AIRMEN'S STORIES - Sgt F A Venesoen
A D-Day Sacrifice
Remembering one of 'The Few' who paid the ultimate price on 6th June 1944.
It was at Antwerp in Belgium that François Venesoen was born on 19th October 1920 and as he grew up he developed a longing to become a fighter pilot, so in the late 1930's he enlisted into the Belgian Air Force (Aéronautique Militaire).
However his dreams were shattered in May 1939 when he failed pilot training, but despite this setback he re-mustered to become an air-gunner. François was sent to Nivelles aerodrome situated north-west of Charleroi to a squadron within III Groupe of the 2e Regiment d' Aéronautique to fly in obsolete Avions Fairy Fox two-seat biplane fighters.
When World War Two broke out in September 1939, Western Europe braced itself in anticipation of Hitler's inevitable plans for conquest, and it was on 10th May 1940 that the ferocious onslaught of the German Blitzkrieg campaign against the West began! Belgian resistance lasted only a few days with its air force being either destroyed on the ground, or shot out of the sky during the first hours of battle!
Like many of his compatriots François Venesoen managed to escape across the English Channel via France, arriving in England on 23rd June, where he immediately sought to enlist in the Royal Air Force to continue the fight against the Nazi conquerors.
It was not until 27th August with the Battle of Britain finely balanced that François was posted to serve as an NCO air-gunner with the Bristol Blenheim MkIVF's of No.235 Squadron based at Bircham Newton in Norfolk, though the squadron often used Thorney Island on the south coast as a forward operating base. The Blenheims were not ideally suited to the tasks the squadron undertook, which consisted mainly of convoy protection patrols and reconnaissance missions over the North Sea with occasional forays to attack the French Channel ports.
Despite the risks involved on such missions, the squadron suffered comparatively light losses of 6 aircraft on operations from July to October of 1940, and with claims for at least 12 Luftwaffe aircraft, achieved what could be considered a good return! Sadly however most of the crews No.235 Squadron lost went missing, but François survived the Battle of Britain as one of the Belgians to have proudly served amongst the ranks of 'The Few'.
The dream of François Venesoen to become a fighter pilot was re-ignited when he applied for pilot training whilst with No.272 Squadron, which had reformed in November 1940 at RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland for shipping escort duties, when one flight from No.235 and No.236 Squadron respectively were merged together. He began his ab-initio pilot training with No.13 Service Flying Training School, and on successfully completing his elementary flying moved to No.5 Flying Training School at RAF Sealand near Chester on 9th July 1941, where he was soon granted a Commission. In October Pilot Officer Venesoen at long last realised his dream, for he gained his 'wings' and went to No.61 Operational Training Unit at Heston in Middlesex, to convert onto about the best the RAF could offer at the time.
Venesoen is 5th from right - Photo: André Bar
On 18th December he joined the newly formed No.350 (Belgian) Squadron flying Spitfire MkIIA's at RAF Valley on the island of Anglesey for operational defensive duties and convoy escorts over the Irish Sea.
The squadron had to wait until April 1942 before moving to Southern England to join the Debden Fighter Wing for the hazardous task of fighter sweeps over occupied Northern France. Now the Belgians could hit back at their German enemy as a unit by themselves! In a prelude to the launching of a sea-borne invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, plans were put together for an amphibious attack on the heavily defended port of Dieppe under the codename of Operation Jubilee.
The day of the attack on 19th August proved costly for the Allies with heavy casualties both on the beaches and in the air, with RAF Fighter Command losing around 100 aircraft whilst covering the assault! Valuable future lessons were learned from the ill-fated operation, but Flying Officer Venesoen achieved success for himself that day when he claimed the destruction of 2 Focke-Wulf Fw190's his first personal victories over the Luftwaffe! However during the squadrons fourth sortie of the day François had a wingtip on his Spitfire shot away, but he returned safely.
Venesoen and Plisnier talking with an ATA pilot. Photo: André Bar
His next success came on 16th November when he shared in the destruction of a lumbering Junkers Ju52 transport over St.Aubin airfield in France during a Rhubarb sortie. In March 1943 No.350 Squadron moved north, but François remained in the frontline with a posting to No.610 Squadron and soon celebrated another victory on 29th March when he claimed a raiding Fw190 off the coast near to Brighton. On 21st April during Circus 290 he again tangled with the 'Butcher-birds' to put in a claim for damaging 2 of the dreaded Focke-Wulf's, and it was during Ramrod 87 on 24th September that François Venesoen achieved his last credited victory when he shared in the shooting down of a Messerschmitt Bf110 at Cap St-Mathieu near Caen in Normandy.
His success in combat was recognised with the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross on 15th December. In the early months of 1944 planning began for Operation Overlord D-Day! François now found himself back with his countrymen of No.350 Squadron to conduct offensive missions with the Second Tactical Air Force, in readiness for the invasion of Mainland Europe and liberation of their beloved country! On 6th June at 04:35 hours, François took off for an early morning patrol over the Normandy beachhead in a war-weary Spitfire MkV serial EN950 [MN-H]. The Squadron record book takes up the story: "Over the Channel F/Lt Venesoen had to bale out owing to an internal glycol leak. His parachute opened alright and he was last seen by his Number 2 (F/O L. Siroux) alighting on the rough sea and struggling in the water, trying to inflate his dinghy. After F/O Siroux had pulled up to lead 3 launches to the spot, no trace of F/Lt Venesoen could be found". He is now commemorated on Panel 203 of the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. The badge of No.350 Squadron has an ancient Belgian warrior; François Venesoen typified that image and we should never forget his sacrifice. Belgae Gallorum Fortissimi ("The Belgae, bravest of the Gauls").
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"I regard it as a privilege to fight for all those things that make life worth living - freedom, honour and fair play"
Pilot Officer William "Bill" Millington Australian 79 & 249 Squadrons Fighter Command