Hawker Hurricane Mk I Belgium 2 Escadrill H24 Belgium 1940.
Fairey Battle Mk I BAF 5e Escadrill Groupe III 3e Regiment 5.III.3 T58 Belgium May 1940
Once the Germans had the bridges under their control, all Belgian attempts to recapture them came to nought. The way was now clear for the mass of Wehrmacht motorized units to push forward into the Belgian hinterland without difficulty. Although the Luftwaffe controlled the skies in that region, their priority was to defend the bridges against air attack. The Belgian intentions in this respect did not go unnoticed by the Germans. Thus shortly after midnight on the day following the attack, 4.Pz.Div. was informed:
“Based on an intercepted enemy signal, 4.Div. is warned that an Allied air attack is to be expected in the Maastricht zone in the early hours of 11 May.”
On 10 May the Belgian Government requested the British and French to cooperate in a common attack on the bridges at Veldwezelt and Vroenhoven in German hands, and at Briegden, north of Veldwezelt. Although the Germans had not yet arrived at Briegden, it had to be destroyed before it could be captured. The Belgians were hoping that the Frontier Cyclists Battalion farther north would return. South of Briegden was 5.Comp/2.Carabiniers (Captain Louis).
The French and British found themselves fully occupied attacking German road convoys and were therefore unable to accede to the Belgian request. On the afternoon of 10 May, 5.Squadron (“Faucon Egyptien”) of 2.Group/3.Air Force Regt. received the order to destroy the bridges. For the purpose, pilots of 5 and 9 squadrons were to use Fairey Battle single-engined bombers. These aircraft were obsolete and slow. The machines had to be flown first to Aalter aerodrome (aerodrome No.26) because their local bases at Evere and Belcele had been bombed. Fifteen machines landed safely at Aalter.
The intention was to use three flights, each of three bombers, to attack the three bridges. The bombload for each bomber would be eight 50 kg bombs released electro-mechanically. The Fairey Battle could carry a 125 kg bomb, but none were available. The bombers were to be escorted by six Gloster Gladiators of 1.Squadron “La Comète” taking off from Culot aerodrome at Beauchevain. The mission was scheduled for early on 11 May, after dawn, for darkness would interfere with the precision of such a risky bombing operation. Orders and countermanding orders were now issued without obvious logic, another example of the confusion reigning in the Belgian forces as a result of the lightning-nature of the German attack. These were the conditions prevailing when the three flights of nine Fairey Battle bombers took off.
The Fate of the Belgian Fighter Escort
As soon as the bombers were in the air, the Gloster Gladiator fighters were supposed to take off at 0700 hrs. This was poorly planned and adversely affected the mission because Me 109s were able to wipe out these fighters fairly easily. South-east of Tongeren they were attacked by eight Me 109s of 1/JG1 based at Gymnich. Sgt. Pirlot’s Gloster (G19) was shot down from behind by Uffz Emil Clade; Sgt Denis Rolin’s G-22 fired at and hit an Me 109 before being shot down by Lt Ludwig Franzisket. Rolin baled out to be captured on the ground and spent the war in a PoW camp. Afterwards he recalled:
“My steering was hit. When I realized I could not manouevre I jumped out over Heukelom. I watched my machine crash and then set off along the Tongeren-Maastricht road. After a few metres an unarmed soldier shouted at me in French to stop. I told him I was a pilot and wanted to rejoin my unit. He was Belgian. He took me to a farm (near Vroenhoven). Shortly after I retreated to a limestone grotto on the farm. There we were captured by the Germans after they threw a couple of grenades at us: one exploded and the other went off a few metres away but did no harm.”
The third Galdiator was hit but Sgt Vandebroeck brought the machine back to base. The fighter battle lasted only a few minutes. The second wave of Belgian fighters fared no better. Gladiator G-25 (or possibly G-34) was shot down over Fexhe-Clins, the pilot Sgt Clinquart being killed. Captain Guisgands was wounded in a fight with a German aircrft but maintained control with difficulty and set the machine down on the Celles-Warenne road. Sgt Winand damaged an Me 109 before being hit and forced to return to base.
Without a fighter escort, which in any case had been of inadequate size, the Fairey Battle bombers were now served up on a plate to enemy fighters superior to them in speed and firepower. The Belgian bombers tried to reach their targets as quickly as possible at low level, thus avoiding German fighters, but to no avail.
The Bombers for Briegden
These three aircraft took off at 0700 hrs for the bridge at Briegden. The crew were all from 5.Flight less one man.
T-62 WO Jordens/Sgt de Ribaucourt
T-68 Sgt Wieseler/WO Deconinck
T-71 WO Vendevelde (9.Flight)/Capt.Bergmans
The three bombers came under friendly fire immediately after taking off and T-62 was shot down in flames. The two occupants baled out and were then fired on whilst descending by parachute until “captured”, when they managed to convince their fellow-countrymen that they were Belgians.
