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Kemmelberg

Remarkable Stories: Operation Circus 157

by W Willems, J L Putman, & M Soenen

Operation Circus 157 was the Second World War code name for the British RAF's air raid on the Lille-Sequedin power station in France in May 1942. The resultant aerial battle over Heuvelland is known as the 'Battle of the Nations'.

A 'circus' was an attack strategy which was first used by the RAF in January 1941. A small formation of light bombers escorted by a large number of fighters targeted strategic targets in Zeelandic Flanders, West Flanders, and French Flanders, all of which were in the hands of the Germans.

The main objective was actually to force German fighters into aerial combat at times at which the RAF was in a stronger position.

Operation Circus 157 was scheduled for the afternoon of 5 May 1942. A large number of RAF Spitfire fighters (thirty-six aircraft in total) escorted six allied Boston bombers from their British base at Swanton Morley (Norfolk in England) to a power station near Lille in France.

The RAF fighter pilots had British, Czechoslovak, Canadian, Norwegian, Belgian, Rhodesian, or Dutch nationalities. The crews of the bombers were all British nationals.

Before reaching the French coast however, two Bostons had to return prematurely due to engine trouble. The fighters escorted the four remaining Bostons all the way to the power plant, but the dense cloud cover over the target prevented the bombs from being released.

The four Boston bombers were safely escorted back to Swanton Morley on the return flight, but two squadrons of Spitfires were attacked from the rear by twenty-one German Focke Wulf 190 fighters, ending up, in the airspace between Mont Cassel near Lille (France) and Heuvelland, engaged in a heavy fight. In less than fifteen minutes, five Spitfires had tumbled out of the sky, killing four pilots. The fifth was finally able to escape to England after a successful emergency landing.

The fallen RAF pilots included the Belgian pilot (FL/LT RAF) Baudouin de Hemptinne, and three sergeants, the Czech Karel Pavlik, the Canadian Joffre Roland Ribout, and the Briton, Stacey Jones.

Almost immediately after the first dogfights, Stacey Jones' Spitfire was shot down first over Proven (Poperinge, West Flanders), and Jones was killed. A monument to him was later erected in Proven.

Five minutes later, Joffre Ribout's plane crashed in Ploegsteert (Plugstreet), but his parachute did not open and he crashed to earth one kilometre further on, within the vicinity of Nieuwkerke, part of Heuvelland. A memorial was later constructed for him in Ploegsteert.

Baudouin de Hemptinne was shot in the back, but was able to make an emergency landing in his Spitfire near a farm in Dranouter. He died almost immediately afterwards from his injuries.

Karel Pavlik's Spitfire was also hit, crashing to the ground in a dramatic spiral and drilling seven metres deep into a meadow along the Lettingstraat in Dranouter, against the flanks of the Monteberg. When an allied salvage crew finally managed to retrieve the Czech's body in 1945, it was determined that Pavlik had been shot in the head and had probably died before the crash. It was not until June 1997 that the wreckage of his Spitfire could be recovered.

In the painting below, Pavlik's spiralling Spitfire can be seen in the background, on the left.

Painting of František Fajtl's stricken Spitfire
Photo © Vladimir Urbánek, Aviationart.cz

A painting of František Fajtl's stricken Spitfire.

The Czech major, František Fajtl, commander of one of the two squadrons of Spitfires and one of the few non-Britons to be placed in command of a squadron of RAF fighters, was also shot down, but was able to make a belly landing without being harmed, his downed plane coming to rest at Hardifort (near Cassel, France).

His incredible determination and ingenuity allowed him to stay out of the hands of the Germans while he was behind enemy lines, despite a high ransom being placed on his head. First he managed to get to Paris on foot and then he crossed the Pyrenees to enter Spain (where he was briefly imprisoned), and then Gibraltar, where he finally managed to reach England after three months of trying, a remarkable feat.

Drawing of František Fajtl in his Spitfire after a successful belly landing
Photo © Vladimir Urbánek, Aviationart.cz

A drawing of František Fajtl in his Spitfire after a successful belly landing.

Fajtl returned to Czechoslovakia after the war where he was first persecuted by the regime and was then placed in a labour camp for six years along with other prisoners, former SS officers against whom he had fought.

He was later partially 'rehabilitated' after the 'Prague Spring' of 1968. Fajtl did not receive full rehabilitation until after the fall of the communist regime in 1989. He received numerous awards both from the United Kingdom and Czechoslovakia.

In 1989, following the Velvet Revolution, he obtained the rank of general. In 2004 he was made a 'Knight of the Order of the White Lion', the highest level of Czech knighthood.

František Fajtl died in 2006, in Prague, at the age of ninety-four. In July 2020, a commemorative plaque was unveiled on the front of a house in Hardifort near the site at which his Spitfire had landed, making it the last of Circus 157's five downed pilots to be awarded a commemorative monument or plaque.

On the Planciussquare in Dranouter a monument was raised to honour the four fallen pilots. It consists of the tail wing of a Spitfire and a memorial plaque containing the four names.

Memorial to fallen pilots Circus 157, Dranouter
Photo © William Willems

Memorial to the fallen pilots of Circus 157, Dranouter.

In commemoration of Pavlik, a granite sculpture was erected at the place at which he had crashed, along the Monteberg.

Memorial stone of Pavlik on the Monteberg
Photo © William Willems

Pavlik's memorial stone on the Monteberg.

 

 

Text copyright © Archeo Kemmelberg. An original feature for the History Files: Kemmelberg.