The start of the workgroup.
A wonderful weekend, bathed in sunlight, and a terrific atmosphere will be remembered for a long time to come in small Ursel. The commemoration weekend for the B67 airfield on September 26 and 27 2009 lit the fire of interest with the local population, resulting in a workgroup focusing on this old airfield.
A lot of people, even Ursel locals, were unaware of the location where Ursel's first airfield was located.
About 70 yeas ago, the air component of the Belgian army decided to establish a number of rear airfields to act as a defence in the event of a German invasion. In the region 'Meetjesland', 3 airfields were built: Maldegem, Aalter and Ursel.
South of the Urselseweg, a tiny community called Wessegem, a number of farms were disowned, and following some resurfacing efforts, a grass field was prepared to act as an airfield, with the emphasis on 'field'...
When the German invasion occurred, Ursel, just like Maldegem, was taken over by the German Luftwaffe. At the start of the war and the occupation, the airfield was even used by the Italians, who supported the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain from Ursel airfield, a role in which they demonstrated a unique kind of inaptitude.
On June 6, the liberation of the European mainland commenced with operation Overlord in Normandy. An enormous armada of allied troops, ships, vehicles and aircraft were fielded, with among others, 123 Wing of the Second Tactical Air Force, Royal Air Force. Four squadrons, 164 Sqn, 183 Sqn, 198 Sqn and the legendary 609 Sqn arrived in Ursel from B-53 airfield at Merville – Calonne in France on 30 October 1944. During the occupation, the Germans had constructed a concrete runway on the grass field, making it a perfect airfield to use for the continued liberation effort. Still, a lot more work by British engineers would be required before the heavy attack aircraft called Hawker Typhoon could stage combat operations from Ursel. The runway was extended, not with concrete but with steel matting placed on hay. This was a necessary precaution due the muddy nature of Ursel's surface. Some taxi ways were also widened.
The Ursel Typhoon squadrons only stayed a few weeks but performed combat missions almost daily.
One series of attacks is definitely remarkable. Following the battle for the access to Zuid Beveland, the operation Switchback and operation Vitality, a new, fourth offensive of the Canadian liberators started in November 1944. This operation, codenamed Infatuate, aimed to free the entrance to the Scheld river. The weather over the North Sea and over England was so atrocious that delivering the promised and vital air support for the Canadians and their landing craft proved impossible.
Near Westkapelle and Vlissingen, the Canadians found themselves subjected to heavy German fire. After all, the Germans wanted to avoid allied access to the already liberated Antwerp and its harbour via the Scheld.
Unfortunately, for a long time, operation Infatute looked like a failure.
A desperate cry for help arrived at B-67 Ursel's 123 Wing. Group Captain Scott immediately decided to start flying air support missions for the Canadians at once, despite the low cloud base, sometimes reported to be as low as 300 feet, and very poor visibility.
This decision was a heroic act which the Canadians appreciated greatly later on. After all, flying under those circumstances was life-threatening. N°163, 183, 198 and 6O9 Squadrons of the RAF conducted more than 600 offensive flights in that short period.
Eventually, the RAF sent bombers from England to bomb the dikes from higher altitudes.
After three days of fighting, the Canadians finally succeeded to establish a bridge head. Eventually, on 28 November, the entire Scheld estuary was liberated all the way to Antwerp, allowing the first Canadian convoy to make port.
Despite the awful weather circumstances and the difficulties to provide adequate air support for the Canadians, 123 Wing of the RAF played a pivotal part and we should be proud this was all mounted from an airfield called B-67 Ursel.
65 years ago
In 2009, it had been 65 years since the Typhoons arrived at B-67 Ursel and this occasion could not go by unnoticed. During the editions 2007 and 2008 of Wings and Wheels, there was already a strong emphasis on the RAF presence at Ursel in 1944 and 1945, but the time had come to pay tribute the mighty Typhoons and their pilots where they were “at home”.
Commemoration Aalter laid the ground work
In 2008, we already played with the idea to organize a commemoration ceremony in honour of the liberators in Aalter, together with Elderman Philippe Verleyen and Pascal Ginneberge, which included an international music tattoo.
As 2009 progressed, the urge to include Ursel (Knesselare) in this commemoration grew stronger. Those who know me, also know I am passionate about World War II aircraft and the history of B-67 has always fascinated me.
The ball got rolling after a couple of conversations with Culture Elderman Herlinde Trenson, as she was also very enthusiastic and provided her full support.
In the meantime, we had also established close contacts with the current, still operational RAuxAF 609 Squadron, based at RAF Leeming. 609 Sqn was more than happy to support the commemoration ceremonies. The result of many meetings and preparatory work came on 26 and 27 September. A complete and very full programme was scheduled to make this an unforgettable weekend.
The reception of RAuxAF 609 Squadron and William De Goat at the townhall, the visit together with 609 squadron to Vliegclub Ursel, the guided tour with Cynrik De Decker and Cdt Vl Peter Celis at the old site of B-67, the visit to 't Coninckshof, the hot air balloons and the release of small white balloons by children, the fly-passes by the Ursel formation team The Victors, the D-Day veteran Stinson Reliant and the Seaking from Coxyde, the exquisite “Tally Ho” dinner the commemorative mass and the tribute in which Vliegclub Ursel took part, these were all moments to cherish.
For the big finale of the Commemoration weekend of Ursel, we joined the commemoration programme of the nearby Aalter (Polish liberation) weekend. At the Aalter tattoo, they also paid tribute to B-67 with a splendid poppy drop (with thanks to Jo Van de Woestyne and Yves Vandeginste of Vliegclub Ursel) from a WOII aircraft and a touching Missing Men formation with the Victors.
Something was awakened in Ursel. Apart from honouring the RAF squadrons, the aim to make the people of Ursel more aware of this chapter of history was certainly successful!
Friendships were forged, stories and pictures of the war resurfaced and still more are coming to light.
But apart from this, a number of very tangible remnants of B-67 were re-discovered on site.
After all, the airfield at Wessegem was torn up in the middle of the 1950's (after the war, there even was an airshow at the B-67 location) and at first glance, there are very few indications there ever was an airfield there. The ground was returned to farmers so all airfield constructions have vanished...
But nothing could be further from the truth, a small summary will make it instantly clear that the site still shows traces of its history. At ‘t Coninckshof, there is still an impressive prison bunker, traces of the concrete German taxi ways remain, part of the German runway was discovered, a water point which supplied fire extinguishing water, water pumps, a drain system, a power generator, a small observation bunker, and more discoveries, as thanks to archeological photography, clear traces were discovered of the runway and taxi ways.
With all this, it slowly became clear we had to continue digging deeper. And after a few inquiries, it quickly became clear this enthusiasm could make the workgroup B-67 a reality!
The story, the history will be told, lest we forget!