Spitfires in North Africa I

Squadron Leader L. C. Wade, Officer Commanding No. 145 Squadron RAF, sitting in the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire HF Mark VIII at Triolo landing ground, south of San Severo, Italy, shortly before the end of his second tour of operations in the Mediterranean area, where he had become the top-scoring fighter pilot with 22 and 2 shared enemy aircraft destroyed.


Born in Texas, USA, Lance Wade joined the RAF in Canada in December 1940. After completing his flying training he went to the Middle East in September 1941, flying a Hurricane off the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to Malta, and continuing on to Egypt the following day by flying boat. Once there, he joined No. 33 Squadron, flying Hurricanes, and gained his first victories on 18 November 1941, when he shot down two Italian Fiat CR. 42 fighters.

When his combat tour ended in September 1942 his score stood at 12 enemy aircraft destroyed. He then returned to the USA for a few months, but in January 1943 returned to North Africa and was appointed to No. 145 Squadron as a flight commander. Wade assumed command of the unit just months later upon his promotion to squadron leader. In March the squadron exchanged its Spitfire Mk Vs for Mk IXs, then in the following June re-equipped with Mk VIIIs. Wade remained in command until November 1943, when he was promoted to wing commander and moved to a staff appointment at Headquarters Desert Air Force.

In January 1944, during a routine flight in an Auster, the aircraft went into a spin at low altitude and crashed into the ground, killing the fighter ace. At the time of his death Wade’s victory score stood at 22 destroyed (five while flying Spitfire Mk VIIIs or IXs) and two shared destroyed, one probably destroyed and 13 damaged in the air, plus one destroyed and five damaged on the ground. He was the top-scoring American-born pilot to complete the whole of his combat career in the RAF.


`Spitfires made ten sorties acting as high cover to Hurricanes. Flt Lt Sabourin and Sgt James attacked two ME 109s southwest of Tobruk. One ME 109 destroyed.’ Thus, in the dry and prosaic language of the handwritten Operational Record Book (ORB) of No. 145 Squadron for 8 June 1942 did the diarist record the first victory of a Spitfire over the Western Desert. Joseph Sabourin, a 27-year-old Canadian who already had three victories to his name from flying Curtiss Tomahawks with No. 112 Squadron, and his wingman, Sergeant James, had shot down a Bf 109 over the desert some 15 miles southwest of Tobruk.

With the Luftwaffe achieving a degree of ascendancy over the RAF’s Hurricanes, Tomahawks and Curtiss Kittyhawks in North Africa by early 1942, the despatch of Spitfire-equipped squadrons to Egypt was seen as a matter of urgency, despite demands elsewhere. Number 145 Squadron was an experienced Fighter Command unit and in mid-February 1942 it had left for the Middle East along with another experienced Spitfire squadron, No. 92. The end of April also saw No. 601 Squadron arrive in Egypt, having come via Malta, and it too began readying itself for renewed operations. By then, No. 145 Squadron had begun to receive its Spitfire VBs at Helwan, on the Nile, south of Cairo, where it had worked up as part of the Desert Air Force (DAF).

By May 1942, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and his Italian allies had been steadily building up against the Allied front in Cyrenaica that ran from Gazala south through Bir Hacheim. On 24 May No. 145 Squadron had moved forward to Gambut, between Tobruk and Bardia, and commenced flying defensive patrols. Two days later Rommel attacked Gazala, thus beginning six weeks of violent fighting on the ground and in the air that eventually resulted in a British retreat deep into Egypt.

The situation on the ground continued to deteriorate, with the British suffering heavy losses at Knightsbridge, pre-empting a withdrawal from the Gazala line, resulting in DAF squadrons `leapfrogging’ in an easterly direction. No. 145 Squadron flew intensively throughout, completing some 22 sorties on 16 June. The unit’s diarist recorded the intensity of the air action the following day, as the battle reached its zenith:

Standing patrols over base were resumed and 18 sorties were made. Plt Off Weber encountered a Macchi 202 near Gambut and pursued it to Sidi Rezegh. Plt Off Hanley and Sgt Barker attacked two ME 109s and Flt Lt Monk and Plt Off Malins attacked two others. Plt Off Hanley and Sgt Barker provided a most inspiring spectacle as they chased the two MEs at a low altitude away from the aerodrome. The standing patrol was ended at 1705hrs. It is not possible to know how many enemy aircraft were destroyed by the squadron. The moral effect of the squadron’s operations was considerable, and it was felt respectively by the enemy and the units we operated with against him. It was a new experience for Messerschmitt pilots to have to look up instead of down!

Despite much gallant fighting, the enemy’s inexorable advance continued, and on the 21st Tobruk, so long a symbol of dogged resistance, surrendered. Its loss was a huge blow to Allied morale and prompted Rommel to continue his advance into Egypt; eventually leading to his assault on El Alamein, which saw heavy fighting.

Despite the ground fighting settling into an exhausted stalemate, the air fighting continued through June and July, and into August. On 1 August, No. 92 Squadron at last received its first Spitfire and became operational on the 13th, flying its first Spitfire patrol the following day when it ran into a big fight around a returning bomber formation. Appropriately, it was the CO, Squadron Leader Jeff Wedgewood, who opened the unit’s account in the desert by hitting the cooling system of the Bf 109 flown by Leutnant Mix, who had to crash land and became a prisoner of war (PoW).

As the battle for El Alamein continued, aerial operations intensified through August, and on 7 September Bruce Ingram of No. 601 Squadron became the first Spitfire ace of the desert campaign. The decisive Battle of El Alamein opened with a massive artillery barrage on a narrow front during the evening of 23 October, and the three Spitfire units were out early the following morning covering fighter-bombers and countering enemy air attacks as Axis forces fiercely resisted the `push’.

In succeeding days the RAF was committed to preventing any enemy attempt at concentrating forces and in interdicting supply lines, so there were innumerable combats fought. For example, during the afternoon of the 25th a quartet of Spitfires from No. 92 Squadron attacked two Bf 109s, one of which was shot down into the sea by Flight Lieutenant John Morgan for his sixth victory. A short while later five more Bf 109s were attacked by a patrol from No. 145 Squadron, allowing Flight Lieutenant Cecil Saunders to claim his seventh, and last, success.

Finally, on 4 November, after further heavy fighting, the 8th Army began a general breakout and the race across the desert in pursuit of the Afrika Korps began. The speed of the withdrawal was breath-taking as both sides raced for Benghazi. Spitfire squadrons regularly moved forward during this period, taking off from Egyptian airfields and returning to newly captured landing grounds in Libya.

By the turn of the year the four Spitfire units had moved to, or were soon to arrive at, the desert strip at Alem El Chel, some 30 miles southeast of Sirte and deep into Libyan territory.

On 7 January, for the first time since El Alamein, No. 92 Squadron met enemy fighters in large numbers that stayed and fought, and two Bf 109s from II./JG 77 were destroyed. Climbing to 12,000ft, John Morgan claimed his eighth, and last, success. The other victory went to former US `Eagle’ squadron pilot Flight Officer Leo Nomis, but two Spitfires were also lost. Strafing attacks by Bf 109s and C. 202s were repeated the next day, the first raid being intercepted at 8.15am by No. 145 Squadron and resulting in Flight Lieutenant Bert Houle shooting down a Messerschmitt. It was the Canadian’s first victory in a Spitfire, but it elevated him to ace status:

I got behind one which flew straight into the sun and fired a few bursts at him. The pilot panicked and turned down sun while diving for ground level. When he levelled out I was a few thousand feet above him, and I used my height to close the gap between us. When well within range, I pressed the firing button and two cannons and four machine guns started to register hits…

On 16 January Rommel issued the order to pull back, and as his forces headed for the Tunisian border they were constantly harassed by the DAF and advanced elements of the pursuing 8th Army. On the 22nd the last German troops evacuated Tripoli, leading to a curtailment of DAF operations.


As axis forces retreated from El Alamein westwards across Lybya, the sea off Algiers harbour on 9 November 1942 was covered with a forest of ships. Small boats and landing craft were shuttling back and forth with troops, tanks, vehicles, and other equipment and supplies of war. High above the ships a Ju88 reconnaissance bomber probed daringly into the Allies’ airspace. Two Spitfires quickly found the enemy intruder, and sent it into a smoking dive into the waves. The fighters’ interception would prove to be too late.

As twilight gathered later that day, three waves of Ju88s and Heinkel He111s began their bombing runs over the anchored invasion fleet and above Maison Blanche airfield. Spitfires from No. 81 Squadron RAF and Hurricanes from No. 43 Squadron RAF scrambled to intercept. More Spitfires from No. 242 Squadron RAF, who were escorting two B-17 bombers flying US General Mark Clark from Gibraltar across to Algiers, were also called on to attack the enemy raiders.

The Luftwaffe bombers were soon in disarray. Pilots of 242 Squadron claimed their first victories, Sergeant Mallinson an He111, Pilot Officer Goulding and Sergeant Watling a Ju88 each, while Flight Lieutenant Benham and Pilot Officer Mather shared a Ju88 kill. Five other pilots claimed half-kills and damages on the German aircraft.

Squadron Leader ‘Ras’ Berry, Commander of 81 Squadron, and his section shot down an He111 over Maison Blanche airfield, and fellow pilot, Canadian Flight Lieutenant James Walker, did the same for a Ju88. Having achieved two previous victories in the skies of UK and Russia, it was Walker’s third kill, and perhaps a unique record in those three theatres of air warfare.


The Spitfires’ engagement with the Ju88s came a day after Allied landings in North-West Africa.

At around midnight on 7/8 November 1942, Operation TORCH, the first major Allied operation of the Second World War invaded Morocco and Algeria. Only a few days after the start of the third battle at El Alamein on 26 October, the Anglo-American invasion fleets had sailed from the east coast of USA and the west coast of Scotland. The enormous task force was in excess of 100 ships, and over 107,000 troops.2

Although the battle of Stalingrad was an immense distance from the Middle East, the German Army’s struggle to overcome the Russians’ stubborn and desperate defence was not immune to the impact of Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein, nor to the Operation TORCH invasion. Despite their defeats on the Russian Front, the Germans felt forced to transfer their Luftflotte II (Air Fleet) to Italy and Tunisia. If Rommel, or any others in Hitler’s Reich, still harboured dreams of dominating the Mediterranean, and occupying the oilfields of the Gulf, Iraq and Persia, they were now collapsing.

Operation TORCH was made up of three invasion fleets – the Western, Central and Eastern Task Forces. The Western Task Force, commanded by Major General Patton, and under the protection of the US Navy, sailed from east coast USA to land at Casablanca. US Navy aircraft carriers, off Casablanca and Oran, provided the air cover with ship-borne fighters. The Central Task Force, with some British but predominantly American troops, set out from Britain under the command of Major General Fredendall, heading for the port of Oran on the north-west Algerian coast.

The US Army’s Twelfth Air Force, commanded by the already legendary Brigadier General Jimmy Doolittle, also provided air cover for the Oran-bound fleet. General Doolittle had commanded the first US air raid on Japan after Pearl Harbor, when B-25 Mitchell bombers took off from aircraft carriers, without sufficient fuel to return. After releasing their bombloads over Japan, the B-25s flew on westwards to land at friendly bases in China.

The closest landing to the Tunisian border, by a convoy despatched from the Clyde in Scotland, was to be made by the Eastern Task Force. Although it carried a small number of US troops with designated officers to assist negotiations with the Vichy French authorities, this invasion force comprised elements of the British First Army under command of Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson. While the Royal Navy escorted both the Oran and Algiers invasion fleets, air support for the Algiers landings was provided by the RAF Eastern Command. To strengthen air support at Algiers, on 6 November two DAF squadrons, the Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron RAF and the torpedo-carrying Wellington bombers of No. 221 Squadron RAF, flew from Egypt to Malta.

One of those pilots in 221 Squadron was Australian Flying Officer William ‘Bill’ Stocks from Sydney. After a period in the Empire Training Scheme in Canada, Bill had arrived in Britain in November 1941 and, after training on Wellington bombers, in April 1942 he joined No. 221 Squadron at Sidi Barrani. In one anti-shipping operation with 221 Squadron, at a height of around 500 feet, Stocks made two severe hits on an enemy vessel. In another interdiction flight his wireless transmitter, rear turret and petrol gauges became unserviceable. Despite great difficulties he continued and completed the operation successfully. In what seems so typical of so many bomber pilots, Stocks’ leadership, coolness and efficiency would in due course see him become a squadron leader in No. 28 Squadron RAF, and be awarded the DFC.

