Belgian Air Force 


Evere Air base in 1919. The Belgian Air service was displayed on one of the first occasions since the end of the war. The aeroplanes on display included a Rumpler of German origin put back in service by the Belgians

In April 1919 the Aviation Militaire (Belgian Air Force) had eight squadrons, three of them fighter squadrons, including these types of aircraft: Harriot H.D.1s, Sopwith Camels, Nieuport XVIIs, Spad VIIs, and Fokker D. VIIs.

In March of 1920 The Aviation Militaire became the Aeronautic Militaire, and the flying school at Etampe moved to Juvisy. After these changes the Aeronautic Militaire started a build up.

Between 1922-31 SABCA (Societe Anonyme Belge de Constructions Aeronautique) built an interesting collection of foreign aircraft. The build up included 30 D. H. 9 (1922-23), 87 Nieuport-Delage 29C-1 (1924-26), 45 Ansaldo A.300/4 Reconnaissance Bombers (1923-26), 20 Morane-Saulnier Parasol (1923), 21 Arro 504 K Primary Trainers (1923-27), 15 D.H. 4 (1926), 40 Bristol 17 F2B Mk.IV (1926), 39 Avia B.H. 21 (1927-29), 146 Breguet 19 (1928-31).

Sometime in the 1924-29 period the Aeronautique Militaire acquired 98 aircraft from foreign sources of similar types. The Aeronautique Militaire eventually got to 8 groups containing 29 squadrons (4 Balloon station, 6 observation, 4 Army cooperation, 5 Fighter, 3 reconnaissance, 4 Technical, and 3 for training). These groups of aircraft were stationed at Zellick, Goetsenhoven, Evere, and the training school squadrons moved from As to Wevelgen.

The groups of aircraft turned into 3 regiments in 1926. Because of severe budget restrictions 1 of the regiments was decommissioned, 2 more regiments came at the end of 1929.

The first Fiats in Nivelles with a Firefly in the foreground

After that, the Air regiments (still part of the Army) had 1,990 personnel, and 234 first line aircraft (36 of them were trainers). In 1935 Aeronautique Militaire became one of two parts of Commandement de la Defense Aerienne du Territoire' (D.A.T.) (the other the anti-aircraft organization).

Because of the budget the staff decided to upgrade aircraft, even though 50 Fox IIIC machines were delivered between 1935-37 and 46 Fox IVR reconnaissance planes came in through 1935-36.

Licensed builders (Ateliers Renard in Evere) built 10 R31 prasol-type monoplanes, and 26 others were built by SABCA between 1935-37. Also, 22 Gloster Gladiators were bought from Britain in 1938, 2 FOX VII were ordered in September 1938, and in 1938 20 Hawker Hurricane I fighters were delivered.

Then in March 1939 80 Hurricanes were license built. The Belgian Hurricanes were armed with 4 .50 caliber machine guns, though original British design had 8 .303 caliber machine guns.

Also the Belgians ordered Brewster Buffaloes from the U.S. On the day of the invasion the DAT had 11 groups containing 73 squadrons stationed at Deurne, Goetsenhoven, Bierset, Schaffen, Nivelles, and Evere Air Force Bases.

The "Phoney War" to the end of the Invasion of the Low Countries and France

On September 3rd, 1939 the Belgians called for over half a million men in arms, and took status of strict neutrality. This caused the Germans to take reconnaissance over Belgian defences for the upcoming invasion that was supposed to be in the October of 1939. Though sometimes the trespassers were French and British 'transiting' over Belgium to tract dropping missions over Germany.

So on September 6 onward, squadron 2/1/2Ae (read this as No. 2 Squadron of No. 1 Group of No. 2 Air Regiment) which flew Hurricanes of Schaffen was assigned to patrol on the eastern border of Belgium, and 4/11/2Ae of Nivelles was assigned to patrol on the western coastline. They flew unarmed planes and their mission was to radio the intruders to the nearest airfield.

The first major incident was on April 19th. A Junkers.52 went from its normal course to photograph Liege defences. This was not the first time 2/1/2Ae had to intercept planes. The Junkers.52 was forced to land at Evere Air Base near Brussels. After inspecting the plane it was let go for passage to Cologne, Germany.

On Sept. 9, 1939 an intruding flight of Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley bombers from RAF Squadron 102 were returning from a tract dropping mission over the Rhur, and were intercepted by aircraft of two squadrons (4/11/2Ae from Nivelles flying single seat fighter Fairey Fireflies and 5/11/2Ae flying two seater Fox VIs from Nivelles also).

