The Belgians ordered twenty-two Gloster Gladiator-I aircraft for l’Aviation Militaire on 27 September 1936 to be powered by the 825hp (615.20kW) Bristol Mercury IX engine, and these began to be delivered as early as September, fifteen direct from Gloster while it was also hoped to produce the remaining seven at the Sociétés Anonyme Belge de Constructions Aéronautques (SABCA) Brussels plant, under licence in Belgium. The whole order was to be completed by the end of the year. However, no satisfactory resolution was reached on this, although talks were not finally abandoned until May 1938.
The Gladiators therefore arrived in Belgian in fits and starts, the first batch of six machines being delivered in June 1937 and the first of the second assignment of nine arrived in September of the same year. They were given the registrations G5–1 to G5–15. SABCA-assembled machines first appeared at the end of March 1938, receiving the serials G-17 to G-38. The Belgians soon became familiar with the new fighter and the public also was shown its potential in a series of air shows flown prominently by Captaine Pierre Arend (G-343), Adjutant Jacques Jean Edouard Wegria (G-27) and Sergents Paul-Marie Janssens (G-21), Nathalie Delorme (G-31) and Denys Rolin (G-24).
Several of these machines were lost in accidents before the war; on 18 March 1938, G-35 went into an uncontrollable spin and crashed into the North Sea off Wenduine, although on this occasion the pilot was saved, while G-17 was lost on 9 December 1939 because the oxygen equipment failed and she crashed at Wevelgem (Ingelmuster), killing her pilot, Sergent Hubert Dopagne. G-35, piloted by Sergent Carlos Pipart, made a terminal descent at Seene airfield, Ostend, on 11 March 1940, possibly for the same reasons. On 14 March G-20 and G-23 collided at Schaffen, and on 18 March G-35 was lost off Ostende. A further five were out of service when war suddenly came upon them, including G-18, an unarmed aircraft belonging to Général Paul Hiernaux, the Commander-in-Chief of Aéronautique Militaire Belge (AéMI), which had been allocated to the unit at Diest.
On 10 May 1940, there was an establishment strength of fifteen Gladiators, fourteen being with the 1ére Escadrille de Chasse, of Iéme Group of 2 Regiment (1/I/2 Aé) and lined up at Schaffen-Diest airfield along with about 50 per cent of Belgium air power. Even though they had been on General Alert for the previous three days, they had all been stood down at 1030 on 9 May thinking it was yet another false alarm and the majority of the pilots had gone for R&R in Diest itself. The alarms sounded at 0300 on 10 May and by 0400 the majority of the aircraft (Hawker Hurricanes, Gloster Gladiators and Fairy Fox bombers) had been quietly readied and, on the orders of Major Arro Hendricks10 remained in orderly lines before their hangars awaiting events. They were not long in coming.
Shortly afterwards heavy formations of aircraft were seen overhead flying west, and the feeling was that the British and Germans were duelling over the English Channel. Few at the base appeared to think there was anything to worry about! One would think that with the fates of Denmark and Norway starkly before them the shield of neutrality might have appeared rather fragile, but this seems not to have been the case. The Gladiators were told to take off by Capitaine Max Guisgand, CO of 1/I/2, against orders, to prevent being caught flat-footed, and by 0420 had started to do so. Before they were all airborne, a kette of KG 77s low-flying Dornier Do.17 bombers appeared and began strafing. One Gladiator, piloted by Lieutenant Marcel Wilmots, was hit on the runway, and skidded into a Hawker Hurricane, being so badly damaged she was written off. The Germans turned their attention to the orderly lines and were soon reinforced by wave after wave. At 0442 another German attack commenced with Do.17s bombing from an altitude of 6,000ft (1,828.80m) and Bf.110s strafing, finishing off Wilmots’ aircraft and destroying a second Gladiator that had failed to get off the ground. At 0530 a third wave hit. After they had departed the Belgian machines had been reduced to blazing hulks; just two Hawker Hurricanes and three Gloster Gladiators survived the carnage on the ground. Meanwhile, while over Tirlemont, the airborne Gladiators ran into ten of 3./JG 27’s Bf.109s at 0955 and these claimed to have destroyed two of the Belgians, while, at 1033, 9./JG 54 with more Bf.109s hit them again above Tongeren, and claimed another three destroyed. Twelve Gladiators managed to land at Beauvechain.
