by Clarence Simonsen
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. Bishop befriended American artist and fellow WW I pilot Clayton Knight, who flew with No. 44 and 206 Squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps and later Royal Air Force. After the Great War ended 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 Canadian 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 feel his recruitment effort was his finest hour, including the forming of the Clayton Knight Committee.
In the fall of 1938, W.A. Bishop and four other Canadian aviators were hand picked to form a new Honorary Air Advisory Committee. The new committee provided the Canadian Government with an independent source to give advice 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 became primarily concerned with recruiting from this 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. Bishop now began working on his plan and organization. He next contacted a Canadian veteran of WW I, Homer Smith, who flew in the Royal Naval Air Service, and after the war fell heir to an oil fortune. With the promise of financial backing from Smith, Bishop now spoke to friend Clayton Knight who he knew would become a valuable asset in American public relations. War was declared by Great Britain on 3 September 39, and the following day Bishop called Clayton Knight at the Cleveland air races. Did he wish to become involved in his scheme to smuggle American pilots to Canada for the RCAF? Knight next contacted a friend, Ohio attorney general Thomas J. White, who advised the plan was unquestionably illegal, while Clayton found great enthusiasm for the complete recruiting idea, and told Bishop – “yes”.
Clayton Knight was born on 30 March 1891 in Rochester, New York. In his youth he embarked on a career in oil painting and studied under three famous American artists. On 18 July 1914, the United States Government passed legislation that recognized the Army aviation section as a permanent organization in the Signal Corps. However it was not until America entered World War One in April 1917, that the Government fully realized the extent to which their aviation had fallen behind that of Europe. The U.S. Army Signal Corps Aviation section had 131 Officers, 1,087 enlisted men and 250 obsolete aircraft not fit for WW I combat. To speed up American training some 2,500 future pilots were sent to England and France for advanced pilot training. Clayton Knight was one of the original 150 American pilots sent to England in the summer of 1917. Clayton began his training with No. 44 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, newly formed at Hainault Farm, Essex, on 24 July 1917. They were a Home Defence Squadron that pioneered the use of the Sopwith Camel fighter aircraft for night operations and achieved their first victory on 28/29 January 1918. The Commanding Officer was Major A.T. Harris, who later became Marshal of the Royal Air Force in WWII, Sir Arthur [Bomber] Harris. In September 1918, American pilot Knight was posted to No. 206 Squadron of the new Royal Air Force, serving the British Second Army on the Western Front in France. The squadron flew four bombing raids daily plus provided reconnaissance and photography of the Army front lines. The main aircraft was the British de Havilland 9, which Clayton was flying on 5 October 1918, when he was shot down by Oberleutnant Harald Auffahrt the Commanding Officer of Jasta 9. Auffahrt was a top ace that scored 26 kills in WW I and during the shooting down of the de Havilland bomber, Clayton Knight was wounded but survived his crash on German soil. The war ended while Knight was a prisoner of war in a German hospital. Following a full recovery in a British hospital Clayton returned to New York and resumed his aviation art career. In the post-war period Clayton Knight WWI aviation art graced many celebrated books. From 1939-42 he was a special correspondent for the Associated Press, but his was mainly a front for his main job – the Clayton Knight Committee.
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. 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. At this time the Canadian and British ambassadors in Washington asked what the reaction would be to the recruiting of American pilots. The answer from the “highest quarter” [President Roosevelt] reassured both governments that there would be little difficulty if all were done discreetly. [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 and met with Major General Hap Arnold, chief of US Army Air Corps. In their meeting Arnold advised Knight to take a good look at U.S Army Air Corps washouts, which held a considerable talent pool for the RCAF. [Many of these Americans had been stunting, drinking, women problems, or were too unruly for the Air Corps 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].
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 the American pilots were crucial to the new British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada.
In November 1940, [after Roosevelt won the election] the Clayton Knight Committee began to work, based from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Flyer 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, and could only advertise by word-of-mouth.
The Canadian 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 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 DAA, which was a civilian agency, and it would appear Clayton Knight was not breaking any American law. The funny part is the fact the DAA 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 DAA was after civilian pilots.
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 committee now began to recruit not only American pilots but also all other aircrew for the RCAF. By the fall of 1941, 3009 American volunteers had been recruited for the RCAF with 248 desertions back to U.S.
On 7 December 1941, American aircrew serving in the RCAF totaled 6,129, with just over half, 3,886 under training [BCATP] in Canada. All Americans were given the opportunity to return to the US, and 3,797 requested transfer back to their own national forces. A special train left Washington stopping at every RCAF training base, and 1,759 Americans boarded the train. In total 5,263 Americans completed their service in the RCAF. From 1939-45 a total of 8,864 Americans served in the RCAF, and 704 were killed in training or combat.
On the RCAF honour roll, all 48 states are covered with Americans killed in action while serving in the RCAF. New York State leads with 128 killed, Michigan – 59, California – 54, then Texas – 37, and so on. Most of the Clayton Knight recruited Americans served in RCAF in RAF Bomber Command, and 445 were killed in British 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 movies continue to show only the Flying Tigers and Eagle Squadrons as American heroes, the 5,263 Americans in the RCAF are forgotten. In September 1940, No. 71 Eagle Squadron was formed with some 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. No. 126 squadron made up of just Americans served in Malta, again recruited by Clayton. In September 1940, Clayton Knight also recruited 44 American pilots for the RAF Ferry Command, a small but important impact in the early ferrying of needed aircraft for England.
When the Clayton Knight Committee ended in May 1942, Knight became an official Historian and artist for the U.S. Air Force in Alaska, Aleutians and Central Pacific. Today his original art work, personal diaries, correspondence, memoranda, and reports are held in the Air Force University Library and Historical Branch.
On 10 July 1946, Clayton Knight was awarded the Order of the British Empire [OBE] for conspicuous service to England in WW I and WW II. The award was presented on the Queen Mary ocean liner in New York harbor, as this award must be presented on British land.
Clayton Knight died on 17 July 1969.