The Belgians of 219 Squadron


The unit

219 Squadron was formed at Westgate in August 1918 as a coastal recce unit before being disbanded in 1920.

After the outbreak of WW II, it was reactivated again on 4th October 1939 this time as a night-fighter unit. Being based at Catterick, Redhill, Tangmere, Acklington and Scorton, 

219 Sq. also operated in the Mediterranean from June 43 to January 44. At that time, the unit was equipped with Bristol Beaufighters, receiving the Mosquito XVII when it came back in UK. Until October 1944, the night-fighters operated from British bases (Woodvale, Honiley, Bradwell Bay and Hunsdon).

 At that period, the first Belgian flyers will arrive in the unit.

 Albert PETRISSE in front of his Mosquito at Amiens-Glisy.


The first of the few: Albert CUSTERS


                      In the Belgian Army before the war, Albert CUSTERS volunteered for the Aéronautique Militaire (the Belgian Air Force). He was trained in 1939 as an observer but had to evacuate to France, and later to French Morocco (Oujda) after the German invasion of his country on 10th May 1940.

                      At the beginning of August 1940, led by Major CAJOT, a part of the Belgian Air Force Schools arrived in UK to pursue the fight alongside the British troops. The young Belgians were retrained on more modern machines and quickly sent to front units.

       CUSTERS will first fly in Coastal Command Squadrons. While engaged in a war mission, his plane crashed in the sea, the crew being rescued after some critical hours. The Belgian will then suffer an acute phobia, fearing to fly over the sea. Transffered to the 350 (Belgian) Fighter Squadron, the F/Lt Albert CUSTERS will soon act as an instructor in an OTU. Indeed, at that time (1943), many Belgian and French volunteers arrived in England, having to be (re)trained. Knowing the two languages (English and French), CUSTERS will be an able "teacher" and many pupils (as the future Belgian General Albert DEBECHE) will remember him.

 Nevertheless, CUSTERS will try to come back in a front unit, the life in an OTU being to quiet for him. But to be freed, he has to find another flyer (speaking fluently the two languages) to take his job. In London, he meets an ex-comrade of 1939, Walter HENRI who was with him in Tienen (Tirlemont). HENRI agrees to succeed to CUSTERS after having received the promise to rejoin him soon in his new front unit.

 In 219 Squadron

 CUSTERS begins then a retraining to fly on Mosquito. He finds a W/Op in the person of F/O Mc NAMARA, an Irishman from Neutral Eire (born in Tiperrary) who had decided to enlist in the RAF. How did they meet? Both flyers are catholic. Indeed, as CUSTERS explained: "In case of problem, we could say a common pray"!

 The Belgian-Irish crew begins his first flights from Hunston airbase. Boring missions without interception. On 6th September 1944, arrival of the crew Walter HENRI/Henri HUYNEN, a real Belgian team. HUYNEN, the pilot, was born in the Liège area. As a W/Op-airgunner, he flew before the war in 9/II/3 Aé equipped with the old Fairey Battles. Aged of 39, he decided nevertheless to escape from occupied Belgium in 1942 and, after many adventures, could reach England in July 1943.

 In October, 219 Squadron moved to the mainland, to the French airfield of Amiens-Glisy. A fourth Belgian flyer arrives on 9th October. We know too little about F/O Ferdinand VANDENHEUVEL. Being in the Belgian land army in May 40, he could come in Great-Britain, escaping via Dunkirk. He entered in the Belgian armoured troops but volunteered for the RAF in 1942. As a navigator, he flew with a British pilot, F/Lt REYNOLDS.

 Da mihi Belgas! (Give me Belgians!)

