In January 1944 after half a year of practicing and team building the 322 squadron was ready for operation and moved from Woodvale to the south-east of England where the main action was. Its first operational base was Hawkinge south of Dover where on a good day the French coast was visible.
Artist impression of the cliffs of Dover as seen from France, on a good day
In its first operational period the squadron was assigned a role in Operation Crossbow. The Germans were working on a new weapon, the V-1. These pilot-less flying bombs, also known as Divers or Doodlebugs, were set up in the north of France pointing at London. The main task of the 322 pilots in this period was to escort bombers aiming at destroying the V-1 factories and launching sites. Inevitably the squadron soon started to lose its first pilots, both to the enemy and during exercises in the air. But, as always in times of war, business must go on so there was little time to reflect.
In the meantime the allies had acquired a definite advantage over the enemy and preparations for the invasion of Normandy were made. Busy times started for the squadron. Together with two other squadrons the 322 was tasked with preventing the enemy from discovering evidence of these preparations on British soil. So-called high defensive patrols, patrols at high altitudes, were carried out to intercept German aircraft trying to photograph concentrations of British troops and equipment. For this task the squadron was equipped with a new type of Spifire - the XIV - which had a more powerful engine and could reach much higher altitudes up to 40.000 feet. (This is the average cruising altitude of a commercial airliner these days, but then without the modern comforts of a pressurised cabin or cockpit heating.)
When finally the day arrived which everybody had been looking forward to, D-day on June 6th turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax for the 322 squadron.
Flight Commander Kühlmann, who we met in our previous post, later reports:
“12 aircraft ready to go, 12 pilots ready to fly them, all dressed up and nowhere to go.”
Only in the afternoon was their assistance required in the form of defensive patrols over the Isle of Wight.
Soon however, the squadron had a chance to prove its worth. Shortly after D-day Germany took revenge for the allied invasion. The enemy now started launching their pilot-less V-1 bombs in relentless attacks on London.
V-1, the German pilot-less flying bomb. To be followed up by the much deadlier and quicker version V-2
Ground engineer Louis Hartlooper, wrote in his diary on 23 June: “I think this is the worst night I have experienced in England. From 11pm till 4 am flying bombs have flown over every 5 minutes, sometimes two or three at the same time”.
Soon the squadron's pilots became very effective at intercepting these ‘Doodlebugs’. Flight Officer Rudy Burgwal became the squadron’s top scorer with eighteen interceptions to his name. Sadly he couldn’t enjoy his reputation very long as he died on 12 August during an escort flight above France.
Top V-1 killer, flying officer Rudy Burgwal standing at the propellor of his Spitfire XIV. Sitting on the nose of the aircraft first to the left is ground engineer Louis Hartlooper. On the wing first to the left is our father, ground crew member Jan ter Doest. Sitting on the wing to the right is flying officer Ab Homburg.
Advancing in Europe
By now the allied forces were gaining territory on the continent and the squadron’s new role was to provide support to the allied battle in the North of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and even deep into hostile territory above the German Ruhr-area. Usually this meant escorting bombers, or sometimes gliders as in the case of the September Operation Market-Garden which was a failed attempt to regain the bridges over the important Dutch rivers. In this period the squadron lost another five of their pilots’ lives.
Back on home soil
After the south of The Netherlands was liberated in autumn 1944 the squadron left England and moved to its first home base at Woensdrecht in January 1945. In the meantime the squadron had been equipped with new Spitfires suitable for a combination of defensive as well as tactical roles. The squadron now embarked on another very busy period. On its menu was a mix of fighter sweeps, armed reconnaissance flights, bomber escorts and 'rhubarbs' (bombardments at low altitudes on strategic targets) in The Netherlands and Germany.
Finally, on May 4 1945, the long awaited news arrived that Germany had capitulated. A couple of months later the squadron was disbanded and reduced to a ‘number only’ in October 1945. This was the end of an era where under most dire circumstances friendships were made but eighteen friends were lost. And where people’s resilience was tested to the extreme. All with one costly but precious goal: freedom.
Our next post will be on Sunday 3 December and will be about, guess what...
Het wapen der militaire luchtvaart in de Engelse periode 1940-1945. Uit de serie Geschiedenis van de Koninklijke Luchtmacht, hoofddeel 1, deel 3 - Kolonel J. Tammes
322 Squadron. Sporen van zijn verleden, lijnen in zijn geschiedenis - W.H. Lutgert, Bart Sorgedrager
Unpublished diaries - Louis Hartlooper
322 Operation Record Book, June 1944, National Archives London
1. Detail of watercolour by Peter Utton
2. Photo of V-1 from English newspaper article June 1944, newspaper unknown. Private collection fam. van Eendenburg
3. Photo from Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._322_(Dutch)_Squadron_RAF