I’ve always been fascinated by exiles – people who are forced from their homelands for whatever reason. From the Volgadeutsch of rural North Dakota – Germans who fled to Ukraine and then to the US, where they fully assimilated but still observe and in some cases mourn their old country (Stalin killed most of the Ukrainian Germans during the war), or the Cubans of Florida, many of whom share a nominal goal of getting their homeland back by one means or another.
And it’s soldiers in exile that fascinate me most. Poland has supplied many of them; several generations of Polish warriors fought, either to regain their home or to serve foreign rulers who promised, someday, maybe, to do it for them. Among them were Napoleon’s Polish Legion, an elite cavalry unit that fought all over the continent (and other continents – 600 of them fought in Haiti, most of them dying of one miserable tropical disease or another). Most of whom would never see their homes again. And from among these men sprang a song, Mazurek Dabrowskiego that with independence and nationhood became Poland’s national anthem. The song speaks of the yearning of the exile with raw, painful emotion.
Norwegians aren’t prone to expressing raw, painful emotion, of course.
We – and I can say “we”, since four of my eight great-grandparents, on both sides of my family were born in Norway – are most famous for calm-to-the-point-of-dull accommodation and negotiation, accompanied by a nasty passive-aggression that is more prone to being internalized than acted on. A Norwegian builds to violence famously slowly – but practices it in a way that people from Russia to Ireland, from Scotland to Algeria, still keep tucked away in a dark corner of their ethnic and national consciousnesses; “Viking” is still a synonym for ruthless, calculated remorselessness that would make a Mafioso gag up his skull; for the old Norsemen, it truly was just business.
It was that sense of dull accomodation, of orderly communitarianism and plaintive idealism, that was conquered in the spring of 1940. In the two and a half years since the sucker-punch invasion of officially-pacifistic and almost-completely demilitarized Norway, thousands of Norwegians signed up for one form of service or another; tens of thousands served in Norway’s massive Merchant Marine, which provided a huge proportion of the allies’ shipping across the Atlantic. Many more served in the Army and, even moreso, navies in exile; Norwegian-manned British ships were involved in most of the Royal Navy’s major and minor operations in the Atlantic.
And veterans of Norway’s tiny, obsolescent Air Force escaped across the North Sea, by plane or boat, and thence to Canada – where a group of exiles set up a training airbase at Toronto Island, christened by the locals “Little Norway“. There, equipped with American-built planes that had been completed just too late to be shipped to Norway as the government frantically tried to re-arm, they learned how to fly modern aircraft, before shipping back across the pond to the UK to form a new squadron, “331 Squadron” of the British Royal Air Force.
The squadron was equipped with the iconic Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane, perhaps the most aesthetically beautiful instrument of war ever produced, and issued the RAF fuselage code “FN” – reputed to be, by design or coincidence, the abbreviation of the squadron’s motto, For Norge, “For Norway”.
And it was 71 years ago today, at Catterick Scotland, that 331 Squadron became operational.
In the Dieppe Raid of August 1942 – a commando raid that served a shake-down for D-Day – 331 (and its sister squadron, 332 Squadron) shot down 15 German planes for a loss of three, making it the highest-scoring RAF squadron during the raid.
The squadron spent 1943 doing “sweeps” over Belgium, France and Holland, attacking German ground transport and mixing it up with German fighters that came up to fight.
331 was the highest-scoring fighter squadron in the RAF in Europe during 1943.
The two squadrons of Norwegians were among the mass of aircraft flying top cover over the D-Day invasions, and met and drove off one of the few attempts at a Nazi air raid that day. Not long after, they relocated to the continent, among the first Allied fighter squadrons to move operations to France and, eventually, the Netherlands. As the German Luftwaffe faded from the battlefield, the Norweigans spent a good chunk of the rest of the war shooting down German V1 “buzz bomb” cruise missiles.
The two Norwegian squadrons ended the war with 300 confirmed, “probable” or damaged German planes; they lost 131 planes and 71 pilots in combat and accidents. This, out of squadrons that at full combat strength had 18-24 pilots and planes.
The Norwegian Air Force’s two current combat fighter squadrons are still named 331 and 332, in homage to their ancestors who, seven decades ago, fought a lonely, hopeless battle far from home.