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Beyond Normandy




Left Up in the Air
The Air Services of the Low Countries in WWII
By David Meyler
November 2012

The forces of the smaller nations involved in the vast conflict of the Second World War are often given just a cursory glance, when not overlooked completely. Third Reich and Great Pacific War are big games and vast in scope, and small air forces like those of the Netherlands and Belgium rate just one TAC factor each (plus another Dutch TAC counting the air force in the East Indies). In the game they tend to come and go pretty quickly.

However, while the Dutch and Belgian forces are often lumped together in the “Low Countries,” they were quite distinctive in the short time they survived in combat. This look provides some background on what those single TAC factors represent.

Belgium’s armored might, 1939.

While the Belgian military establishment in 1940 is generally seen as larger and more effective than the Dutch (especially as the Dutch population was somewhat larger), this is misleading. While the army was smaller (the Dutch army totalled 47 infantry and 9 cavalry or cyclist regiments, to the Belgian army’s 54 infantry regiments and 22 motorized, cyclist and cavalry regiments), the Dutch supported a fairly large navy with a naval air service. Belgium’s naval forces were negligible. The Netherlands also had a significant air industry with two major manufacturers, Fokker and Koolhoven, producing military aircraft both for home use and export.

The Belgian air force (Belgische Luchtmacht or Force Arienne Belge) while numerically larger (roughly 180 operational aircraft to 150), was actually much weaker than the Dutch air service. The Netherlands’ Luchtvaartafdeling could put almost 60 modern monoplane fighters into the air. The Belgians generally remained dependant on the biplane and had but one squadron of 11 monoplane fighters.

The Dutch used biplanes, too.
C.10 light bombers on a strike mission, 13 May 1940.

Belgian soldiers took great pride in their army's performance during the First World War. At the same time, Belgian officers tended to look down on the Dutch military as amateurs who had not been blooded during the Great War. The Belgian high command did not trust the ability or the will of their northern neighbours to resist a German invasion. This proved to be a major stumbling block in developing a joint defensive strategy with the Dutch, and just like the ground forces, the air forces of each nation would fight their own separate battles.

Ironically, however, the Dutch had been the first nation in Western Europe to mobilize their armed forces in the summer of 1914. Thanks to an effective intelligence service, the Dutch had early warning of the German mobilization, although they mistakenly believed this would result in an immediate invasion of their territory.

The impact of the First World War had more insidious effects. While many Dutch, in spite of all the warning indications, still believed the Germans would not invade, the Belgian army fully expected and feared a German attack. During the winter of 1939-40, the Belgians waited for an attack that did not come. The many false alerts, the boring hours of uneventful patrols and the continuous uncertainty, sapped morale and alertness. When the real attack did come on 10 May 1940, the Belgian reaction was mixed and uncertain. The Germans, in turn, would be surprised by the ferocity of the supposedly docile Dutch. One advantage of small size is that Belgian and Dutch aircrews tended to be of high quality. Turnover was low, and as it was difficult to get into the air services, they developed into something of an elite.

Dutch G1 fighters.

One enduring myth from the campaign is the destruction of the Dutch air force on the ground by the Luftwaffe at dawn on 10 May 1940. Only at Bergen airfield, on the North Sea coast west and north of Amsterdam, were the Dutch caught on the ground losing a dozen of the new Fokker G1 fighters. This loss was bad enough, but at every other airfield, the Germans met a determined defence. The G1 squadron at Waalhaven got eight of its 11 aircraft into the air. The ensuing air battle proved to be one of the most lopsided of the whole battle of France. The Luftwaffe lost 13 aircraft shot down (eight bombers, three Messerschmitt fighters and two Ju52s). Just one G1 was lost (the tail gunner of this aircraft was killed by bomb splinters while running to his plane).

Noteworthy was the action of Lieutenant Bram (Bob) van der Stok, based at De Kooy, during another of the largest dogfights of the first day. Eight Fokker D21s from De Kooy faced nine Messerschmitt Bf109Es from II(J)/TrGr186 (part of the air unit slated to serve on the never completed German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin).

Dutch D.21 fighters over the Grebbeberg.

It was another surprise defeat for the ostensibly superior Germans. Although slower, the Dutch used the better manoeuvrability of the D.21 to advantage. Five 109s were shot down, including the squadron leader’s machine, with another two damaged. The Dutch lost no aircraft. After May 1940, van der Stok escaped to Britain and flew Spitfires with the RAF until he was shot down and made a POW. He participated in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in March 1944, and became one of only three POWs to successfully get away. He eventually came to command No. 322 Squadron. In the film The Great Escape, his character was turned into an Aussie.

