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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.[1]

Founding[edit | edit source]

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, Clayton Knight, about his concerns.[2] The committee was responsible for than 10,000 American “Volunteers” in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in the period prior to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The Committee used brochures and word of mouth advertising to attract candidates.[3]

At the same time that Bishop was in contact with Knight, he also sought the aid of another ex-pilot, Homer Smith.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] They faced one big potential obstacle of recruits having to pledge allegiance to the British monarch upon joining the RCAF, as this was something that could result in forfeiture of citizenship for the young Americans. The State Department was briefed by Canada on the issue and requested that an oath to obey superior officers be substituted for the oath of allegiance. 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.[7] 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.

In early 1940, the committee discussed their plans with Major General Henry H. Arnold and Rear Admiral John Henry Towers. These American military leaders felt that there were plenty of good candidates for pilots available. Arnold even offered to provide the Committee with a list of failed candidates from American training efforts.[7]

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.

Attempts to End the Committee's Operations[edit | edit source]

Throughout 1940, the American State Department and the F.B.I. shut down the committee on several occasions. The committee was encouraged to keep as few records as possible and cease lending travel money to potential recruits.[8] In order to further distance itself from the committee, the Dominion Aeronautical Association was founded to create a buffer between the RCAF and the committee. The committee would now seek personnel for civilian positions.[8] The committee's charge was expanded, after consultations with American leaders in Washington, to find personnel for aircrews in 1941.[9]

President Roosevelt helped Billy Bishop's work and he ensured that the committe's efforts did not fall foul of the public policy. It was his aim to thwart Nazi Abwehr spy network which had infiltrated America. The committee was thought to have prevented the success of the German spy rings in New York city.[10]

Transfer of Americans Back to U.S. Service Branches[edit | edit source]

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.[11]

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.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Guinn, Gilbert Sumter. The Arnold Scheme: British Flyboys, the American South and the Allies' Daring Plan. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2007, ISBN 9781596290426, pages 36-40.
  2. Guinn, pages 36-40.
  3. Gaffen, Fred. Cross-Border Warriors Canadians in American Forces, Americans in Canadian Forces : from the Civil War to the Gulf. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995, page 47.
  4. Gaffen, page 47.
  5. Behiels, Michael D., and Reginald C. Stuart. Transnationalism Canada-United States History into the Twenty-First Century. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010, ISBN 9780773581333, page 225.
  6. Behiels, Michael D., and Reginald C. Stuart, page 226.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Behiels, Michael D., and Reginald C. Stuart, page 227.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Behiels, Michael D., and Reginald C. Stuart, page 231.
  9. Behiels, Michael D., and Reginald C. Stuart, pages 232-233.
  10. biography. Annex Galleries. http://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/1263/Knight/Clayton. Retrieved 19 April 2015. 
  11. Gaffen, pages 49-50.

References[edit | edit source]

  • Aleman, Bruce. "The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan: 1939-1945." (2006).
  • Behiels, Michael D., and Reginald C. Stuart. Transnationalism Canada-United States History into the Twenty-First Century. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780773581333
  • Douglas, W.A.B.; The Creation of a National Air Force: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force (1986)
  • Finch, Boyd. "The Clayton Knight Committee and the Transfer Train: Two Air Forces Courted Logue Mitchell." Journal of America's Military Past 30, no. 3 (2004): 71.
  • Gaffen, Fred. Cross-Border Warriors Canadians in American Forces, Americans in Canadian Forces : from the Civil War to the Gulf. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995. ISBN 9781554881390
  • Guinn, Gilbert Sumter. The Arnold Scheme: British Flyboys, the American South and the Allies' Daring Plan. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2007. ISBN 9781596290426
  • Greenhous Brereton [et al], The Crucible of War, 1939-1945 (1994)
  • Heide, Rachel Lea. "Allies in Complicity: The United States, Canada, and the Clayton Knight Committee’s Clandestine Recruiting of Americans for the Royal Canadian Air Force, 1940-1942." Journal of the Canadian Historical Association/Revue de la Société historique du Canada 15, no. 1 (2004): 207-230.
  • Gordon Symons; The Boys of Spring: An autobiography from World War II (2006)

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