The airfield under attack
After the departure of many aircraft towards the East in order to be deployed against Russia, a couple of Ju.88’s and Do 215’s bombers of KG30 remained behind. The nightfighters of 1/NJG2 also remained stationed at Gilze-Rijen. During September of 1941 again many aircraft arrived on the airfield which lead to a lot of air traffic. The coming and going of various Geschwaders and Staffels on Gilze-Rijen resulted in many different types of aircraft that were based on the airfield. Some types of aircraft from the period 1941 to 1943 were: Ju.33, Ju.52, Ju.88, Me.109, Me.110, Do.215, He.111, He.177, Fw.109, Do.23, Do.217, Do.24, Fw.189, Siebel.204 and even some British and American captured aircraft. For the Germans Gilze-Rijen was a very important airfield. The location in relation to England was good, the early warning system of Camp Bisam had proven its value and worked perfect and the possibilities for training pilots and observers was optimal. This al explains the many different types of aircraft that were stationed here. There were days with more than one hundred take off and landings.
Many British and American aircraft on bombing raids to Germany came over the area of Gilze-Rijen. The German nightfighters took off nearly every night to attack the Allied aircraft that came overhead. The Allied bombers were usually accompanied and protected by fighter aircraft, so many air duels were fought in the vicinity of Gilze-Rijen. The result was that many aircraft from both sides were shot down. Often Allied fighters would attack Gilze-Rijen before the formations of Allied bombers reached the Dutch coast to prevent the take off of German fighters. Most Germans fighters were of the type Me.109.
One of the most daring air attacks during the Second World War was an attack on the Ruhr dams called Operation Chastise. This attack was intended to destroy three dams in the Ruhr area, Germany’s industrial hart. During the night of 16 on 17 May of 1943 three formations of Lancaster bombers, a total of 19 aircraft, took off from England loaded with for this mission a specially designed mine. From the Dutch coast the bombers flew over Gilze-Rijen towards the Ruhr dams. During the attack two of the three dams were destroyed and as a result the German industry was caused a great deal of damage by the floods that followed. The electricity supply for a large part of Germany failed and was destroyed.
Fliegerhorst Gilze-Rijen, part IIII
Airfield during the war
Of the 19 aircraft that left England 8 were shot down. One Lancaster was shot down over Gilze-Rijen and ended up crashing on the airfield which caused a great deal of damage on the ground. It was Lancaster ED865 AJ-S of 617 Squadron piloted by Pilot Officer Louis Burpee. He was slightly of course over Holland and around 02.00 hrs he came dangerously close near Gilze-Rijen. The aircraft flew very low over the airfield and despite the fact that the German anti-aircraft had not much time to zero in on the Lancaster, the German searchlights on the airfield however blinded the pilot on which he hit a number of tree tops and crashed into the ground at the airfield. The aircraft was totally destroyed and the entire crew got killed. Several seconds after the Lancaster had hit the ground another big explosion followed which was caused by the detonation of the mine that was designed especially for this operation. The aircraft was said to have crashed in the middle part of the airfield.
De crewmembers onboard this Lancaster where;
Pilot P/O. Lewis Johnstone Burpee, DFM, RCAF
Sgt. Guy Pegler, RAF
Sgt.Thomas Jaye, RAFVR
Fl/Sgt. James Lamb Arthur, RCAF
P/O. Leonard George Weller, RAFVR
Sgt. William Charles
Sgt. Arthur Long, RAFVR
W.O.2 Joseph Gordon Brady, RCAF
The other seven Lancasters that did not return from Operation Chastise were; Lancaster ED864 AJ-B, Lancaster ED925AJ-M, Lancaster ED937 AJ-Z, Lancaster ED887 AJ-A, Lancaster ED927 AJ-E, Lancaster ED934 AJ-K, Lancaster ED910 AJ-C.
In the summer of 1943 the Allies realized that the large number of German bombing missions on England were flown from airfield Gilze-Rijen. This resulted in intensifying air attacks on the airfield from the summer of 1943. In turn this meant that the Germans stationed more Me.109 fighter aircraft on the airfield. In August of 1943 more than 50 Me.109’s were based at Gilze-Rijen. On 19 August 1943 the American 303rd Bombardment Group (H) belonging to the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing bombed the airfield. 38 B-17 bombers, each loaded with 42 100-pound bombs, took of for mission No.61 to bomb the airfield around mid day. During the first bomb run most bombs were dropped in the northeast corner of the airfield. While In the second bomb run the bombs fell dead centre on the field. Because it was summer and many people were in the fields harvesting their crops lots of casualties were counted under the population of the village Hulten and many farms were damaged or destroyed.
On 20 October 1943 there was a second major attack by the Americans counting 20 B-17 bombers from again the 303rd BG (H). Their initial target for this mission was the bombing of the city Duren in Germany called mission No.79. Because of events during their flight to Germany the decision was made to cancel the initial target of the mission and use their bomb load on an other target instead. The decision was made to drop the bombs on either airfield Woensdrecht or airfield Gilze-Rijen. Eventually Gilze-Rijen was chosen as the target due to the formations position. The formation headed for the area and near the airfield the bomb aimer started to search for their target. Due to the heavy clouds above Gilze-Rijen identification of the target was not possible so several bombers decided to cancel their drop. However, the bombers that did decide to drop their bomb loads had it wrong and bombed the German fake airfield ‘Kamerun’ instead. As a result of this mistake the civilian population in the surroundings of ‘kamerun’ suffered the consequences with lots of civilians killed and injured and many houses and farms got damaged or were destroyed.