The next day six Gladiators, led by Capitaine Guisgand (G-27), with Sergents André Pirlot (G-19), A. Vanden Broeck (G-31), Denys Rolin (G-22), Henry Wiand (G-32) and Henri Clinquart (G-34), were assigned to escort nine Fairey Battle light bombers making suicidal attacks against bridges over the Albert Canal, which were in German hands. Again they found the 1./JG 21 ready and waiting and in the ensuing mêlée four more Gladiators, G-19, G-22, G-27, G-34, were shot down. Sergents André Pirlot and Henri Clinquart were both killed, Sergent Denys Roslin baled out and was made a PoW, while Captaine Max Guisgand crash-landed at Waremme. Both of the remaining pair of Gladiators were damaged but not beyond repair. Three further aircraft were damaged in the battle but returned and were deemed capable of repair, however all these, including G-31, G-31 and G-38, were caught on the ground at Le Culot (Beauvcechain), by twelve fighters from the I./JG 1, strafed and destroyed.
That same afternoon a further seven Gladiators were shot down by Bf.109s and another was destroyed by a Heinkel He.111 bomber. The damaged machines were simply abandoned during the following night when the unit evacuated to Belsele.
Belgium adopted an almost suicidal policy of neutrality on the outbreak of World War II, despite the bitter lessons of the Great War. A policy of appeasement prompted by fear meant that all attempts by the British and French to co-ordinate defences prior to the German invasion of May 1940, were ignored and not until the Panzers had crossed her borders did Brussels appeal for Allied assistance. Nonetheless, efforts had been made by the Belgians to shore up their air defences and, surprisingly enough, it was to Hitler’s Axis partner, Italy, that the Aéronautique Militaire (Belgian Air Force) turned in September 1939. Equally surprisingly, the Italians agreed, although they made certain that the Belgian Government, desperate for early deliveries, paid a high price for each machine.
The purchasing mission arrived at Fiat’s plant in Milan tasked with obtaining forty CR.42s to replace the obsolete Fairey Firefly fighters that equipped the IIème Group de Chasse (Fighter Group), commanded by Major Jacques Lamarche, and based at Nivelles, Walloon, airfield south of Brussels. The unit comprised the 3ème and 4ème Escadrilles with an establishment strength of fifteen aircraft apiece. The urgent requirement was for a delivery within a period of three months. Permission was finally granted and Contract 39/581 was signed in December for forty CR.42s and eight spare engines existing machines at a cost of US$2,640.000, all to be made available as soon as possible.
On 6 March 1940, the first deliveries were made, being received at the Établissements Généraux de l’Aéronautique Militaire (AéM), at Evere, Brussels, where they were assembled, re-painted in Belgian markings and assigned serials in the range R-1 to R-30. Ten machines were assigned as spare aircraft to replace accident losses.
On 10 May 1940 twenty-four of the imported CR.42s had joined their units, with the 3ème Escadrille (Red Cocotte) being at full strength, and the 4ème Escadrille (White Cocotte) having received just nine machines. The pilots of these two dozen fighters had only just begun to familiarize themselves with their new mounts when they had action thrust upon them. The IIème took off early to transfer up to their assigned frontline war base, which was Field 22 at Brustem (Sint-Truiden known to the Germans as St Trond) airfield. The Luftwaffe attack began just as twenty-three of the CR.42s led by Major Jacques Lamarche were taking off to make this shift. The Junkers Ju.87 Stuka dive-bombers of the I/St.G.2 destroyed two CR.42s still on the ground, and another was lost on landing at Sint-Truiden and another was lost on landing at Sint-Truiden but claimed one Junkers Ju.52/3m above Tongres. Clashes with Messerschmitt Bf.109s that morning cost a fourth CR.42 but one Bf.109 was destroyed in return. Another sortie claimed two Dornier Do. 17s damaged while strafing Bf.109s destroyed two more CR.42s on the ground. Then the Stukas of I/St.G.2 re-appeared and destroyed the Belgian force, their precision dive-bombing attack that same afternoon destroying fourteen of the remaining twenty-two CR.42s in a single concentrated blow, wiping out 3ème Escadrille on day one of the battle.
