THE PHONEY WAR (SEPT 39 - MAY 9, 40).


In the following text will be specifically dealt with the air incidents that occurred over Belgian territory during the period from April 19, 1939 through May 9, 1940, i.e. the day before the outbreak of the Blitzkrieg over the Low Countries and France. 

Belgium had declared its status of neutrality on September 3, 1939. A few days earlier, on 26th August, over half a million men had been called into arms and the military had received strict orders to maintain a status of armed peace.
This implied a close vigilance of amongst others the airspace over Belgium against foreign intruders. These offenders consisted mainly of German high-flying reconnaissance aircraft taking air photos of the Belgian defenses, but also included French and British aircraft 'transiting' over Belgium en route to Germany on tract-dropping missions.

From September 6 onward the 2/I/2Aé (read as No. 2 squadron of No. 1 Group of No. 2 Air Regiment) of Schaffen was being assigned to the eastern border of Belgium, whereas the 4/II/2Aé Smaldeel of Nivelles saw itself diverted to the western coastline. Flying unarmed planes, their mission was to locate and intercept trespassers and to guide them to the nearest airfield. All in all neutrality was to be the password. It was not before the tragic air incident on March 2, 1940, leading to the death of Flight-Lieutenant Xavier Henrard, that the airplanes were to be fitted with offensive and ready-to-fire weaponry.

On April 19, 1939 the first major incident took place over Belgian territory. A German Lufthansa Junkers JU.52 passenger plane "GUSTAV LEFFERS" D-ANAL diverted from its normal course to take aerial photographs of the Liège embattlements. As this was not the first time, intercepting planes from 1/I/2Aé ( Legend : No. 1 Squadron of No. I Group of No. 2 Air Regiment) were waiting for the passenger plane over the said area and forced the plane to land at Evere Airfield (near Brussels). After inspection the plane was released for passage to Cologne, Germany.

July 9, 1939 a German Luftwaffe team flying Bücker Jungmeister training aircraft participated in the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Belgian Military Air Service at Evere Airfield. In the course of a very skillful and audacious solo demonstration, Hauptmann Wille failed to complete his third 'tonneau' and crashed in front of the public. Two days later the mortal remains of the pilot were flown back to Germany on board a JU.52, escorted to the border by six Gladiators of 1/I/2Aé squadron.

On September 9, 1939 an intruding flight of three British Armstrong- Whitworth Whitley bombers of No. 102 Sqdn. RAF returning from a tract- dropping mission over the Ruhr, were intercepted by aircraft from two squadrons, i.e. the 4/II/2Aé flying Firefly single-seat fighters and the 5/III/2Aé on Fox VI two-seaters, both from the Nivelles airfield. 

The Whitley K8985 Coded DY°J was forced to land at Nivelles and was found to contain tracts, but no bombs. It was however fitted with four Vickers and two Browning machine guns. It would remain at Nivelles and eventually be destroyed during the German onslaught on May 10, 1940.

In the course of engaging the second Whitley its tail gunner opened up at two of the interception planes, missing one and badly hitting the second, a Fox VI. The latter got into an uncontrollable spin at once, forcing the two crew members to bail out. Both were lightly injured but would live to tell the story.

The British authorities were rather annoyed with this matter and offered a Boulton-Paul Defiant aircraft as compensation to the Belgian Military Air Service. The Belgian Ministry declined in view of Belgium's policy of neutrality.

On November 10, a No. 87 Sqdn RAF Hurricane Mk. 1 (Serial no. L1619 - LK°P) flown by Flt.Lt. Horatio Dunn ran out of fuel after having engaged a Dornier over Tourcoing, and force-landed in the Mouscron (B) area, slightly damaging the plane. Dunn was apprehended and imprisoned near Antwerp, escaping a few weeks before the outbreak of war. He would be killed in Yorkshire on June 1, 1940 after a scramble from RAF Air Base Church Fenton.

On November 14, No. 87 Sqdn. RAF made the news again as two out of three trespassing Hurricanes force-landed on Belgian beaches near De Panne and Koksijde. Both pilots were interned with Flt. Lt. Dunn. The Hurricanes were
repaired and transferred to the 2/I/2Aé at Schaffen, which flew this type of aircraft.

A British Blenheim bomber belonging to No. 57 Sqdn. RAF at Amiens (F) crash-landed at St. Baafs-Vijve on the Courtrai-Ghent route on November 16. The crew was apprehended. The fate of the Blenheim is unknown.

On November 22 a Heinkel HE.111, code 5j+FA of StabstaffeL KG.4 at Quakenbrück-am-Rhein (D) encountered two Curtiss Hawk 75 fighters of the French 1ère Escadrille du Groupe de Chasse 1/4 at Norrent-Fontes (F) and in the ensuing dog-fight was shot from the air near Torhout (B). The pilot survived and was apprehended. His crew perished in the crash.

