Two Gloster Gladiators of B Flight, 263 Squadron RAF had been ordered to patrol the Narvik area and to follow the railway line to the Swedish border. Around 14h30 the British fighters reached the border and encountered two Luftwaffe aircraft which they identified as Ju 88s.
In the words of the lead pilot, P/O Jacobsen
‘I attacked No1 from above and beam, and fired one four sec.burst with ‘deflection, from approx. 300 yds. Attempted to close range, but enemy a/c drew slowly away while diving. Chased ea/c into Sweden and fired another 2 sec. burst at approx. 400 yds. Enemy a/c disappeared into cloud. On returning to patrol above cloud, I noticed No2 a/c (his wingman) was not following and did not see him again’
P/O Jim Wilkie was missing, it is assumed shot down during his first attack on the enemy aircraft.
The Luftwaffe’s I/ZG76 fighter unit was posted to Stavanger on 14 April. Helmut Lent had been ordered to operate with a Sonderstaffel, (patrol unit) from Trondheim to provide air cover for the German troops fighting around Narvik.
263 Squadron first encountered Lent on 27 May when he shot down a Squadron Gladiator flown by Flight Lieutenant Caesar Hull. Hull crash-landed at his airfield, wounded in the head and knee which forced his evacuation, via Sunderland flying boat, to the UK.
P/O Jacobsen attacked another JU.88 whilst still over Sweden and appeared to have driven the aircraft into the low clouds. He then saw a number of Luftwaffe aircraft circling low over BjornFjell. He attacked an HE.111 from about 250 yards which stalled into the ground.
He was then almost immediately attacked by another three aircraft. Managing to get in a burst of fire against an He.111, before he was attacked again but through further evasive manoeuvring he fired a three seconds burst into this aircraft from 50 yards.
He was then surrounded by up to 8 enemy aircraft. During the ensuing attack the oil tank was holed and his windscreen covered.
He reported that he was forced to dive in order to avoid a head on collision and as he did so he fired at another HE 111 which was seen to dive with both engines feathered.
He was out of fuel and ammunition and faced overwhelming odds. Flying low and using all the tricks he knew he managed to escape back to base.
On 2 June 1940 Lent and his wingman Thönes claimed a Gladiator each. Their patrol lasted 5 hours and 46 minutes and they recorded victories over Pilot Officer J.L.Wilkie flying N5914, and Pilot Officer L.R. Jacobsen piloting N5681.
263 Squadron first become involved in Norway in April 1940 when it was posted to the theatre to help counter the German invasion.
Within 2 days all their aircraft had been destroyed or were unserviceable. Returning to the UK the Squadron was re-equipped with another 12 Gladiators.
A 20 year old New Zealander from 266 Sqaudron , Pilot Officer James Leon Wilkie, joined the Squadron at Turnhouse on 3 May 1940.
At 22h30 on 7 May 1940 P/O Wilkie embarked on the MS Chrobry as one of an advanced party sent to prepare for the Sqaudron’s return to the Norwegian campaign.
He was accompanied by F/Lt Rowlands in command, F/O D.H.Fowler, P/Os I.F.McDermott, A.W.Britton and 217 other ranks boarded the Polish steamer.
Once they had arrived at Harstadt on 11 May, they had to be transported with all their supplies to Sjoveien on fiord boats, known as skøyter, but which the British nicknamed ‘puffers’.
Bardufoss, the airfield where the Sqaudron was to be based, was not ready as the runway was 50 yards too short. Over 500 Norwegian soldiers and 1000 workers were required to complete the runway and prepare the airfield facilities.
The advanced party of 263 Squadron personnel spent their time moving their kit up to the airfield. This they had to accomplish through constant heavy air raids, the first of which they experienced on 15 May.
Construction work at the airfield was hampered by the lack of trucks and all the work was carried out using shovels, picks and axes. Explosives were used to clear the ice in order that a proper foundation for the roads could be laid.
Trees that had been cut down to make way for the runway extension were used to make walls around aircraft disbursement areas and buildings that were to be used by Squadron personnel.
A second group of 64 men arrived to assist and prepare for the Squadron’s arrival,while the main squadron departed during the third week of May 1940 aboard the Aircraft Carrier HMS Furious. They had to await aboard ship for two days due to poor weather.