Instead of using huge numbers of aircraft to attack the airfield the British came up with another tactic. They sent in one or two aircraft called ‘intruders’ to attack Gilze-Rijen. These aircraft approached the airfield at night and at low level so to keep from being detected. In this way they tried to inflicted as many damage to the airfield as possible. Many times at night they were able to position them selves between the German aircraft that were taking off from the airfield or were approaching it to land so to suddenly open fire and cause havoc amongst the enemy aircraft. This was a very dangerous but successful tactic and the German anti-aircraft guns around the airfield could do nothing, afraid to hit their own aircraft. Because of these ‘intruder attacks a lot of German aircraft were lost or damaged. On the other hand the infrastructure on the airfield suffered hardly any damage because it had endured more damaged in the previous bombings.
For the intruder attacks the British used Hurricane fighter aircraft. On 4 December 1943 several attacks were carried out by British Hurricane, Typhoon and American Republic P-47 Thunderbolts fighter aircraft. They approached the airfield at tree top level at around 10 feet. They shots at everything that they saw on the airfield in the hope to inflicted a maximum of damage to installations and parked aircraft. The fighters were fast and manoeuvrable and operated in small groups. Because they flew so low they were difficult to identify by German radar posts and German anti-aircraft fire was not able to zero in on them.
Several days in December of 1943 the intruders were active over Gilze-Rijen. On 23 December 92 P-47’s of again the 303rd Bombardment Group attacked Gilze-Rijen and while two squadrons were dive bombing the airfield one squadron served as their escort and security. In January of 1944 the Americans started large scale air attacks on Gilze-Rijen.
On 4 January 4 Typhoons took off from England for a surprise attack of Gilze-Rijen. Individually they flew to Holland and once over the Dutch coast they regrouped an flew at tree top level into the direction of Gilze-Rijen. When they arrived at the airfield they could see German aircraft taking off and land on the airfield. They directly attacked and destroyed several of them by surprise. Also 2 German Donier Do.217 bombers were shot down during their approach and a Junkers Ju.88 bomber loaded with bombs was destroyed on the runway after being riddled with bullets which resulted in huge explosion of its load. This explosion caused significant damage to the runway and it was out of service for days.
Because of the many attacks on the airfield a lot of people from the surrounding areas were required to restore the damage on the airfield. It was very dangerous work and the Germans abused civilians and prisoners of war for it. Many people that had to do this dangerous work became victims of the many attacks, but they had no choice, they were picked up from the streets and forced to repair the damage. Refusing was not an option because transportation to Germany would be certain. Despite the Allied air attacks on the airfield the German bombing raids from Gilze-Rijen on England kept on going. For these attacks the Germans used their most common bomber, the Donier Do.217.
On 31 January 1944 again there was a major attack on the airfield by as much as 209 Allied aircraft of which 134 aircraft served as escorts for the with bombs loaded aircraft. The attack resulted in lots of damage to the airfield. Fortunately not many bombs were dropped outside of the target though several buildings in the village of Rijen and Hulten were damaged. Also no civilian casualties were suffered amongst the population around the airfield because many people were able to get into their air raid shelters on time.
It was a scary period for the civilian population who lived in the vicinity of the airfield. Many people left the area during that time and moved elsewhere for fear of further air attacks. Because of the many attacks by fighter bombers the population around the airfield thought that bombing from high altitudes was over, but on 10 February 1944 the Americans came again, and from high altitudes 24 B-24 Liberators dropped their bombloads on and also outside the airfield. Coming from the north they bombed not only the airfield but also the centre of the village Gilze. This resulted in a great deal of damage to the village and lots of casualties amongst the civilian population. At the airfield two of the three runway’s were made completely unusable by the destruction and it would take the Germans weeks to have them repaired again for take offs and landings.
From 20 to 22 February 1944 the American bombers again attacked. They now used a new type of bomber called the B-26 ‘Maurander’. With 60 aircraft they bombed the airfield on 22 February over a north-south direction without a bomb falling outside the airfield. Between these large bombing raids the attacks of the ‘intruders’ kept on coming to keep the airfield under almost constant attack. The confusion amongst the Germans was complete and the damage to the airfield was considerable.
Because of these continued attacks the Germans moved their aircraft towards Germany and to an airfield in the Dutch province of Twente. On 18 April a dozen of Do. 217 bombers arrived on Gilze-Rijen. Along with the aircraft that were already stationed here they would attack England during the night of 18 to 19 April. This attack though was not a success as 14 aircraft were lost. One was shot down during take-off by an British nightfighter. In the night of 22 April a big air offensive was carried out by the Allies. Large formations of American bombers flew towards Germany and bombed the German industrial area’s. On the return flight however 13 B-24 bombers were shot down. A few hours later the British took off in to the direction of Germany counting over 1000 aircraft to destroy the city of Dusseldorf. In this raid the British lost 42 aircraft. Because of these huge aircraft formations over the Dutch skies the Dutch people regained hope that the tide was turning in favour of the Allies.
On 2 May a new kind of fighter aircraft appeared in the skies over Gilze-Rijen, the P-51 Mustang. That day 30 of them attacked the airfield with their rockets and cannons. Many British and American bombing missions to Germany followed a route across Gilze-Rijen and the German anti-aircraft around the airfield was sometimes able to shoot down one of the Allied bombers. On 24 may Gilze-Rijen was again a target with 23 B-17 bombers dropping bombs on the airfield.
The year 1943 until the summer of 1944 saw many attacks on the airfield. Although the bombing of the airfield from high altitudes was not always successful, the low level ‘intruders’ attacks were. It was a terrible period for the civilian population that lived around the airfield with a lot of death and destruction.