|The Story Behind the Story
Prior to the United States' entry into WWII, more than 10,000 Americans went to Canada to train with the Royal Canadian Air Force. They were trained at a system of bases established before the war under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, or BCATP. Upon completing training, most were shipped across the Atlantic to England to serve in the Royal Air Force. Others, those with more flying experience, were sent directly to England. Many found their way into this program through the Clayton Knight Committee, an organization set up by veterans of the RCAF in WWI, including the American aviation artist, Clayton Knight, and Canadian Ace, Billy Bishop. They were not "recruited", as this was technically illegal while the U.S. was still neutral. They were "offered opportunities" to train and fly, still as civilians. They were not sworn into military service until they crossed into Canada.
This is the story of one of those young men, the fictional protagonist, Patrick Montalto, an Italian-Irish-American from New York. It grew from a discussion the author had one cold winter evening with my stepfather, who during the war served as a crew chief with the 4th Fighter Squadron, 52nd Fighter Group in the MTO - the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. I was telling Joe, my stepdad, that I was reading a book, "Desert Eagles", about American fighter pilots who served in the British Western Desert Air Force, in the battle to stop Erwin Rommel, the famous "Desert Fox", from overrunning Egypt and seizing the Suez Canal. Though I was quite familiar with the Eagle Squadrons, the three RAF fighter squadrons composed of American volunteers, I had not been aware of Americans serving in the Desert War. Between drags on his stubby Camels, which my mother made him smoke outside, Joe said that when he was in Algeria in late 1942, several American pilots transferred into the 52nd from the RAF.
A year or so later, after Joe passed away, I started writing. I was intrigued not only by what Joe had told me about those American pilots coming into the U.S. Army Air Force, but, as a pilot, and a USAF veteran from a later conflict, by what he did. At our entry into the war, we had no fighters in wide service that could match the best German fighters in air-to-air combat. Through a program known as Reverse Lend-Lease, the 52nd, and their sister group, the 31st, were supplied with British aircraft when they arrived in Great Britain. Joe was trained as a mechanic on the superb Supermarine Spitfire. The three RAF Eagle Squadrons kept their Spitfires as well, transferring en masse into the USAAF, becoming the famous 4th Fighter Group. The 52nd and 31st left England after only a few months to support Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. And, unlike the 4th FGp, they kept their Spitfires until mid-1944.
"The Vaulted Sky", which begins the story, is drawn primarily from British sources, including the RAF Historical Section, and John Terraine's excellent history, "A Time for Courage". Success in air war over Egypt's Western Desert, and neighboring Cyrenaica - what is now western Libya - was crucial to the ultimate Allied victory. The small number of Americans, the "Desert Eagles" I had been reading about, played a role, and, through the original Lend-Lease program established by FDR, many found themselves in American planes, particularly the Curtiss P-40, later made famous by the AVG, the American Volunteer Group in China, the "Flying Tigers". The P-40 was rugged, heavily armed, excellent at ground attack, and at low altitudes, a formidable opponent to most Axis aircraft. These planes, while at disadvantage against the best German Fighter, the Me or Bf-109F, were crucial in the ultimate defeat of the Afrika Korps at El Alamein, in November 1942.
"The Sky Suspended", continues Patrick Montalto's story with what Joe had told me, with his transfer into a fictional Army Air Force Spitfire unit. This second volume draws from numerous American source materials, both official and unofficial. In describing air war in the Mediterranean, not only did the author have the excellent resources of the National Museum of the United States Air Force in nearby Dayton, Ohio, but I was able to meet men who had served with my stepfather, including his tent mate, and his squadron and later group CO. I also had the great good fortune to contact Col. Tom Thacker (Ret.), who gave me his unpublished diary recording his service as the Supply Officer, first for the 5th Fighter Squadron of the 52nd Fighter Group, and then for the entire Group.
Based on these superb sources, "The Sky Suspended" tells first about a relatively little-covered part of WWII, the tactical war in the air for control of North Africa, Sicily and the long campaign in Italy. It then follows Patrick Montalto and his comrades through their new mission, as they transition from their nimble Spitfires to the new P-51 Mustang. Judged by most to be the best fighter of WWII, the Mustang was fast, well-armed, maneuverable, and, most importantly, it could escort the bombers all the way to targets in the Reich and Southern and Eastern Europe, and back. These young men, flying from a network of air bases in Southern Italy, play a crucial part in destruction of the German war machine by the strategic 15th Air Force.
I hope you will enjoy reading the books, both as entertaining fiction, and as informative history.