Despite the widest dispersal of troop landings over 130 miles north and south of Casablanca, General Patton’s US Western Task Force encountered the stiffest resistance. The Vichy French were alert to the invasion. At approximately 0700 on 8 November their naval air force, Aeronavale, had their Dewoitine fighters strafing the landing beaches. However, in three days the Vichy French lost 119 aircraft out of 200, as well as having their airfields put out of action. The US Army Air Forces lost only forty-four aircraft out of 164, and all the US Navy aircraft carriers remained intact. Early on 11 November the French Commander in Casablanca surrendered and signed an armistice.

At Oran in Algeria at 0100, also on 8 November, the US 1st Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions went ashore. Before dawn the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, HM Ships Furious, Biter and Dasher, launched ten Seafires, eight Albacore torpedo-bombers, and twelve Sea Hurricanes. During 8 and 9 November considerable air combat ensued with the Aeronavale over Oran’s la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.

This provided cover for American tanks to capture Tafaraoui on 9 November, which then enabled a Hurricane squadron and some Spitfires from the RAF’s 31 Fighter Group to fly in from Gibraltar. When one Spitfire was shot down on its landing approach by a Dewoitine fighter, a quick response claimed three of the French fighters. The surviving French aircraft at la Senia took off and escaped to Morocco.

Later, when the Tafaraoui airfield came under fire from an approaching column of the French Foreign Legion and its artillery battery, the Spitfires were again called up. Their strafing attack blew up a truck carrying troops, spattering one Spitfire with body parts, and causing the French to withdraw quickly. By the end of the day on 9 November the French authorities declared a cease-fire to end any threat to the la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.


Farther east along the coast near to Algiers, also in the early hours of 8 November, the troop landings of the British First Army went ahead. Operation TORCH gambled on a land spearhead that in the main comprised only 11 and 36 Brigades of the 78th Battleaxe Division, some light tank units of Blade Force, and an American field artillery battalion. The task force, under command of 78th Division, was being used in an urgent but risky drive to occupy Tunis.

While all three landings were equally important in order to occupy northwest Africa, in the short term those at Algiers were critical. A proposal to land farther east at Tunis had been rejected because of the threat of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica attacks from their bases in Sicily. Yet the immediate goal of the Allies’ ground forces was to squeeze the Axis armies in a pincer movement between Operation TORCH and Montgomery’s Eighth Army. A rapid advance was planned to gain control quickly of the major port of Tunis before German forces could be landed there, and before the start of winter and the rainy season in late December.

The decision not to land at Tunis itself, or even the Algerian port of Bone near the Tunisian border, was driven by a fear of enemy air attack. Axis bombers based in Sicily could easily reach both Bone and Tunis with fighter escorts, whereas the British and American air forces could offer little support to any landings there. Even after air bases were established at Algiers and Bone, Allied fighter aircraft would be at the extremity of their range to reach Tunis, which would allow little time over the battlefield to support ground forces. In the event the capability of the Germans to react quickly and transport well-equipped troops, tanks, guns and aircraft to Tunis, was grossly underestimated by the Allies.


Spitfires in North Africa II

At the moment of the landings, there were no garrison troops in Tunis, and the German and Italian High Commands were taken completely by surprise. But Axis reaction was swift, and effectively assisted by the conduct of Admiral Esteva, the French Resident-General. The first German troops arrived by air at El Aouina airfield, near Tunis, on November 9, only a day after the Allied landings.

They seized the key points of the two cities; they executed or imprisoned the known and suspected Allied sympathizers; they took over the ports of Sousse, Sfax and Gabes and the inland town of Kairouan. Within a week there were 5,000 front-line troops in and around Tunis and Bizerte; they had tanks; and they were still flying in Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters.

The landings at Algiers were not only the most crucial to the Operation TORCH strategy. They were the most risky, and no-one knew what the Vichy French authorities would do. The French possessed dangerous squadrons of both fighters and bombers at their Algiers airfields of Blida and Maison Blanche. In addition, while the Allied ships and troops were going ashore, they would be within range of Luftwaffe bombers.

When a French Douglas DB-7 bomber from the Blida air force base threatened the invasion fleet, two Seafire fighters from the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable shot it down. Successive flights of Martlet fighters from HMS Victorious then attacked Blida airfield in waves, shooting up aircraft on the ground and those attempting to take off. Around 0830, when the Blida air base signalled its surrender, naval fliers landed and took control.

Luckily bad weather had kept many French aircraft grounded, such as fifty Dewoitine fighters, and six Potez bombers, preventing them from causing mayhem amongst the invading forces. The French Air Force base of Maison Blanche, where there had been no order to hold fire, was captured by 0900. Apart from a failed attempt to capture Algiers harbour, troop landings along the coastal beaches went well. Many Vichy French army units had been ordered not to resist.

During the morning of 8 November Hurricanes of No. 43 Squadron RAF, and Spitfires of 81 and 242 Squadrons RAF, flew from Gibraltar and landed at Maison Blanche. But, as the day neared its end, a Luftwaffe raid of fifteen Junkers Ju88 bombers attacked the ships off Algiers, damaging three Seafires on a carrier.

On the ground at the Maison Blanche air base, relations between Allied forces and the Vichy French were tense. British troops stood guard over parked French fighter planes. The newly landed Hurricanes and Spitfires remained on the tarmac for lack of fuel. Cold and hungry, their pilots huddled by their planes facing a Tunisian winter’s night.

Next day, 9 November, fighters of both 43 and 81 Squadrons had enough fuel left in their tanks to scramble against another Luftwaffe raid and were joined by Spitfires of 242 Squadron, already aloft, to disrupt and fight off the German bombers. When the fighter pilots returned to Maison Blanche their combat stress was no doubt quickly forgotten when the first food since their earlier arrival from Gibraltar was awaiting them.

The decisive impact of Allied air power in support of the Operation TORCH landings has not been well recognized. Even with a large number of inexperienced pilots, within two days Allied air forces had overwhelmed their French counterparts across Morocco and Algeria. Most important of all, the airfields at Maison Blanche and Blida near Algiers, and soon after at Bone, the closest to the Tunisian border, were captured with little damage. French ground forces, with their air support eliminated, and their leaders in disarray with conflicting loyalties, were left with no options. Allied forces were pouring in by air and sea. On 13 November General Eisenhower reached a final agreement with French authorities in Algeria under Admiral Darlan and hostilities came to an end.

The Royal Navy aircraft-carriers lost a total of forty-five aircraft over Oran and Algiers – fifteen Sea Hurricanes, eight Martlets, eight Albacores, two Fulmars and at least twelve Seafires. Despite a large number of inexperienced pilots, they had destroyed or driven the Vichy Air Force from the skies. Allied air power was clearly a huge factor not only in protecting the invasion fleets and troop landings, but also in gaining air superiority to force the early ceasefire by Vichy French Authorities.

Although it was not known at the time, the early successes in Morocco and Algeria had a consequence. By the end of November there would be some 20,000 Axis troops in Tunis, specifically the 334th Infantry Division, the Italian 1st Division, and 10th Panzer Division. The Germans continued building up and, on 8 December, General von Arnim arrived in Tunis to take command of their forces which, on that date, were designated the Fifth Panzer Army. Perhaps the German reaction to Operation TORCH had been foreseen by the Allies as a possibility, but with a hope that it would not happen so fast.

In contrast, the Allies’ initial attacking force from 78th Division with the two brigade groups and Blade Force to make the first thrust at Tunis totalled only 12,300 men. It was recognized as a gamble. With air bases close to Tunis, as anticipated the Luftwaffe quickly established air superiority in Tunisian airspace. It meant that Allied ground forces came under regular attack from enemy fighters and dive-bombers.


Unlike the Desert Air Force (DAF), which had been based in Egypt, and had experience in extending its supply lines and moving to temporary airfields with Eighth Army, the air force squadrons sent from the USA and Britain to support Operation TORCH had to be self-sufficient on arrival. In comparison, the Germans were flying in ground forces and aircraft from Sicily, only about 100 miles distant from Tunis, to all-weather airfields close to the port of Bizerte and the Tunisian capital, such as Blida and Maison Blanche.

In early-December winter rain and mud made many dirt airfields inoperable. To support the army’s advances with air support and get within range of Tunis, Allied squadrons had to make use of temporary landing grounds and often had to roll out a dirt strip themselves. As the British First Army moved to within striking distance of Tunis, their closest operable air base was 114 miles to the rear at Bone. This meant that Spitfires were at the limit of their range, resulting in restricted patrol time over Tunis and German positions before having to turn for home.

RAF photo reconnaissance flights on 12 November revealed at least 120 Luftwaffe aircraft at Tunisian airfields, including forty Stukas and some Fw190s at Bizerte and Tunis. The Focke-Wulf Fw190 was fast, with a maximum speed above 380mph, well-armed and, apart from the Spitfire, superior at that time to other Allied fighters in North Africa. In addition there were some 270 German bombers based in Sicily and Sardinia that were raiding Algiers every night.

Basing themselves at first at the Maison Blanche airfield outside Algiers, the Spitfire pilots of No. 154 Squadron RAF, led by New Zealander Squadron Leader Don Carlson, quickly made their name known. On 15 November Carlson shot down a Ju88 bomber. Adding this to his four victories with 74 Squadron in 1941 it made Carlson one of the first Spitfire ‘aces’ over North Africa. In their first two weeks, 154 Squadron claimed nineteen Luftwaffe bombers shot down, and nine more at least hit and damaged.

In mid-November 81 and 111 RAF Squadrons, with Spitfires, were able to move farther east to Bone, 275 miles from Algiers but only fifty miles from the Tunisian border. The Bone airfield, not much more than a landing ground, had been captured on 12 November by 300 British paratroopers, flown in by C-47 transports of the USAAF 64th Group. Next day more C-47s brought in anti-aircraft guns and fuel, which enabled the escorting P-38 Lightning fighters to land and base themselves at Bone. The airfield was very basic and under continual bombing and strafing attacks from the Luftwaffe bases at Bizerte.

For the Spitfire pilots the arrival of winter rain, together with the Spitfire Mk VC’s inferior performance to the Bf109, made the life or death struggle in the air even worse. The fight for supremacy of the skies was a tenacious struggle which would have profound consequences for the armies on the ground.

On 14 November Canadian Flying Officer Harry Fenwick of 81 Squadron RAF began a momentous five days of dogfights when he was shot up by a Bf109. Luckily, he managed a forced landing with a leg wound. On 16 November he was back in the air, first inflicting damage on a 109, only to be shot up himself again by another 109. Once more he found a way to return safely to base. The next day he made his first kill with a Macchi 202 and on 18 November his revenge was complete when he shot down a Bf109.

Although two Spitfires at any one time were required to be in constant patrol over the Bone airfield, and two more fuelled with pilots in the cockpit ready to go, not all Axis air raids could be countered. Soon after arriving at Bone on 19 November, No. 72 Squadron RAF lost eight Spitfires to a bombing and strafing attack by twelve Bf109s. On 20 November thirty Ju88s bombed Maison Blanche airfield heavily, destroying the RAF reconnaissance aircraft.

On patrol on 28 November over an Allied convoy near Algiers, Flying Officer ‘Paddy’ Chambers of 154 Squadron sighted five Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero aircraft, which were beginning a bombing run at the ships. Chambers closed with the SM.79s from behind and above. One by one he picked them off, to send four spiralling into the sea. Out of ammunition and his plane damaged, Chambers broke away. Flying Officer Alan Aikman shot down the remaining bomber, so that in this engagement both pilots reached their fifth victory and became Spitfire aces.

On 3 December, close to Tebourba and Djedeida and about twenty miles from Tunis, 78th Division was being driven back by German Panzers. Over the battle area Pilot Officer ‘Robbie’ Robertson of 72 Squadron spotted some approaching Fw190 fighter-bombers. Diving to attack them he was shot at mistakenly by an American P-38 Lightning fighter. Despite the friendly fire Robertson shot down an Fw190 for his fifth victory. His success in becoming an ace seemed to continue on 18 December when he accounted for another Bf109. Soon after on the same sortie he took a hit from a cannon shell in the cockpit.