The first British bomber was forced to land at Nivelles. Tracts instead of bombs were found on the inside, but there were machine guns were fitted on the aircraft. It stayed at Nivelles until it was destroyed in the German onslaught on May 10, 1940.

While intercepting the second British bomber, its tail gunner opened fire on the intercepting planes, missing one but damaging another, a Fox VI. The Fox VI went into an uncontrollable spin and the pilots bailed out. They were lightly injured, but lived to tell the story.

The British authorities were rather annoyed when they heard about this, and kindly offered the Belgian Air Ministry a Boulton-Paul Defiant aircraft as an apology, but the Belgian Air Ministry let the offer down, because of their strict policy of neutrality.

On November 10, British Flight Lieutenant flying a Hurricane Mk.1 named Horatio Dunn ran out of fuel while engaging a Dornier and crash landed in Belgium. He was released right before the outbreak of war, and eventually would be killed in Yorkshire after a scramble from Air Base Church Fenton.

Then, by far the most deplorable event that happened in the 'Phoney War' would raise controversy between the Allies now happened on January 10, 1940. A Messerschmitt ME 109m 'Taifun' was forced to land because of foggy conditions. Shortly after the pilot and the passenger were arrested by the Belgian Gendarmerie, top secret documents were found: the plans for the invasion of the Low Countries. The passenger named Major Reinberger tried several times to destroy the documents, but never succeeded.

The matter had high level considering, but the Belgian Ministry re-enforced their army, and stupidly nothing else. It turned out Belgium was invaded on May 10, 1940. A shocking amount of 135 German divisions attacked the Low Countries. The most massive blitzkrieg force was now deployed which crushed the Netherlands and overran it in 5 days, Luxemborg in literally no time at all, and Belgium in 18 days (though Allied forces wouldn't have lost for a long time, but King Leopold unconstitutionally surrendered on May 28th, without conferring with his cabinet or his allies. The Meuse wrote that 'Belgium is betrayed by her King'.) The Belgians could have rejoined their post war position, build up a massive war machine, be ready for the invasion, and stop the Nazi juggernaut.

On March 2nd, 1940 an event happened that ended the 'Funny War' period. A Do.17 was trespassing over Belgium, and three Hurricanes were sent to radio it to the next airfield. The Dornier opened fire on the the Hurricanes, killing Second Lieutenant Xavier Henrard. The other Hurricane made an unsuccessful crash landing. This caused the Belgians to arm all intercepting aircraft.

Then on March 12th, orders again were to intercept a Dornier 17. Fierce machine gun fire was exchanged. Two of the Hurricanes made it back to their base, and the third, piloted by Sergeant Pierre Van Strijdonck, made an unsuccessful emergency landing.

On May 6th, 1940 three Belgian Hurricanes ran out of fuel when trespassing over French territory. Two made it back, but Sergeant Pierre Van Strijdonck was forced to land at St. Omens airfield in France. His plane was fuelled up, and he returned to home base.

On April 20 a Heinkel HE.111 was trespassing over Belgian territory. After making it out alive from confrontations by many enemies of different nationalities three Belgian Gladiators were sent to intercept it. It was chased away to Holland and then was hit by Dutch aircraft batteries badly. It was forced to crash land.

The phoney war ended on May 10, 1940 when Germany invaded Belgium. During the first few hours, before just about any planes were in the air, almost the entire Belgian Air Force was destroyed on the ground. When the remaining planes moved to different air bases, they were again destroyed on the ground.

The Lone Attack

The Belgians, despite their air force being mostly destroyed on the ground, bombed three bridges on the Albert Canal. The bombing was done by Fairey Battles of the 5/III/3, the fighter escort was provided by 1/I/2.

Belgian Scrambles

On the early morning of May 10, the alarm was sounded, and the pilots at Schaffen Air Base went to their planes, thinking it was an exercise. A few minutes later, 50 unidentified aircraft flew over the airfield. Despite his orders, Captaine Max Guisgand, the commander of 1/1/2 Gladiators flew his planes into the air at 0420 hrs while the Hurricanes started their engines. 12 minutes later, three Heinkel 111s were spotted, not troubled by AA fire. The planes in the air were not there when the 111s came, and the 111s strafed the airfield several times. The planes tried to take off through the explosions and fires. A bullet punctured the main wheel of Lt. Wilmonts Gladiator and he rammed a Hurricane. Minutes later 110s and Dornier Do 17 strafed and bombed the airfield. Four Hurricanes were set on fire, and 6 others were damaged. The roof of the hangar fell in and the planes in it were destroyed. Sgt. Libert was burned badly when the fuel tank of his Hurricane exploded. Captaine Van den Hove d'Ertsenrijick and Caparol Jacobs managed to escape from Schaffen. They encountered some bombers but didn't manage to shoot down any, even though helped by Gladiator pilot Sgt. Van den Broecke. The third section of Gladiators from 1/1/2 almost collided with the three 111s and had to break away.

