The danish spitfires

Somehow Danish aviation history has always been linked to the Spitfire. During 2nd World War Danish pilots served in the Royal Air Force and many flew in squadrons equipped with Spitfires and after the war Denmark received a number of Spitfires.

Being a Dane I feel that the following stories should be told.

In 1941 and 1942 a group of Danish businessmen living in England collected £38,000 among themselves. This sum of money should be used to purchase Spitfires. The cheque for the £38,000 was handed over to Winston Churchill in Downing Street No. 10 by a group of Danes among these Joergen Thalbitzer, Axel Svendsen and Jens Ipsen, who were all serving in the RAF.

The £38,000 was enough to pay for 3 Spitfires Mk. VB.
All 3 aircraft had Dannebrog (the Danish flag) painted on the fuselage in front of the cockpit together with their names.

On 16th February 1942 the 3 aircraft were delivered at 24th Maintenance Unit and were transferred to squadron 234 on the 5th April. Here Danish pilots serving in this squadron should fly the 3 Spitfires. 2 of the aircraft were not in service for long; BL831 and BL924 were both lost during aerial combat on the 24th of April 1942. On that occasion the American Flt. Lt. Watkins flew BL831. A Danish pilot flew BL924.

In April 1943 BL855 was modified to a Seafire Mk. IB and re-identified as NX920. She was transferred to the Royal Navy Station a Lee on Solent. Hereafter the history of "Niels Ebbesen" is lost.

Danish pilots at war

Kaj Birksted

As mentioned above a number of Danes served in the Allied's air forces during the war. The most well known is Kaj Birksted, OBE, DFC and DSO. He ended his career in the RAF as a well-respected Wing Commander and ace with 10 confirmed kills and 10 probable kills.

Kaj Birksted was born in Copenhagen in 1915. In 1936 he was accepted at Danish Navy's flying school and in 1938 he was promoted a Lieutenant of the reserve forces. He escaped to Sweden one week after the German invasion of Denmark together with an other officer, Lieutenant Charles Sundby. In Sweden they almost ended up being interned until the end of the war, but after a lot of problems they managed to reach England through Norway. Here they contacted the RAF in order be accepted as pilots there, because they wanted to fight the Germans from England. However, at that time the RAF were not interested in Danish pilots because Danes were regarded as being semi-Germans. The Danish Prime Minister, Erik Scavenius, and his collaboration-with-the-Germans policy did not exactly help a lot. Once more Birksted and Sundby had to move along - this time to Canada through South Africa and Cuba. When Birksted and Sundby finally made it to "Little Norway" near Toronto, Birksted joined the Norwegian air force. Here he served as an flight instructor. With the rank of Lieutenant he was sent to England where he became a Section Leader in the first Norwegian 331 squadron. After he attended a course at Fighter Wing Central Gunnery School he is rated "Exceptional" as "Marksman in Combat". At 331 squadron he soon proved himself as being a skillful fighter pilot and leader.

In the spring of 1942 331 squadron was joined with the other Norwegian 332 squadron and formed the Norwegian Wing. Up until August 1942 Birksted flies 45 operative sorties over France in the capacity of either Section Leader or Squadron Leader and downs several German aircraft.

Birksted is promoted to captain and with personal success he takes part in the areal operations in connection with landing at Dieppe, Operation Xxxx, where the Allies suffer great losses but gain experience in that sort of operation. Later in 1942 he is promoted to Major and Squadron Leader of 331 Squadron. He is also awarded the Norwegian order "Krigskorset med Sverd" (Cross of War with Sword) and the English Distinguished Flying Cross.

In 1943 Birksted is promoted to Wing Commander of the Norwegian Fighter Wing (331 and 332 squadrons) and up unit November 1943 this Wing downs 39 German aircraft with the loss of only 4 pilots. Statistically is has been proven that this was the best result of any Fighter Wing. This tells something about his skills as a leader. For this RAF awards him with the Distinguished Service Order on the grounds of his conscientious work and talents running the Wing. He is also promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

His 10th and last combat victory over a German aircraft takes place on 23th January 1944 where after he is transferred to staff duty at 11th Group Combined Control Center as Operational Planner. Here Birksted takes part in the preparations in connection with the invasion in Normandy, Operation Overlord. He is responsible for all 11th Groups daytime fighter operations at D-day. On his own initiative he flies over the Channel on D-day so the he could judge for himself how things were progressing. For his work he is awarded Order of the British Empire, because "of his practical knowledge ... quick thinking, sound judgment and devotion to duty...". In other words: A first rate officer.

Shortly before the end of the war Birksted returns to active duty and is promoted to Wing Commander Flying and commands a pure RAF Wing (118 and 165 squadrons). This wing was equipped with North American P-51 Mustangs. At the end of hostilities he has accumulated a total of 316 operational sorties, 2115:15 hrs of flying of which 513 were flown in combat conditions.

After the war Birksted returns to Denmark where he is largely overlooked. He is invited to visit the King of Norway but not the King of Denmark. He is only invited to give a few short interviews with a couple Danish newspapers.

Birksted takes part in forming the Danish Airforce, but the other officers, the desk warriors, put an end to his carrier, because they feared that a such a young leader of the air force would be unpleasant for the system. Later someone said that this happened because "he was only a officer of the reserve and had no proper education as an officer, staff education or experience working at the staff. The fact that he was awarded the OBE for his work at the staff of the RAF and DFC and DSO for his results in the Norwegian Fighter Wing was totally disregarded.

Birksted is "parked" at the NATO head quarters in Paris. He resigns in 1960 and moves to England. He is so disappointed that he never returns to Denmark. He dies in London in 1996.

