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  • Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing by Bill Simpson

    USS Wasp in British waters in 1942. It is likely that it is in the Firth of Clyde. (c. IWM Image A 9483, Reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Having written in the past about our local squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force here in Edinburgh, 603, I was both intrigued and uncomfortable about allegations made against the young American NCO pilot, ‘Bud’ Walcott, who was posted to the squadron in early 1942. At that time, Malta had been under siege by German and Italian forces based in Sicily since the summer of 1940 and things were grim. The island, in the middle of the Mediterranean was vital to the British campaign in North Africa and they were desperate to stop it falling into Axis hands.

    Axis aircraft based in Sicily 60 miles away were bombing Malta constantly and the British were struggling to keep them at bay with the limited fighter aircraft they could get through. In early 1942, it was decided that Spitfires were needed and 47 pilots (without the ground crews) of two auxiliary squadrons – 603 (City of Edinburgh) and 601 (County of London) Squadrons – with brand new Spitfires were discreetly taken into the western Mediterranean in the American carrier USS Wasp and in the early hours of 20 April 1942, they made a difficult take-off from the deck of the carrier to fly the 400 odd miles to Malta.

    An elevation of one of the Spitfire VCs flown by 603 Squadron to Malta. This one was flown by Bill Douglas. (c. Reproduced with the kind permisson of Richard Caruana, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    But only 46 arrived. Bud Walcott did not and it was immediately assumed that he had chosen to ‘desert’ to the enemy because he was frightened of flying in the Malta battle – said by some to be more intense and dangerous than the Battle of Britain. A signal from the Air Officer Commanding Malta to the Air Ministry in London stated that Walcott had ‘intended to desert’, that he had no intention of going to Malta and had previously landed in the Irish republic in an attempt to be interned and returned to the USA. It was subsequently suggested that having crash landed in ‘neutral’ Vichy French North Africa, he had made his way to the office of an American consul and been repatriated to his home country. It was also suggested that he had been seen in an internment camp but essentially, after taking off from Wasp, he was never seen again.

    Having been made, the allegation has been repeated in several works about the air fighting in Malta including, sadly, one of my own – although I did soften it because of the circumstances that Walcott found himself in. He was an American in a foreign air force, in a squadron in which he was disliked, about to be sent to some of the most vicious air fighting of the Second World War with no operational experience and finding himself in the more comfortable and familiar environment of an American warship.

    603 Squadron pilots on the deck of the USS Wasp, Walcott is in the back row, bareheaded. (c. Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Could he be blamed for having second thoughts?

    I very quickly became concerned at the lack of evidence to justify the allegations made against him and together with a fellow writer and historian, Squadron Leader Bruce Blanche, tried to find out what evidence there was and if possible, establish just what did happen to Walcott. What we discovered was that Walcott’s life was buffeted by national factors out of his control – the Second World War and the Cold War and, intriguingly, that the decisions about what should happen to him when he landed in Dublin may have involved the head of the Irish government Éamonn De Valera and have been influenced by relations between neutral Eire and the United States. I suspect too, that some of the social attitudes within 603 and the auxiliaries who did not take kindly to the lively, almost brash young ‘Yank’ who arrived in the unit contributed.

    Walcott volunteered to fight for the British in the Second World War by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force – an act which could have cost him his US citizenship but he is given little credit for this. He was also involved in a frightening mid-air collision with another 603 Squadron Spitfire in which the other pilot was killed and this seems to have raised strong feelings of dislike for him in the unit. And these became to be expressed in the allegations against him all of which emanated from the squadron.

    603 Bill Douglas preparing his aircraft below deck for launching to Malta on 20 April 1942. Note the crude application of the blue paint particularly noticeable around the serial number. (c.Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    From the research we have carried out, I have been able to draw conclusions as to the quality of the evidence to support the allegations made and have found out just what did happen to Walcott both with regards to Malta and the rest of his life which came to a premature and rather tragic end in the early 1960s.

    I have to give my profound thanks to Squadron Leader Blanche for all of his help and encouragement without which this book would not have been written.

    The auxiliary squadrons were different to the regular RAF units. They drew their members from local areas and before the war, many of them were seen as gentlemens’ flying clubs for the wealthy young officers who joined as pilots and who – it has to be said – fought and died with great courage when war broke out. But many came from a privileged background – the nobility and the landed and professional classes. 601 was known as ‘the millionaires’ squadron’. The ground crews were also drawn from the local areas but tended to remain intact whilst the war progressed and the aircrews were killed, injured or posted on elsewhere to be replaced by non-auxiliary airmen. The essential spirit of the auxiliary squadrons resided with the ground crews who in some cases did not even regard some of the British pilots posted to the squadrons as real members of the squadrons because they were not auxiliaries.

    As an American, Walcott ‘ticked’ the wrong boxes and in my view paid the price.

    Bill Simpson's new book Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing is available for purchase now.

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