The unknown Americans who fought the Battle of Britain

LONDON -- They've become legends. The Few, as Winston Churchill called them, to whom so many owed so much.

And among the barely 3,000 airmen who confronted the Nazi Luftwaffe as it tried to soften Britain up for a planned invasion was a small, little-known, and actually illegal contingent of Americans.

In the anniversary fly-over -- the largest gathering of World War II aircraft since the war -- was a Spitfire, now owned by the Historic Fight charity in Seattle. It was flown, to honor the Americans, by pilot John Sessions.

"It was a felony as an American, under the neutrality act, to fight for the British at that point in time," Sessions said.

Somewhere between nine and eleven Americans joined the battle. Nobody's sure because some hid their identities, pretending to be Canadians.

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World War II aircraft participate in a flyover to commemorate the Battle of Britain on September 15, 2015. CBS News

"Some of them were only identified decades later through entries in squadron books with nicknames like 'Tex,'" Sessions said. "They were officially Canadians."

Billy Fiske, though, was American through and through. A well-known Olympic gold medalist who joined a high-profile squadron, he died during the battle, perhaps the first American casualty of the war, and is buried in an English churchyard.

He and the other American flyers were drawn by a desire to fight the Nazis, and to fly these planes.

The Spitfire is among the most revered war-machines ever built. And to fly, even as a passenger in one these days, is to understand why. It's still both a weapon and beautiful thing.

Once they were up here among the few, the Americans had little bearing on the outcome of the battle. But they did become part of a larger argument -- whether or not America itself would enter the war.

Churchill sent a wreath to Billy Fiske's funeral, hoping his death would stir American passions.

Fiske though, and the others who were among the first to fight, are now among The Few and the honored.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.