A splinter penetrated one of Robertson’s eyes, leaving him bleeding and half-blinded. Somehow, Robertson kept control of the Spitfire to make a forced landing, but he lost the eye to finish him as a fighter pilot. Yet Robertson and the other pilots of 72 Squadron had taken a toll of the Axis air forces. In four weeks the squadron had racked up a score of twenty-one enemy aircraft destroyed, and another eight damaged or worse.

On 6 December Flying Officer Fenwick, with fellow Canadian James Waller, shared a kill of an Italian Reggiane Re.2001 Falco II fighter. Fenwick then shot down a Bf109 of his own. These two victories took both Canadians to ace status. Every sortie could end in a life or death struggle, with the incidence of death or maiming of aircrew increasing on both sides. A pilot could become an ace one day, and then be dead or invalided out on the next.


It is a common but false perception that the Tunisian campaign was fought in the desert. In fact, the major part of the fighting took place in the mountains and valleys of northern Tunisia. Much of it was in the cold and rain of winter, and the icy winds of the Atlas Mountains. The bad weather also disrupted the Allies’ longer-range bombers, which were using airfields even farther away in Algiers.

Unaware of the enemy’s gathering strength, by 27 November leading elements of 78th Division and Blade Force had advanced down the Medjerda River valley, through the strategically placed market town of Medjez el Bab to Tebourba. They were literally within sight of Tunis, no more hills could be seen, only a flat plain less than twenty miles wide lay between them and the Tunisian capital. Major General Evelegh, the 78th Division commander, hoped to be reinforced very quickly and even had thoughts of entering Tunis on the next day.

Before noon on 28 November such thoughts were gone when 10th Panzer Division counter-attacked with some fifty tanks. Also the Luftwaffe’s near freedom of the skies at this time enabled their Stuka dive-bombers to hit troops of the spearhead 11 Brigade of 78th Division at will. As well as defending their build-up in and around Tunis, the Germans were also intent on driving the Allies back beyond Medjez. Although by 4 December the superior German armour with unchecked air support sent the Allies reeling back from Tebourba, a week of stubborn resistance by 78th Division, and the American forces, gave First Army time to withdraw, and consolidate stronger forces at Medjez el Bab.

In response to the Army’s desperate plea for urgent air support, on 4 December Wing Commander H.G. Malcolm led off ten Bisley light bombers of No. 18 Squadron RAF, in daylight without any fighter escort, to bomb a Luftwaffe airfield. They were intercepted and also outnumbered by Bf109s. The ten Bisleys, obsolete, slow and poorly armed, were all lost. It was an illustration of the many selfless efforts by Allied airmen to stem the German ground onslaught. Wing Commander Malcolm received the posthumous award of the VC.

A lack of forward airfields, and almost non-existent co-operation processes between the Army and RAF spelled disaster. That same day, 4 December, twelve other Allied aircraft were lost, five P-38 Lightnings, a Boston bomber and six Spitfires destroyed on the ground. To add to the Allies’ setbacks, on 6 December the rains came. ‘It rained for three days and three nights,’ said Cyril Ray the official historian of 78th Division. ‘There was no cover for the men and the slit trenches filled with liquid mud.’

Despite the Tebourba setback the Allies regathered in Medjez and planned another assault on Tunis. Political pressure intensified and the festive season was ignored. The offensive was to resume on the night of 23 December 1942 with a plan to capture Djebel el Ahmera, a mountainous ridge some six miles north of Medjez, known as Longstop Hill. Until it was seized nothing could move down the valley to attack Tunis.

The torrential rain swamped airfields, grounding planes. At times the mud was too heavy for even mules to move supplies. The Tunis offensive was cancelled. Even so it was decided that an attack on Longstop Hill must go ahead. During the night of 23 December and all of the next day, Christmas Eve, the Coldstream Guards and the US 18th Infantry Division fought in waves to gain Longstop’s peak. And like the ebb and flow of the tides, they first gained the summit, lost it, recaptured it, and lost it again. On Christmas morning, after the second German counter-attack, the Allies withdrew to Medjez with over 500 casualties, and another bitter, and costly defeat.

This failure to take Longstop Hill, combined with the rain and mud, brought the Allied advance to a shuddering halt. To add to that was the lack of close air support. It all meant that any further move on Tunis was impracticable. The forced back down from the plan to capture Tunis and the nearby port of Bizerte before the end of December meant that Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika, which was retreating across Libya to Tunisia from the pursuing Eighth Army, was likely to join up with von Arnim’s growing Fifth Panzer Army. The only option was for the Allies to build up their strength during the winter.

Air Vice Marshal Tedder knew that the Allies must first win the air war before a spring offensive on the ground could succeed. In their gamble to capture Tunis by the end of December 1942, the Allies’ lack of air superiority in Tunisia had been a major contributory factor in the failure. Or in the converse perspective, if the Allies had enjoyed air superiority, the outcome may well have been different.

The battle for air superiority also now had to be fought and won on two fronts, over Tunisia and the Libyan desert. The DAF was continually on the move in step with Eighth Army, from one isolated desert airstrip to another. While the Allies had lengthening supply lines and temporary airfields, the Axis had permanent airfields in Tunisia, Sicily and Sardinia. To undermine this advantage, air power and interdiction were seen as the key by choking off the enemy’s supply routes, whether by sea freight or air transport across the Mediterranean.

Belgian Air Force WWI

Nieuport-Delage NiD-29

The immediate successor of the SPAD fighters in the French squadrons after World War I. Although slower than the Wibault 1, it was preferred by the French for its better control harmonization and efficiency.

An answer for a 1917 fighter program, the first of three prototypes flew in 1918. Production models of the NiD-29C1 reached operational units in 1922. Five years later, 620 had been delivered to the French air force, and a total of more than 700 were produced for France until 1928. Only three saw active service, used during one month in Morocco for bombing and strafing against rebels.

The NiD-29C1 was a great export success. Spain bought 30, Belgium 109, Italy 181 (including 175 produced under license), Sweden 10 (called J2), and Argentina and Siam unknown quantities. The most important customer was Japan, with no less than 608 built as the Ko 4 between 1924 and 1932. It was the front-line fighter of the Japanese army for several years and fought during the Japanese war against China. Some Ko 4s were still used for training when Japan entered World War II. The NiD-29C1 is one of the very few aircraft whose service life spanned both world wars. In its heyday in 1924, it was considered by U. S. General Billy Mitchell to be the best pursuit plane of the high-speed diving type in the world.

Hanriot HD-1

Belgium’s Aviation Militaire, dependent on British and French sources of supply for its equipment and apparently undaunted by its unfortunate experience with Dupont’s Ponnier L.I took advantage of the French refusal to place an order for the HD-1, drawing up an initial contract for twenty aircraft in June, 1917, It was the Belgian government’s desire to have an aircraft manufacturer working directly for them, but when the first HD-1s reached Belgium on August 22, 1917, it looked as though another mistake had been made. The HD-1s were assigned to the lére Escadrille de Chasse to replace the unit’s Nieuport XXIIIs, and HD-l No.1 was offered to Jean Olieslagers, who was to be Belgium’s fifth ranking ace. Olieslagers immediately announced his preference for the Nieuport, passing the unwanted HD-1 to Andre Demeulemeester. Demeulemeester would not accept what Olieslagers had refused, and passed on the HD-1 to his new wingman, Willy Coppens, who had just joined the lére Escadrille. Coppens was delighted to exchange his old Nieuport XI (in which the standard 80 h.p. engine had been supplanted by a 110 h.p. Le Rhône) for the new Hanriot, and his report on the HD-I was highly enthusiastic. For awhile, Demeulemeester and Coppens made an odd pair, the flight commander flying a Nieuport and the wingman flying an Hanriot, but Demeulemeester and Olieslagers soon admitted that they had misjudged the HD-1, although it was with some reluctance that they adopted the new fighter in October, 1917.

The Hanriot HD-1 carried only one machine gun, and this was mounted over the port side of the nose. This arrange- ment was, in the viewpoint of the Belgian pilots, most unsatisfactory, and the HD-1s were immediately returned to the Parc de l’Aviation Militaire Belge at Beaumarais in France, where the gun was centralised on the fuselage. At the same time, the pilot’s seat was reinforced and an attempt was made to fit the fighter with a Nieuport-type tailskid. One of the HD-1s was tested with an experimental 150 h.p. Le Rhone engine, but this proved unsatisfactory. Both Demeulemeester and Coppens considered the HD-1 to be under-armed, desiring a fighter with twin machine guns. Demeulemeester actually had a pair of guns fitted to his machine, but reverted to the single gun arrangement when he found that the extra gun had an adverse effect on the HD-1 ‘s ceiling.

In view of the limited enthusiasm with which the HD-1 had been greeted upon its arrival in Belgium, the Command proposed its replacement with the Sopwith Camel at the beginning of January, 1918. The Camel, with its 130 h.p. Clerget engine, lacked the extreme maneuverability and delicacy of handling which characterised the Hanriot. Belgian pilots found that the Camel could be dangerous during aerobatics and that visibility from the cockpit left something to be desired. Thus, by the end of January, the camels were quietly transferred to the new 1léme Escadrille and the HD-1 was finally accepted as standard equipment and the 1 ére Escadrille never had cause to regret its choice.

In August, 1917, the 5éme Escadrille had received the splendid new SPAD S.XIII, but despite the tremendous reputation of this fighter and that of the redoubtable Sopwith Camel, by October, 1918, all three Belgian fighter squadrons had standardised on the nimble little Hanriot HD-1.

Willy Coppens, who had been enraptured by the little scout from the outset and was to become the Hanriot’s greatest exponent and Belgium’s leading ace, used several HD-1s until October 14, 1918, when he was hit by shrapnel while attacking an observation balloon and seriously injured in the ensuing crash landing. Initially he flew HD-1 No.1, but from October 26, 1917, he flew HD-1 No.9, which had the centrally-mounted machine gun. When that aircraft was damaged on January 19, 1918, he exchanged it for No.17, which he later fitted with a 0.303-in. Vickers gun, and on May 3, 1918, he received yet another Hanriot, the HD-1 No.24. In addition to this aircraft, Coppens flew Nos. 6 and 23, the latter having a Lanser fireproof fuel tank which was a personal gift of Rene Hanriot. His last HD-I was No.45,which had two 0.303-in. Vickers guns.

In all, seventy-nine HD-1s were built for Belgium, and some of these were still flying in 1926 with the 7éme Escadrille de # Chasse at Nivelles, alongside the Nieuport 29C.1 fighters fitted with 300 h.p. Hispano-Suiza engines


Belgium’s small size, limited resources and intention to remain neutral in any conflict, all led to meagre beginnings for the Belgian Air Service – the Aviation Militaire Belge (AMB). Despite this, King Albert was very air minded, and although never a pilot himself, he was flown several times over the lines during the course of the war, although occasionally the pilot responsible had to pretend to misunderstand his requests to go deeper into German Occupied territory!

It was King Albert who had encouraged the setting up of the Military Aviation School in 1911, although its original establishment stood at just five pilots, two mechanics and one carpenter, but no aircraft. And it was the King who presented the school with its first aircraft, when he handed over to them a machine which had been given to him as a gift by Baron de Caters.

Perhaps it is natural that any small organization will have its share of individualists, and the AMB seems to have had more than its fair share of innovators. In September 1912, Belgium became the first European country to fit a machine gun to an aeroplane and fire at a ground target (a sheet). The same crew travelled to England in November to repeat the demonstration at Hendon, then at Aldershot, for the benefit of the British Army. Their favourable reception contrasted with the original demonstration in Belgium when they had been castigated for damaging the sheet!

By 1914, there had been some expansion, as four squadrons existed. This increase was not as great as it might seem, however, as each squadron numbered just four Henri Farmans, flown by five pilots and six observers. Ground equipment consisted of five lorries, one for each squadron and another used as a workshop. So at the outbreak of the war, the AMB was nothing if not compact and highly mobile.

Belgium had a small aircraft factory which after the occupation became the Military Workshop or depot in Calais. As a result throughout the war the AMB was reliant on the French, and, to a lesser extent, on the British to provide its machines. As a result it tended to be given surplus and obsolescent aircraft by its allies, which makes the achievements of its aces all the more remarkable.