A total of thirty-four CR.42s were ordered for the Aéronautique Militaire in 1938. The plan was to re-equip two Escadrilles of fifteen aircraft each, with a reserve quartet to replace accidental losses. The first batch of these machines reached Belgium on 6 March 1940 and were allocated to 2 Escadrille, who commenced transition training in April. But time was running out and although Mussolini did his utmost to fulfil the order by the eve of the Blitzkrieg on 10 May, only twenty-five had been accepted by the Belgians. Allocations were fifteen to the 3/II/2 and nine to the 4/11/2, at Nivelles, south of Brussels, one of which was actually being delivered the day the Germans poured across the border! All of these except one 3/II/2 machine (R-27 which had a propeller vibration problem) were operational on that day. They were in the process of moving to their wartime base at Brustem (St Truiden, known to the Germans as St Trond, ALG A-92) early that same day.
The Luftwaffe had hit St Truiden hard, the strafing attack by Messerschmitt Bf.109s being followed up by a full-blown Stuka assault and losses among the CR.42s included R-1, R-3, R-4, R-6, R-7, R-8, R-11, R-14, R-16, R-17, R-18, R-19, R-20 and R-43 (formerly R-13, her superstitious change of number not proving lucky at all). Another, R-9, had already been lost that morning in a training accident, and R-30 overturned while landing and was written off; while damaged machines were R-2, R-21, R-27 and R-30, which were all capable of repair but nonetheless also given up as lost. The same fate awaited R-21, which was being serviced at Nivelles and was damaged in an attack there the same day, and abandoned. A total of twenty-one CR.42s were destroyed in a matter of hours on Day One without firing a shot!
4ème Escadrille, with just seven surviving aircraft, moved via Grimbergen to a new base, Nieuwkerke-Waas (Sint-Niklaas), East Flanders. From here they were involved in a aerial battle over Fleurus on 14 May when they clashed with the Bf.109s of 8./JG.3 but without decisive result while the following day one CR.42 was lost and one Bf.109 were destroyed in the same area. Two days later the six surviving CR.42s were pulled back to Chartres, Loire, France, along with eight Fireflies, and here they were joined by the last three Fiats. Of the few survivors few lasted much longer. R-26 was bombed and destroyed at Chatres on 19 May, R-23 and R-28 were both bombed and destroyed on 3 June. Five more CR.42s had reached Bordeaux Merignac airfield (R-24, R-29, R-31, R-32, R-33) and, as the Germans closed in, were abandoned. The final four CR.42s of the order, R-15, R-22, R-25, R-34, never ever made it and were held on the border and eventually re-absorbed back into the Regia Aeronautica.
The Belgian CR.42s made further sorties as the Allied front crumbled and lost another CR.42 but on 11 June they all withdrew to Merignac once more. The surviving airworthy five (R-24, R-29, R-31, R-32 and R-33) were subsequently flown over to Montpellier airfield in the south of France, where they were deliberately wrecked by their own ground crew to prevent any further operations. The Belgian Government sued for peace on 28 June and on 27 August these five aircraft were confiscated by the French Armistice Commission who, in turn, handed them over to the Germans on 28 November. A few were used as training machines for a while by JG.107 based at Toul, Moselle, France, where they received the sobriquet Die Pressluftorgel (Pneumatic Organ). This was by no means the last service the CR.42 performed for the Luftwaffe, however.
The fates of the Belgian Air Force and its Hurricanes is also very much part of the early stages of the Battle of France.
There was an agreed plan between the Allies and Belgium that if there was a German attack on the country, the BEF would move forward and take up a defensive line alongside the Belgian army. However, there was no warning of the German advances that drove rapidly across the Belgian countryside, leaving the BEF fighting in the open against the Wehrmacht armoured thrust that had a momentum which was impossible to slow.
In addition to Hurricanes, the Belgian Air Force had about eighty vintage Fairey Fox light bomber biplanes, some twenty Fairey Battles, twenty-three Fiat CR.42 biplane fighters, and twenty Renard R-31 reconnaissance aircraft. Although this represented a fairly large force, only the Hurricanes could effectively match the modern Luftwaffe aircraft.
There is no doubt that given a chance, Belgian aircrews would fiercely defend their homeland, and the Luftwaffe therefore devised a series of devastating pre-emptive attacks on Belgian airfields.
