-secret radar. Did the instructions to rendezvous above the major port of Dover mean that the enemy was in the vicinity? Perhaps the controller was making sure that patches of sky across the whole of southern England had protective clumps of fighters above them just in case, and that their move to Dover was merely precautionary, rather than based on specific intelligence. Whatever, he was enjoying his first operational sortie with his squadron. The sky was beautiful and clear, with scattered clumps of woolly clouds decorating the heavens far above. Would he see the enemy close up on this, his first operational sortie? He was soon to find out, as a few moments later the controller’s voice came over the radio: “There are bandits approaching from the north!”
“My pulses pounded, and my thoughts raced,” Donahue recalled. “This was it!” The squadron leader then called out, “All Tiger aircraft, full throttle! Full throttle!” Pushing in his emergency throttle, Donahue felt the Spitfire surge ahead. He had never used all the horsepower in his engine before, and the effect was exhilarating. As he powered steeply upward, Donahue pulled the guard from his firing button. He was about to go into combat; kill or be killed. War was no longer a product of his imaginings but hard, cold reality. He turned the safety ring on the firing button from Safe to Fire and switched on the electric gun sight, which was instantly projected onto his windscreen. Where he turned the aircraft, the sight—and the eight Browning machine guns—would follow.
Upwards they pelted, at speeds that continued to amaze him, before the twelve aircraft levelled out at fifteen thousand feet. The controller on the ground was receiving information from the radar stations that ran along England’s southern coast, and he ordered them to turn in direction “130 degrees”—southeast—and climb a further five thousand feet, taking them out over the English Channel. Rising to twenty thousand feet provided Donahue with his first panoramic view of southern England and northern France, the eager though nervous flock of Spitfires keeping anxious lookout on every side for the intruders they were being guided to intercept. At this height they were all forced to turn on their oxygen, without which it was impossible to operate. At the back of the squadron, the rear guards wheeled left and right, sweeping the skies for attack from above or behind.
The controllers passed information only when it was available. Otherwise the radio was silent. There was no need to give away their presence. Personal discipline was critical to their safety, though once contact with the enemy had been made, the proscription on talking was lifted. Half an hour went by as the squadron wheeled and watched from its great height for the tell-tale black spots indicating an incoming enemy.
Then, with no warning, battle was upon them. A sudden bright flash far in his rear vision mirror alerted Donahue to something amiss behind him. He couldn’t fathom what it was, and kept up his frenetic searching of the skies around. Staring down to his right, Donahue saw a light blue plane making its way far below towards France. Was it one of theirs? Before he could alert the squadron leader, a flock of enemy was spotted below and to Donahue’s left. Without a moment’s hesitation the squadron leader called out the RAF’s battle cry: “Ta-al-ly-ho-o!” Once the command was given, every pilot was on his own, responsible for finding and attacking his own targets.
To a man the eager pilots swung steeply to the left, aiming themselves in near-vertical dives towards the black dots approaching the English coast far below. “There weren’t very many of them,” he recalled, “and the entire squadron was breaking formation and wheeling toward them like a bunch of wild Indians.” From the staggering speed he’d attained while climbing into the skies, Donahue now shocked himself with the speed at which he was hurtling towards the ground. In vertical dives the Spitfire would reach speeds of nearly seven hundred miles per hour. The wind shrieked against his windshield, drowning out the deep bellow of the Rolls-Royce engine. The airspeed indicator needle swung rapidly clockwise. He felt the Spitfire aircraft stiffen—at great speeds the controls lost their responsiveness and it took longer than usual for the aircraft to respond to the pilot’s instructions. Considerable care was required for a pilot to bring his aircraft out of violent dives, because sudden moves could induce blackouts.
As he levelled out, Donahue kept his eyes focused on his chosen target, noticing that as he reached his enemy’s level he had gained on him fast. Heart thumping in his chest, he was nevertheless able to keep his rapidly ongoing enemy in his sights, thumb over the firing button while he occasionally glanced in his rear view mirror to make sure that he was not himself being “bounced.”