The aircraft supply situation was not helped either by the weather. Most of the AMB’s aircraft were destroyed on the ground by a violent storm on 13 September 1914, and every one of its aircraft was lost in a hurricane on 28 December. On a day to day basis the weather along the coast was perhaps the worst anywhere on the Western Front, and between February 1915 and November 1918 on 432 out of 1380 days the weather was too bad for any operations to take place at all.

For reasons of limited range and patriotism, most of the operations of the AMB were conducted from airfields squeezed into the small portion of Belgium still unoccupied by the Germans. The natural aggression of the pilots, trying to avenge the invasion of their country, had to be tempered with their being such a small number of them that the loss of just one or two would cause significant difference to the crew establishment. The prevailing westerly winds, the bane of Allied pilots, drifted any combat eastwards deeper behind German lines, so prolonged combats were not encouraged. And even if combats were successful, unless the German aircraft came down in Allied territory, or near enough to the front lines to be observed by Allied troops, victory claims were hard to establish.

In February 1916 the first dedicated fighter squadron was formed when Escadrille I became the 1ère Escadrille de Chasse equipped with French Nieuport scouts. However, aeroplanes were never numerous and in January 1917 the AMB only had thirty-nine machines available. They eventually received more modern equipment from their allies, such as Spads and Sopwith Camels but they were in small numbers. By March 1918 the AMB had increased to twelve escadrilles of which one was a maintenance unit and another operated seaplanes. One of the escadrilles, though, still had Farmans, which had been condemned as operationally obsolete by the British in 1915.

One complication for those personnel operating from the airfield at Houthem was that squeezed into the same tiny village were the Belgian royal family, and the headquarters of the Belgian army. So every move was made under the gaze of the highest echelons of the powers-that-be.

A further by-product of the AMB’s small size was that it often fought alongside units belonging to its Allies, most commonly squadrons of the RNAS. But this in itself could be a mixed blessing as 4 Naval, perhaps the most active unit in Flanders, on more than one occasion attacked Belgian aircraft and forced them down. Fortunately, no Belgian fighter pilots were seriously wounded during these encounters.

Though small the AMB was an efficient and effective force and produced a number of aces, including Willy Coppens, who was the highest scoring kite balloon ace of any nation. Their skill flying obsolescent machines is demonstrated by the fact that all their aces survived the war.

Houthem Aerodrome

After their occupation by the Germans the Belgians were left with just a tiny corner of their country. For nearly four years the village of Houthem became the capital of free Belgium and as such was a heaving scene of activity. The headquarters of the Belgian army was on the edge of the aerodrome and King Albert and the royal family lived nearby. The front line was only seventeen kilometres to the east and the French border three kilometres to the west.

Following the end of the ‘Race to the Sea’ towards the end of 1914, the front line remained in virtually the same place in the few miles near the coast until the final advance to victory in 1918. As a result the squadrons of the AMB tended to remain at the same airfields through the course of the war, not being moved about by the ebb and flow of the war. It was only during the ‘last hundred days’ that it was able to help in the final advance of the Allies, commanded in Belgium by King Albert who had been so instrumental in encouraging its formation just a few years before.

The fact the aerodrome was so close to the French frontier was a bonus as the Belgians would take a big-bellied Farman F40 to the French aerodrome at Hondschoote and load up with crates of alcohol for the squadron, which was in contravention of orders from High Command!

The initial aerodromes employed by the AMB once the front line had stabilised were Coxyde/Furnes (page 123) where I, II and III Escadrilles were based, and Houthem where the IV and V Escadrilles were established. There was also a seaplane unit at Calais.

Willy Coppens, Belgium’s highest scoring ace, after completing his pilot training at Étampes, in early 1916 was posted to 6me Escadrille at Houthem where he was to fly the Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c. He described his arrival in his book Days on the Wing:

Leaving my kit in the station, I climbed on to a lorry proceeding in the direction of Houthem. Travelling thus, I covered that long, straight road, bordered on either side by willow trees, past an endless succession of low-lying meadows, separated by endless dykes. My lorry deposited me at some distance from the village. A very severe spell of weather had set in, and the country was deep in snow. It was bitterly cold. I stepped out briskly, glowing inwardly with ambition and hope, and at last certain of the immediate future – even though I was not on my way to a Fighter Squadron.

As night drew in and I approached Houthem, the village stood out in dim silhouette against the dark wintry sky – the low-built houses, following the main street in its Z-shaped course past the church, just visible on my right, and, beyond, the windmill, with its sails outstretched in a broad cross above the mound it stood on, and the yellow shafts of light escaping through the rifts in the doors and the shuttered windows. Dark shadows lay on the snow, and my feet sank at every step and made no sound.

At Houthem I lived in a cosy little room in the village that I had decorated with brightly-coloured cretonne. I had naturally tapped the electric current serving our G.H.Q., and my quarters were exceedingly comfortable. Even so, I was later to grow much fonder of my little room at Les Moëres, by the side of the aerodrome. An aviator must live in the shadow of his shed to enjoy life and get the best out of his calling. The dispersal of the pilots at Houthem was fatal to the corporate spirit, and as a result the Squadron was divided against itself. The squadrons at Les Moëres possessed much more esprit de corps.

At Houthem, almost all the officers of the Squadron – therefore too many – shared a common mess, a vast, unattractive hall. A small minority lived in the junior mess, also known as the Potinière, which was established in a wooden building on the other side of the village.

Belgian General Headquarters had established themselves at Houthem, wishing in their innocence to have an aerodrome close by for their defence. They showed less keenness for this defence when the Germans came across and bombed the aerodrome, and I know of many pilots who were subsequently able to gain possession of the best rooms in the village…

At conference time, Houthem was as animated as an anthill; the High Street was full of cars and officers greeted one another cheerily. But it did not last long, and as soon as the meeting was over, the village relapsed into slumber. The flying men were all in their various messes, and all was quiet save for an occasional outburst following some high-spirited ‘rag’. The G.H.Q. officers, although more numerous, were conscious of their position, and therefore made less noise. They never came near us. They were divided according to their rank, into three messes, one for the juniors, one for the officers of Field rank, and the third for General Officers. Their colleagues in the army called these messes the ‘Hospital’, the ‘Asylum’, and the ‘Mortuary’.

In April 1917 Coppens was transferred to the 4me Escadrille, also based at Houthem and still flying two-seater reconnaissance machines. While here he was able to fly the Nieuport scout which belonged to Commandant Hagemans, the commander of the centre at Houthem.

On 15 July 1917 Coppens realised his ambition to become a fighter pilot when he was posted to 1ère Escadrille based at Les Moëres. They were commanded by Commandant Fernand Jacquet and operated Nieuport scouts.

Les Moëres Aerodrome

This aerodrome is associated with the formation of the Belgian Groupe de Chasse and Belgium’s greatest fighter pilot, Willy Coppens. He claimed all of his thirty-seven victories while based here.

The site of Les Moëres was taken over when the aerodrome at Furnes became untenable due to shelling by heavy calibre German guns.

Coppens described the aerodrome:

From the point of view of an aerodrome, the place was far from being ideal as it stood, and a considerable amount of work was necessary to reclaim the marshy land, on which the squadron had made its home, before it was really fit for use. This flat country is criss-crossed by ruler-straight roads, intersecting at right-angles. These roads are lined with gaunt willow-trees whose grizzled, long-haired heads frown sullenly across the low-lying landscape, and are separated from the fields that lie alongside them by dykes that are both wide and deep.

A road, identical with every other road, leading to two isolated farms in Les Moëres, finished up at one corner of the aerodrome. Here, away from all traffic, the green canvas sheds and the various buildings housing the squadron had been erected. The first wooden hut one reached sheltered the mess, and next to this stood another, which was partitioned off into ten cubicles occupied by ten pilots, with a hall in the centre. Additional living accommodation was provided by two large aeroplane-cases (originally used for the transport of Sopwith two-seaters), each the size of a railway-carriage, and each subdivided into three little cubicles opening direct on to the aerodrome. These cases and huts stood in line, in the shade of a row of willows, alongside a dyke, where the wind, bringing with it the fragrance of the dunes, used to come and sigh among the reeds.

The mess had six windows. In front of each of these was arranged a table to seat four, giving the whole the appearance of a dining car. Chairs of light oak upholstered in green velvet, found in an abandoned villa at Coxyde, added to our comfort, and a piano, at which André De Meulemeester sat for hours at a stretch – for De Meulemeester was a born pianist of very great skill – lent a note of gaiety that was greatly appreciated.

The Groupe de Chasse

In March 1918 there was a reorganization of the AMB, when a dedicated fighter wing was formed. Prior to this, fighter pilots were called out to escort two-seater machines, or for offensive patrols at the request of a ground unit or at the individual pilot’s initiative.

Despite the rigid Belgian army policy of promotion by seniority, King Albert insisted that Fernand Jacquet became the commanding officer over the heads of more senior officers. His confidence was well-rewarded as Jacquet welded it into an effective force, although limited in numbers and still operating a number of types that were obsolescent.

A little of tradition was lost in this reorganisation, as the 1ère Escadrille became the 9me, the 5me Escadrille was re-numbered the 10me and a new unit, the 11me, was formed. The Groupe de Chasse established itself on Les Moëres. Nominally the 9me operated the Hanriot HD1, the 10me the Spad and the 11me the Camel.

Willy Coppens and the Hanriot

Born on 6 July 1892 at Watermaal-Bosvoorde, near Brussels, Willy Omer François Jean Coppens started the war with the 1ère Regiment Grenadiers. Like a number of Belgian aviators, he learned to fly in the UK and received his Royal Aeronautical Club certificate, No. 2140, on 9 December 1915. Following further training at the Belgian Aviation School at Étampes he joined 6me Escadrille in April 1917. Initially he flew Nieuport scouts in the 1ère Escadrille but shortly a new type of machine arrived. Coppens again:

I was present when the first Hanriots came, and on this occasion I can assert that the Squadron very nearly refused them, as I believe it had refused the Spads.

André de Meulemeester had the first and declined to keep it. He therefore handed it over to Olieslagers, who declined to keep that which De Meulemeester had no use for. And so on, and I, being about the last to have joined the squadron, finally had it offered to me. I fell in love with the Hanriot at first sight. It was light as a feather on the controls, and the pilot had a wonderfully clear field of vision.

The Hanriot was extremely easy to handle and pleasant to fly. It was strong in spite of its apparent fragility, and was faster and climbed better than the Nieuport.

The HD1 was designed by Emile Eugène Dupont for René Hanriot’s company in the summer of 1916. Proof tests were carried out on it in January 1917. Unfortunately, though it was a good design, the excellent Spad was just coming into large scale production. Also the Hanriot employed the same engine as the Nieuport scout, which the French were trying to replace, and was not enough of an improvement over the Nieuport to warrant production for the French air service. However, it was tested by the Italians who adopted it as the principal replacement for their Nieuports. A total of 1,700 served with the Italian air service, of which about half were built in Italy under licence.

The Belgians ordered 125 HD1s, the first being delivered on 22 August 1917. The enthusiasm Coppens displayed for the type eventually persuaded the doubters, and the 1ère Escadrille was fully equipped with them. The Hanriot would soldier on into the mid-1920s with both the Italians and Belgians.

On 22 August 1917 Coppens became the first Belgian to fly a Hanriot on an operational sortie. During the latter part of the year he made three claims but they were unconfirmed. On 25 April 1918 he obtained his first confirmed victory, when he shot down a two-seater, which crashed near Ramscapelle. The great disadvantage with the Hanriot was that it was only fitted with one fixed Vickers machine gun. Coppens was able to obtain twenty rounds of incendiary ammunition and on 8 May he attacked a German observation balloon and brought it down. This was the first kite balloon shot down by a Belgian pilot. Just under two hours later he brought another down in flames. After each of his victories, in his enthusiasm, he gave an impromptu aerobatic display, much to the enjoyment of the Belgian frontline troops.

From this moment Coppens specialised in attacking observation balloons. These were difficult and dangerous targets and many pilots avoided them. On 22 July he shot down three when he had been poaching on the British part of the front. This was frowned upon by Belgian General Headquarters but a reprimand was avoided when the British awarded him a Military Cross for the feat! By the first week in October 1918 Coppens had claimed 33 balloons and become the most successful ‘balloon buster’ of any nation.