By the end of 10 May, sixty-seven Belgian aircraft had been destroyed on the ground in raids made a great deal easier for the enemy attackers by the Belgian’s failure to disperse their aircraft around the airfields, instead leaving them tidily lined up ready for rapid destruction.
A further twenty aircraft, including half the serviceable Hurricanes, were destroyed in the air. On the second day, out of fifteen Battles that attacked a pontoon bridge at Maastricht, only five aircraft survived. On 12 May, a formation of almost all the surviving Hurricanes was attacked by a Staffel of Bf 109s, which shot down three, including the first victory for Hauptmann Adolf Galland, who would later achieve many victories and attain a high rank in the Luftwaffe. The Wehrmacht’s unchecked advances through Belgium were largely down to the failure to destroy key bridges and in spite of the enormous sacrifices of British and French light bomber attacks.
Belgium Fairey Battle I
In 1937 the Belgian Government ordered 16 Fairey Battle I bombers to replace a number of ageing Fairey Fox biplanes. The first five Battles were delivered in the month of March 1938 and were taken on charge by the 3rd Regiment d’Aéronautique based at Evere airbase near Brussels. The aircraft were used by N°5 Squadron of the 3rd Aé which in the meantime had seen its mission change from reconnaissance to bomber unit. Already during the “Phony War” it became rapidly clear to the British as well as the Belgian military authorities that the Battle was very vulnerable and very rapidly becoming obsolete as the aircraft was very slow, poorly maneuverable and was missing the means to defend itself. Due to this the Belgian authorities didn’t place the initially planned order for supplementary aircraft. Instead the Belgian Government tried too late to obtain Bréguets, Douglas and Caproni bombers. The Belgian Battles became famous for their ill-fated attack on the Albert canal bridges of Veldwezelt, Vroenhoven and Briegden. This suicidal mission did not achieve its aim as not a single bridge was destroyed but 6 out of 9 aircraft were shot down.
The Belgian government only woke up during the Munich crisis of 1938 to the fact that their Fairey Foxes and Firefly biplanes, built under licence in Belgium ten years earlier were hopelessly obsolete, and the Gloster Gladiators only slightly less so. At that time Britain and France were themselves rapidly re-arming and only seventeen Hurricane Mk Is could be made available, along with sixteen Fairey Battle light bombers and a lone Spitfire Mk I. Casting further abroad forty Fiat CR 42 biplanes were also hurriedly bought in, but these proved no match in 1940 for the Messerschmitt 109 E. Brewster Buffaloes were also acquired in the US but only arrived, complete with Belgian roundels, in the port of Bordeaux just as France surrendered – some were cast straightaway into the harbour to prevent them from falling into German hands. There existed a Belgian aircraft industry and it produced the excellent Stampe and Vertongen trainers and the large parasol monoplane Renard R 31, an armed observation two-seater, the only military plane of Belgian manufacture to see action in 1940. Alfred Renard, a Belgian engineer, also built a prototype single-engine monoplane fighter, the Renard R 36, which test pilots found to be at least as good if not superior to the Hurricane Mk I. The prototype crashed however and the purchase of Hurricanes and Fiats went ahead. During the Phoney War a few more RAF Hurricanes, forced down over Belgian airspace, were interned and some joined their Belgian brethren. Using so many different models of planes complicated training, overhaul, purchase and management of spare parts, and so on.
