Danish WW2 Pilots

Danes over Normandy, 6 June 1944

Six Danish airmen were on operation in the skies over Normandy on 6 June 1944. Two were involved in bombing the coastal batteries, three provided fighter cover over the Channel and the beaches, and the last carried out an improvised reconnaissance mission.

6 June 1944. D-Day. On this day, the long awaited seaborne invasion of Northern France began. Thousands of Allied soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy—Utah, Omaha, Gold and Juno Beach—from the early morning. Operation Neptune, as the operation was codenamed, was part of the Allied invasion of Normandy, known as Operation Overlord. The operation was the culmination of years of planning. The experience from previous landings proved that superiority in the air as well as support from the air was vital to the operation. As a consequence, the Allied air force were highly active in the skies over the area. The Allied Expeditionary Air Force flew more than 1,500 sorties over the beachhead and an additional 1,800 escort sorties were carried out.[1] On the night before the landing, Bomber Command flew 1,211 sorties, most of them in support of the operation.[2]

Several Danish airmen were part of this immense air operation.

Bombing the Coastal Batteries

Andreas Petersen was the first Danish airman to be airborne in this operation. By June 1944, Petersen—a former cadet of the training ship Denmark, who had not been able to return to Denmark because of the outbreak of war in 1939—served in 166 Sqn as air gunner.

On 5 June 1944 at 2110 hours, Lancaster NE170/AS-I was airborne from Kirmington. No less than twenty-five Lancasters from the squadron were detailed for the operation. As the aircraft crossed the English coast, the air gunner—sitting next to the navigator—reported hundreds of spots in the radar screen as they flew over the Channel. His immediate reaction was to conclude that the radar was malfunctioning. Little did they know that this day would later be known as D-Day minus 1, and that the Channel was a beehive of activity. When they crossed the French coast, it was as if hell broke loose along the coast. At this point, the crew realised that a major operation was taking place. At 1137 hours, bombs were released on the target, the Crisbecq Battery.[3] Unfortunately, the attack failed to destroy the gun battery, which caused many casualties the following morning on what was by then Utah Beach. On the return flight, they were able to see the invasion fleet crossing the Channel, and a number of aircraft with navigation lights turned on passed underneath the Lancaster. Back at base, the crew was confirmed in what they were suspecting by know: The Allied invasion in Northern France had begun.[4]

A few minutes after Petersen’s return, the crew of Paul Andersen took off from Dunholme Lodge in Lancaster III NE138/AS-Z. They attacked the battery at La Pernelle at 0403 hours.[5]

Fighter Cover

Plt Off. Niels Juul Rysensteen Buchwald had managed to escape from occupied Denmark paddling the Sound between Denmark and Sweden in a kayak in August 1942. He volunteered for the RAF in January 1943, and, by June 1944, he served in 222 Sqn at RAF Selsey. On 4 June 1944, all aircraft of the squadron had black and white stripes painted on the wings and fuselage. This was the special marking of the Allied aircraft on D-Day.

However, the next day the weather was gusty and low cloud was hanging over the airfield. There was no flying. At 2315 hours, the pilots were briefed on the landing operation to take place the next morning. They only had a couple of hours of sleep before being called out at 0330 hours. They had tea and sandwiches at 0400 hours.

Fg Off. Jørgen Kjeldbæk sitting on the cowling of a Spitfire V; presumably Spitfire Vb AB989/SD-C, which he flew on D-Day. © Museum of Danish Resistance.
Fg Off. Jørgen Kjeldbæk sitting on the cowling of a Spitfire V; presumably Spitfire Vb AB989/SD-C, which he flew on D-Day. © Museum of Danish Resistance.

At Friston, about 40 miles to the east, Fg Off. Jørgen Kjeldbæk was taking off at this time (Spitfire Vb AB989/C). Kjeldbæk had been working for the Danish East Asia Company in Malaysia before the war. He was evacuated as the Japanese attacked in the Far East and arrived in London in May 1942. By June 1944, he served in 501 Sqn. This squadron operated alongside 350 Sqn this morning. The Spitfires patrolled the east end of the beaches in Normandy and acted as low cover for the ships and landing crafts. Kjeldbæk was not part of the squadron’s second operation over the beachhead, but in the early evening, he was airborne again as as twelve Spitfires returned to Normandy.[6]

Back at Selsey, Buchwald took off on his first operation of the day at 0540 hours (Spitfire IX LF MK774). The squadron patrolled offshore of the beaches. They experienced a heavy ‘light flak’ from the British naval vessels just outside Le Havre and from the port itself. Buchwald returned to the beachhead in the afternoon as the wing carried out a third patrol over the area. Four Ju 88s were reported, but following a short chase by one of the sections, the enemy aircraft disappeared into cloud. Buchwald and his fellow pilots were amazed at the massive number of ships engaged in the operation.[7]

At Bognor Regis, only a few miles from Selsey, 132 (Norwegian) Wing took off on its first patrol over Normandy at 0715 hours. Kjeld Rønhof—the only Danish pilot at the wing at this point in time—had celebrated the Danish Constitution Day in London the day before. He returned to Bognor Regis, but the wing was in the air on the first patrol when he arrived. Therefore, he flew his first beachhead patrol in the afternoon (Spitfire IX ‘AH-L’).[8] Rønhof too later reflected, that it was not until he was in the air that he realised the magnitude of the operation. He flew a second operation over as the sun set over the beachhead.[9]

Buchwald, Kjeldbæk, and Rønhof all returned to the beaches on patrol during the following days.

An Improvised Reconnaissance Mission

The last of the Danish pilots to be present in the Normandy skies this morning was Wg Cdr Kaj Birksted. Birksted—a pre-war naval pilot—had escaped Denmark shortly after the German occupation. He had volunteered for the Royal Norwegian Air Force in Canada in late 1940, and he had served as Wing Commander of the North Weald Wing, later 132 (N) Wing, from August 1943 until March 1944. Birksted left for a position as an Advisor on day operations to AOC at 11 Group HQ in Uxbridge. In Uxbridge, he became involved in the day-to-day planning of operations in 11 Group, but his main focus was the planning of the group’s operations in the coming invasion in Northern France.[10]

As the morning developed, he was not satisfied with the lack of reports on the situation at the beachhead. He decided to take matters into his own hands, and to inspect the beachhead himself. He took of in a Spitfire IX from RAF Northolt and reached the beachhead around 0600 hours. He returned to Uxbridge later, having seen the area with his own eyes. This sortie was not recorded in his logbook.[11]


[1] Shores and Thomas, 2nd Tactical Air Force. Vol. 1 (2004), p. 127.

[2] Middlebrook and Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries (2011), p. 521.

[3] NA: AIR 27/1089.

[4] Moldt, Andreas P., Natbomber: Slaget om Europa som en dansker oplevede det i invasionssommeren 1944 (1985).

[5] NA: AIR 27/ 451.

[6] NA: AIR 27/1953.

[7] NA: AIR 27/1372.

[8] NA: AIR 27/1729.

[9] Rønhof, Vi fløj for friheden (1996), pp. 102-106.

[10] Guhnfeldt, Spitfire Saga, Vol. I (2000), p. 15.

[11] Hove, Kaj Birksted (2010), pp. 53–55.