During 1939-1941 more than 9000 American citizens enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After the Japanese attack on Peal
Harbor and USA entry in the war in December 1941, 1759 American members of RCAF re-listed to the armed forces of their homeland. Another 2000 re-listed later and approximately 5000 finished their service in the ranks of RCAF. Around 800 Americans lost
their lives in Canadian service. This is the story of one of them.
John Gillespee Magee Jr.was born on June 9, 1922 in Shanghai.
His father was an Anglican priest from Pittsburgh and his mother,
Faith Emmeline Backhouse came from England. They met in China
where both worked as missionaries and in 1921 they got married.
John was their first child later followed by four younger brothers.
Because of his mother John considered himself an Englishman more
than an American. In 1931 he left China for England with his mother
and other siblings to start his education. During 1935-1939 he studied at Rugby boarding school where he was deeply touched by the
list of students who had perished in WWI. The poet Rupert Brooke
was among them. In 1904 he won a poetry contest at Rugby. Magee
devoted his own poem to his memory and in 1938 also won the
afore mentioned contest. Year 1939 was a breaking point. Magee
visited USA but after the outbreak of the WWII he could not return
to Britain. In July 1940 he was granted a scholarship for Yale. However he was deeply affected by the war in Eurpe so he decided not
to commence his studies. Instead he tried to enlist into the British
Royal Air Force (RAF). Being an American citizen he was rejected
but on October 10, 1940 he managed to enlist into Royal Canadian
Air Force (RCAF). He completed the training on Tiger Moth and Harvard and on June 22, 1941 obtained his „wings“. His superiors evaluated him as a pilot with a potential to grow, good at aerobatics
and good at flying by instruments. On the other hand he „lacked
discipline a was overconfident“. After finishing his training he made
it to a silver screen – he was a member of the group in Canada that
was shooting the flying sequences for the movie „Captians of the
Up in the sky!
Soon he was deployed to Britain where he sailed in July 1941
aboard the armed merchant ship HMS California. In Lladow, Wales,
at No. 53 OTU (Operational Traning Unit) Magee started his conver-
sion to a Spitfire fighter. His first flight on it took place on August 7,
1941. During one of the training flights, on August 18, 1941 his best
known poem High Flight was conceived. It was his seventh flight in
a Spitfire during which he reached the altitude of 33 000 feet (over
10 000 meters). He was so deeply impressed by the experience that
he noted the first verses still in the cockpit and finished the poem
right after the landing. He shared his high altitude flight experience in the letter to his parents whom he also send a copy of his poem.
The letter is dated September 3, 1941 and this date is sometimes
incorrectly stated as a day when the poem was written. It is often
stated that the poem High Flight was conceived when Magee was
test-flying a new, higher performing Spitfire Mk. V. That’s how it’s
also remembered by his brother Hugh after many years. In reality
on the high altitude flight performed on August 18, 1941 Magee
flew an older Sptifire Mk. I serial R6976. This aircraft had served
with 610 Squadron during the Battle of Britain and various pilots
shot down several German aircraft with it. Later it was relegated
to training duties.
The only encounter with the enemy
After finishing his training on September 23, 1941 with the rank
of Pilot Officer he was posted to 412 Squadron RCAF. The unit had
been formed shortly before, on June 30, 1941 at Digby base in
Lincolnshire. Shortly after Magee’s arrival the unit was relocated
to nearby Wellingore base and instead of the older Sptifire Mk.IIa
converted to new Spitfires Mk.Vb. Magee flew this version for the
first time on October 8, 1941 and performed his first sortie in it
on October 20, 1941-an uneventful convoy escort. He received
his true baptism of fire on November 8, 1941 during the operation
Circus 110. On early afternoon the RAF Headquarters dispatched
12 Blenheim bombers against the railway repair shops in Lille escorted by 13 Spitfire squadrons comprised of 155 fighters. Shortly be-
John G. Magee in cockpit of a Spitfire from No 412 Squadron RCAF. Squadron letters VZ are visible on the fuselage.
INFO Eduard - August 2021