Written by Clarence Simonsen
The Clayton Knight Committee
Billy Bishop became Canada’s most famous and controversial war hero. He shot down seventy-five enemy aircraft, the top allied ace of both wars. At some unknown date Bishop befriended fellow pilot American Clayton Knight, who flew with No. 44 and 206 Squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps and later Royal Air Force. After the war Bishop seemed lost, he gave lectures, did stunt flying, and later returned to England where he made a fortune as a salesman of iron pipe. He lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929, returned to Canada and started all over again with a Montreal oil company. In early 1940, Bishop was put in charge of RCAF recruitment, with figurehead title of Air Marshal. He was old beyond his years, drank too much, but attacked his new job with relish, and became an effective propaganda tool. The young men loved him and flocked to recruiting stations after each of his speeches. He helped sell war bonds, conducted endless inspection tours, where occasionally he was found dead drunk in the mess with young pilots. Some historians feel his recruitment effort was his finest hour, including the forming of the new secret Clayton Knight Committee.
Clayton Knight was born in Rochester, New York, on 30 March 1891. During his youth he embarked on a career in oil painting and studied under three famous American artists. His main artistic interest lay in American aviation and World War One would open all the correct doors for his future, including his paintings. On 18 July 1914, the United States Government passed legislation that recognized the new Army aviation as a permanent organization in the Army Signal Corps. It was not until America entered WWI in April 1917, that the U.S. Government fully realized the extent to which their aviation had fallen behind that of the European Air Forces. The U.S. Army Signal Corps Aviation section had 131 officer/pilot’s, 1,087 enlisted men and 250 obsolete aircraft, none of which were suitable for WWI front line combat. To help speed up American training over 2,500 future pilots were sent to England and France for advanced pilot training. [This would spur the creation of American aviation insignia, copied from the French flying machines].
Clayton Knight was one of the original 150 American future pilots sent to England in the summer of 1917. Clayton began his training with No. 44 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, which had been newly formed at Hainault Farm, Essex, on 24 July 1917. They were a Home Defense Squadron that pioneered the use of the Sopwith Camel fighter aircraft for night operations, achieving their first aerial victory on 28/29 January 1918. The Commanding Officer just happened to be a Major A.T. Harris. [who would later become Marshal of the Royal Air Force] and leader of the RAF as Sir Arthur [Bomber] Harris. They became pilot friends and this later proved very positive for Clayton Knight, and hiring Americans to fly in the RAF. In September 1918, American pilot Knight was posted to No. 206 Squadron of the new formed RAF, serving the British Army in the trenches on the Western Front in France. Their main aircraft was the British de Havilland 9, which Clayton was flying four times a day on bombing raids, plus providing reconnaissance and photography of the German Army.
On 5 October 1918, Clayton was attacked, and shot down by Oberleutnant Harald Auffahrt the Commanding Officer of Jasta 9. Auffahrt was a top scoring German ace with 26 confirmed kills, and few enemy pilots escaped death when he attacked.
Clayton was wounded during the combat, but survived his crash landing behind enemy lines. The war ended while Knight was still a prisoner of war in a German hospital. During his recovery he completed many portraits of wounded German airmen. Following a full recovery in a British hospital, Clayton returned to his home in New York and resumed his aviation art career. During the post WWI period many of his paintings featuring dog fights, graced many walls and celebrated aviation books.
The beautiful magazine cover art of pilot Clayton Knight – April 1931, – author collection.
In the fall of 1938, W.A. Bishop and four other Canadian aviators were handpicked to form a new Honorary Air Advisory Committee. The new committee provided the Canadian Government with an independent source to directly advise them on Royal Canadian Air Force matters. With War clouds gathering in Europe, Bishop understood the upcoming need for pilots in the RCAF, and recognized the huge American manpower potential for the RCAF and RAF. He also became primarily concerned with recruiting from this huge talent of American pilots without violating U.S. law on Americans in foreign armed forces.
In March 1939, W.A. Bishop made a visit to the White House, and returned to Canada impressed that the legal barriers were not a problem. What President Roosevelt told Bishop may never be known, however he now began working on his plan and new secret organization. He next contacted a Canadian veteran of WW I, Homer Smith, who flew in the Royal Naval Air Service, and after the war fall heir to an oil fortune. Bishop had made a fortune in U.K. from the oil business, making friends with many such as Homer Smith. With the promise of financial backing he now spoke to friend Clayton Knight who became a valuable asset in American public relations. War was declared by Great Britain on 3 September 39, Bishop had all his plans in order, and the following day Bishop called Clayton Knight at the Cleveland air races. Did he wish to become involved in the scheme to smuggle American pilots to Canada for the RCAF. Knight’s friend, Ohio attorney general Thomas J. White, advised the plan was unquestionably illegal, while Clayton Knight found great enthusiasm for the complete idea. Clayton answered “Yes” and history was made.
