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Clayton Knight Committee

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Title: Clayton Knight Committee  
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Subject: Eagle Squadrons, Canada–United States relations
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Clayton Knight Committee

The Clayton Knight Committee, established by Billy Bishop and Greenwich Village artist Clayton Knight, with funding from Homer Smith, and assistance from several pro-war German emigres, was a covert and illegal recruitment agency established in 1940 to transport Americans up to Canada to train and fight for the Allies during the period of U.S. neutrality prior to the U.S. declaring war on Germany and Japan. The committee had to fend off attacks from isolationists and pacifists, German spies in Manhattan, the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as American President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was running for an unprecedented third time in November 1940.

The seeds of the Clayton Knight Committee were planted as Hitler imposed his expansionist policy upon Europe. Britain and her Commonwealth countries realized they would have to create a major air force to stop him. To do this, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada developed the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan or BCATP, also known as the "Empire Air Training Plan". It was an ambitious undertaking, which sought to train over 150,000 aircrew.

Though not known at the time, the success of the BCATP would depend largely on the efforts of the renowned Canadian World War I ace Billy Bishop. It was Bishop who conceived of the Clayton Knight Committee and allowed the BCATP to flourish. Bishop’s solution was to tap the rapidly maturing U.S. aviation industry for BCATP flying instructors and pilots. A political roadblock stood in his way, however: “American Neutrality”.

Bishop contacted an old American friend about his concerns. His name was Clayton Knight. These two World War I pilots formed a bond that would forever echo through the personnel records of RAF Commands and culminate in the enlistment of more than 10,000 American “Volunteers” in the Royal Canadian Air Force in the period prior to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

At the same time that Bishop was in contact with Knight he also sought the aid of another ex-pilot, Homer Smith. A Canadian veteran of the British Royal Naval Air Service in World War I, Smith was heir to an oil fortune. Bishop obtained the offer of financial support from him with an aim to recruit the Americans for the BCATP.

Billy Bishop brought Clayton Knight before the Air Council in Ottawa where they were revealed they had only 36 pilot instructors for the entire BCATP. Clayton and Bishop revealed they had begun recruitment in Manhattan, despite the potential obstacle of recruits having to pledge allegiance to the British monarch upon joining the RCAF, something that could result in forfeiture of citizenship for the young Americans. This issue was later removed when the Canadian government passed an Order in Council replacing this “oath” with a temporary agreement to obey RCAF rules and discipline for the duration of their service.

Bishop would spend most of 1940 with Winston Churchill in London, leaving Clayton Knight to find new partners to set up an office, including pro-war German emigres. Headquarters were set up in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Later, other branch offices were created in other cities across America, such as Spokane, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Kansas City, Cleveland, Atlanta, Memphis, and San Antonio. Committee expenses were met through a revolving bank account, which was set up in Smith’s name.

The larger issue for the committee remained keeping a low profile to avoid the constant threat of sabotage by German agents, the looming F.B.I. and finding a way to gain assistance from the President despite his campaign to keep America out of the war. In addition, Clayton Knight had to conceal his secret committee job (he used his art/journalistic connections to become a special correspondent for the Associated Press which acted as a front) from his family and continue his aviation artwork for publications such as The Saturday Evening Post.

Throughout 1940, the American State Department and the F.B.I. shut down the committee on several occasions. However, Billy Bishop arranged for key meetings with President Roosevelt who secretly assisted the committee's needs and ensured the authorities turned a blind eye and focused on their prime goal of bringing down the German Abwehr spy network which blanketed America at the time. Intelligence and cooperation from the committee, eventually assisted the fall of the German spy rings in Manhattan.

When the United States declared war against Japan and Germany in 1941, a “Recruiting Train” crossed Canada and picked up those Americans who wished to transfer back to the United States Armed Services as per the arrangement Roosevelt has made with the committee.

Of the more than 10,000 Americans serving with the R.C.A.F. at the time, 2,000 transferred to the United States services while the remaining men stayed in the RCAF throughout the war.


References

  • Douglas, W.A.B.; The Creation of a National Air Force: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force (1986)
  • Greenhous Brereton [et al], The Crucible of War, 1939-1945 (1994)
  • Gordon Symons; The Boys of Spring: An autobiography from World War II (2006)
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