On the morning of 14 October he took off with Etienne Hage to destroy a balloon near Vladslo. Coppens again:

I soon caught sight of the Thourout kite-balloon, ‘flying’ at about 1,800 feet, and at the same time I saw another at 2,100 feet, over Praet-Bosch. The latter balloon was the higher, and would therefore require to be attacked after the first – which would have to be taken by surprise, as quickly as possible, before it was pulled down too far.

At 6 a.m., I fired four rounds into the Praet-Bosch balloon now at a height of 2,400 feet, and the envelope began to burn.

Etienne Hage failed to see the flames, and instead of following me, went back to the balloon, while the ground defences fired at us for all they were worth, and the Thourout balloon, warned, started to go down.

Turning back towards Thourout, and flying – so far unscathed – through that maelstrom of incendiary projectiles from the ‘onion’ batteries below, I pondered on my chances of getting through.

At 6.5 a.m., I sailed in to open fire on the Thourout balloon, now hauled down to 900 feet, and in addition to the bursting of the shells, I heard the vicious bark of the small-calibre machine guns. I was 450 feet away, when I felt a terrible blow on the left leg.

An incendiary bullet, after passing through the thin planking of the floor, had struck my shin-bone, smashing everything in its passage and inflicting a wound all the more painful for the fact that the bullet, being hollow, had flattened, becoming in effect a ‘dum-dum’ bullet. The muscles were torn apart, the bone shattered, and the artery cut in half.

Because of the shock and pain Coppen’s right leg went rigid, pushing the rudder bar, which caused the machine to yaw and enter a spin. At the same time his hand involuntarily clutched the trigger control, firing his machine-gun and hosing the bullets in all directions, a few hitting the balloon and setting it on fire. Fortunately his rudder bar had a foot strap at either end, so he was able to control it using only his undamaged right foot. He turned for the safety of the Belgian front line.

A sweat on my forehead made me snatch down my goggles, so that they remained hanging round my neck, and pull off my fur-lined cap. I had done all my flying at the front with this cap, and nothing would have parted me from it; with an effort, I stuffed it under my coat. On the other hand, I tore off and shed my silk muffler protecting my face from the cold. I wanted air, ice-cold air, to bathe my face and keep me from fainting.

Crossing the lines Coppens put his machine down in a small field by the side of a road, where the weakened undercarriage collapsed. He was quickly removed from his Hanriot and transferred to the hospital at La Panne, where he was operated on. For several days he suffered from terrible pain and fever. King Albert visited him twice and on the second visit insisted that the doctors amputate Coppens’ leg in order to save his life. While in hospital the Armistice was signed and he was transferred to hospital in Brussels, until finally discharged in July 1919.

As befitted his position as Belgium’s most successful fighter pilot he was heavily decorated, being made an Officier de l’Ordre de Leopold, an Officier de l’Ordre de la Couronne and received the Croix de Guerre with twenty-seven palms and thirteen Lion Vermeils, plus twenty-eight citations. In addition he received the British DSO and the Serbian Order of the White Eagle. After the war he became a Baron and was persuaded by King Albert to remain in the army. This was a decision he came to regret, as he spent most of his years as a military attaché in Italy, France, Switzerland and Great Britain, receiving little promotion. He left the army in 1940, still only a major. During the Second World War he lived in Switzerland, organising resistance work, but in the late 1960s returned to Belgium. For the last five years of his life he resided with the only daughter of Jan Olieslagers, Belgium’s fifth most successful fighter pilot of the Great War, until his death on 21 December 1986.

Furnes/Coxyde Aerodrome

With the fall of Antwerp, four of the five Belgian escadrilles moved to Ostend on 4 October 1914. A week later all five evacuated to St-Pol-sur-Mer but on the 17th I Escadrille moved forward to the aerodrome at Coxyde (or Furnes as it was known to the British). They were shortly joined by Escadrilles II and III. Initial equipment consisted of a mixture of Maurice Farmans and Voisin pushers. Being so close to the front line, the aerodrome was a target for the batteries of heavy guns established by the Germans along the North Sea coast.

Belgian Air Force WWII

Belgium Gladiators

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.

Belgian CR.42s

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.

Belgian Hurricanes

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.


Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

Developed under the code name Senior Crown, the SR-71 Blackbird became the ultimate Archangel, the capstone in the lineage that began with the first A-12. The SR-71 has the distinction of having served for more than three decades, while the A-12 was in combat for barely a year. No other aircraft has ever had the distinction of being the fastest operational aircraft in the world from the day it entered service until the day it was retired three decades later. No other aircraft has ever set a world speed record on its retirement flight.

In 1983, in a flightline conversation at Beale AFB, an SR-71 pilot told this author that the Blackbird represented “high nineties technology that we were lucky to have in the sixties.” Today the nineties have come and gone, but there has yet to be anything else quite like the extraordinary Blackbird.

“The Blackbird was a wild stallion of an airplane,” Ben Rich, the program manager, recalled in his memoirs. “Everything about it was daunting and hard to tame—building it, flying it, selling it. It was an airplane so advanced and awesome that it easily intimidated anyone who dared to come close. Those cleared to see the airplane roar into the sky would remember it as an experience both exhilarating and terrifying as the world shook loose … with the roar of an oncoming tornado and the ground shaking under [one’s] feet like an eight-point earthquake, as the engines spouted blinding diamond-shaped shock waves.”

One of those “cleared to see” the SR-71 was CIA Director Richard Helms.

“I was so shaken, that I invented my own name for the Blackbird,” Helms later told Ben Rich about watching a nighttime launch at Groom Lake. “I called it the Hammers of Hell.”

Five feet longer but largely similar to the single-seat A-12, the tandem seat SR-71 evolved out of Kelly Johnson’s suggestion that the US Air Force should consider a reconnaissance aircraft like the CIA’s Archangel. While the A-12 and YF-12A aircraft were originally delivered mainly in a natural metal finish, SR-71s were coated entirely in a dark blue-black paint, earning them the Blackbird name.

The first SR-71A (tail number 61-7950) made its debut flight at Palmdale, California, near Edwards AFB, on December 22, 1964. Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland, a veteran of the A-12 program, was at the controls. The second and third Blackbirds made their first flights during March 1965.

A total of thirty-one Blackbirds rolled out of final assembly at Palmdale between August 1964 and May 1967. These included twenty-nine SR-71As and two SR-71Bs, the latter designed as trainers with an elevated rear seat in a fashion similar to that of the A-12B Titanium Goose. In the SR-71A, unlike the A-12B and the SR-71B, the rear seat, accommodating the reconnaissance systems officer (RSO), was not elevated.

In addition to the A and B variants, a thirty-second Blackbird was designated as SR-71C, which was completed in 1969 using the salvaged rear section of a YF-12A.

In January 1965, as a home for the incoming Blackbirds, the US Air Force activated the 4200th SRW at Beale AFB as a component of SAC. The subsidiary 4200th Support Squadron (later 4200th Test Wing) was the umbrella organization for the D-21 program at Groom Lake. In October 1965, the 4200th SRW was redesignated as the 9th SRW, assuming the lineage of the 9th Bombardment Group, which dated back to before World War II. This wing was comprised of two strategic reconnaissance squadrons (SRS), the 1st SRS and 99th SRS. In July 1976, in a strategic reconnaissance consolidation, the U-2s of the 100th SRW were reassigned to the 9th SRW.

Aerial refueling support was initially provided to the 9th SRW by KC-135Q tankers operated by the 9th and 903rd Aerial Refueling Squadrons (ARS) of the 456th Bombardment Wing. After 1975, the squadrons were reassigned directly to the 9th SRW.

The first Blackbird to arrive at Beale AFB was an SR-71B trainer that came in on January 7, 1966. The first operational SR-71A reconnaissance bird arrived on April 4. The first overseas deployment came two years later, by which time all of the SR-71As and SR-71Bs had been delivered.

Even before the aircraft had much of a chance to prove themselves, the Nixon administration counterintuitively decided that there should not be more Blackbirds—ever. They went so far as to demand that Lockheed literally break the mold. Aside from the single SR-71C hybrid, no more Blackbirds were built.

“One of the most depressing moments in the history of the Skunk Works occurred on February 5, 1970, when we received a telegram from the Pentagon ordering us to destroy all the tooling for the Blackbird,” Ben Rich recalls sadly. “All the molds, jigs, and forty thousand detail tools were cut up for scrap and sold off at seven cents a pound. Not only didn’t the government want to pay storage costs on the tooling, but it wanted to ensure that the Blackbird never would be built again. I thought at the time that this cost-cutting decision would be deeply regretted over the years by those responsible for the national security. That decision stopped production on the whole series of Mach 3 aircraft for the remainder of [the twentieth] century. It was just plain dumb.”

Indeed, the fascinating career of the Blackbird had barely begun.

Beginning on March 8, 1968, the 9th SRW formed a detachment of Blackbirds at Kadena AB on Okinawa, where they operated alongside the CIA A-12 detachment until May 8. Nicknamed “Habu” after a pit viper indigenous to Okinawa, the SR-71s would remain at Kadena for more than two decades until early 1990. During most of this time, they were known as Detachment 1, although they were originally called OL-8 (for Operating Location 8, numbered in sequence with previous SAC U-2 detachments).

Another SR-71 nickname that came into use was the term “Sled,” which was widely used by Blackbird pilots, who referred to themselves as “Sled Drivers.”

The Kadena detachment’s first mission on March 21, 1968, was followed by 167 more through the end of the year. The numerous wartime missions through the next few years included key battlefield surveillance missions, including those that helped planners assess air support for major battles, including the siege of Khe Sanh.

Other missions were conducted over North Korea and the periphery of both Chinese and Soviet air space—the latter including surveillance of the Soviet naval facilities around Vladivostok. Detachment 1 also conducted long-range missions over the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Detachment 4 of the 9th SRW was established at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom in 1976, hosting short duration SR-71 and U-2 deployments until 1984, after which it became a permanent fixture through 1990. Missions included routine surveillance of East Germany, Poland, the Baltic Sea, and Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula. In April 1986, Detachment 4 Blackbirds conducted pre- and poststrike reconnaissance of Libyan targets that were attacked during Operation El Dorado Canyon.

The 9th SRW also operated SR-71 missions directly from the United States. In 1973, they conducted overflights of the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War, staging from Beale by way of Griffis AFB in New York and Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina.

Under operational code names including Giant Plate and Clipper, the 9th SRW conducted routine overflights of Cuba through the 1970s. Unlike the more vulnerable U-2s, the fast, high-flying SR-71s were essentially impervious to any form of air defenses that could be brought to bear over Cuba.

During the 1970s, the US Air Force authorized the SR-71 to come out of the shadows long enough to give the world a sense of its capabilities. On September 1, 1974, Major James Sullivan and Major Noel Widdifield set the speed over a recognized course record while flying 3,508 miles from New York to London in just under two hours at an average speed of 1,435.6 mph.

On July 27 and 28, 1976, three SR-71s were used to set three separate absolute world records. Captain Robert Helt and Major Larry Elliott set the record for absolute altitude in horizontal flight (by an aircraft taking off under its own power) of 85,069 feet. Major Adolphus Bledsoe and Major John Fuller set an absolute closed course speed record of 2,092.3 mph. Finally, Captain Eldon Joersz and Major George Morgan set an absolute straight course speed record of 2,193.2 mph that still stood in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The Blackbird’s full potential of speeds in excess of Mach 3.3 and operations above 100,000 feet has been repeatedly rumored but never made part of any official record.

The actual top speed of the SR-71 is still classified. Some people say that it was far beyond Mach 3.3. Others have said that it was never reached, that the Blackbird never was accelerated to its full potential maximum speed. An SR-71 pilot once told this author that if any other aircraft ever took away the Sled’s absolute speed record, one of the 9th SRW pilots would just go up the next day and “step down a little harder on the accelerator.”

The record still stands.

In another conversation, this author was speaking with a former ground radar operator who tracked an aircraft, not a missile, flying at Mach 6, and he nearly panicked. If there was ever a case of a truly unidentified UFO, this was it. The man reported this bogey to the officer in charge, who glanced at the scope and assured him, “Don’t worry, it’s one of ours.”