The Belgian Aéronautique militaire airfields received their alert orders around 0400hrs on 10 May 1940, and the planes started taking off immediately to fly to their allotted dispersal fields all over the country. But at Schaffen field near Louvain the Luftwaffe had time to destroy eighteen planes on the ground, including seven Fairey Foxes and, far worse, nine of the eleven operational Mk I Hurricanes, the only Belgian planes that were a match for the Messerschmitt 109 E. Near Tienen (Tirlemont), three Gloster Gladiators successfully fought off the German planes, allowing the others to head off to their auxiliary fields. These were however quickly identified and received the Lufwaffe’s attentions in the afternoon and for the next few days. Already by the evening of 10 May, the Belgian Air Force had lost more than half of its 230 planes, including forty-seven modern ones, and the next day thirty-seven more were destroyed, some in the air, some on the ground. With their mostly obsolete aircraft, the Belgian pilots flew hundreds of missions and Luftwaffe General Galland later remarked that he felt sorry for them having such inferior planes. Again at Tienen, Lieutenant Dufossez’s nine Fairey Fox biplanes, flying at a top speed of 340km/h took on eleven better-armed Me 109s flying at 570km/h. Four Belgian planes were shot down, with two pilots, including Dufossez killed and the rest parachuting down, like Sergeant Detal, who was badly burned and temporarily blinded. (After convalescing Detal made his way to Britain via Portugal and flew Typhoons in the RAF.) Still they managed to take one Me 109E down. Apart from the attacks on the bridges near Eben Emael the dwindling number of Fairey Battles flew tens of reconnaissance or light bombing missions, until these stopped because of total attrition of the planes. The nimble biplane Fiat CR 42s were more successful, although handicapped by the constant breakdown of the Italian machine guns mounted on them, usually in the middle of a dogfight. Even so Premier Sergent Michotte managed to shoot down a Me 109 and so did Capitaine de Callataÿ on May 13. Their tactic was usually to keep turning on and on when pursued by a Messerschmitt and since the turning radius of the German plane, with a higher wing loading was larger than the biplane Fiat’s, they would let loose a volley at the right moment so that the faster enemy fighter flew straight into the barrage in front of it. The same day Second Lieutenant Offenberg shot down his second German plane, a Me 109 again. Jean Offenberg and Alexis Jottard each brought down one Luftwaffe bomber. Offenberg, Jottard, and Leroy du Vivier were all to join the RAF later and fight in the Battle of Britain as well as London-born Captain Ortmans. As their resources dwindled, the Aéronautique militaire even sent pilots out in hopelessly obsolete Fairey Fireflies. Eventually the remaining Fiats CR 42 were withdrawn to France, where they helped defend French airspace and bases.
The slow, Belgian-built Renard 31 soldiered on to the last day, flying reconnaissance missions over enemy territory until the last ones were shot down or became unserviceable.
Apart from a few exceptions the RAF planes were conspicuously absent from Belgian skies in May 1940 and repeated Belgian requests for more air support met with as little success as the French requests, for the same well-known reasons. It was only on 27 and 28 May the RAF finally started to appear in force, to cover the retreat of the BEF – too late to help the hard-pressed Belgians.
Total German air superiority had the pernicious effect that Belgian troops on the ground mistrusted and systematically fired at their own planes, the black, yellow and red roundels notwithstanding. Several Belgian planes were brought down by ‘friendly fire’ and in some cases pilots had to prove their identity to suspicious army officers, even when speaking with a heavy Brussels accent, like Le Roy du Vivier. Another pilot was locked in a cellar and forgotten by Belgian soldiers, only to be ‘freed’ by the Germans!
The Belgians had been totally overwhelmed by the German Sixth Army in May 1940 as part of Hitler’s attack in the west. Some 6,500 Belgian soldiers, many of them reservists, were killed in the onslaught, and about 15,000 civilians also died. Faced with a defeat on this scale, King Leopold surrendered his country and her defences to the invader on 28 May. What darkened the skies as far as the British authorities were concerned were the rampant accusations of treachery which accompanied the collapse of the Belgian war effort. The French were even more convinced that a substantial Fifth Column had been active inside Belgium. As one historian phrased it, the circumstances under which Belgium succumbed ‘led to a marked decline in appreciation of all things Belgian.’ Furthermore, the French were adamant that Belgian refugees, and even some of the military made themselves scarce on French soil, such was the fear of a stab in the back. As a result, Britain was virtually forced to admit large numbers of civilians both before and after the defeat of France in June 1940.
The early contacts with both governments were therefore on the cool side, but at a military level things were a little better. In theory at least, both nations had a good stock of air expertise which could be effectively utilised in the service of the RAF. The Belgian pre-war order of battle comprised 198 first-line aircraft spread across a range of uses, with army co-operation work, fighters and reconnaissance bombers formed into a regiment each.