On 9 September 39, Canadian defense minister Ian Mackenzie granted Homer Smith a commission as Wing Commander in the RCAF. W/C Smith was now in charge of doing a general survey of American pilots before any official commitments were made. Headquarters became the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where Clayton Knight joined him. Clayton had become a special correspondent for the Associated Press, but this was in fact a cover for the new “Clayton Knight Committee.”
The two men next set out on a tour of major American flying schools. By May 1940, Smith and Knight had a list of over 300 trained American pilots who were eager to come to Canada. The next step was to ask the Canadian and British ambassadors in Washington what the reaction would be to the recruiting of American pilots. The answer again came from the “highest quarter” [President Roosevelt himself] reassured both governments that there would be little difficulty, if all were done discreetly. [As long as U.S. nationals would not forfeit citizenship and would have the right to transfer back to American forces should the U.S. become involved in WW II].
On 24 May 1940, Air Marshall W.A. Bishop became Director of RCAF Recruiting with a direct link to Knight and W/C Smith in New York.
Knight next traveled to Washington for a meet with Major General Hap Arnold, chief of US Army Air Corps. In their meeting Arnold advised Knight to take a good look at all U.S Army Air Corps washouts, which held a considerable talent pool for the RCAF. [Many of these Americans had been stunting, drinking too much, got ladies in trouble, or were too unruly for the Air Corps high standards]. Knight knew these were just the type of pilots he wanted in time of war. Arnold was very helpful and promised to supply Knight with a list of any American failed candidates. [The Washington visits also including a meeting with Admiral J.H. Towers of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics]. I’m positive Knight received the same from the U.S. Navy
In September and October 1940, Canadian authorities advised the Clayton Knight Committee [Bishop and Knight] to use caution until the American elections were over. Wendell Wilkie and Charles Lindbergh had made strong anti-Roosevelt speeches, and Canada did not wish to embarrass the President before the election. The Canadian Government under P.M. Mackenzie King gave serious consideration to disbanding the complete Clayton Knight Committee, but King changed his mind when Deputy Air Minister J. S. Duncan insisted – “these American pilots were crucial to the new British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.”
In the spring of 1940, artist Clayton Knight completed this art painting for the dust-cover of a new book on the RAF Air Striking Force in the early days of World War Two. [Author collection]
In November 1940, [after Roosevelt won the election] the Clayton Knight Committee began to work, based from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. WWI American pilot friends of Clayton Knight were now employed as recruiters in American luxury hotels based at – San Francisco, Atlanta, Spokane, Los Angles, Dallas, San Antonio, Cleveland, Memphis, and Kansas City. Recruiter-interviewers were paid $150 per week, but due to secrecy could only advertise by word-of-mouth. A few simple ads did appear in Air Force newspapers requesting Americans for civilian pilot employment in Canada.
The Canadian Liberal Government sent the expense money to the RCAF [Ian Mackenzie] who passed it on to a bank account opened in the name of Homer Smith. Still a little concerned about American views, the Canadian Government formed a crown corporation called “The Dominion Aeronautical Association”, with Homer Smith as chief executive officer, Clayton Knight as director of publicity, and Stuart Armour managing director. American volunteers were now passed on to the new-formed D.A.A., which was a civilian agency, and it appeared Clayton Knight was not breaking any American laws. The amazing part is the fact the D.A.A. offices were located right next door to RCAF H.Q. in Ottawa. This was not advertised and Clayton Knight made sure American press emphasized the new D.A.A. was after civilian pilots, and it worked.
In June 1941, President Roosevelt spoke to Americans and advised the Neutrality Act did not prevent US nationals from going to Canada to enlist in the RCAF. Stuart Armour now left for Washington where he was advised the president’s announcements had not changed any American law. The Roosevelt administration then advised Armour no legal action would be taken against Clayton Knight or the committee. The Canadian Government got the go ahead and again the official name changed to “Canadian Aviation Bureau”.
The new C.A.B. committee now began to recruit not only American pilots but also all other aircrew for the RCAF. By November, 3009 American volunteers had been recruited for the RCAF with 248 failures returning back to U.S.
