Six Bostons to St. Omer
332 Squadron was again sent down to Manston one day in November of 1942.
“This is good stuff for a joke, but are we really supposed to do this?”
The briefing room falls quiet at the words from the Norwegian pilot, Olav Ullestad. They’re all feeling rather poorly from last night’s party. Normally when 'Zulu' Morris arranges parties in the officer’s mess, it’s when they have the next day off from flying. Not this time around. Finn and 332 have been sent down to Manston in the early morning, still with last night’s alcoholic beverages having an impact on their bodies. None of them knows what to say. It is the most dangerous mission the Squadron has ever been given.
Mohn portrait by Eric Kennington
Mohr clears his throat after Ullestad’s comment, choosing not to reply to it, continuing with his briefing. Low cloud, bad weather – rain. Flying low, exposing themselves to massive amounts of ground fire. The Norwegians are shaking their heads in disbelief.
At a specific time, in a specific position, we would rendezvous with a squadron of Boston bombers. These bombers would bomb the airfield at St. Omer and then St. Ingelvert. We were to fly just ahead of them and shoot up flak batteries. It is pretty hard to meet up with other squadrons at low altitudes, because we can quickly disappear from each other’s view, due to our high speed. St. Omer was also one of the most heavily defended airfields in our area of operations.
“We’ve done some dangerous flying before, but this is just crazy you know….”
Marius Eriksen (left), 332’s youngest pilot talks to Finn after the briefing. The tension is building. Both of them remember Mohr’s choice of words during the briefing: ”The survivors from St. Omer will proceed to St. Ingelvert to do a second low-level attack.”
Eriksen and Finn Thorsager head for their Spitfires lined up on the field; Finn with his regular AH-J, and Eriksen in AH-P. With Eriksen strapped in his cockpit, waving a short and gloomy goodbye to Finn, he walks the last meters down to his own Spit.
“Finn, wait a minute.”
It’s Mohr, catching up with him on his way to AH-W.
“Listen, I got hold of Wing-Co Duncan Smith on the telephone. He tried to cancel the entire affair, but it was simply impossible. He couldn’t talk them into dropping this doomsday show”
“At least he gave it a try. Can’t ask for much more” Finn replies.
Mohr seems tense and nervous when he walks down to his Spitfire and grabs the parachute from the wing. It’s a rare sight for Finn to see their boss like this.
Waiting to take off, Finn (right) lights a cigarette and smokes it quickly. Finishing it, he starts on another one. The nerves are running high, and he wants to calm them down with the old trick of a few puffs.
To his left, Thor Wærner and the Dane, Kjeld Rønhof, get ready in their cockpits. Finn can hear Wærners nervous voice before he jumps up on the wing of his Spitfire:
“Well, goodbye then Kjeld. We won’t be seeing each other again.”
It sends shivers down Finn’s spine. The chaps are giving themselves little chance of survival, and with every right. It’s verging on a mission of suicide.
At 09:30, they’re all ready. 12 Spitfires ready for take-off from Manston with Wilhelm Mohr leading. It’s a solo escort, without the rest of the Wing. Only 332 this time around, and just six Boston bombers to look after. The task will be difficult. Trying to keep track of the bombers in poor weather and low cloud is terribly hard work. In addition, they get the task of doing low-level strafing on machine-gun posts and flak positions around the airfields before the Bostons come in. Even if the Luftwaffe doesn’t show up, there will be plenty to do.
Small particles of water hit Finn in the face when he straps into his Spitfire. Light drizzle is not the best Spitfire weather. He simply has to hope for the best, and that the weather does keep itself steady enough for the mission. They have to get those bombers over to France, and back home again. It feels like an impossible mission being in front of those bombers, beating up extremely well-defended airfields.
“Friendlies in sight!.”
Just five minutes after takeoff from Manston, Mohr spots the slow bombers in formation over North Foreland, just barely touching the extremely low cloud base. Mohr gives his messages over the radio, and Finn spots the bombers just where their boss told them they would be. They’ve made contact.
Just under the dark, grey clouds, 332 is flying ahead of the bombers heading for the French coast. Over Calais, the Germans fire their first rounds towards them. The bombers keep on flying courageously towards St. Omer as if nothing has happened, never wandering off their course.