Over the next five days, the Dutch air force fought a grim battle of attrition, heavily outnumbered and with only negligible aid from the French and British. Most action took place on 10 May, the first day with more than 100 sorties. The Dutch alone faced the full onslaught of the whole of Luftflotte 2’s 600 combat aircraft (not counting the air transport fleet of 500 Ju52s). Managing only about 30 sorties on May 11, it looked as if the Dutch air force had collapsed, yet the next day close to 100 sorties were mounted again.

The two single largest concentrations of Dutch aircraft, less than a dozen aircraft each, were seen on 12 May during the battle for the Grebbeberg, but this day proved to be the last gasp. Still, on the morning of 14 May, just before the capitulation of the Dutch army, the air force was mounting defensive patrols, singly or in groups of two, three or four, with whatever could be scraped together, patched up and sent into the air: seven D.21s, four G.1s and a C.5.

Belgian Fairey Fox bombers, 1937.

The Belgian air force was effectively suppressed on 10 May, suffering heavy losses on the ground. At Schaffen all but one of the 11 Hawker Hurricane fighters were wiped out, while the squadron of 15 Gladiators lost about six aircraft. Of the 23 Fiat biplanes, about 14 were destroyed. In total, about 80 aircraft were lost on the ground. The 14 Battle bombers, the only modern bomber force the Belgians had, were massacred on 11 May attempting to knock out the Maas bridges at Maastricht. The Belgian air force had only a negligible impact thereafter. By the time of the Belgian surrender on 28 May, just a handful of reconnaissance planes remained operational, covering the last battles along the Lys River. Both British and French air activity was fairly heavy over Belgium, supporting the large forces they had put into the country.

The KNIL Luchvaartdienst (Netherlands East Indies Army Air Service) by December 1941 was stronger than the home air force had been at the outbreak of the war, with about 200 aircraft, mostly monoplanes. The LVD saw widespread service from Singapore in December to the fall of Java in early March 1942, but was never a match for the Japanese in terms of numbers and quality. A single flight of four Buffalo fighters was all that remained to cover the last battle at Lembang, 6-7 March.

Belgian Air Force
(Belgische Luchtvaart, Force Arienne Belge)


Fairey Fox: The Belgian air force had remained true to the biplane as its primary type of aircraft. Most numerous was the Fox, a British design produced almost exclusively in Belgium. A solid, conventional early 1930s design, the two-seat Fox served as bomber, fighter and reconnaissance. The final model VIII appeared in 1938, offering few improvements on what had by then become a thoroughly obsolete design. Performance ranged from 302 km/hour as top speed for the Fox II to 380 km/hour for the Fox VIII. Typical armament was twin front-firing machine guns (except the Fox II with just one gun) with a flexible mounted machine gun in the rear cockpit. Bomb load was 200 kg. A total of 40 II models were built including two trainers and 12 reconnaissance versions, with 55 type IIIs (six reconnaissance), 76 type VIs (24 reconnaissance) and 15 type VIIIs (all fighters). The single type VII fighter was actually a single-seat conversion of a type VI, built for Willy Coppens, Belgium's highest-scoring ace from the First World War.

Fiat CR.42: Italian manufactured biplane, 34 delivered to Belgium — 430 km/hour, two forward-firing machine guns.

Gloster Gladiator: Another biplane, main British fighter up to 1938/39, 22 delivered to Belgium — 414 km/h,our four machine guns.

A flight of Battles.

Fairey Battle: Essentially a low-wing monoplane fighter with an extended fuselage to allow for extra crew members. But instead of a fast and nimble craft, the Battle proved to be underpowered, slow and vulnerable with an inadequate bomb load. Belgium operated one squadron, with incredibly brave crews, which was all but wiped out on May 11 in a raid against the German-held bridges at Veldwezelt and Vroenhoven. Top speed of 388 km/hour, one forward-firing machine gun and one in the rear cockpit, 454 kg bomb load.

Hawker Hurricane I: Belgium had just one squadron, and it was virtually wiped out in a single air raid on the first day of the war. This serves as the icon for the Belgian TAC unit in the game.

Renard R31: One of the few Belgian-designed aircraft, used for reconnaissance.

