A forgotten hero

Edited excerpt from Into the Swarm – Stories of RAF Fighter Pilots in the Second World War  by Chris Yeoman & Tor Idar Larsen

On the 4th of May 1945, only four days before the war would officially be over, CO of 126 Squadron, Norwegian Arne Austeen, flew a Mustang III, registration number KH578, on a mission to the northern part of Germany. On this mission, Austeen and his squadron would accompany Bristol Beaufighters in attacking German U-boats in the Flensburgerfjord. As the squadron leader, Austeen dived down first towards the U-boats. This would make the task easier for the rest of 126 Squadron, as most of the flak would be directed towards Austeen and not them. U-155 was under command of Oberleutnant Friedrich Altmeier, and his anti-aircraft guns blazed at Arne during his dived. U-155 hit Arne’s Mustang. 

The Mustang went down towards the sea with Arne still inside. With little altitude left, there was not enough time for him to get out. No chute was reported and Arne crashed into the sea. The Mustang went down at coordinates  54’55N 10’07E. No trace has ever been found of either the plane or of Arne Austeen – a tragic fate after surviving a whole four years as a fighter pilot. German official records include a letter written in 1977 that describes the attack.

Dear Mr. Künzel,

Thank you very much for your letter from July 5th, 1977. I read about the incidents you describe with great interest. Of course, it is unfortunate that your photographs did not develop very well, but this may help for us to meet again “on board”, as you suggested. Like you told me, you have sat at the same table as Großadmiral Dönitz. How did that happen? How is he getting along? Did you speak with him as well?”

After our time in the dockyard, we were ordered to depart towards Kiel…In Kiel, we took on supplies…After the leader of the flotilla bade farewell, we cleared the port and headed for Flensburg. We stayed there for a few days and then received an order to sail for Norway.”

In the bay of Gelting, some other boats were lying in wait. As far as I know, our group was assembled there, consisting of the boats Altmeier, Niemeier and ourselves. We sailed in with Altmeier leading, followed by Niemeier and then us. As far as i can remember, in the afternoon, we sighted aircraft. This could have been in the Kleine Belt area (Lillebælt), or maybe between the island of Alsen and the shore. It was a beautiful day and the sun was shining.

After the air raid alarms went off, all stations were manned quickly on board all boats. When the first aircraft turned in towards us, we knew the attack was coming. The aircraft targeted the boat in the middle and approached our group at low level. In the meantime, at least two more aircraft went into a low-level attack. The first aircraft strafed the boat Altmeier and all of us returned fire. The bullets splashed into the water and over the hull of the boat. To this day, I cannot understand how none of the crew were injured.

Aft of the Altmeier’s tower, the aircraft overflew the boat and crashed into the water. All this happened within seconds and, after the plane’s crash, the other aircraft turned away and climbed. They circled our position for a while at altitude and then they disappeared. To my knowledge, no bombs were dropped.

After nightfall Altmeier, Niemeier and I met for a short briefing. During our voyage, the order arrived: “Complete Stop. Take no further action. Await orders.” At that time, we were offshore near Fredericia, and we destroyed some secret documents and the torpedo deflection aiming computer, and we destroyed the torpedoes by firing them at the shoreline where they detonated (this period is a dark shadow in my memory as we were dealing with so many things at the time. We had to take down the flag and we finally got the order to enter port at Fredericia. Everything else you will certainly remember yourself.

Dönitz certainly had a plan to reassemble the remaining ’U-Bootwaffe‘ , (which surely sounds like a bit of a fantasy) to continue the U-Boat war from there, or (which seems more likely to me, although not very likely in the situation) to have a better diplomatic starting point for negotiations with the Allies. To my knowledge, setting course for Argentina has never been mentioned.”

Those fairytales about Nazis and treasure seem to me to be wishful thinking, and the scuba divers to U-534 will be disappointed in this regard, as well. After the surrender, they came asking questions about Nazi officers on our boat, too. That was the belief of the Allies; but I myself never met such people on any of the U-Boats […].

(Translated from German by Maik Lutterklas)

4th of May 1945. The Squadron operations record book tells a short and tragic story; The squadron led by Major Austeen set out to escort Beaufighters attacking shipping amongst the Danish Islands in which the Germans were desperately trying to escape to Norway. Whilst the Squadron was still away from base, having landed on the Continent after the show, the news came through that Germany has given in in Denmark, Holland and the remainder of NW Germany, so that this will propably be the last operation over the European continent by this Squadron. Occupied Norway and Czechoslovakia are the only big outposts of German resistance left.