In his book, Sled Driver, SR-71 pilot Brian Shul recalled a radio exchange that occurred as he was over Southern California at 68,000 feet. Monitoring various radio transmissions from other aircraft, he heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its groundspeed.

“Ninety knots,” replied Los Angeles Center.

A Twin Beech asked for the same and was given a faster speed of 120 knots.

At that moment a cocky Navy F/A-18 pilot came on.

“Center, Dusty 52 requests groundspeed readout.”

The response came, “525 knots on the ground, Dusty.”

Unable to resist, Shul and his RSO clicked their radios simultaneously.

“It was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew,” Shul recalls. “We were both thinking in unison.

“Center, Aspen 20,” Shul said, addressing Los Angeles Center. “You got a ground speed readout for us?”

“Aspen,” the controller replied after a long pause. “I show 1,742 knots.”

Shul notes that “no further inquiries were heard on that frequency.”

Though the SR-71 was probably never seriously threatened by enemy countermeasures, its ultimate undoing was, ironically, another Lockheed product, which was not an airplane.

As Lockheed’s Skunk Works was building spyplanes for the CIA, Lockheed Space Systems was developing spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). During the Cold War, if there was anything blacker in the metaphorical sense than the CIA and the black jets of Area 51, it was the NRO and its satellites. These were operated under the cover name “Discoverer,” but were known in the black world as “Keyhole” after their Itek high-definition cameras. Indeed the NRO itself, and the work it was doing in the 1960s and 1970s, was not declassified until the 1990s. Information about the work it is doing today is not something for which one should hold one’s breath.

The NRO was formed in suburban Washington, DC, in 1961 specifically to centralize work being done by the CIA and DOD to develop reconnaissance satellites. The NRO was separate from the CIA, although there would be extensive interaction, and many former CIA and black world spyplane hands, such as Ozzie Ritland and Richard Bissell, played a role in NRO’s early days.

Lockheed Space Systems and the Lockheed Missile Division, which were later combined to form the Lockheed Missiles & Space Company (LMSC), were created in Southern California but moved north in the late 1950s to what later became Silicon Valley, finally settling in Sunnyvale. It was responsible for the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident submarine-launched missiles, as well the NRO spy satellites.

The Discoverer/Keyhole series included the KH-1 through KH-3 satellites, which were part of a program code named Corona. Also coming under the NRO mandate were the KH-4 Mural, KH-5 Argon, and KH-6 Lanyard. Operational through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the early Keyholes were “film-return” systems in which photographic film was dropped back into the atmosphere from outer space, retrieved by specially modified aircraft, and processed. Through 1972, the KH-1 through KH-6 spacecraft exposed 2.1 million feet of film and took 800,000 pictures.

In many ways, the early Keyholes were operationally inferior to the SR-71 and its fellow Archangels. While the resolution of the cameras was the best that money could buy, the satellites orbited 75 to 100 miles above their subjects, while Blackbirds flew less than 18 miles above. Aircraft could also be sent over a specific target at a specific time, while satellites were confined to specific orbits. Finally, the process of retrieving the film capsules was complicated, difficult, and not always certain, despite techniques having been honed to a fine art by those doing the retrieving.

All this began to change late in 1976, as the NRO deployed the first of its KH-11 satellites, which now used electro-optical digital imaging. As the KH-11 satellites matured, and as at least a half dozen were launched during the 1980s, photoreconnaissance changed completely. No longer did film have to be retrieved, and no longer did decision makers have to wait days to see their coveted secret pictures. They could now see them instantaneously.

Despite the retrofitting of digital systems and communications links aboard the SR-71s, which allowed them to deliver imagery in near “real time,” the US Air Force itself recommended the retirement of the Blackbirds.

“General Larry Welch, the Air Force chief of staff, staged a one-man campaign on Capitol Hill to kill the program entirely,” Ben Rich wrote in his memoirs. “General Welch thought sophisticated spy satellites made the SR-71 a disposable luxury. Welch had headed the Strategic Air Command and was partial to its priorities. He wanted to use SR-71 refurbishment funding for development of the B-2 bomber. He was quoted by columnist Rowland Evans as saying, ‘The Blackbird can’t fire a gun and doesn’t carry a bomb, and I don’t want it.’ Then the general went on the Hill and claimed to certain powerful committee chairmen that he could operate a wing of fifteen to twenty [F-15E] fighter-bombers with what it cost him to fly a single SR-71. That claim was bogus. So were claims by SAC generals that the SR-71 cost $400 million annually to run. The actual cost was about $260 million.”

Both Welch and SAC commander General John Chain testified before Congress that the SR-71 should go, and so it did.

As Rich so aptly reflected, “a general would always prefer commanding a large fleet of conventional fighters or bombers that provides high visibility and glory. By contrast, buying into Blackbird would mean deep secrecy, small numbers, and no limelight.”

Blackbird operations, except training flights, were officially terminated in November 1989, having been eliminated from the FY1990 Defense Department budget.

On March 6, 1990, one Blackbird famously set a series of world speed records on its “retirement flight.” The SR-71 with tail number 64-17972 was flown from California to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM) Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, where it would eventually go on display. In the process, it set the official National Aeronautic Association coast-to-coast speed record of 2,086 miles in one hour and seven minutes, averaging 2,124.5 mph. It made the 311-mile St. Louis-to-Cincinnati leg in less than nine minutes, averaging 2,176.08 mph.

Within a few months of this much-publicized flight, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army had occupied Kuwait and the United States was involved in the Desert Shield buildup that culminated in Operation Desert Storm in January and February 1991. During that conflict, many operational commanders, including General Norman Schwarzkopf, lamented the absence of expedited reconnaissance that the SR-71 might have contributed.

Mounting concerns about the situations in world trouble spots from the Middle East to North Korea led Congress to reconsider the reactivation of the SR-71. In 1993, Admiral Richard Macke, director of the joint staff for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that “from the operator’s perspective, what I need is something that will not give me just a spot in time but will give me a track of what is happening. When we are trying to find out if the Serbs are taking arms, moving tanks or artillery into Bosnia, we can get a picture of them stacked up on the Serbian side of the bridge. We do not know whether they then went on to move across that bridge. We need the [reconnaissance information] that a tactical, an SR-71, a U-2, or an unmanned vehicle of some sort, will give us, in addition to, not in replacement of, the ability of the satellites to go around and check not only that spot but a lot of other spots around the world for us. It is the integration of strategic and tactical.”

In its FY1994 appropriations, Congress authorized a reinstatement of funding to permit a revival of part of the SR-71 fleet. By that time, many of the twenty surviving SR-71s were being prepped for museum displays, but at least a half dozen were in storage at Palmdale or flying research missions with NASA.

The US Air Force moved too slowly on the path to SR-71 reactivation, and in October 1997, using a line-item veto, President Bill Clinton deleted the funding. The Blackbird was permanently grounded by the US Air Force in 1998, leaving just two at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB.

One of the last NASA missions for the SR-71 was the Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE) series conducted in 1997 and 1998. The object was to study aerodynamic performance of lifting bodies combined with aerospike engines such as would have been used in the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works X-33, the demonstrator for the conceptual VentureStar single-stage-to-orbit reusable spaceplane. The latter program was abandoned by NASA in 2001 but pursued by Lockheed Martin thereafter.

In signing off any discussion of the Blackbird’s demise, Americans are left with the words that Senator John Glenn spoke on the floor of the US Senate on the day after the 1990 “retirement flight.”

Said the former astronaut, “The termination of the SR-71 was a grave mistake and could place our nation at a serious disadvantage in the event of a future crisis. Yesterday’s historic transcontinental flight was a sad memorial to our short-sighted policy in strategic aerial reconnaissance.”


Bill Weaver climbs into an SR-71 at Palmdale.

The NASA SR-71B Blackbird in flight over the Sierra Nevada in 1994.

During the course of the A-12 program, the Air Force had been exceedingly helpful to the CIA. It provided financial support, conducted the refueling program, provided operational facilities at Kadena, and airlifted A-12 personnel and supplies to Kadena for operations over Vietnam and North Korea. Through it all, the Air Force remained frustrated that a strategic reconnaissance mission had been given to another government agency.

On July 24, 1964, at 3:30 p. m., president Lyndon Johnson held a news conference at the State Department Auditorium revealing to the world the existence of Lockheed’s Mach 3-capable reconnaissance aircraft:

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to announce the successful development of a major new strategic aircraft system, which will be employed by the Strategic Air Command. This system employs the new SR-71 aircraft and provides long-range, advanced strategic reconnaissance plane for military use, capable of worldwide reconnaissance for military operations.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, when reviewing the RS-70, emphasized the importance of the strategic reconnaissance mission. The SR-71 aircraft reconnaissance system is the most advanced in the world. The aircraft will fly at more than three times the speed of sound. It will operate at altitudes in excess of eighty thousand feet. It will use the most advanced observation equipment of all kinds in the world. The aircraft will provide the strategic forces of the United States with an outstanding long-range reconnaissance capability. The system will be used during periods of military hostilities and in other situations in which the United States military forces may be confronting foreign military forces.

The SR-71 uses the same J58 engine as the experimental interceptor previously announced, but it is substantially heavier and it has a longer range. The considerably heavier gross weight permits it to accommodate the multiple reconnaissance sensors needed by the Strategic Air Command to accomplish their strategic reconnaissance mission in a military environment.

This billion-dollar program was initiated in February of 1963. The first operational aircraft will begin flight testing in early 1965. Deployment of production units to the Strategic Air Command will begin shortly thereafter.

Appropriate members of Congress have been kept fully informed on the nature of and the progress in this aircraft program. Further information on this major advanced aircraft system will be released from time to time at the appropriate military secret classification levels.

Although President Johnson’s announcement had no impact on the status of the program, the Air Force was now under great pressure to get the first aircraft completed and shipped to Lockheed’s Palmdale facility by October. Difficulties with vendors continued to plague the program. Finally, on October 29, 1964, the first SR-71 was surreptitiously delivered by truck convoy from Burbank to Palmdale for final assembly and preflight preparations. Engine runs were initiated on December 18, 1964. Three days later, the first taxi tests were undertaken. In his journal, Kelly Johnson wrote, “A large number of SAC people were here to see taxi test of aircraft 950. They were very much impressed with the smooth operation. I delayed the flight of the aircraft one day, due to unfavorable weather and to get it in better shape to fly.”

The next day, December 22, 1964, the first SR-71, with Skunk Works test pilot Bob Gilliland at the controls, flew aircraft 950 for the first time. Departing from Lockheed’s Air Force Plant 42 facility at Palmdale, it remained airborne for just over an hour and reached a speed in excess of one thousand miles per hour. Although the first SR-71 flight had been completed with few difficulties, ongoing flight testing of the aircraft had not been problem free.

During April 1965, fuel and hydraulic difficulties led to numerous test flight cancellations. Johnson noted, “We have gone through very extensive reworks of the electrical system and tank sealing on the SR-71s. Category 1 tests are way behind schedule, but so are Category 2 tests. The Air Force are very understanding. Our major problem now has to do with the range, where we are about 25% short. We have made our speed, altitude, and are getting good results with the sensor packages.”


The SR-71 flight test program, conducted at Palmdale, was not without its accidents. The first accident involved aircraft 952. On January 25, 1966, Skunk Works test pilot Bill Weaver and his back seater, Jim Zwayer, were to evaluate procedures for improving high Mach cruise performance by reducing trim drag. Although not a true ejection out of the SR-71, the following story told by Weaver is priceless in conveying the experience of departing a Blackbird at an altitude of fifteen miles and speed of Mach 3.2:

Among professional aviators, there’s a well-worn saying: Flying is simply hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. But I don’t recall too many periods of boredom during my thirty-year career with Lockheed, most of which was spent as a test pilot.

By far, the most memorable flight occurred on January 25, 1966. Jim Zwayer, a Lockheed flight-test specialist, and I were evaluating systems on an SR-71 Blackbird test from Edwards Air Force Base. We also were investigating procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high- Mach cruise performance. The latter involved flying with the center of gravity located further aft than normal, reducing the Blackbird’s longitudinal stability.

We took off from Edwards at 11:20 a. m. and completed the mission’s first leg without incident. After refueling from a KC-135 tanker, we turned eastbound, accelerated to Mach 3.2 cruise speed, and climbed to seventy-eight thousand feet, our initial cruise-climb altitude.