The other machine grew steadily larger in the circle of my gunsight as I drew closer. I could tell its distance by the amount of space it covered in the sight: six hundred yards, five hundred, four hundred—my speed was dying down a little, and I wasn’t gaining quite as fast. He apparently was going wide open too.
Now I was only three hundred yards behind—close enough to open fire, but something made me hesitate. From directly behind, where I was now, it was hard to identify its type. Suppose it was a British machine after all?
To make sure I eased my machine upward just a little so I could look down on the other and see the upper side of it. The old feeling that airplanes with black crosses and swastikas on their wings and sides couldn’t exist in reality still had hold of me; but it was banished forever by what I now saw.
For I could see that the other machine’s wings were not curved, with nicely rounded tips, like a Spitfire’s; and it was not camouflaged green and tan; and there were no red and blue circles near the tips. Instead, the wings were narrow, stiff-looking, with blunt, square-cut tips. They were pale blue-grey in colour, and near each tip, very vivid, was painted a simple black “plus” sign!
It was a Messerschmitt Me109. Donahue dropped back into firing position behind it. When his gun sights settled on the centre of the enemy aircraft, he squeezed the firing button with his thumb, holding it down for a full second, pouring about one hundred and sixty bullets into his target. The extraordinary sound of the eight Brownings firing came through his helmet, and he felt his aircraft judder and slow from the recoil. In firing, Donahue became the first American to engage enemy aircraft in combat in the Second World War.
But his enemy had disappeared, and it took what seemed an age for Donahue to spot him, far below. There was no way of knowing if he’d scored any strikes, but his failure to follow through as the Me109 had turned had lost him precious time. Cursing himself, he flipped the Spitfire into a violent, diving turn and gave chase. Every ounce of his concentration was now focused on destroying his enemy, but in the intensity he forgot about the battle raging around him. This was a duel, one-on-one combat to the death. Gaining ground, he finally caught up with his prey just above Cape Gris Nez on the French coast, at which point the German turned to confront him. But however much the Luftwaffe pilot tried, he could not succeed in shaking Donahue from his tail as the distance between them closed rapidly. With his thumb sitting on the firing button, Donahue knew that he was successfully outmanoeuvring his foe, now almost in the circle of his yellow electric gun sight.
Suddenly Donahue heard a loud bang and felt the Spitfire shudder. He had been hit—an enemy aircraft had bounced him while he’d concentrated on his own kill. In his desperation to destroy his own target, he’d forgotten the most elementary principles of air combat and had neglected his rear. He immediately guessed that the noise had been an exploding cannon shell fired from the nose of another Me109. Pulling with all his strength, he moved into a fast, tight turn. Attempting to stop himself from blacking out, Donahue saw his attacker sweep past him before climbing steeply to renew the attack. The sinister black crosses seemed to dance on his enemy’s wings as he appeared spread-eagled in a vertical turn. Seeing it from this angle, Donahue remembered thinking that the Messerschmitt’s square-cut wingtips seemed crude, but from that point on his memory of the combat between himself and the two Luftwaffe adversaries was hazy. It was a wild melee, a classic dogfight in which the three aircraft climbed, dived, rolled, wheeled, and pirouetted in vertical turns to get the enemy in their gun sights. He was conscious throughout of being a novice at this dangerous game. “One moment I would be manoeuvring for my life to get away from one who was almost on my tail, and in the next moment I would have one of them in the same kind of spot and would be trying just as desperately to hold him long enough to get a shot.” Fighting for his life, Donahue forgot the wider battle swirling around them. What seemed to be an age probably took only a few minutes. Suddenly finding himself on the tail of one of the Me109s, he looked to place the enemy in his gun sight but was horrified to discover that nothing could get the crosshairs onto his windscreen. The German threw his plane violently to shake the Spitfire from his tail. Donahue was then shocked by four long, vibrating, snaky white fingers reaching across his right wing and stretching far ahead. He was being fired on by the second German. He turned his aircraft violently to escape, frustrated that his first kill had been denied because his equipment no longer worked.