Order of Battle, May 1940

1st Regiment (Army cooperation)

Deurne: 1/I/1 Sqd (10 Fairey Fox II and III)

Gossoncourt: 3/II/1 Sqd (12 Fairey Fox II, III and IIIc), 5/III/1 Sqd (ten Fairey Fox IV), 7/IV/1 Sqd (nine Fairey Fox VI) (the "c" suffix stands for "combat" and indicates a fighter or bomber variant, others are reconnaissance types)

Bierset: 9/V/1 Sqd (11 Renard R-31), 11/VI/1 Sqd (ten Renard R-31)

2nd Regiment (Air Defence)

Schaffen: 1/I/2 Sqd (15 Gloster Gladiator MkI), 2/I/2 Sqd (11 Hawker Hurricane MkI), 5/III/2 Sqd (15 Fairey Fox VIc fighter)

Nivelles: 3/II/2 Sqd (15 Fiat CR.42), 4/II/2 Sqd (eight Fiat CR.42)

Le Zoute: 6/III/2 Sqd (14 Fairey Fox VIc and oneVIIc fighter)

3rd Regiment (Long Range Reconnaissance/Bombing)

Evére: 1/I/3 Sqd (nine Fairey Fox III and IIIc), 3/I/3 Sqd (nine Fairey Fox III), 5/III/3 Sqd (14 Fairey Battle), 7/III/3 Sqd (nine Fairey Fox VIII)

Dutch Air Force


Fokker S9: Trainer.

Fokker C5: When introduced in 1925, this sleek biplane was a decade ahead of its time. “W” was the floatplane version. The fighter version was designated D5, but even the bomber version was faster than most contemporary interceptors. Although still in service with several air forces, by 1940 the plane was long obsolete, and in Dutch usage served as the primary reconnaissance aircraft — 225 km/hour, one or two forward-firing machine guns and one machine gun in a flexible mounting in the rear cockpit.

Fokker C7W: The floatplane version of the C5 proved unsatisfactory, and the C7W was designed as a replacement.

Fokker C8 maritime reconnaissance: 232 km/hour, three crewmen, twin rear-firing machine guns, and one machine gun mounted through the bottom floor.

Fokker C10 reconnaissance/bomber: Two-seater biplane, top speed of 355 km/hour, twin forward-firing machine guns, with a another pair of swivel-mounted guns in the rear cockpit. The C11 and C14 reconnaissance floatplanes were similar to the C10.

Fokker D17 fighter: Obsolete biplane, relegated to the flight schools, six machines were brought back into front-line service as emergency escort fighters.

Fokker D21: Low-wing monoplane fighter, 460 km/hour, four machine guns — the icon for the Dutch TAC units in the game.

Fokker G1a: Twin-engined boxtail heavy fighter, capable of dogfighting with the Bf109 — 475 km/hour, crew of two or three, with one swivel mounted machine gun in the rear, and eight forward-firing machine guns or two 20mm cannon and four machine guns. The lighter G1b export variant had a crew of two.

Fokker T5: Twin-engined medium bomber and gun-ship, armed with a 20mm Solothurn cannon and four 7.9mm machine guns in rear and ventral mounts, bomb load of 1000kg, speed of 418 km/hour.

Fokker FVII: Civilian transport aircraft modified for military duty.

Koolhoven FK51: Twin-seat biplane, standard artillery spotter.

Douglas A8-3N: One of the few foreign-produced aircraft in Dutch service, it was designed as a ground-attack bomber, the Dutch used it as a two-seater fighter — against the German Messerschmidts it proved hopelessly inadequate.

Order of Battle, May 1940

1st LVA Regiment, Air Defence (HQ Schiphol)

Reconnaissance Squadron (Bergen): 10 Fokker C10

Bomber Squadron (Schiphol): Nine Fokker T5, plus an independent flight of three Fokker F7 night bombers

1st Fighter Squadron (De Kooy): 11 Fokker D21

2nd Fighter Squadron (Schiphol): Nine Fokker D21

3rd Fighter Squadron (Waalhaven): 11 Fokker G1a

4th Fighter Squadron (Bergen): 12 Fokker G1a

2nd LVA Regiment, Army Support (HQ Zeist)

1st Reconnaissance Group (Hilversum): One Fokker C10, four Fokker C5D, four Koolhoven FK51

