Spitfire Squadrons – 331 and 332 squadrons at war
The full agreement with the Norwegians was not signed until 28 May 1941. The delay was caused partly by the Canadian training scheme, but mainly by some skilful Norwegian manipulation of the jurisdiction clauses which signposted the route to independent status. Øen had made his case plain from the very start – ‘identifiable’ units would be created from the available personnel at the earliest opportunity, and this as far as the RAF interpreted the term, meant independence. Yet whereas much spleen had been vented in other cases where independence had been demanded, this was not the case with Norway. The preamble to the agreement promised the ‘re-establishment of the freedom and independence of Norway through its complete liberation from German domination’, and the implications deep within this statement meant that Norway’s pre-war territorial integrity would be preserved and restored, something wholeheartedly avoided with the Polish and Czechoslovak contingents. The key to the whole relationship lies in the fact that Norway brought no complicated political agenda to Britain – at least in so far as postwar British interests were concerned – therefore independence, and all that the status implied, was not something to be feared. The RAF went so far as to permit the application of Norwegian air force law to the point where a man could choose the military code under which he wish to be tried – an unheard of option in the other exiled groups.
One of the other clauses in the agreement amalgamated the two air arms into one Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNAF), placed under the command of Capt Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, with Øen as his chief of staff. In Canada, overall responsibility was held by Capt Ole Reistad, and it was he who filtered the steady number of volunteers from Canada and America. In contrast to the Poles and the Czechoslovaks, Norway enjoyed a better recruiting campaign in North America, and though the numbers were never high for any of the allied forces, the numbers of expatriate Norwegians coming forward were at least consistent and enabled training at ‘Little Norway’ to function smoothly without interruptions for want of new fliers. Almost certainly the reason for this was political. The Poles and the Czechs met with stubborn resistance from former nationals who had gladly left their homelands to seek a better life in America, therefore it was all the more difficult to persuade them to fight and perhaps die for a country which they had freely chosen to leave, often with bitter memories. By contrast, the Norwegians in North America rallied to the flag because they held no lasting grudges against the home country, Norway having been spared the seismic shifts in the political and economic terrain which had afflicted so much of Eastern and Central Europe in the twentieth century. So successful was the campaign to attract North American volunteers – and to this must be added the constant stream of escapees from occupied Norway itself and through neutral Sweden – that the Norwegians announced in January 1942 that they would be able to form fully national squadrons when the RAF was ready to do so. This was music to the ears of the DAFL, a pleasant change from the running battles fought with the French and the Czechoslovaks.
In all, the Norwegians had four main squadrons during the war, with a fifth (334) coming into service after VE Day. The first to be created was 330 on 25 April 1941, under the control of Coastal Command, for at long last the freighter Fjordheim had made the journey across the Atlantic with eighteen Northrop N-3PB float-planes, which were then assembled in Reykjavik. Designed and operated primarily as an anti-submarine squadron, 330 was manned by naval personnel throughout its period of service, first off Iceland and then over the North Atlantic. The Northrops were jettisoned in June 1942 in favour of the Catalina III, then these were also replaced in February 1943 by Sunderlands. Thus, 330’s range was pushed further as the war progressed, and although it could be argued that the squadron had a successful if largely tedious war, the long Atlantic patrols took their toll. By 1945, the squadron had lost sixteen aircraft and sixty-three men, most of them in flying accidents caused by adverse weather conditions. But a loss is a loss, and when the squadron passed back into Norwegian hands in November 1945, it did so with full honours gratefully bestowed by the RAF.
Another maritime unit was formed in May 1943 at Leuchars. Divided into two flights – one equipped with Mk II Mosquitoes, the other with Catalinas – 333 Squadron joined 330 in shipping reconnaissance duties along the Norwegian coast, and convoy protection in the Atlantic. In contrast to 330, however, 333 enjoyed slightly more excitement in its coastal operations, often being used for close engagements with shipping, and transporting agents and saboteurs to and from occupied Norway. Early losses were high, mainly due to a lack of training on the Mosquito, and for a short while the Air Ministry suspended the operational status of 333 until the problem had been rectified. Wilhelm Mohr attributes this to ‘Norwegian impatience and over-confidence, and British trust’, but this still serves to demonstrate how easy the relationship was between the two allies.