      On 19th November, a new Belgian crew lands at Glisy. The F/O Albert PETRISSE was Gendarme (=policeman) until 1941 when he escaped from Belgium via Spain. Born in Ham-sur-Sambre, he worked in Chimay and, in England, met F/Sgt

Maurice LALOUX, a student living himself in Chimay. Both were trained in Canada and decided to fly together. The six Belgian flyers will know the common life of night fighters at the beginning of 1945. The German raiders are scarce at that time and the patrols are often disappointing. When the Mosquitos are guided to a possible target, one discovers that it is itself another Allied night fighter or a RAF bomber coming back very late from a mission over Germany. In the night of 2 January 1945, the crew REYNOLDS-VANDENHEUVEL claims nevertheless a Messerchmitt Bf 110.

Around February, another Belgian crew enters in 219 Sq. The F/O Alexis BESSCHOPS left very soon Belgium with his family to emigrate to the Belgian Congo. He volunteered for the RAF around 1941 and left the colony. Trained in Canada, he was a friend of PETRISSE and certainly asked to be in the same Squadron. His W/Op is older. If F/O Richard DELBROUCK was born in Liège, he lived in Hoboken (Antwerp), being an engineer and having married a local girl.

Heavy losses

But the life is not so quiet at the end of the war. The Germans are still defending themselves with great skill. The Belgians will suffer heavy losses! -On 6th March 1945, when taking off, the Mosquito NF XXX (NT258) of REYNOLDS is victim of an engine stoppage, crashing on houses of Amiens at the end of the runway. The pilot and VANDENHEUVEL are killed.

    -Nearly two weeks later, in the night of 22nd March (from 17th, 219 Sq. moved to B77, the Dutch airfield of Gilze-Rijen), the crew HENRI/HUYNEN fails to return from a mission over Germany. The Mosquito (MM792) was victim of the Flak in the Cologne area and crashed near Suchteln (Netherlands). The two casualties will be buried near the wreck of their plane.

    -The following month, on 18th April, PETRISSE and his comrade LALOUX takes off from Gilze-Rijen to operate over Northern Germany. The Flak again is the cause of the loss of their Mosquito FK-Z which crashes at Visselhövede killing the crew. After the war, their bodies will be found hurriedly burried in the Wehnsen cemetery (near Soltau).

 The last weeks.

 So, CUSTERS will remain the sole survivor of the first Belgian crews. On 12nd March, he had achieved his tour but decided to remain in the Squadron.

 The following weeks, three Belgians come to reinforce the 219 Sq.:

     -at the end of March, P/O Jean PIRSON arrives as F/Sgt (British) Bryan COOPER's W/Op.

     -in the beginning of April, the crew F/O Robert "Bob" NYSSENS - P/O Henri "Coco" LEONARD lands at Gilze-Rijen.

 But those late-arrived crewmen will not be seriously engaged, the war ending very soon.

 The "debt to war" of the Belgians is not entirely paid... On 3rd September 1945, when ferrying a Beaufighter TF X (RD558) for 151 RU (BLA) (=Reception unit British liberation Army), the crew BESSCHOPS/DELBROUCK is killed when their twin-engined hits a mountain at Sandyway-Exmoor and explodes. Those two flyers are the last casualties of the Belgians of 219 Sq.

 Eleven Belgian flyers served in 219 Sq. Five were killed before VE-Day and two after. So, the Belgians suffered around 65% losses in that night fighter unit. We can notice that if 219 Sq. had a handful of Belgian flyers, only one Free French pilot flew in that unit: the Commandant CLAISSE who was a test pilot before the war and survived the conflict.

 In September 1946, 219 Squadron will be disbanded for the second time.

 To the memory of Albert CUSTERS, deceased on 28 January 1997.


At Amiens-Glisy: back row: Sgt Jimmy MILLS (CLAISSE's W/Op), F/Lt Walter HENRI, F/O McNAMARA (CUSTERS's W/Op) and F/O Dennis COOK (219 Sq. Intelligence Officer). Foreground: an unidentified W/Op and F/O Albert PETRISSE (in front of his W/O ,F/Sgt Maurice LALOUX).

At Twente, after the war, F/Sgt Bryan COOPER and P/O (Belgian) Jean PIRSON.



 Last Updated : 05/08/08 18:10 Jean-Louis ROBA