5th of May 1945. The squadron returned to base today after landing at Luneburg where they spent the night after the operation on the day of the 4th. They brought back the melancholy news that our Squadron Commander, Major Austeen, had been shot down into the sea by a sumbarine while he was strafing it off the Flensburger fjord in the Little Belt. He had only been with the Squadron for a couple of months, but had already proved himself to be a very efficient commanding officer. Our aircraft damaged four submarines before losing the commanding officer, and the Beaufighters sank one submarine, damaged one D/D, three submarines and one M/V of approx 5,000 tons.

64 squadron, ironically Arnes former squadron, flew with 126 on the mission and wrote the following of Austeens tragic death;

The squadron provided escort for Beaufighters attacking enemy shipping off the coast of Denmark. These vessels were trying to escape from Kiel and other ports. Our Mustangs, owing to lack of petrol decided to leave the Beaufighters, after the latter had attacked succesfully submarines and shipping, and headed south of Lübeck. On the way three submarines were seen on the surface which were attacked with m.g, and strikes were seen on all three huns before they submerged. The Wing reformed, headed south again. On reaching Kiel Bay we saw four more subs, escorted by flak ship. 64 Squadron and 126 Squadron attacked again, seeing strikes again. The C.O of 126 Squadron, Major Austeen was seen to suffer a direct hit from a U-boat and he went straight into the sea, on fire. After re-forming again, the Wing carried on to Lübeck where they rendezvoused with Gold section led by F/Lt Kelly who had continued in company with the Beaufighters. The weather detoriated so the Wing landed at Luneberg. Here it was that we met «old boys» of the Squadron F/Lt Gaze (ex C.O in 1942), F.O Bernard (Bob) and F/O. Boots. During the evening, in the bar, the good news came through that the Huns had surrendered to «Monty». Free drinks on the house, consisting of Hock, Whiskey and Gin. The boys got shockingly «blotto». The C.O took a jeep on a «looting» expedition to Lungeberg, and returned with some booty. The party went on well into the morning, most of the boys sleeping perforce, in the hospital with many ex. POWs.

The South-African, A.R Hall D.F.C, former squadron leader with a Dutch Spitfire squadron, wrote a letter to Arne’s mother after the loss of her son. A.R Hall arrived on the 7th to take over command of the Squadron, and it fell to him to write to Austeen’s mother about her son’s passing. Hall had met Austeen for the first time in 1942. During the intervening years, Austeen and Hall became good friends. Hall, as with many others, only had good things to say about Austeen. According to Hall, no one that met Arne had anything bad to say about him. Hall was also of the opinion that the attack on the U-boats was likely to have been 126’s last mission of the War, which did indeed turn out to be the case.

Arne Austeen in his pre-war days flying gliders at lake Mjøsa

Dear Mrs Austeen

I wish I was writing this letter under more happy cirumstances. It’s my duty to write to you concering tragic events that have taken place, something I truly wish I did not have to do. It is with great pain that I have to inform you that your son, Major Austeen, has not returned from operations of war. I know this will be a devestating blow to you. Please allow me to give you my deepest condolances, and from everyone in the Squadron your son commanded, .  Your son was very well liked, and was highly regarded in the Squadron, something I hope will give you some comfort.  For me, the loss of Arne is very personal, as he was a dear friend of mine. I met him in 1942, and our friendship grew strong in the intervening years. I liked and admired him greatly. All those he met liked him immediately. I have yet to meet anyone who had anything negative to say about Arne.

Arne excelled during the War, and was, because of his skills and courage, awarded Norwegian war medals as well as the British Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C.) He also participated in the war against Germany with great energy, and was always to be found in the heat of the battle.

It was so tragic that Arne was shot down during an attack against German submarines not far off the Danish coast on the 4th of May 1945, in what was most likely the Squadron’s last offensive operation during the War.

We all miss him deeply, and remember him with pride and dignity. You may with pride say, “He was a man.”

Yours faithfully,

A.R Hall.

The loss of Arne Austeen took a great toll on his fiancee, Ruth. After the war, she was always very hesitant to ask about what happened to her dear fiance, but her daughter, Elisabeth, understood that she had been engaged to someone who died during the War.

In the town of Gjøvik, Arne Austeen is commorated on a monument in a park close to the train and bus station. He is listed as the last of locals to loose their life during the war. He was also given his own street in Gjøvik, named «Austeens Veg» (Austeens road). It can be located just north of the high school, and across from Gjøvik Hospital. For most people, Arne Austeen is a forgotten hero.