Inevitably, though, most of the public’s attention fell upon the two Norwegian fighter squadrons, 331 and 332. The first was formed on 21 July 1941 at Catterick, when the personnel had finished training in Canada. Mounted on Mk I Hurricanes, 331 became operational on 21 September and then moved north for a long sojourn in Scotland, returning to the south seven months later where it remained until the Normandy invasion. The second squadron was formed on 16 January 1942, also at Catterick, on Spitfires. There was to be no Scottish expedition for 332, however, and together with 331, it saw most of its action in the south. The COS reports speak highly of both units, never describing the morale as anything less than ‘excellent’ or ‘exceedingly high’, though as time went by the morale in 330 began to fall as the long winter weather and seemingly perpetual darkness depressed them all, especially the ground crew. Numerous sorties were cancelled due to engine failure, and requests for transfer to the fighter squadrons were frequent yet seldom upheld. Furthermore, the Germans had managed to block most of the escape routes from Norway by mid-1943, so much of the hitherto constant flow of recruits had begun to dwindle, and most of those who got through went to the fighter squadrons, which suffered greater losses.
The two fighter squadrons came of age in OPERATION JUBILEE, the flawed raid on the French coastal town of Dieppe in August 1942. The surviving operations records books (ORBs) clearly reveal the extent to which the allied squadrons committed themselves to the raid, and the entries for the two Norwegian units in particular give us a fascinating and sometimes moving glimpse into the day’s events. What follows is an edited extract from the ORB of 331 for 19 August 1942:
It was fine and clear at sunrise. Everyone was up at 0400 hours for the second day in succession. Today will be hard work for us all, and its importance was stressed yesterday at the briefing. We know that 332 Squadron has felt the lack of sleep too. We had an early breakfast and arrived at dispersal excited and in good spirits, but soon most were sleeping in all sorts of queer positions all over the place.
We took off at 0610 with 242 and 332 Squadrons and arrived over Dieppe at 0650. Almost at once we were attached by enemy aircraft from above and the squadron became split in the general melee. Second Lieutenant Greiner was attacked by two Fw190s and was hit in the starboard wing root which flung his plane into a spin and showered splinters all over the cockpit, some into his right leg. He managed to recover from the spin and climbed to 4,000 feet where he baled out.
The second sortie was at 11.15 hours, and produced two ‘kills’ and four ‘probables’. The squadron returned for refuelling and then took off again at 14.25, nearly diving in to attack half-a-dozen Typhoons which the Norwegians mistook for Fw190s. After more successes, the tired pilots returned to refuel and take off yet again on the fourth sortie of the day, this time covering the retreating forces. The records show that the total score for the day was 7 enemy aircraft destroyed, 2 probably destroyed and a further 8 damaged. In return, 331 had lost 2 aircraft, but both pilots had been rescued by the Royal Navy. The ORB perfectly captures the mood at the end of the operation:
It has been a hell of a day with everyone working at top pressure – no time for meals, but there were masses of sandwiches and soft drinks and coffee – in fact, one seemed to be eating most of the day. The ground crew have had a hard day too, but they have done very well. Everyone enjoyed the day and got a great kick out of the fact that they were taking part in something vital. ‘Yes, let’s have some more like this tomorrow’, is the general opinion. After dinner, we heard that Berg and Greiner were both safe and unhurt. Everyone weeping and jumping for joy at the news.
The men of 332 squadron also had a busy day over Dieppe, scoring 3 destroyed, 1 probable and 4 damaged. Unlike their brother squadron, however, they lost two of their comrades on the first sortie, Sgt Plts Staubo and Bergsland. Staubo was left behind as they turned to leave Dieppe. Someone spotted him way below and behind the main formation, and although a warning was called to him on the radio, he took evasive action too late to avoid being jumped by three or four Fw190s. Sgt Plt Eriksen turned and dived to assist his countryman, but before he was in position the Germans had opened fire and Staubo’s Spitfire burst into flames. Eriksen accounted for one of the enemy planes, but by then Staubo’s machine had been lost from view. Bergsland was also caught alone after losing his place in the formation. He was warned on the radio, but was immediately attacked by four Fw190s. The records note that he did not change course even under fire, and very soon his Spitfire was seen to fall blazing into the sea.
Such tales do not convey even the tiniest fraction of the reality which these men experienced in action. They were brave men, perhaps reckless at times, but then they were also young. They were fighting for their homeland, not Britain, and that holds true for every other allied squadron which flew with the RAF during the Second World War. This may be contrasted with the views of one British officer who completed the day’s ORB for 310 (Czechoslovak) Fighter Squadron on 31 August 1940. Plt Off J. Sterbaek was seen going down in the Thames having been surprised by German fighter in support of a bomber squadron. He was presumed dead. ‘Thus,’ said the report, ‘he has the proud distinction of being the first Czech fighter pilot to give his life for England.’ Nothing could have been further from the truth. He gave his life for Czechoslovakia, that is all.
