In amongst the hundreds of RAF fighter aircraft operating over the Normandy beachhead on 6 June 1944 were Spitfires from Norway’s two squadrons, 331 and 332. Tor Idar Larsen looks at the part played by the Norwegian fighter pilots seeking retribution against the Germans at the start of Operation OVERLORD.
Norway had two fighter squadrons operating over the beaches of Normandy in June 1944; 331 and 332 Squadron. 331 Squadron was formed back in 1941, and had been through tough times on the windy and sparsely populated Orkney Island before moving to North Weald in May 1942. 332 Squadron was formed at Catterick in Yorkshire in early 1942, and stayed there until they also moved to North Weald in June of 1942. In the two years before D-Day, they had been trained well by their British Wing Commander, David Scott-Malden.
In 1942, they had also been a shining example in the air during the ill-fated Dieppe raid in August 1942. Since then, both Squadrons had suffered terrible losses, but they had also excelled in combat. 1943 had been a tremendous year for both squadrons, especially for 331 as they ended top of the list of all RAF fighter squadrons that year, in terms of confirmed kills. 332 followed a few places below them. They had proved themselves to be a force to be reckoned with, and now they would have to step up once again during the landings in Normandy.
As early as October 1943, work had begun to organise the 2nd Tactical Air Force (2TAF), which the two Norwegian squadrons would join. 2TAF would support the advancing armies on the ground and always be operating close to the troops. It was decided in November 1943 that the Norwegians would join the 2TAF and the North Weald Wing, as it had been called up until this point, would now be called 132 (N) Airfield. In May 1944, the 2TAF changed their organisation, and the Wing was renamed 132 (N) Wing. Also included in 132 Wing were 66 and 127 Squadrons. The pilots underwent shooting and bombing exercises, and the Spitfire Mk.IXs which they had been using since 1943, now became fighter-bombers.
On 31 March, the Norwegians moved to Bognor Regis in West Sussex in order to be closer to the continent. It was from Bognor Regis the Norwegians did their work on during D-Day. 331 Squadron was led by Captain Leif Lundsten from Østre Toten, Norway. Lundsten had been with 331 Squadron since the early days at Skeabrea in the Orkney Islands, and was one of Norway’s most experienced fighter pilots. Before leaving for a well deserved rest in 1943, he had notched up over 100 offensive sorties, and had several confirmed kills to his name. During his rest period he had flown over 300 Spitfires (Mk.VIII, XI, XIV and XII) as a test pilot at RAF Worthy Down, including the famous Spitfire Mk.XII MB882.
Alongside him were experienced pilots such as Ragnar Dogger, Olav Ulstein, Nils Jørstad (another Skebrea veteran) and Birger Tidemand-Johannessen (the latter would go on to write a book about his experiences as a fighter pilot during World War Two). 332 Squadron was led by Werner Hosewinckel Christie from Vang in the county of Hedmark. Christe had been with 332 Squadron going back to the Catterick days, and was yet another experienced pilot. 332 had other experienced pilots in Dane Kjeld Rønhof, Erik Westly, Jon Ryg among others. The Wing was led by Wing Commander Rolf Arne Berg, a highly respected 27-year old from Orkanger, Norway. Berg had been with the Squadron ever since it’s early days and had proved himself in combat, as well as in leading his men.
Berg was highly thought of by all his pilots, and was very well liked. Compared to the English system, which did not approve of pilots staying with their Squadron when they were promoted, the Norwegians did not adopt this system and kept their pilots. Men like Berg and Lundsten would therefore stay with the Squadron all the way from lower tanks up until Squadron Leader (Lundsten) and even Wing Commander (Berg). This system proved to be just as good, if not better, than the English one.
As mentioned, 332 Squadrons Birger Tidemand-Johannessen, a 24-year old in 1944, wrote a book about his experiences. Tidemand-Johannessen was a battle-hardened young man who had previously fought in the Winter War in Finland. In his book, he reflects on the impending D-Day invasion: “During the evening of 5th of June, we got a special visit at our provisional airfield at Bognor Regis. Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, head of 11 Group, gathered all pilots in the ops room. The atmosphere was very tense, and we knew something big was going on. We assumed the invasion was near its beginning. The Air Marshall was a tightly built, rather short man with a resoloute being… He didn’t waste any time, looked at his watch and said; ‘At this moment the first paratroopers are jumping out of France. The invasion of the continent has started.’
“We had waited for this moment. Now, it was finally a reality. We went to our bunks with mixed feelings. I doubt I was the only one having trouble sleeping that night. When we walked out to our Spitfires the next morning, the ground crew had painted black and white stripes on wings and fuselages during the night. Luftwaffe was expected to show up in force and meet us there over the French coast. Those stripes would make it easier to seperate friend from foe. But, this didn’t happen one bit. They were totally absent. On the 6th of June 1944, the first forces went ashore along the Normandy coast. D-Day was here.”