Several minutes into the cruise, the right engine inlet’s automatic control system malfunctioned, requiring a switch to manual control. The SR-71’s inlet configuration was automatically adjusted during supersonic flight to decelerate airflow in the duct, slowing it to subsonic speed before reaching the engine’s face. This was accomplished by the inlet’s center-body spike translating aft and modulating the inlet’s forward bypass doors.

Normally, these actions were scheduled automatically as a function of Mach number, positioning the normal shock wave (where air flow becomes subsonic) inside the inlet to ensure optimum engine performance. Without proper scheduling, disturbances inside the inlet could result in the shock wave being expelled forward-a phenomenon known as an “inlet unstart.”

That causes an instantaneous loss of engine thrust, explosive banging noises, and violent yawing of the aircraft-like being in a train wreck. Unstarts were not uncommon at that time in the SR-71’s development, but a properly functioning system would recapture the shock wave and restore normal operation.

On the planned test profile, we entered a programmed 35-degree bank turn to the right. An immediate unstart occurred on the right engine, forcing the aircraft to roll further right and start to pitch up. I jammed the control stick as far left and forward as it would go.

No response. I instantly knew we were in for a wild ride.

I attempted to tell Jim what was happening and to stay with the airplane until we reached a lower speed and altitude. I didn’t think the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 feet were very good. However, g-forces built up so rapidly that my words came out garbled and unintelligible, as confirmed later by the cockpit voice recorder.

The cumulative effects of system malfunctions, reduced longitudinal stability, increased angle of attack in the turn, supersonic speed, high altitude, and other factors imposed forces on the airframe that exceeded flight control authority and the Stability Augmentation System’s ability to restore control.

Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion. I learned later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only two to three seconds. Still, trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces.

Then the SR-71 literally disintegrated around us.

From that point, I was just along for the ride. And my next recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream-Maybe I’ll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining consciousness, I realized this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was disturbing, because I could not have survived what had just happened.

I must be dead. Since I didn’t feel bad-just a detached sense of euphoria-I decided being dead wasn’t so bad after all. As full awareness took hold, I realized I was not dead. But somehow I had separated from the airplane.

I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s faceplate had frozen over, and I was staring at a layer of ice.

The pressure suit was inflated, so I knew an emergency oxygen cylinder in the seat kit attached to my parachute harness was functioning. It not only supplied breathing oxygen but also pressurized the suit, preventing my blood from boiling at extremely high altitudes. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the suit’s pressurization had also provided physical protection from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become my own escape capsule.

My next concern was about stability and tumbling. Air density at high altitude is insufficient to resist a body’s tumbling motions, and centrifugal forces high enough to cause physical injury could develop quickly. For that reason, the SR-71’s parachute system was designed to automatically deploy a small-diameter stabilizing chute shortly after ejection and seat separation. Since I had not intentionally activated the ejection sequence, it occurred to me the stabilizing chute may not have deployed.

However, I quickly determined I was falling vertically and not tumbling. The little chute must have deployed and was doing its job. Next concern: the main parachute, which was designed to open automatically at fifteen thousand feet. Again, I had no assurance the automatic-opening function would work.

I couldn’t ascertain my altitude because I still couldn’t see through the iced-up faceplate. There was no way to know how long I had been blacked out or how far I had fallen. I felt for the manual activation D-ring on my chute harness, but with the suit inflated and my hands numbed by cold, I couldn’t locate it. I decided I’d better open the faceplate, try to estimate my height above the ground, then locate that “D” ring.

Just as I reached for the faceplate, I felt the reassuring sudden deceleration of main-chute deployment.

I raised the frozen faceplate and discovered its uplatch was broken. Using one hand to hold that plate up, I saw I was descending through a clear winter sky with unlimited visibility. I was greatly relieved to see Jim’s parachute coming down about a quarter of a mile away. I didn’t think either of us could have survived the aircraft’s breakup, so seeing Jim had also escaped lifted my spirits incredibly.

I could also see burning wreckage on the ground a few miles from where we would land. The terrain didn’t look at all inviting-a desolate, high plateau dotted with patches of snow and no signs of habitation.

I tried to rotate the parachute and look in other directions. But with one hand devoted to keeping the faceplate up and both hands numb from high-altitude, subfreezing temperatures, I couldn’t manipulate the risers enough to turn. Before the breakup, we’d started a turn in the New Mexico-Colorado-Oklahoma-Texas border region. The SR-71 had a turning radius of about one hundred miles at that speed and altitude, so I wasn’t even sure what state we were going to land in. But, because it was about 3:00 p. m., I was certain we would be spending the night out here.

At about three hundred feet above the ground, I yanked the seat kit’s release handle and made sure it was still tied to me by a long lanyard. Releasing the heavy kit ensured I wouldn’t land with it attached to my derriere, which could break a leg or cause other injuries. I then tried to recall what survival items were in that kit as well as techniques I had been taught in survival school.

Looking down, I was startled to see a fairly large animal-perhaps an antelope-directly under me. Evidently, it was just as startled as I was, because it literally took off in a cloud of dust.

My first-ever parachute landing was pretty smooth. I landed on fairly soft ground, managing to avoid rocks, cacti, and antelopes. My chute was still billowing in the wind, though. I struggled to collapse it with one hand, holding the still-frozen faceplate up with the other.

“Can I help you?” a voice said.

Was I hearing things? I must be hallucinating. Then I looked up and saw a guy walking toward me, wearing a cowboy hat. A helicopter was idling a short distance behind him. If I had been at Edwards and told the search-and rescue unit that I was going to bail out over the Rogers Dry Lake at a particular time of day, a crew couldn’t have gotten to me as fast as that cowboy-pilot did.

The gentleman was Albert Mitchell Jr., owner of a huge cattle ranch in northeastern New Mexico. I had landed about 1.5 miles from his ranch house-and from a hangar for his two-place Hughes helicopter. Amazed to see him, I replied I was having a little trouble with my chute. He walked over and collapsed the canopy, anchoring it with several rocks. He had seen Jim and I floating down and had radioed the New Mexico Highway Patrol, the Air Force, and the nearest hospital.

Extracting myself from the parachute harness, I discovered the source of those flapping-strap noises heard on the way down. My seat belt and shoulder harness were still draped around me, attached and latched. The lap belt had been shredded on each side of my hips, where the straps had fed through knurled adjustment rollers. The shoulder harness had shredded in a similar manner across my back. The ejection seat had never left the airplane! I had been ripped out of it by the extreme forces, seat belt and shoulder harness still fastened.

I also noted that one of the two lines that supplied oxygen to my pressure suit had come loose, and the other was barely hanging on. If that second line had become detached at high altitude, the deflated pressure suit wouldn’t have provided any protection. I knew an oxygen supply was critical for breathing and suit pressurization but didn’t appreciate how much physical protection an inflated pressure suit could provide.

That the suit could withstand forces sufficient to disintegrate an airplane and shred heavy nylon seat belts yet leave me with only a few bruises and minor whiplash, was impressive. I truly appreciated having my own little escape capsule. After helping me with the chute, Mitchell said he’d check on Jim. He climbed into his helicopter, flew a short distance away, and returned about ten minutes later with devastating news. Jim was dead. Apparently, he had suffered a broken neck during the aircraft’s disintegration and was killed instantly.

Mitchell said his ranch foreman would soon arrive to watch over Jim’s body until the authorities arrived. I asked to see Jim and, after verifying there was nothing more that could be done, agreed to let Mitchell fly me to the Tucumcari hospital, about sixty miles to the south.

I have vivid memories of that helicopter flight as well. I didn’t know much about rotorcraft, but I knew a lot about “red lines,” and Mitchell kept the airspeed at or above red line all the way. The little helicopter vibrated and shook a lot more than I thought it should have. I tried to reassure the cowboy pilot I was feeling OK; there was no need to rush. But since he’d notified the hospital staff that we were inbound, he insisted we get there as soon as possible. I couldn’t help but think how ironic it would be to have survived one disaster only to be done in by the helicopter that had come to my rescue.