OPERATION JUBILEE was counted as a success by the RAF, for although the raid itself was generally considered to be a disaster on the day, the air support provided was universally acknowledged by land and sea commanders to have been of the highest quality. The average loss rate per squadron was calculated at 7 per cent, or two losses per unit, and this from a total of 2,403 sorties flown by sixty-one squadrons in all. The European allied air crews had a strong presence in the raid, and stories similar to those related above may be found in the ORBs of the Free French, Dutch, Belgian, Czechoslovak and Polish squadrons that were involved. After Dieppe, the files contain hardly any criticisms at all except for those provoked by political considerations, and even these originated with the various governments, and not the military men under their command. It might therefore be advanced that the performance of the European exiles in the Dieppe raid, leaving aside all other interpretations of the event in the context of the wider war, finally confirmed in the minds of many senior British commanders the importance of the contribution made by them to the prosecution of the combined effort, and utterly dispelled once and for all any vestiges of the old notions of distrust or lack of belief in their will to fight.
Wilhelm Mohr records in his personal assessment of the Norwegian air forces that the RAF rated the fighter squadrons among the highest of those available in terms of efficiency, servicing, motivation and safety. They also featured regularly in the upper divisions of the monthly and quarterly calculations compiled by the Air Ministry which reflected operational successes against enemy aircraft and losses to the squadrons. These achievements, however, threatened to disturb the otherwise sound equilibrium of the Anglo–Norwegian alliance in the air. For so effective were the fighter squadrons, the RAF fought hard to keep them within the Tactical Air Force being assembled in preparation for OPERATION OVERLORD in 1944, and this conflicted with the Norwegian government’s desires to use its forces as part of a separate battle group designed to assist in the liberation of the home territory. With strong protests, the terms of the 1941 agreement were waved under the collective nose of the Air Ministry. The text clearly stated that Norway’s forces in exile would be used ‘either for the defence of the United Kingdom or for the purposes of regaining Norway’, and it was obvious to both parties that the intended attack on occupied Europe met neither criterion. As Mohr notes in his 1995 essay, no record of the discussions resolving the situation has yet come to light, but it is apparent that the RAF won the argument, because the squadrons stayed with the Tactical Air Force right throughout the campaign. Even so, the fact that the Norwegians did agree to the use of their squadrons in Normandy merely underlines the strength of the alliance at its core.
When victory was in sight in early 1945, the Norwegian government – like all the other exiles – began to liaise with the appropriate British departments regarding reconstruction and rearmament. One of the earliest Norwegian requirements was a training school located in Britain for immediate postwar needs. The RAF acted swiftly, establishing such a unit at RAF Winkleigh, and all training provided would be under the terms of Mutual Aid. Then, in a return to the dispute over the separate utilisation of its forces, the Norwegian Military Mission formally requested the withdrawal of its squadrons from the Tactical Air Force and their transfer to Norway re-equipped with Mustangs. Its argument was sound enough. It pointed out that its units had been on firstline duty since 1942 and had fulfilled the Air Ministry’s desires by contributing to the liberation of Europe; now the time had come for them to assist in the final liberation of Norway. The request also had a political edge to it, in that it hinted that the people of Norway would not understand why their own air force was not participating in the final defeat of the Germans who were operating a bitter scorched-earth policy in retreat. For these reasons, the Norwegians insisted that the squadrons should be transferred at once.
But as with the Czechoslovaks, who argued for the return of their units to help with the Slovak uprising in 1944, the Air Ministry remained entirely unmoved. In fact, in rejecting the proposal, it also used similar tactics to those employed against the Czechs. In both instances it focused on technical matters rather than the military or political dimensions, and in the Norwegian case the DCAS (AM Sir James Robb) considered the aerodromes in Norway to be unsuitable for Mustangs, and more importantly that supply and maintenance would be difficult, if not impossible, over such a distance. In a letter full of platitudes, he hoped that the Norwegian Military Mission would understand his position, and he closed by hoping that they would continue to assist with the final liberation of Europe.
When Robb rejected the transfer request, Hitler had nine days to live. Eight days after that, the war in Europe was over. On 22 May, the Norwegians units left the Continent for home – and in that they were lucky. Churchill had ordered a ‘stand firm’ attitude in Europe because he feared a sudden push by Soviet forces further west, and though the poor Czechs had to wait until August before they could return, again because of complications with the Russians, the Prime Minister gave his personal permission for the Norwegians to take their leave and fly home in triumph. Four days before they left, Maj-Gen Riiser-Larsen wrote to the Air Council expressing his thanks for a ‘memorable five years’ and the great friendship which now existed between the two kingdoms. In closing, he promised the British government and people that ‘whenever called upon,be certain that the Royal Norwegian Air Force will be at your side’. It was a fitting and sincere tribute from an officer knighted by the British King, and it brought to an end to an alliance in which the admiration and respect for each other was truly mutual. It now seems clear that in the context of the whole exile experience, here was the exception to the rule.