The manoeuvre managed to shake off his attacker, but Donahue didn’t want to let on that he had a problem, so the melee continued. He was now aware that he was sweating profusely, and was terribly tired. The sun burned into the cockpit, and his clothes seemed heavy, his parachute straps and seat belt holding him in and limiting his ability to twist and turn in his seat to see what was going on around him. He started taking risks, accepting the blackouts that came on him rapidly as he turned tighter and faster than he had ever done before, trying to gain split-second advantages over his enemy. He now wanted to flee, but he couldn’t do so without accepting that he would immediately have two Me109s on his tail. He had to stay and fight, and wear one or both down in this fast, furious game. During one manoeuvre, he saw a long strip of white in the distance, and realized they must be the famous white cliffs of Dover. He grabbed his chance as one of the enemy aircraft hurtled away from him to turn out to sea and race for home. “It was an ignominious way to end a fight which had begun with such promise, but I thought it was the wisest,” Donahue recalled. “My enemies took after me, but when they drew close I turned around as if to go after them and they turned back. They were apparently willing to call it a draw, and I didn’t feel quite so badly after that.”
As he began the approach to land at RAF Kenley, he realized that his aircraft trimming controls were not responding. When he was safely on the ground he saw why: a cannon shell had blown a large hole in one side of the fuselage just behind the cockpit. A fraction of a second either way would have seen the end of his life. The control cables had been broken, the main elevator and rudder cables were hanging by a thread, and the battery connection had been destroyed—which explained the sudden loss of his gun sight. It was incredible that the Spitfire had managed to sustain such battle performance after the first strike. It felt strange to be walking on firm earth when only a few moments before, he’d been hurtling haphazardly through the sky pursued by enemies determined to destroy him. Donahue felt a wave of exhaustion come over him and he lay on the grass, utterly bereft of energy. It was a feeling that he came to recognize as a classic physiological response to the extreme mental, emotional, and physical energy fighter pilots expended as they fought for their lives in those bright blue, late-summer skies above the southern coast of England in 1940.
Over a period of seven days Donahue would fly a total of eight missions. He scored a “probable” destruction of an Me109 on his second sortie, and was in turn hit and damaged on his seventh. The life expectancy of pilots was very low during the Battle of Britain, a mere four weeks. During his second sortie he lost a friend, Peter, with whom he had completed advanced fighter training. Peter survived the destruction of his aircraft, but died in hospital from savage burns two days later. Of the 2,927 RAF pilots who fought during this period (a figure that included 574 non-British fliers, including Donahue), 19 percent were killed in action. A further 791 were killed later in the war. A pilot flying in 1940 only had about a 50 percent chance of surviving the six long years of war.
The joy of flying a Spitfire Mark 1 in the clear, summer skies sometimes allowed Donahue to forget the war. Flying on Thursday, August 8, to an advanced grass landing strip close to the Channel was:
[u]nforgettably beautiful… it was just getting light when we took off, and the countryside was dim below us. Wicked blue flames flared back from the exhausts of all the engines as I looked at the planes in formation about me. We seemed to hover motionless except for the slight upward or downward drift of one machine or another in relation to the rest, which seemed to lend a sort of pulsating life to the whole formation; and the dark carpet of the earth below steadily slid backward beneath us. The sun, just rising and very red and big and beautiful, made weird lights over the tops of our camouflaged wings…
It was never long before the pilots met the brutal reality of war. At 11:00 A.M. on August 6, the telephone rang in the operations room of the forward base. Heavy German activity had been spotted around the Pas de Calais, and moments later came the call to scramble: “Squadron into your aircraft, and patrol base at ten thousand feet!” The twelve pilots raced to their aircraft, where ground crew helped them into parachutes before they clambered into the cockpits. After strapping themselves in, they pressed their starter buttons and listened to the huge roar of the Rolls-Royce engines as they burst into life. The pilots took a quick look around to make sure they were clear of each other, and the planes ambled forward, slowly gathering speed as they began to take off in groups of three or four. It was a mad race to get into the air and climb as fast as possible to rendezvous at ten thousand feet. On this occasion, it proved to be a rush to wait.