Early on the third day they flew off in terrible weather conditions. The first section lead by a Fleet Air Arm Swordfish, encountered thick mist near Senja Island and the Swordfish crashed into the side of a mountain followed by two Gladiators.
The other Gladiators returned to HMS Furious and flew off later in the morning arriving at Bardufoss at 09h00 on 21 May.
Within a day the Squadron had undertaken 44 sorties and then the following day 54, with air battles and continuous standing patrols over the Narvik area. The fighting was continuous and relentless until the order to withdraw was issued.
Operation ALPHABET, the evacuation of all British and Allied forces from Norway, was carried out from the 5th to the 8th of June 1940.
During the night of 7/8 June, aircraft of 263 and 46 Squadron flew on to the carrier HMS Glorious which it was planned would be part of a convoy returning to the UK.
In the early hours of 8 June permission was given for the carrier to make for home, with only two destroyers HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent as escort. Running at a low level of readiness the small British fleet was found, attacked and in a little over two hours, sunk by the powerful German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. There were no survivors from 263 Squadron
The remains of the wreckage of Wilkie’s Gladiator remained on Lille Haugefjellet until the end of 1998. It was then that the remains were recovered and taken to the Jet Age Museum, Gloucestershire Airport for restoration.
P/O James Leon Wilkie grave can be found at Narvik New Cemetery.
Gladiators in Gloucestershire
Jet Age Museum
and Retro Track and Air have now collaborated on four Gladiator rebuild projects. They are largely based on wreckage of aircraft of 263 Squadron RAF lost during the second Norwegian expedition in 1940, recovered by Jet Age members over the last few years and gifted to the museum by the Norwegian government. Jet Age member Don Tombs, a former Gloster Aircraft Company draughtsman, has produced a large number of new drawings based on damaged original components and Jet Age and Retro have also had access to surviving original Gloster drawings.
Three more Jet Age members, Brian Walker, Bill Jeffrey and Will Moore, (picture right with the Retro Gladiator) make up the restoration team at Retro’s premises at Cam, near Dursley, Gloucestershire.
Their first reconstruction was a basic fuselage for the Norwegian Air Force Museum. It is based on original parts from more than one crash site, has no identity and will be united with the original wings and tail unit of a Norwegian Air Force Gladiator to make a representative aircraft. The Norwegian wings and tail unit are currently on loan to Retro as patterns for N5719/G-CBHO.
The completed fuselage frame is stored at Kemble and will go to Norway with the wings and tail when they are returned.
The same team has rebuilt another basic fuselage for the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton, as seen in the reply above. Again, it was built from an assortment of original parts and has no identity, although it is expected to be completed as the sole Fleet Air Arm Gladiator to serve in Norway.
Jet Age Museum’s
own Gladiator rebuild is N5914, in which P/O J.I. Wilkie of 263 Squadron RAF died on 2 June 1940 when he was shot down over Lille Haugefjell by the German ace Helmut Lent. It will consist largely of original parts as Jet Age was able to recover most of the wreckage from the mountain.
A fourth A fourth Gladiator, N5719, is being rebuilt to fly by Retro’s own team as a flying aircraft. The main fuselage frame is complete and work is well advanced on the port lower wing and on the restoration of an original Mercury engine. N5719 was flown by P/O M.A. Craig-Adams of 263 Squadron RAF, who was killed in action on 22 May 1940 over Hogfjellet. He flew into the side of a mountain and his body was eventually recovered by French troops in 1945.
The civil registration G-CBHO has already been allocated and Retro is looking for an investment partner to complete the project. See Retro's own website at http://www.retrotrackandair.com/specialprojects.htm
, which includes photographs by Richard Winslade showing progress to date.
was able to acquire other Gladiator parts when the RAF Museum’s reserve collection was moved from Cardington to Stafford. The RAF Museum parts were mostly from 263 Squadron’s first Norwegian expedition and were recovered from Lake Lesjaskog. The Gladiator wings and tail from Cardington went to Malta. Jet Age proposed that most of the other parts should go to Yeovilton in exchange for their support for our application to the Norwegian government to recover wreckage from the second Norwegian expedition. Jet Age received engine parts, a burnt wooden propeller and a number of other small components, including some parts from N5628, the forward fuselage of which is an exhibit at the RAF Museum.
References and acknowledgments
My thanks to Tim Kershaw for all his help and copies of documents and photographs