Finn looks over to his left. He has one of the Bostons relatively close, just a little behind. He can vaguely see the pilot and the men behind their machine guns. The pilot stares ahead, busy keeping in formation, while the flak is exploding around him.
Suddenly, the Germans hit their target. The explosion rips through the doomed bomber. It steeply rises up in the air with half of the bomber already engulfed in a massive fire, before it flips over and crashes into a farm in a gigantic ball of fire.
No one saw any parachutes. The bomber was too low for any of them to have a chance of getting out. Now, there are five left and they still have a good way to go before reaching their target.
We continued flying in a zone with plenty of flak, and we saw tracers fly everywhere around us. To avoid German flak as much as possible on these missions, we had to fly as ’wild men’, up and down, and turn as much as possible. It was also important to stay as low as possible. Sometimes, we came back with leaves and branches on our Spitfires.
332 crosses the coast just six miles east of Calais. A hailstorm of ground fire meets the Norwegians from the sand dunes. Finn spots one of the Norwegians open fire on one of the several Germans' positions on the beach, and the German soldiers around it, fall dead to the ground.
Suddenly it goes quiet again. No hostile Germans, just friendly French civilians waving a warm welcome to their squadron of Spitfires. Finn keeps his Spitfire as low as he possibly can, supporting the Bostons. They have no choice, overhead there’s just a massive layer of cloud.
Then the fire opens up again. They have no choice but to fly through it, and Finn desperately tries to make himself smaller where he sits. Then it happens; one of the Bostons gets it bad. The big bomber suddenly pulls sharply upwards before it stalls and goes straight down. Finn can clearly see a Spitfire by a hair's breadth avoiding a collision with the stricken bomber. With its bomb load still intact, the explosion is enormous. It crashed into a French farm, totally destroying the entire group of farming houses. No one had a chance, not those in the bombers, and not those on the ground.
Finn has no time to think more about the incident, as the squadron race into another heavy rain shower with the Germans still firing everything they got at them. Taking his eyes off the horizon in front for a mere second, Finn can spot a church to his right. His eyes are wide and shocked when he realizes he has to look up to see the church spire.
Closing in on St. Omer, the Bostons are already split up. 332 leaves the Bostons to do their job, and Mohr leads the squadron up. Finn breathes out in relief when they finally have a little height and go into «line abreast».
“This is Red 2. My glycol system is hit!”
Finn sees Red 2, Thor Wærners Spitfire AD449, in the formation. White smoke pours out of the doomed engine.
“I will try to climb for altitude and bailout!”
Wærner pulls his Spitfire upwards. With not enough speed, and a bad engine, it will never hold. He will never manage to get enough height to take to his chute. Wærner realizes the same just seconds after Finn and aborts the climbing, tipping the nose of his Spit down again.
“This is Red 2. Good luck, boys.”
Wærners voice is cracking up, full of horror.
“I think you need it more than us.”
A Norwegian pilot responds to the gallant message from Wærner.
Finn can see the glycol is gushing over the Spitfire’s windscreen. He can see him aim for a small field just ahead. The last thing he sees is the wheels appearing underneath the ill-fated Spitfire. The field is big enough. With a little luck, he will make it there safely. However, there is a poor chance of seeing Wærner again anytime soon.
“Bandits, ten o'clock!”
The warning is given. There are definitely Germans around. Finn sights the formation of Fw 190s ahead, just where they were reported to be. They are a good distance away from the flak that 332 have to endure. They won’t attack as long as 332 is being fired at from the ground. Too risky. If none of the 332 Spits drops out of the formation, they will be relatively safe for the time being. It’s more than enough to handle the stuff they get from the ground.
The Bostons finally give up their mission with the call of Fw 190s in the area. They drop their bombs wherever they may be around the St. Omer area and heads up into the cloud to fly home.
332 climbs to 6,000 feet, into the deep grey clouds, and heads for home. The Germans fire off their last rounds just when the clouds give them cover. They’re out of the worst part now, with one man less than they came with. Flying into the fog, Finns Spitfire is met with a wall of rain, hail, and wind. He doesn’t care as long as they get themselves out of France. A few minutes longer and he’s convinced more of them would have gone down.