The squadron loitered above Dover for an hour or more with no sign of the expected enemy. Half of the squadron returned to refuel. A gradual lethargy was allowed to encroach on the remaining flight of six as they waited their turn to circle down to refuel. Then, suddenly, the earphones in Donahue’s radio came alive and a voice shouted, “Bandits astern!” From the skies above and behind them a mass of grey Messerschmitts screamed down from the sun, taking them by surprise. Only by violent, evading turns were they saved from the hurtling swarm, frantically wheeling to escape the deluge of bullets and cannon fire, before coming back—chastened—to engage the enemy, one on one, and to recover their position. In an instant the sky had filled with enemy aircraft, a group of about thirty, Donahue estimated. Their role was evidently to clear the RAF defensive patrols from the skies across the doorway to southern England so that the waiting bombers would then have unimpeded access to RAF bases and infrastructure (such as radar towers) across Britain. The suddenness of the attack was blood-chilling, but the calm, reassuring voice of the squadron leader immediately repaired their shattered nerves and enabled them to recover their wits. They were heavily outnumbered, but he led them directly into the thick of the swarm.
Completing his first urgent turn, Donahue caught sight of an Me109 directly in front of him and loosed off a burst of fire just ahead of the enemy’s nose. He had no time to see whether his bullets had struck home, as at that instant he saw another Me109 heading directly at him, the aircraft spitting angry white tracer. In his excitement, the enemy was firing too high. This was hardly surprising. Terror and confusion washed together in equal proportions, as individual pilots tried to make sense of what was happening while pushing home their attacks. “We seemed to be milling about like a swarm of great gnats in this giant eerie amphitheatre above the clouds,” Donahue recalled. “Sets of long white tracers crisscrossed the air and hung all about, like Christmas decorations! They stay visible for several seconds after they’re fired.” Then, with no let-up, a third Me109 came careering at him from the side, the cannon firing through the centre of its propeller, the smoke this time blue-tinged. Again, the attack failed. The melee continued for several minutes, Donahue unable to determine whether any of the aircraft he caught fleetingly in his sights and loosed off at with his machine guns had been hit.
Suddenly another German latched onto his tail and fired a burst. Hauling his Spitfire upwards into a vertical turn, Donahue tried desperately to reverse roles and get onto his pursuer’s tail. “We were going fast and I had to lean forward and hold my breath and fight to keep from blacking out, and I turned this way for several seconds. Then I eased my turn so that I could straighten up and look out of my cockpit, and I spotted the other in front of me.” His stratagem worked. The enemy pilot now made an error, and instead of continuing an evasive turn attempted to flee, levelling out in front of Donahue. It was a target too good to miss, and the young American made the most of it, pumping three- or four-second-long bursts into the wildly twisting enemy before the aircraft stopped jerking and Donahue could get in a prolonged three-second burst directly into the body of the Me109. He concluded that the twisting had stopped for a reason, and although he was unable to see this opponent crash, the Me109 was last seen heading to earth at a steep angle, trailing smoke. “The powder smoke from my guns smelled strong, and I felt good,” he recalled, as he turned to head for home, his ammunition exhausted. It took sixteen seconds for a Spitfire to expend its entire load of bullets, and, being no further use in this battle, Donahue hightailed it for the welcoming grass strip at RAF Kenley.