331 Squadron’s Operations Book states, perhaps with a bitter undertone, that ’47 Spitfires took off during the day for Operation Neptune. All patrol uneventfull and all aircraft returned to base without incident.’ 332 Squadron wrote a bit more about the day in their Operations Book: ‘On this first invasion day of Europe, 332 Squadron made 4 patrol flights over the channel and the battle fields of Northern France. At 0715 hours, the squadron took off on the first patrol led by Major Christie. They returned safely at 0920 hours. 2nd flight was led by Major Christie too.
‘They took off at 1215 hours and returned 1420 hours. On the third flight, Major Christie led, but due to trouble with the drop tank he had to return after 15 min, and Capt. Ryg took over. They had taken off at 1630 hours and landed at 1810 hours. The fourth flight was led by W/C Berg. They took off at 2040 hours and returned at 2245. During these four patrols, they met no enemy fighter opposition and almost no flak was experienced. Weather was 5-8/10th cloud and visibility good.
Landing barges and ships straming to and from the French coast were clearly seen, as well as the landing operations which seemed not to encounter much opposion. One destroyer, presumably American, was observed in sinking condition while rescue was going on.’
The Norwegian Squadrons were, in fact, two of the first squadrons to patrol over the beaches that day. Their work during the Dieppe raid, and their success in 1943 had not been overlooked by the RAF. In the words of Tidemand-Johannessen, “It was a fantastic, impressive, deadly and dramatical theatre below us.” He also wrote, “The unimaginable cruelties made a massive impression on us, the fighter pilots. At the same time, there were something distant about it all – we flew so high that the engine noise covered up all sounds. It just looked like a well-directed silent movie.”
An unknown Norwegian pilot later told author Odmund Ljone, “What was it that I remembered the squadron leader had said during the briefing; if you see a kraut hanging in the chute, shoot the bastard down – but don’t say that I told you so!”
332 Squadron’s Kjeld Rønhof later wrote: “In the middle of everything [before take off] I was given orders to lead B-flight, while Westly would lead A-flight. So, we flew on the same sorties after all, which we never should have done.” According to Rønhof, Westly had told him just hours before that they would split the sorties between them.
Rønhof had been in London on 5 June, and knew very little about what was going on. During the night, he head hard a terrible roar above, but fell asleep again. When the hotel he stayed at woke him up, he reacted quickly. He rushed down to Bognor Regis, but found to time to drop by a cafeteria for breakfast. He was told of the invasion by the waitress, and felt rather stupid. He also wrote, “The ground crew told us they were serving free beer at the pub. The English were grateful, and obviously very proud of what they had accomplished since those dark days in 1940…”
Rønhof does not tell us how many sorties he flew that day; perhaps he was involved in all four. He definitely flew the last one of the day: “The last trip I flew that day, was perhaps the most frightening of them all as darkness was ascending and you could see the flashes from the artillery. It seemed like the Germans had finally shaken off the shock of the invasion, and had started to gather their forces. We flew over the western flank to be ready. If there was a German counter-attack planned in the air, they would most likely come in from the sun. A rumour had for unknown reasons popped up during the day that the Channel Islands had been liberated. We had no way to confirm this rumour, so Westly decided to test the rumour by flying over the island. At the same moment he turned in over the islands, it looked like the entire sky exploded in flak.
‘I guess we haven’t liberated them yet!’ he reported back on the radio. Afterwords, we had a jolly good laugh about it all, but it was a miracle no one got it.”
331 and 332 Squadron landed back at Bognor Regis without a single loss during that special day. That was perhaps the biggest surprise of all to the Norwegians. After they had been debriefed by a newly arrived Norwegian officer, they all got a cup of hot chocolate. Rønhof wrote: “We were terribly tired when we finally got to bed. It had been a great and historic day which without doubt would be spoken of by generations and generations coming after us. The world would hopefully never experience such a battle of this size ever again.”
Birger Tidemand-Johannessen stayed on with 332 squadron. He survived the war. He passed away in 2005.
Eric Westly also stayed on with 332 Squadron. He too survived the war.
Werner Christie left 332 Squadron a few days after D-Day for a well deserved rest. The squadron was taken over by Jon Ryg. Christie would return to action, and became Wing Commander for the Hunsdon Wing, flying Mustangs. He passed away in 2004.
Kjeld Rønhof was one out of a total of only three pilots from his class in Little Norway who survived the war. His class originally had a total of 22 pilots. The other survivors were Jan Staubo who had a very short spell with 332 before being shot down and taken prisoner in 1942, and Finn Norman Bordal who got injured in a traffic accident in England before flying operationally. In other words , a frightening total of 19 pilots from his class were lost during the war.
Leif Lundsten was killed by friendly fire over Isigny just three days after D-Day. He was 26 years old when he perished. His final act as a Squadron Leader before disappearing was to give his squadron the correct course back to base. This act was vividly remembered by his pilots in the coming decades after WWII.
Rolf Arne Berg led the 132 (N) Wing into the continent until his death in February 1945. His tour of duty had been completed, but he managed to talk his way into flying one more sortie. It would be his last.