Historian Alex Kershaw is British, but he has lived in Vermont for 10 years, writing stories of American heroism in WWII. In The Few, he focuses on American pilots who joined the Royal Air Force before the U.S. entered the war.

Your books have focused on small groups in World War II—an infantry company on D-Day in The Bedford Boys, an isolated platoon in the Battle of the Bulge in The Longest Winter and now half a dozen American pilots in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Is this a pattern?

I see the Second World War in its social contexts. So much writing deals with policy and strategy and battles. I seek instead to look at ordinary people in the crosshairs of history.

How does that fit your emphasis on groups?

The dynamic of a team is something we all can understand. But in a deeper sense, the team is what keeps the individual functioning and effective in modern war. The team is an integrator. It's also central for Americans, who come from the world's most individualistic society, yet are superb at cooperating voluntarily when that is necessary.

The Few is really a small-scale epic: a few men rallying to an apparently lost cause in the summer of 1940.

The behavior of these men was Homeric—as noble as you can get—especially because the initial commitment involved defying their country's laws for the sake of a higher moral cause. That's particularly American and appeals to my own attitude. I'm a bit of a romantic when it comes to writing history, and I see these Americans as pioneers in the context of America's formation. The Few is like a Western in the air. First came these men, then the officially sanctioned Eagle Squadrons, and finally the mass of men and planes in the 8th and 9th Air Forces. But before anyone else there were these half-dozen rule breakers.

But weren't "the few" really soldiers of fortune attracted by the promise of a fight?

From the beginning these men were impressed, overwhelmed, by the cause they made their own. What comes out in their behavior and correspondence is an emotional commitment, fostered by the camaraderie of a Royal Air Force that the American pilots found both democratic and meritocratic.

What are your plans for the next book?

My new project is on the "lucky few" who escaped from U.S. submarines sunk by the Japanese and then became Japanese prisoners. It was a unique double jeopardy, and a story as yet untold.