SR-71A Cutaway drawing

1. Pitot head

2. Alpha/beta probe, incidence and yaw measurement

3. RF isolation segment

4. RWR antennae

5. VOR antennae

6. Interchangeable nose mission equipment bay

7. Loral CAPRE side-looking ground-mapping radar antenna

8. Antenna mounting and drive mechanism

9. Detachable nose bay mounting bulkhead

10. Cockpit front pressure bulkhead

11. Fuselage chine section framing

12. Rudder pedals and control column, Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System (DAFICS)

13. Pilot’s instrument panel

14. Windscreen panels, port only with electrical de-icing

15. Heat dispersion fairing

16. Upward hinging cockpit canopy

17. Ejection seat headrest

18. Canopy actuator and hinge point

19. Pilot’s ‘zero-zero’ ejection seat

20. Side console panel with engine throttle levers

21. Canopy external release

22. Retractable ventral UHF antenna

23. Liquid oxygen bottles (3)

24. Rear cockpit side console with ECM equipment controls

25. Reconnaissance Systems Officer’s (RSO) instrument console and viewsight display

26. SR-71B dual control variant, nose section profile

27. Conversion Pilot’s cockpit

28. Elevated Instructor’s cockpit enclosure

29. RSO’s upward hinging cockpit canopy

30. RSO’s ejection seat

31. Cockpit sloping rear pressure bulkhead

32. Canopy hinge point

33. Honeycomb composite chine skin paneling

34. Astro-navigation star tracker aperture

35. Platform computer

36. Air conditioning equipment bay, port and starboard

37. Avionics equipment, port and starboard, access via nose undercarriage wheel bay

38. ELINT equipment package, port and starboard

39. Twin-wheel nose undercarriage, forward retracting

40. Hydraulic retraction jack

41. Infra-red unit

42. IFF transceiver

43. Flight refueling receptacle, open

44. Recording equipment bay

45. Starboard sensor equipment bays

46. Fuselage upper main longeron

47. Close-pitched fuselage frame structure

48. Forward fuselage fuel tankage, total internal capacity 12,219 US gal of JP-7 (80,280 lb)

49. Tactical Objective Camera (TEOC), port and starboard

50. Operational Objective Camera (OOC), port and starboard

51. Camera-mounting pallets/access hatches

52. Quartz glass viewing apertures

53. Stability Augmentation System (SAS) gyros

54. Forward/center fuselage joint ring frame

55. Center fuselage integral fuel tankage

56. Beta B.120 titanium skin paneling

57. Corrugated wing skin paneling

58. Starboard main undercarriage, stowed position

59. Intake center-body bleed air spill louvers

60. Bypass suction relief louvers

61. Starboard engine air intake

62. Movable conical intake center-body (spike)

63. Spike-retracted (high-speed) position

64. Boundary layer bleed air perforations

65. DIFACS air data probe

66. Diffuser chamber

67. Spike hydraulic actuator

68. Engine inlet guide vanes

69. Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning turbojet engine

70. Nacelle bypass duct

71. Bypass duct suction relief doors

72. Split nacelle and integral outer wing panel hinged to vertical for engine access/removal

73. Starboard outer wing panel

74. Starboard outboard elevon

75. All-moving starboard fin

76. Fixed fin root segment

77. Afterburner duct

78. Afterburner nozzle

79. Tertiary air doors

80. Exhaust nozzle ejector flaps

81. Variable area exhaust nozzle

82. Starboard inboard elevon

83. Inboard elevon hydraulic actuators (6)

84. Inboard elevon servo

85. Starboard wing integral fuel tank bay

86. Corrugated titanium skin paneling

87. Brake parachute housing

88. Parachute doors

89. Parachute, drogue and release linkage

90. Skin doubler

91. Center fuselage frame structure

92. Aft fuselage integral fuel tankage

93. Inboard elevon servo input linkage and mixer

94. Roll and pitch trim actuators

95. Fuel jettison

96. Port all-moving fin

97. Fin rib structure

98. Torque shaft hinge mounting

99. Rudder hydraulic actuator

100. Rudder servo and yaw trim actuator

101. Fixed fin root rib structure

102. Port engine exhaust nozzle

103. Ejector flaps

104. Port outboard elevon

105. Elevon titanium alloy rib structure

106. Honeycomb composite RAM trailing edge segments

107. Outer wing panel cambered leading edge

108. Leading edge RAM segments

109. Outer wing panel titanium rib and spar structure

110. Outboard elevon hydraulic actuators (14)

111. Outboard elevon servo

112. Engine bay tertiary air intakes

113. Engine nacelle/outer wing panel integral structure

114. Nacelle/outer wing panel hinge axis

115. Port nacelle ring frame structure

116. Inboard wing panel integral fuel tank bays

117. Multi-spar titanium alloy wing panel structure

118. Main undercarriage wheel bay

119. Wheel bay thermal lining

120. Hydraulic retraction jack

121. Mainwheel leg pivot mounting

122. Main undercarriage leg strut

123. Torque scissor links

124. Intake duct framing

125. Outer wing panel/nacelle chine structure

126. Three-wheel main undercarriage bogie

127. Port Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning engine

128. Afterburner nozzle

129. Afterburner fuel manifold, continuous cruise operation

130. Compressor bypass ducts (6)

131. Engine accessory equipment

132. Inlet guide vanes

133. Port air intake

134. Movable center-body (spike)

135. Spike honeycomb composite skin

136. Spike frame structure

137. Inboard leading edge RAM wedges

138. Leading edge spar

139. Inner wing panel leading edge integral fuel tankage

140. Wing root/fuselage attachment root rib

141. Close pitched fuselage frames

142. Wing/fuselage chine blended fairing panels

Vickers Vildebeest Mk I to IV

Vickers Vildebeest Mk. III

Vickers Vildebeest Mk. IV Perseus Engine Version

Vickers Vincent

In the period between the two world wars, the RAF operated a number of types of large single-engine biplanes, the Vickers Vildebeest being a typical example. Its origins went back to 1926, when Vickers tendered to Specification 24/25 for a torpedo-bomber to replace the Hawker Horsley. An Air Ministry order for a prototype was received, and as the Vickers Type 132 it flew from the company’s Brooklands Airfield, Weybridge, in April 1928, powered by a 460-hp (343-kW) Bristol Jupiter VIII geared engine, later going to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath for competitive trials with the Blackburn Beagle. Following these it was tested on floats at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe.

Initial problems were concerned mainly with engine cooling, and several versions of the Jupiter were tried without encouraging results. Eventually, a second prototype was built as a private venture: this flew from Brooklands in August 1930, powered by a geared Armstrong Siddeley Panther IIA engine, but its performance was, if anything, worse.

Finally, the 660-hp (492-kW) Bristol Pegasus became the standard Vildebeest powerplant, and with successful trials at last behind it the type was accepted, nine aircraft being ordered to revised Specification 22/31. In 1932 Vickers signed a licensing agreement under which 25 Vildebeests, with 600-hp (447-kW) Hispano Suiza 12Lbr engines, were built by CASA at Madrid for service with the Spanish navy.

Deliveries to the RAF began in 1933, when No. 100 Squadron at Donibristle received a batch of the first production Vildebeests, having had one aircraft for familiarisation for several months. The squadron moved subsequently to Singapore, and the type was to remain in service in the Far East well into World War II.

Further contracts followed, and improved marks of Vildebeest entered service. The Mk II, ordered in December 1933, was fitted with a 635-hp (474-kW Pegasus IIM3 engine, but when 30 had been built a modification was requested by the Air Ministry to a new specification, 15/34. A third crew member position was required and the rear cockpit was redesigned. In this form the aircraft was designated Mk III. Production aircraft were delivered to Nos. 22 and 36 Squadrons during 1935-6 and 12 were ordered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, another 15 being diverted later from the RAF order. The RNZAF Vildebeests had folding wings.

The final production version was the Mk IV, 56 of which were ordered in December 1936 with 825-hp (615-kW) Bristol Perseus VIII sleeve-valve engines, the first such engine to enter RAF service. Performance was considerably improved, and the first Vildebeest Mk IVs were delivered to No. 42 Squadron in 1937, remaining in service until replaced by Bristol Beauforts in 1940. The last Vildebeest IV was delivered in November 1937, and total production of the Mks I to IV amounted to 194.

At the outbreak of World War II about 100 Vildebeests were still in service, and the Singapore-based aircraft with Nos. 36 and 100 Squadrons operated against the Japanese until Singapore fell in 1942.

Specification Type: two/three-seat torpedo-bomber Powerplant (Mk IV: one 825-hp (615-kW) Bristol Perseus VIII radial piston engine Performance: maximum speed 156 mph (251 km/h) at 5,000 ft (1525 m); service ceiling 19,000 ft (5790 m); range 1,625 miles (2615 km) Weights: empty 4,724 lb (2143 kg); maximum take-off 8,.500 lb (.3856 kg) Dimensions: span 49 ft in (14.94 m); length 37 ft 8 in (11.48 m); height 14 ft 8 in (4.47 m); wing area 728 sq ft (67.63 m) Armament: one fixed forward-firing 0.303-in (7.7-mm) machine-gun and one Lewis gun in rear cockpit, plus one 18-in (457-mm) torpedo or 1,000 lb (454 kg) of bombs Operators: RAF, RNZAF

Vickers Vincent

A need to replace the Westland Wapiti and Fairey IIIF general-purpose biplanes led the Air Ministry to order a modified version of the Vickers Vildebeest to Specification 21/33. A tour of RAF stations in the Middle East and Africa in 1932-3 by a converted Vildebeest had shown that the type would be a suitable replacement, and 51 were ordered on 8 December 1933 under the name Vincent. In place of the torpedo, the Vincent carried a long-range fuel tank beneath the fuselage, and other special equipment included message pick-up gear and pyrotechnics.

The first production Vincent, converted from a Vildebeest Mk II to the revised Specification 16/34, was seen for the first time in public at the 1935 RAF Display at Hendon. However, initial deliveries of production aircraft had been made to No. 8 Squadron at Aden in late 1934, eventually replacing the Fairey IIIFs then in service with Bristol Blenheims.

Total Vincent production was 171, and a number of others were converted from Vildebeests to bring the total to almost 200. More than 80 were still in service at the beginning of World War II, and Vincents saw action with No. 244 Squadron in Iraq in 1941, being replaced eventually by Bristol Blenheims.

Specification Type: three-seat general-purpose biplane Powerplant: one 660-hp (492-kW) Bristol Pegasus IIM3 radial piston engine Performance: maximum speed 142 mph (229 km/h) at 4,920 ft (1500 ml; service ceiling 17,000 ft (5180 m); range 625 miles (1006 km), or 1,250 miles (2012 km) with long-range tank Weights: empty 4,229 lb (1918 kg); maximum take-off 8,100 lb (.3674 kg) Dimensions: span 49 ft in (14.94 m); length 36 ft 8 in (11.18 m); height 17 ft 9 in (5.41 m); wing area 728 sq ft (67.63 w?] Armament: one 0.303-in (7.7-mm) forward-firing machine-gun and one Lewis gun in rear cockpit, plus up to 1,000 lb (454 kg) of bombs Operators: RAF, RNZAF

To Malaya

The Vildebeest first entered service with 100 Squadron at Donibristle in November 1932. The unit was shipped to Singapore as part of the beefing up of the naval base’s defences and was ready for duty at Seletar in January 1934. The resident 36 Squadron retired its Horsleys in July 1935 and converted to Vildebeests.


At 11:15 hours local on September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. A day later, 6,800 miles (10,840km) to the east, the seriousness of the world situation was felt at Seletar. A 100 Squadron Association pamphlet relates that a film being shown in the station cinema was interrupted. A notice flashed on the screen ordering all personnel of `A’ and `B’ Flights of 36 Squadron and `B’ Flight of 100 Squadron to report to their hangars immediately. There is a note that those that got up and left did not get a refund!

Three Vildebeests of 100 Squadron were being prepared: K6384 (Flt Lt Smith, the flight leader), K6385 (Plt Off Richardson) and K6379 (Plt Off Davis). Each aircraft was to carry two more crew members, a mixture of wireless operator/gunners, fitters and armourers.

The commanding officer, Sqn Ldr R N McKern, set a sombre tone, explaining that the unit was on a war footing and wished the men good luck. The document takes up the story: “The three aircraft became airborne at 09:45 hours local on September 5, 1939, just 39 hours an 10 minutes after war was declared…

“As soon as the aerodrome was cleared, the pilots opened their sealed envelopes and then told their crews that their destination was Kepala Batas, north of Alor Star. [On the western coast of the Malay Peninsula, 20 miles from the border with Siam, today’s Thailand.] The aircraft set course for the northwest tip of Malaya and a loose formation was adopted. The flight took 4 hours 30 minutes and proved to be uneventful.”

After ‘tiffin’ at the government rest house at Kepala Batas, around 16:00, the nine men: “All got busy unpacking and `hunking’ around bombs, 112- and 250-pounders, both general purpose and armour piercing, which were stored there for emergency use. There were no trolleys nor any means of moving these bombs – only brute strength and sweat!

“Each bomb was in its own wooden crate which was screwed, not nailed, together. The bombs were manhandled to rows some distance from the aircraft and covered with tarpaulin sheets. They were completely safe – they hoped – and the fuzes were locked up well away from both the bombs and the machines, in the rest house. There were no torpedoes.

“Fifteen days later those nine men, with their Vildebeests, saw Seletar again.” The men of 36 and 100 Squadrons were thrown into the front line from December 1941 fighting rear guard action before Singapore fell to the Japanese.

The three aircraft that deployed to Kepala Batas on September 5, 1939 illustrate the fate of the Vildebeest force. While attacking a Japanese ship during the intense naval engagement off Endau up the eastern Malayan coast from Singapore, on January 26, 1942, K6379 was seen to dive into the sea. It was one of 13 of the torpedo-bombers lost that day.

Further up the eastern coast on February 9, the Vildebeests were flying from a strip at Kuantan and K6385 was destroyed on the ground by Japanese aircraft. By late February 1942 surviving British forces had regrouped in central Java, including two serviceable Vildebeests. On the 29th K6384 failed to return from a recce and it is believed to have been shot down near Semerang, east of Jakarta. With that the big biplane’s last stand was over

Disaster at Endau

From Brian Cull’s Hurricanes Over Singapore: RAF, RNZAF and NEI Fighters in Action Against the Japanese Over the Island and the Netherlands East Indies, 1942.

64th Sentai operated from Ipoh in January 1942, the 59th Sentai from Kahang.

The Hayabusa fighters of the 64th Sentai were among the very first fighters to saw action in the Pacific. The Ki-43s Hayabusa of Kato Air Group escorted Yamashita’s troop transports en route to invade Malaya and some were lost when they were unable to return to Pho Quok island a day before the war broke out. They flew air cover within the maximum operational range which was quite a feat in those days.

Hiroshi Onozaki was among the ‘Nate’ pilots who flew air cover over the Takumi’s invasion force at Kota Bharu beach on the first day of the war.

Even today in Japan his memory is kept alive by the popular song ‘Kato Hayabusa Sentoki Tai’ (Fighter Air Group Kato).

Cull states that Yasuhiko Kuroe was the only pilot of the 47th Independent at the “disaster at Endau”, the disastrous RAF attack on the 26th January 1942.  Pilots of the 1st and 11th Sentais also took part.

The Ki.44 entered combat for the first time on January 1, 1942, when a flight of three Ki.44s led by Captain Yasuhiko Kuroe attacked three Buffalos of 21 and 453 Squadrons in the vicinity of Johore Baru, just north of Singapore, with Captain Kuroe scoring that first kill.

The Ki-44 was quite fast compared with other Japanese fighters and most of the attacking British planes at Endau were very slow such as the Vildebeeste biplanes.

1st and 11th Sentai had Nates but no mention made of those units’ kills.

Japanese losses were two Nates,1st Sentai:

Lt Mizotani shot down but baled out safely

Lt Toshiro Kuboya, shot down and seriously wounded, died three weeks later.

RAF attacking force is given as 21 Vildebeest,3 Albacores,9 RAAF Hudsons,18 Buffaloes and 9 Hurricanes as escorts. The Japanese also claim a Dutch Catalina was encountered. A ABDA force of US B-17s from Java, via Sumatra, was requested as well but “arrived too late”.

RAF losses in the two raids are given as 10 Vildebeest,2 Albacores,2 Hudsons and 1 Hurricane. Two more Vildebeests were written off, too damaged. 39 aircrew were initially lost–28 killed, 2 taken prisoner, 9 who eventually made it back to Singapore.