On December 9 a Hurricane (N2361) of No. 43 Sqdn. RAF based at Vassincourt (Bar-le-Duc [F]) landed at Esplechin (near Tournai [B]) barely 400 meters from the French border. The pilot realizing his error fled across the border,
abandoning his airplane which is believed to have been recuperated by the Military Air Service Establishment at Evere and put into service with the 2/I/2Aé squadron at Schaffen.

On January 3, 1940 a No. 18 Sqdn. RAF Blenheim Coded WV°B (L1410) based at Méharicourt (Picardie, F.) crashed in flames near Raeren-lez-Eupen (B). Several crew members survived the crash though all suffered of burns in varying
degrees.

January 10 brought an incident that would raise a lot of controversy with the Allies as to the interpretation of its implications. On that day a Bf.108 'Taifun', Coded DNF+AW made a forced landing under foggy conditions near Mechelen-aan-de-Maas in the Belgian Province of Limburg. Piloted by Major Eric Hönmanns, the liaison aircraft also held a passenger, i.e. Major Helmuth Reinberger, Adjutant to Colonel Bassenge, Commanding Officer of Dienststelle Fliegerführer 22O, 7. Flieger Division. Soon after the crash the two men were arrested by the Belgian Gendarmerie. On Major Reinberger top-secret documents divulging the invasion plans for the Low Countries
were found. Reinberger attempted several times during his arrest to destroy the documents, however without success.

A thorough investigation was made of the matter in order to ascertain the value of the documents and discussion ensued at very high level. The Belgian Army eventually re-enforced their troops and left it at that. History would prove the plans genuine.

Involving a navigational error a RAF Wellington bomber (N3004 'LN°I') landed near Lonzée (B). Assuming they were on German soil, the crew in vain tried to set the airplane on fire. After apprehension, they were imprisoned at the Fortress II barracks near Antwerp, from which they would 'escape' shortly afterwards, along with all British crews held there at the time.

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, March 2, 1940 would bring one of the most tragic incidents in the course of the 'funny war'-period and as a matter of fact would officially end it. On that day three Hurricanes of 2/1/2Aé squadron intercepted an intruding Dornier Do.17. After an initial attempt to divert the bomber to the nearest airfield the Do.17 opened up with its full arsenal hitting all three intercepting aircraft at once. The leading Hurricane crashed near Bastogne killing Second-Lieutenant Xavier Henrard on the spot. The second aircraft made a rather unsuccessful crash-landing near Chiney, whereas the third Hurricane managed to hop back to its home-base. This incident lead to the decision to arm all intercepting aircraft from that day on.

On March 12 orders again were given to three Hurricanes of 2/I/2Aé to intercept yet another Do.17. A fierce exchange of machine-gun fire resulted in severe damage being caused to the three Belgian aircraft. Two Hurricanes made it back to their base, the third piloted by Sgt. Pierre Van Strijdonck making a successful emergency landing near Durbuy.

On April 20, a Heinkel He.111 crossing over Belgian territory would find itself confronted with three consecutive attacks by opponents of as many nationalities. Initially confronted by three French Moranse-Saulnier MS.406 (GC II/2), the He.111 was severely damaged and abandoned by the French fighter planes over the Soignies area. Approaching Visé three Belgian Gladiators of 1/I/2Aé at Schaffen were sent out to intercept the German bomber. The He.111 was chased away eventually entering Holland, where it was hit so badly by the Dutch anti-aircraft batteries, that the pilot had to crash-land his bomber near Maastricht (NL). The ensuing arrest of the crew would divulge the He.111 to belong to a top-secret German Geschwader executing a very special mission. Certain reports on this matter imply that a Gefreiter (Corporal) Stern was murdered by his fellow crew-members in the course of the crash-landing, following an uncompromising argument about how to abort the mission.

As a whole the month of April 1940 accounted for the highest rate of intrusion over Belgian territory. The month would end on April 30, with the landing of a Blenheim (No. 18 Sqdn RAF, L8875, WV°S) at the Evere Airfield. The British pilot was misguided by the sight of the many Battle bombers stationed at Evere leading him to think he was over a British base in France.

On May 6 1940, four days before the outbreak of war over the Low Countries and France, three Belgian Hurricanes managed to turn the plate on the French, when they inadvertently trespassed over French Territory and ran out of fuel. Two of the aircraft managed to get back to Belgian soil, but Sgt. Van Strijdonck landed at St. Omer, where he was warmly welcomed and his planed fueled up. He returned to his home-base in Belgium in due course.

On May 10, 1940 in the very early hours of a misty morning that would lead to a sunny day, the German Luftwaffe launched a Blitzkrieg on the Netherlands, Belgium, the Grand-Duchy of Luxemburg and France. A fierce battle would entail in the skies over the Low Countries, though most of the aircraft were destroyed on the ground, in the course of the first surprise bombardments.


Fairey Firefly and a MS 230 smashed on a Belgian airfield on the morning on the 10th May 1940.





Last Updated : 06/11/11 15:52
  Daniel Brackx
brackxda@gmail.com