The second section (Cpt. Gerard (G-27), Sgt. Henri Winand (G-32) and Sgt. Henri Clinquart (G-34) spotted a formation of enemy bombers and broke it up. During the bombing, other gladiators left Schaffen for Beauvechain. Hurricane pilots Siroux, Lelarge and a lt.) flew three of them. Other reported engagements were when at 0900 10 109s ran in to two Gladiators over Tirlemont. Both were shot down and one pilot bailed out. At 1000 hrs, three Gladiators were shot down by 1/JG27 while trying to intercept escorted Ju87s.

Belgians in the RAF (and Squadron 219)

In August 1940, a part of the Belgian Air Force arrived in the UK. The young Belgian future aviators were trained on modern machines and were sent to front units quickly. Albert Custers was the first of the Belgians to fly in the Coastal Command Squadrons.

During a war mission, his plane crashed in the sea. Luckily the crew was rescued. The Belgians then feared to fly over the sea.

Albert Custers became an instructor (in 1943), and at that time many French and Belgian volunteers had arrived in England and had to be trained again. Albert Custers could speak English and French, so he could teach many pupils.

Albert Custers trained to fly a Mosquito (a British bomber, though there was a reconnaissance, fighter-bomber, and fighter/night fighter version. He flew the night fighter one.) His crewmate was Irish.

The Belgian-Irish crew began their first flights at Hunston airbase. There were many boring missions with no interceptions. On Sept. 6, 1944, the Belgian crew of Walter Henri/Henri Huyen came. Huyen, as his pilot, was born around Liege. He flew before the war, and his squadron was equipped with Fairey Battles. He was a gunner. At age 39, he decided to escape from occupied Belgium, and after many adventures, got to England in 1943.

In October, 219 moved to the mainland, to the French airfield of Amiens-Glisy. A fourth Belgian flier comes in. His name was Ferdinand Vandenheuvel. He was in the Belgian land army in May 40, and got to England from Dunkirk. He entered in the Belgian Armoured Troops, but in 1942 he volunteered for the RAF. As a Navigator, he was with F/Lt Reynolds.

On 19 November, some more Belgians land at Glisy. His name was Albert Petrisse and was a policeman until 1941 when he escaped from Belgium via Spain. In Chimay he met a student that he had been trained with in Canada. His name was Faurice Laloux. They then decided to fly together.

The Belgian fliers will learn the common life of a night fighter in 1945. German raiders are scarce and patrols are disappointing. About every time the saw another aircraft it turned out to be another night fighter, or a bomber coming back from a late night mission. Surprisingly on 2 January, 1945 the crew Vandenheuvel/Reynolds shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 110.

In about February, another Belgian crew comes in. One was Alexis Besschops. He left occupied Belgium with his family and went to the Belgian Congo. In 1941 he volunteered for the RAF and left the Congo. He was a friend of Albert Petrisse and were trained together in Canada. So he asked to be in the same squadron with Petrisse.

The other was Richard Delbrouck who was born in Liege. He was an engineer and lived in Antwerp. He married a young local girl.

Tragic Losses

But then came tragic losses from 219. When Reynolds suffers from engine stoppage while taking off, he crashes. Reynolds and Vandenheuven both were killed.

About two weeks later, Squadron 219 was moved to an airfield in the Netherlands. Then the crew Henri/Huyen failed to make it back from a mission. They were hit badly by flak near Cologne and crashed in the Netherlands. They were buried by there crashed plane.

Then on 18 April, Petrisse and Laloux don't make it back. Again the cause was flak. They crashed at Visselhovede. Their bodies were buried at Wehenson cemetery (near Soltau).
The Final Weeks

Custers was now the sole survivor of the Belgian crews. On 12 March he finished his tour but decided to remain with his squadron. Squadron 219 was reinforced with 3 more Belgians. First came Jean Pirson in the end of March. And then came Robert "Bob" Nyssens and Henri "Coco" Lenoard came in the beginning of April. These pilots weren't heavily engaged because the war was almost over.

The last casualties were on 3 September, when Besschops and Delbrouck's twin engine crashed and exploded on a mountain.

11 Belgians were in Squadron 219. 5 were killed before VE Day (Victory in Europe Day). The Belgians lost around 65% losses. The only non Belgian in the unit was the Frenchmen Commandant Claisse. He was a test pilot before the war and survived the conflict.

In September 1946, the Squadron 219 was disbanded for the last time.