T-71 was hit by friendly fire which wounded Capt. Bergmans. Pilot Vandevelde turned back and landed at Aalter.
T-68 reached the bridge but was hit by flak during the bombing run. With his machine in flames, pilot Wieseler headed for the Belgian lines where he made an emergency landing during which his observer Deconinck broke a leg. After leaving the machine Wieseler noticed that there were still two bombs. These were detonated a few hours later by pioneers. At 0900 hrs on 11 May two pioneers of 7.Div., Commander Tilot and WO Brasseur (who died during the operation) demolished the bridge at Briegden.
Veldwezelt bridge. Also note bunker C below de bridge pier and bunker N to the left of the bridge.
The Bombers for Veldwezelt
These three aircraft took off at 0645 hrs for the bridge at Veldwezelt. The three pilots were from 9.Flight, the observers from 5.Flight.
T-60 WO Verbraeck/WO Dome
T-58 WO Timmermans/Sgt Rolin Hymans
Although the bombers were flying very low, they were picked off quickly by the Luftwaffe which dominated Belgian airspace. They were attacked by two Do 17 bombers, T-60 being shot down near Lebekke and Dendermonde, thirty kilometres north-west of Brussels. The two crew were both seriously wounded but managed to bale out. Verbraeck had four rounds in his body while Dome’s hands were shredded. Both were taken to the civilian hospital at Termonde. The battle lasted twenty minutes.
T-58 was attacked near Hasselt by three Me 109s of 1/JG 27. At 0740 hrs over Elderen, T-58 was shot down by Oberleutnant Wolfgang Redlich. The two crew perished.
T-73 reached Veldwezelt bridge. Captain Pierre attacked the bridge under heavy flak, dropped his bombs which missed and hit the road. T-73 then returned safely to Aalter.
The Bombers for Vroenhoven
These three aircraft took off at 0650 hrs for the bridge at Vroenhoven. All crew were from 5.Flight.
T-70 Capt.Glorie/2nd.Lt Vandenbosch
T-64 WO Binon/Capt.Legand
T-61 WO Devigne/Sgt Moens
The three bombers headed for Vroenhoven at an altitude of fifty meters, pursued by the usual bad luck. Over Leuven they received friendly fire but escaped without harm. Over Tongeren near the target they were fired upon by a German field convoy on the way north. T-70 replied with long MG bursts. A German projectile came through the fuselage and passed between the legs of a crewman without touching him. Over Vroenhoven all three aircraft were hit by flak. T-70 and T-61 both encountered a problem with the release system and could not drop their bombs. T-64 dropped its bombs but all fell into the Canal. T-70 and T-61 now decided to dive-bomb the bridge. T-70 hit the bridge with three bombs but none did mentionable damage. The other five fell into the Canal. Because of this unhappy result, T-70 and T-61 headed west to make a fresh bomb run. T-70 was shot down between Lafelt and Vlijtingen, and T-61 at Veldwezelt over the Kip van Hees. Of the four crew members only 2nd. Lt. Vandenbosch (T-70) escaped with his life. He parachuted down at a perilously low height, his parachute failing to deploy in time. He sprained his right ankle, broke bones in his left foot and three vertebrae, and suffered injuries to his face and rib cage. He was taken to Maastricht Hospital.
Of the three Fairey Battles at Vroenhoven only T-64 made it back, on the way firing at every target offering itself, the fuselage being peppered by numerous hits. T-64 landed safely at Aalter at 0835 hrs.
The attack on all three bridges was a disaster. None of the aircraft managed to inflict any damage on the bridges while their losses were very high. Of the six escort fighters three were shot down and three damaged. Two of the pilots were killed. Of the nine bombers seven were shot down, only two returning to Aalter. Five of the crews lost their lives.
One of the 12 Squadron aircraft shot down on 12th May 1940. Fighter bomber Fairey Battle P2332 PH-F airborne 0818 from Amifontaine. It was tasked to destroy the concrete bridge spanning the Albert Kanaal at Vroenhoven. Shot down by Flak and fighters and crashed near the bridge, 24 km SE of Hasselt, Belgium. The crew of three were made prisoners of war.
The RAF and French Attacks on the Bridges
Following the Belgian attacks, the RAF decided to take the initiative with an attack on Maastricht. That afternoon, eleven Bristol Blenheim bombers of 110 Squadron Hyderabad took off from Wattisham but failed to attack any bridge: two were shot down, N6208 over Fouquières-les-Béthune and I.9175 near Kaggevinne, two kilometres south-west of Diese.
A dozen Blenheims from RAF 21 Squadron, Watton, took off next. After surviving friendly ground fire at 5,500 metres they reached Maastricht towards 1800 hrs, where they ran into very heavy flak, P6806 being shot down, and another eight aircraft seriously damaged.
