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