One week after his first sortie, Art Donahue prepared for his eighth combat patrol. Monday, August 12, was to be “a pretty busy day.” The first patrol that afternoon had provided no sight or sound of the enemy, but while refuelling they heard that a firestorm was going to break—a “450-plus” raid was reportedly gathering over the French coast, a phenomenal number of enemy aircraft heading for Britain. There wouldn’t be many more than a squadron of Spitfires—twelve aircraft—to counter them. It was clear that the Luftwaffe were throwing in everything they had in an attempt to break the Royal Air Force and Britain’s will to resist. Back on patrol they immediately encountered and engaged a group of perhaps thirty aircraft. Donahue spotted a group of three fighters among this number who all seemed to be following their tails in an endless spiral, so he turned in to the attack. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of the immense raid above the Channel: “I wasn’t very high, perhaps seven thousand feet, and above me and to the southeast at very high altitude the sky seemed to be filled with fighters. I could see their wings flashing high above, almost everywhere I looked. Farther southeast, not far off the French coast yet, the bombers were coming. I mistook them at first for an enormous black cloud.”
Spotting one of the enemy fighters, Donahue gave chase, failing to see two additional planes concealed by cloud. Closer and closer he edged, with emergency throttle on full to bring him up behind the enemy. Once more he began aligning the sights. The sound of exploding cannon shells striking his aircraft was one with which he was now frighteningly familiar. He had been bounced again from behind! Eardrums hammering, he desperately tried to turn, but his Spitfire was unresponsive, slowly gaining height in a straight line, an easy target for the three enemy fighters who turned the tables on him. He could now smell powder, and smoke from a burning incendiary bullet curled up against his leg. “My heart pounded and my mouth tasted salty, and I wondered if this was the end of the line. This was very bad.” With limited options open to him, he opened his cockpit cover, just in case he had to bail out. He had never practiced doing so, it being one of those things pilots were expected to pick up on the job. He estimated that he was about seven thousand feet above the ground.
The Luftwaffe fighters closed in for the coup de grace, and a salvo of bullets hit him from behind. The noise and confusion in the cockpit was intense. As if in slow motion, Donahue could see bullets smashing his instrument panel, holes peppering the fuel tank in front, smoke trails from tracer bullets going between his legs. Moments from death, Art Donahue later recalled “being surprised that I wasn’t scared anymore. I suppose I was too dazed. There was a finality about the salvo, and it lasted at least two or three seconds. Then there was a kind of silence.”
He saw a light glowing in the bottom of the fuselage and tongues of flame licking out from under the fuel tank. Unlocking the pin securing his seat straps, Donahue hauled himself out of the Spitfire just as the cockpit turned into a blazing furnace. “There was a fraction of a second of searing heat just as I was getting my head and shoulders out, then I was jerked and dragged the rest of the way out with terrible roughness and flung down the side of the fuselage and away all in a fraction of a second by the force of the two-hundred-mile-an-hour wind that caught me. Then I was falling and reaching for my rip cord and pulling it. A moment of suspense, and then a heavy pull that stopped my fall and there I hung, quite safe if not sound.” As he floated serenely under his white silk canopy, the sound of battle disappeared. Looking down, he saw that the fire had burned off one of his trouser legs, and burned skin hung off in folds. He was heavily bruised from escaping the burning Spitfire, but he had no bullet wounds. “Well, Art,” he said to himself, “this is what you asked for. How do you like it?”
The first American to engage the enemy in battle, Art Donahue was now the first to have been shot down. He later discovered that sixty-one enemy aircraft had been destroyed in the battle. The official communiqué went on to state, “Thirteen of our fighters were lost, but the pilot of one of them was saved.”
Art Donahue’s account of the Battle of Britain is Tally-Ho! Yankee in a Spitfire, published in 1941. The 1943 account by Colonel James Childers of the Eagle Squadrons, War Eagles: The Story of The Eagle Squadron, is well worth reading. Alex Kershaw’s 2006 The Few: The American Knights of the Air Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain is excellent, and David Johnson has more recently covered the subject well in his 2015 account, Yanks in the R.A.F: The Story of Maverick Pilots and American Volunteers Who Joined Britain’s Fight in WWII. A rare but early account of American involvement in Britain’s war effort is by Anthony Billingham, America's First Two Years: The Story Of American Volunteers In Britain 1939-1941. A superb account of these early American flyers in the RAF is given by James Goodson in his 1983 account, Tumult in the Clouds.
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