A Few Planes for China

The Birth of the Flying Tigers

Eugenie Buchan

On December 7, 1941, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into armed conflict with Japan. In the following months, the Japanese seemed unbeatable as they seized American, British, and European territory across the Pacific: the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies. Nonetheless, in those dark days, the US press began to pick up reports about a group of American mercenaries who were bringing down enemy planes over Burma and western China. The pilots quickly became known as Flying Tigers, and a legend was born. But who were these flyers for hire and how did they wind up in the British colony of Burma? The standard version of events is that in 1940 Colonel Claire Chennault went to Washington and convinced the Roosevelt administration to establish, fund, and equip covert air squadrons that could attack the Japanese in China and possibly bomb Tokyo even before a declaration of war existed between the United States and Japan. That was hardly the case: although present at its creation, Chennault did not create the American Volunteer Group. In A Few Planes for China, Eugenie Buchan draws on wide-ranging new sources to overturn seventy years of received wisdom about the genesis of the Flying Tigers. This strange experiment in airpower was accidental rather than intentional; haphazard decisions and changing threat perceptions shaped its organization and deprived it of resources. In the end it was the British—more than any American in or out of government—who got the Tigers off the ground. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, the most important man behind the Flying Tigers was not Claire Chennault but Winston Churchill.

Cloth: $35 | E-book: $26.99
ISBN-13: 9781611688665
Pages: 272 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: November 7, 2017


  • Eugenie Buchan . . . has meticulously turned upside down the fable of that doughty band of Yank fighter pilots known as the Flying Tigers who early in World War II challenged the Japanese air assault on China. In so doing she has challenged orthodox World War II history and forces us to reconsider the broader story of just how America got entangled in the affairs of the corrupt, incompetent regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. . . . Debunking that myth, plus her well-written narrative of the AVG’s origins makes Ms. Buchan’s book an essential case study of how American foreign policy often goes so wrong.

    The Washington Times
  • The book traces the tortuous birth of the Flying Tigers. Where it breaks new ground is in showing that the British were crucial in getting them into combat. . . Eugenie Buchan, whose grandfather played an important initial role in this story has done a fine job in revealing the extent of British involvement.

    Military History Monthly
  • One of Ms. Buchan’s great contributions to the history of the Flying Tigers is to debunk the self-promoting story that Chennault peddled in his postwar memoir, "Way of a Fighter" (1949), which saw him arriving in Washington from China at the end of 1940 and, as if by magic, single-handedly creating the AVG over the course of the next few months. Historians and writers, including this reviewer, have largely cleaved to that story ever since. Ms. Buchan presents a corrective account that is more complicated, provocative and interesting-and probably more accurate.

    Wall Street Journal
  • A splendid piece of myth-busting history. The story of how American assistance built up China’s air force has been surrounded by many myths from both sides. . . . Eugenie Buchan shows in rigorous detail how commercial motivations and political maneuvering in the wartime era affected the growth of Chiang Kai-shek’s air force. This is a forceful and deeply researched account of an important episode in wartime history.

    Rana Mitter
    director of the University China Centre and professor of the history and politics of modern China, University of Oxford
  • Eugenie Buchan has done admirable research in the British archives. Her conclusions are certain to spark a lively debate, and her book will be a great help to future historians of the American Volunteer Group.

    Daniel Ford
    author of Flying Tigers: Clair

About the Author

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