On 7 December 1941, American aircrew serving in the RCAF totaled 6,129. All of these Americans were given the opportunity to return to the US, and over 2,000 requested transfer. The American government formed a special train which left Washington D.C. stopping at every RCAF training base, in total 1,759 boarded this train. In total 5,067 Americans completed their service in the RCAF, while others continued to join. From 1939-45 a total of 8,864 Americans served in the RCAF, and 704 were killed in training or combat.
In the RCAF honor roll, all 48 states contributed to Americans killed in action while serving in the RCAF. New York State leads with 128 killed, Michigan – 59, California – 54, and Texas – 37, and so on. Most of the Clayton Knight recruited Americans served in No. 6 Group, RCAF, of RAF Bomber Command, and 445 were killed in British and Canadian built bombers.
Halifax – 175 killed in action
Wellington – 140 killed in action
Lancaster – 130 killed in action.
The Canadian Clayton Knight Committee operation closed in February 1942. In addition to the Canadian RCAF operation, the Clayton Knight Committee also recruited over 300 American pilots for the RAF, and the British continued to make use of Clayton Knight until May 1942.
While American history and Hollywood movies [Pearl Harbor] continue to show only the Flying Tigers and Eagle Squadrons as American heroes, the 5,067 Americans in the RCAF are forgotten.
In September 1940, No. 71 Eagle Squadron was formed with a few Americans who made their way to England, but the fact is the Clayton Knight Committee recruited 92% of the American pilots in the three Eagle Squadrons of the RAF. In 1940, the Clayton Knight Committee also recruited 44 American pilots for the RAF Ferry Command. While this number appears small, it had a very important impact on the early number of American aircraft that flew to England.
No. 126 RAF squadron was made up of Canadians and Americans serving in Malta, again recruited by Clayton. They arrived at Ta Kali, Malta on 28 June 1941 flying Hurricane Mk. IIA aircraft.
This led to a new publication in June 1943, “Malta Spitfire” by RCAF F/O George F. Beurling, DSO, DFC, DFM and Bar and Leslie Roberts. The forward in this book is by Air Marshal W.A. Bishop, V.C. and fully illustrated by Clayton Knight.
This amazing history on F/O George “Buzz” Beurling contains 16 drawings by Clayton Knight plus the dust and both inside covers. The book ends with the fifth crash Beurling will survive, and the drawing by Knight.
On 31 October 1942, a Liberator from No 511 Squadron was returning forty passengers from Malta to England. The two B-24 pilots were both Canadians, while 33 of the passengers were Malta fighter pilots who had completed a full tour. As the aircraft approached Gibraltar it was hugging the coast line due to a raging thunderstorm, then suddenly RCAF pilot Henry Davey missed the main runway attempting to land. Davey opened up all four engines of the Liberator and began to climb away from the runway. Buzz Beurling was seated next to the emergency door and sensed the aircraft was in trouble. As soon as the aircraft stalled, [40 feet] Buzz yanked the escape door and jumped into the sea. This was Buzz Beurling’s fifth aircraft crash where he survived, only two others made it out of the escape door, RAF crew member F/L A. H. Donaldson and one civilian.
Two of the civilian passengers were ladies with babies and they drown. Two Canadian Aces, F/O E. H. Glazebrook, DFC, and P/O J. W. Williams, DFC, from No. 126 R.A.F. Fighter squadron were killed.
When Buzz Beurling explained the crash events, Clayton Knight completed a sketch of this action, which was completed in Ottawa, Canada.
In 1943, Clayton Knight became an official historian and war artist for the U.S. Air Force in Alaska, Aleutian campaign and Central Pacific. Today some of his original art, personal papers, correspondence, and reports are held by the Air Force University Library and Historical Branch.
Author collection from LIFE magazine
Author collection from LIFE magazine
Clayton Knight continued to write books and paint until the mid-1960s.
I am lucky to have purchased a signed copy of his 1958 book “Plane Crash” from the people who purchased his original home in New York.
On 10 July 1946, Clayton Knight was awarded the Order of the British Empire [OBE] for conspicuous service to England during WWI and WWII. The award was presented to him on board the Queen Mary ocean liner, docked in New York harbor, as this award must be presented on British land.
Clayton Knight died on 17 July 1969.
Now, Hollywood, this a real American WWI and WWII hero, and all you have to do is tell the facts and win your “Oscar “