2nd Reconnaissance Group (Ypenburg): Seven Fokker C5D, five Koolhoven FK51

3rd Reconnaissance Group (Ruigenhoek): Nine Fokker C5D, four Koolhoven FK51

4th Reconnaissance Group (Gilze-Rijen): Seven Fokker C5D, three Koolhoven FK51

1st Fighter Squadron (Ypenburg): Nine Fokker D21

2nd Fighter Squadron (Ypenburg): Non-operational, to be equipped with 15 Fokker G1 by June, 1940

3rd Fighter Squadron (Ypenburg): 11 Douglas 8A-3N

3rd LVA Regiment: Comprised flight schools and training aircraft

Marine Luchtvaart Dienst (Naval Aviation Service): 14 Fokker C5Es, ten Fokker C5W floatplanes, six Fokker C8W floatplanes, one Fokker C11W catapult-floatplane, 24 Fokker C14W floatplanes, eight Fokker T8W torpedo bombers, plus 15 FK51 and 15 Fokker S9 trainers; with bases at De Mok on Texel Island, Veere, Schellingwoude (Amsterdam), Brasemermeer, Alkmaardermeer and Westeinderplas

KNIL Luchtvaartafdeling

East Indies: The East Indies forces relied mostly on imported models. The principal combat aircraft were American-made Brewster Buffalo fighters and Martin medium bombers. The naval air service relied on a mix of Dutch, German and foreign manufactured equipment.

Order of Battle, December 1941

I Groep (bombers)

1-VlG-I Afdeling, Samarinda II airfield, Borneo: 12 Martin 139 — export version of the Martin B10.

2-VlG-I Afdeling, Singkawang II airfield, Borneo: 12 Martin 139.

II Groep (Bombers, Malang, Java)

1-VlG-II Afdeling: 12 Martin 139.

2-VlG-II Afdeling: 12 Martin 139.

3-VlG-II Afdeling: 12 Martin 139.

III Groep (bombers, moved to Singapore in December 1941)

1-VlG-III Afdeling: 12 Martin 139.

2-VlG-III Afdeling: 12 Martin 139.

3-VlG-III Afdeling: 12 Martin 139.

IV Groep (fighters, based in Java, except IV Patrouille-1-VlG-IV on Ambon)

1-VlG-IV Afdeling: Seven Curtiss H75A Hawk: I Patrouille,Tjililitan; II Patrouille, Perak.

2-VlG-IV Afdeling: 12 Curtiss Wright CW21B: I and II Patrouilles, Andir; III Patrouille, Perak; re-equipped Februrary 16 with Hurricane MkIs.

3-VlG-IV Afdeling: 16 Brewster B339D, Madioen.

IV-1-VlG-IV, Ambon Island: Four B339D.

V Groep (fighters)

1-VlG-V Afdeling (12 B339D): I and II Patrouilles at Samarinda II, and III Patrouille at Singkawang II, Borneo.

2-VlG-V Afdeling, based at Singapore: 12 B339D.

(A full strength afdeling (squadron) with 12 aircraft was divided into three patrouilles (flights) with four planes apiece, each patrouille split up into two pairs, called a koppel.)

Reconnaissance Squadrons

VkA1 (Reconnaissance Afdeling): 12 Curtiss CW22 Falcon — two-seat trainer version of CW21, used as an operational recce plane armed with two machine guns.

VkA2: 12 Curtiss CW22 Falcon.

VkA3: 12 Koolhoven FK51 biplanes.

VkA4: 12 Lockheed L212 twin-engined long-range recce planes.

VkA5: 12 Koolhoven FK51 biplanes.

Marine Luchvaart Dienst (Naval Air Service, organized in independent patrouilles of three aircraft)

GVT1 through GVT8: 24 Dornier Do24K flying boats, called "X-Boots" by the Dutch, with 13 in reserve.

GVT12 and GVT14 combined: 11 Fokker T4 torpedo bombers.

GVT16 and GVT17 combined: Six Catalina "Y-Boots" — 30 more in reserve in the process of organizing into additional GVT.

GVT11 and GVT13 combined: Eight Fokker C11W floatplanes, used as catapult-launched reconnaissance aircraft on cruisers.


The flight schools provided enough aircraft to form an extra afdeling of Martins, one recce afdeling of Lockheed L212s and two Koolhoven afdelings for the air force.

The naval air service also had 26 Fokker C5D and Es and 11 C14Ws on hand.

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