Halfways over the channel, Mohr gives a call for them to drop out of the clouds again. Finn can breathe more easily now, but his body is still shaking from the low flying and extensive ground fire they had to endure for so long. Mohr reports a sighting of oil on the water in the channel, and they circle the spot until another squadron of Spitfires takes over.
Finally approaching Manston, Mohr calls up on the radio, asking specifically to be given room to land first. Mohr says he can smell fuel in his cockpit and needs to land at once. Finn can see him go straight in for a landing, and looks to be alright.
We finally got back to Manston where we had a de-briefing with the intelligence officer.
The fog slowly covers Manston like a grey carpet and engulfs 332’s Spitfires in wet drizzle. Most likely they have to stay at Manston for the night. Shaken, Mohr had got down in one piece, his engine stopping when he touched the ground. A couple of bullets had hit his fuel system. Jolly good luck he made it home in one piece. Johan Gilhuus had been the Spitfire who just avoided the Boston hitting the farm. With a gloomy face, he had told them all that he was so close he had seen the face of the tail gunner of the Boston before it hit the ground.
Finn can’t deny the fact that even with a bad result, 332 did pretty well in a very difficult situation. A near to perfect rendezvous with the Boston bombers in horrid weather conditions. They never lost their place in the formation either, even with plenty of flak and lots of poor luck. Even if the result was not the best, they showed superbly good work as a team. Something to be pleased with, indeed. And, they had all gotten away with it. All except one.
Read in Allied Losses & Incidents Database what happened to Thor Wærner
332 Squadron Group
This is extracted from 'Viking Spitfire: The Story of Finn Thorsager' Buy it from the Book Depository
332 Squadron ORB: 1. November 1942. Bomber-Escort 13.25-14.40. Maj. Mohr DFC l (in AD279) led, airborne 13.25 from Manston. Briefing held that 332 Squadron was the close, and only escort, for 6 Bostons bombing St. Omer airfield. Squadron briefed to go in first and subdue the Flak on the airfield. After re-forming the same procedure was to be used at St. Inglevert airfield. The rendezvous was made at 13.30 over North Foreland, and course set at zero feet. Crossed the French coast, east of Calais, still at zero feet at 13.30 hrs. Intense light-Flak was encountered in the Calais area. Squadron proceed direct to St. Omer/Longuenesse where the pilots were constantly subjected to 20-mm. Flak, which accounted for one of the Bostons. Owing to the thick mist in the St. Omer area, the Bostons turned back before reaching the target.
They made one orbit to port, and then two orbits to starboard, just after making their initial turn back. They completely lost formation, and made it impossible for us to escort them. Eight Fw 190s were then observed, and the Bostons broke away singly into the mist after jettisoning their bombs. About 2 miles N.W. St. Omer airfield, Red 2, 2/Lt. T.A. Wærner (in W3125) broke formation with white smoke pouring from his aircraft. Heard to say on R/T that his glycol-system had been hit. He climbed and announced that he would bale-out: this he was unable to do, and we saw him belly-land in a field. Squadron climbed to 6,000-feet and made landfall-out by Cap Gris Nez.
RAF 2 Group Light-Bomber:
RAF 2 Gp. 88 Sqn. 6 Boston III 12.56- Circus 233 0 - 0 - 0 n/a 1 Cat.Em Flak Tasked: St. Omer
Cat.Em 01.11.42 F/O D.K. Hulme: KIA 2 Group 88 Sqn. Boston III: Z2224 Flak nr. St. Omer
Cat.Em 01.11.42 Sgt. L.C. Willey: KIA 2 Group 88 Sqn. Boston III: Z2224 Flak nr. St. Omer
Cat.Em 01.11.42 Sgt. E. Bradley: KIA 2 Group 88 Sqn. Boston III: Z2224 Flak nr. St. Omer
6 aircraft detailed to bomb St Omer airdrome. Z2224 took off at 12:56 from Oulton. Approximately halfway between the enemy coast and the target at 13:43, Z2224 (P/O D.K. HULME) was seen to climb above the formation and then spin slowly to the ground.