A formation of twelve Lioré et Olivier LeO451 bombers of the French air force armed with 100 kg bombs took off at 1945 hrs bound for the bridges, a very low height being chosen which made them an easy target for the flak. The French inflicted light damage on the bridges for the loss of two bombers, both shot down by an Me 109 of 1/JG 27. The German fighters would have destroyed all the French bombers had it not been for the strong fighter escort.
The Allies knew that with each passing hour it was becoming more difficult to bomb the bridges. It was extremely important to them at this stage to hault the Germans, and so at 1630 hrs and 1730 hrs on 11 May, Blenheim bombers of 110 Squadron were despatched to destroy the intact bridges while Blenheims of 21 squadron would attack columns of German troops advancing into Belgium. It was a bold decision and led to total disaster.
In the early hours of 12 May, the RAF sent nine Blenheims of 139 Squadron, Advanced Air Strike Force, to bomb Maastricht and Tongeren. Although they flew at a height beyond the range of the German flak, the operation ended in seven of the nine bombers being shot down by Me 109s. Between 1000 and 1100 hrs other bomber formations from 15 and 107 Squadrons had taken off for Belgium, a total of twenty-four Blenheims to attack the bridges at Maastricht and over the Albert Canal. They were escorted by Hurricane fighters of 87 Squadron based at Senon near Verdun. The bombers and fighters were scheduled to meet up over the target, but over Liège the fighters ran into forty Me 109s of JG 27. This resulted in the loss of two Hurricanes shot down by fighter ace Adolf Galland. The bombers also paid the price, almost half being shot down by flak: ten of the twenty-four failed to return. Although they succeeded in dropping ninety-six bombs, all missed their target.
In the light these failures, it was decided that no matter how important the operation might be, it had to be carried out by volunteers. This was the opinion of Air-Marshal A.S.Barratt. The appeal went to the men of 12 Squadron, the “Dirty Dozen”, and all stepped forward. This time six Fairey Battle “Sitting Ducks” would be sent in two flights of three aircraft. The pilots received the same orders as had the Belgian and British crews previously: drop bombs on the bridges, this time 100 kg bombs.
One aircraft dropped out with a mechanical problem, and so five Fairey Battles took off from Amifontaine towards 0930 hrs on 12 May. They met their Hurricane escort at the moment when the bombers of 15 and 107 Squadrons were attacking the bridges. The RAF fighters, which had taken off from Wassincourt, were intercepted by the Luftwaffe near Liège. Two Hurricanes were shot down, both pilots parachuting to earth safely. Meanwhile the five bombers had reached the Albert Canal zone. There was only scattered cloud over the region and the 20-mm flak saw their targets early.
The RAF Fairey Battle Attack on Vroenhoven Bridge
Flying Officer Thomas led the two machines of the second wave (his own, P2332 PH-F and Davy’s L5241 PH-G) towards Vroenhoven, where he dived from an altitude of 1,800 metres on the bridge. Because of the intense flak he had difficulty in bombing. Although one bomb exploded on the west bank very near the bridge there was little damage. His engine was hit and Thomas was forced to put down three kilometres away where he and his two crew, Sgt Carey and the pilot Campion, were taken prisoner.
Davy’s bomber was hit by flak, with the left wing burning Davy struggled to drop his bombload which missed Vroenhoven bridge. Because of the state of the aircraft, he ordered his crew to bale out, both being captured on the ground, although later Sgt Mansell escaped and reached the French lines. The Canadian, Patterson, broke a bone in his left foot on landing and allegedly became the first Canadian to be taken prisoner in the war. Davy managed to fly the machine to the French border and made a successful emergency landing at Amifontaine.
The RAF Fairey Battle Attack on Veldwezelt Bridge
This first wave, whose objective was the bridge at Veldwezelt, was led by Flying Officer Garland and consisted of three bombers. They reached Veldwezelt five minutes after the other wave attacked at Vroenhoven. Diving from an altitude of 300 meters, the aim was to release their bombs from a height of thirty meters. The machine L5439 PH-N of the Australian McIntosh was badly damaged by flak. He released his bombs but missed the bridge. The aircraft crash landed near Neerharen and the three crew taken prisoner.
Sgt Marland’s bomber L5227 PH-J was shot down over Veldwezelt. The three crew, Marland, Footner and Perrin, lost their lives.
The third aircraft P2204 PH-K was flown by Flying Officer Donald Garland. It was hit by flak on the approach to the bridge killing Garland, observer Sgt Gray) and gunner/wireless operator LAC Reynolds.
The result of this latest attempt by the RAF could not have been more tragic: four bombers were shot down, the fifth barely made it back and two crews (six highly experienced men) were killed. Although the bridge was hit twice, the damage was minimal. In short, the attacks by the Belgian, French and British air forces were disastrous. Sixty-eight aircraft were shot down or damaged, the British suffering the worst losses. The Germans had fulfilled their mission: after their unstoppable surprise attack and consolidation of the bridgeheads, Belgium would capitulate within a few days.