The initial assessment of the incoming aviators after the fall of France was in the same vein, and there was none of the furrowing of brows which had greeted the news that the Poles and the Czechs were heading across the Channel in large numbers. Even before France had asked for an armistice, the Air Ministry was busy discussing plans for the formation of national units, and it is clear from the records that the Dutch and the Norwegians were to be granted squadrons as soon as the personnel became available –a status initially denied the Poles, despite their considerable numbers. The Directorate of Intelligence estimated that the number of suitable Belgians who had made their escape might not be sufficient to man a full squadron, but they had no objection to the rapid formation of flights which could then be attached to British squadrons. This must be set against the decision taken at the same time to reject Czechoslovak crews, and Archibald Boyle was the guiding hand behind all of it. There can be no doubt that Slavs of whatever nationality were not to Boyle’s liking, but the West Europeans were an altogether different matter.
By late May 1940, the Belgians had 180 pilots and ground crew in Britain. They insisted that this was enough to form two squadrons, but it was apparent that the British were not going to entertain the idea because a large injection of RAF technical personnel would have been required to make the units operational. The Belgian government had requested thirty Hurricanes and twenty Blenheims, the argument being that they could re-train pilots quickly enough to fly them in action. Boyle said no, but then offered to take the best pilots available for individual service. ‘The Belgians were disinclined to accept this,’ he minuted, and it was clear from their attitude that they expected the reconstitution of the Belgian Air Force in its entirety. This was always going to be out of the question – they had far fewer men than the Czechoslovaks who had already been pushed into the RAFVR – but on this occasion the British could reasonably use their argument that insufficient numbers made the formation of national squadrons unrealistic. As a result, individual Belgian airmen soon found their way into British fighter squadrons with the blessing of Hugh Dowding, AOC Fighter Command, who needed them badly as the air war with Germany developed.
On the political front, it was Churchill again who was driving the policies forwards. By early June 1940, the Belgian government was still on French soil, and proposals to form national units of any kind were still subject to French sensitivities. As with the Czechoslovaks, the British decided to play safe and direct any conscripts or volunteers over to the Continent for enlistment. A parliamentary question in the Commons requested confirmation that the Belgians were determined to continue conscripting men in spite of King Leopold’s surrender, and the answer received was an emphatic yes. But this did not mean that Britain would turn away airmen who were considered to have the skills necessary to join British units if vacancies existed, and in response to some urgent prodding by Churchill, the Air Ministry elicited the approval of the Belgian authorities in Paris. The reaction was largely negative. Col Wouters, the Assistant Air Attaché, let it be known that if any transfers to the RAF organisation were to take place, they had to be conducted in the spirit of a future intention to form national squadrons when the circumstances permitted. This the British were reluctant to promise, so as the battle of France drew to a close, those airmen who had been selected for service in Britain got on with their re-training in the knowledge that they might well do their combat flying in France. In the event, most of them returned only to seek evacuation a few days later.
However, yet again the British were faced with a resolute ally, and we have seen before that standing firm usually produced a determination to resist in equal measure. The Belgians were making reasonable demands, but in no way would the RAF allow the establishment of any precedents in regard to allied service in its ranks. Besides, it was clear by July 1940 that yet another government was moving into exile with divisions in its ranks. The Foreign Office heard that several hundred Belgians – mainly Walloons – had applied for service with the Free French, their leaders declaring that they were ‘disgusted with King Leopold and the Belgian government’. Some souls in Whitehall thought the idea a good one, not least because it removed a potential responsibility from British shoulders onto those of de Gaulle, but in the end it was vetoed at a higher level.
Nevertheless, such divisions merely warned the British that the Belgians would need careful handling if they were to become a bona fide ally in exile. The British experience of Belgian refugees had not been a happy one in general, and it was important to regenerate public confidence in their abilities and commitment to the common cause. As the dust settled on the French beaches after the evacuations in June, it became clear that only a handful of Belgian pilots had managed to get out successfully. The Chiefs of Staff report noted that some twenty or thirty trained men had reached British soil, and about another twenty were believed to be on their way. This was plenty to form a squadron with air crew only, but scarcely any ground crew had managed to get away, therefore Wouters was told firmly that all men would be commissioned or enlisted into the RAFVR. By mid-August, the numbers had risen to ninety-four, of which twenty-eight were already in service with British squadrons or passing through OTUs. But as with the Czechoslovaks, the contingent was top-heavy with officers or professional fliers, both civilian and military, and pleased though the British were that another sixty or so pilots were said to be en route from North Africa, there still remained the problem that no Belgian squadrons could be formed without the necessary ground crew.