During a visit to Denmark after the war the King of Norway expresses that Denmark may keep Tordenskjold (A Danish/Norwegian admiral and hero from the Great Nordic War 1709 - 1720) as long as Norway could have Kaj Birksted.

In 2009 and 2010 - at long last - 3 busts of Kaj Birksted were made. Under the bust at Frihedsmuseet (Museum of Freedom - about the German occupation), next to the bust of Anders "Andy" Lassen, Victoria Cross, it says on the placard: ”The men who go first are rarely popular with those who wait for the wind to blow.” How true that is!

This is how we Danes treat our heros according to §1 in "Janteloven" - the Jante Law is a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Scandinavian communities, which negatively portrays and criticizes success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.

Others

The earlier mentioned pilots, Joergen Thalbitzer, Axel Svendsen and Jens Ipsen also share a story, which should be told. Axel Svendsen's family moved to England before the war, and when it broke out Axel Svendsen joined the RAF. On flight school he met Joergen Thalbitzer, who had escaped from Denmark after the German attack on Denmark on the 9th April 1940. Here he also met Jens Ipsen who had served at the French Foreign Legion. After flight school he was transferred to 32 squadron at Manston where he flew Hawker Hurricanes. Later Joergen Thalbitzer also joined 32 squadron. On the 2nd April 1942 Axel Svendsen and Joergen Thalbitzer were checked out on Spitfires and transferred to 234 squadron at Tangmere. During the first half of April 1942 Axel Svendsen writes to his family that the squadron was loosing too many pilots over northern France to the new German Focke-Wulf 190, which was superior to the Spitfire. On 24th April they went on a mission to the  northern France and over Berck-Sur-Mer at the Channel-coast they were attacked by 20 FW190's. 2 of the Danish Spitfires were shot down: BL831 and BL924. BL831 was as mentioned flown by Flt. Lt. Watkins. Axel Svendsen flew BL 924 but no one saw him go down. Both pilots were killed. 2 more Spitfires were lost, however, the pilots saved their lives and were taken as prisoners of war. This operation should have been Axel Svendsen's last before a leave. When the squadron returned to Tangmere, Joergen Thalbitzer took off again to search for his friend, however in vain.

On ops in July 1942 Joergen Thalbitzer was hit and lost height. During the following crash landing the Spitfire hit power-cable, lost a wing and ended upside down, and Joergen Thalbitzer had to cut his way out of the harness. After 14 days on the run the Germans captured him because a French farmer called the police who arrested him and handed him over to the Germans. Joergen Thalbitzer later escaped from the POW-camp for airmen at Bromberg in Poland during the famous big escape there. He and an English pilot, James Brian Buckley, escaped to Denmark via Danzig (Gdansk) where he met his family. When Joergen Thalbitzer and James Buckley attempted to escape to Sweden, the 2 pilots drowned as their boat sank in the sound between Denmark and Sweden.

Jens Ipsen survivede the war and returned to Denmark. He entered service at the Danish Navy's Air Corps, from where he retired in 1955.

Today at the museum at Tangmere you can see a replica of Danish Spitfire in which Axel Svendsen met his destiny.

Last but not least Kjeld Roenhof, who also served with the Norwegian air force, should be mentioned. He has written the 2 books "We flew for freedom" (sorry, in Danish only) where he in very a vivid and personal way tells about his time as a Spitfire pilot in 331 squadron, where his friends and comrades is killed one by one. He tells about his first encounter with German fighters on his first operational flight. His orders were to keep as close to his squadron leader as possible and only keep his eyes on the leaders tail wheel. Suddenly the squadron leader goes into a steep dive and Kjeld Roenhof notices that the tail wheel has been blown off the aircraft. At a very low altitude Kjeld Roenhof decides the squadron leader has bought it and pulls out of the dive. Suddenly he is chased by 6 FW190's but he manages to escape, however, to the south instead of to the north. When he discovers his error and turns back the meets the 6 Germans again. This time the Germans will not let him slip through their fingers. In order to get the Germans off his tail Kjeld Roenhof remembers and copies the manoeuvre which the squadron leader's aircraft did. Only by performing wild manoeuvres and pulling many G's by putting his feet on the instrument panel and pull the stick as hard as he could he keeps the Germans behind him. Zigzagging at roof- and treetop level he manages to escape back to England where his fuel tanks are completely dry - only enough fuel to fill a cup. Upon the return to his own base the others greet him wildly. Actually the wounded squadron leader somehow also made his way home.

Losses

Here is the names of the Danish pilots lost their lives serving in allied air forces:

Royal Air Force

Royal Canadian Air Force

Royal Norwegian Air Force

South African Air Force

The names above are listed at Royal Air Force's church St Clement Danes in London and might not be complete or correct. For more details about that subject I can highly recommend Danishww2pilots.dk. This website gives many more details about this subject.

Aksel Svendsen (right.), Jørgen Thalbitzer (middle) in front of a Spitfire Mk VB. The gentleman with the huge coat is unknown to me.

Wing Commander Kaj Birksted at his at his return to Denmark after the war.

A Spitfire with Kaj Birksteds personal squadron marking.

Birksted in his "private" aircraft carrying his initials.

The placard below the bust of Kaj Birksted at "Frihedsmuseet" - please note the text in the last sentence.

 

 

 

 

Svendsen an Thalbitzer on Skagen Ind

Flt. Lt. Jørgen "Tiny" Kjeldbæk around D-dag  ("invasion stribes" under the wings) on a Spitfire Mk. VB (probably a Clipped, Cropped and Clapped version). The nickname "Tiny" Kjeldbæk was awarded with the usual English sense of humor, because he was a big man who hardly fit into the cockpit of a Spitfire.

The replica of "Valdemar Atterdag" at the museum at Tangmeres  in southern England.