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“Almost too good” – The story of Marius Eriksen – Norwegian Spitfire Foundation

“Almost too good” – The story of Marius Eriksen

He was only 17 years old when Germany invaded Norway. He became an officer in the Royal Norwegian Air Force at only 19. Before even reaching 20 years old, he had shot down a total of nine enemy aircraft. Marius Eriksen was perhaps one the most talented Spitfire pilots the RAF had in their ranks. According to Wilhelm Mohr, Eriksen was “almost too good” for a Spitfire pilot.

Growing up

Eriksen was born on the 11th of December 1923 in Oslo. His parents were Birgit “Bitten” Heien from Eikern and Marius Emil Eriksen from Skien. For most of his childhood, Marius lived in the outskirts of Oslo, very close to Holmenkollen and its splendid nature. Both his parents were people of the outdoors, and his father became heavily involved in alpine skiing. Marius took up their interest in the sport, and started ski jumping. By the age of 13, he was allowed to be a trial jumper during competitions in the famous Holmenkollen ski jumping hill. The young Eriksen continued to compete on skis and was called up for the Norwegian team for their participation in the world championship in alpine skiing in Zakopane, Poland, in 1936. Eriksen was then invited by the Italian team to follow them to Sestriere in Italy, and he happily accepted the invitation. In Sestriere he met a British girl who gave him her club scarf. He later used this scarf when he flew Spitfires with 332 squadron from North Weald.

Invasion and escape

Marius was at home in Oslo when the Germans invaded Norway. Still just a young boy, he was was more focused on the joy of skipping a few days of school than the invasion. Because of the familys close ties to the German and Austrian alpine skiing community, they let a friend from Germany stay at their house after Germany had taken control of the country. This would cause concern in the local community about his familiys motives. Eriksen was one day given information by a friend that Norway needed new pilots in Canada. This information started a process which led to his escape from Norway. By joining the air force and fight, he would clear his familys name and show everyone once and for all where their loyalties were. His escape from Norway started in October of 1940. Togheter with him in his escape were Jan Eigil Løfsgaard and Bjørn Bjørnstad.

The three friends made it to the town of Ålesund where they had plans of escaping by boat to the UK. They walked around in the harbour asking for anyone to take them further than what was normal for fishing boats, but to no prevail. The locals knew what they were up to, and did not want anything to do with them. Luckily they managed to get information about a little boat which possibly could take them to Great Britain. Without their knowledge, the boat was under supervision of Abwehr and part of their way of infiltrating the escape-route between Norway and Scotland. Eriksen and his group of friends made if safely to Lerwick within 30 hours time, on Abwehrs bill! In Scotland, Eriksen lied about his age and education to be accepted into the air force for pilot training. He was afterall only 17 years old.

Great Britain and 332 squadron

After a short spell in England, Eriksen boarded a ship bound for Canada and Norways training camp, “Little Norway”. He was lucky, and got Finn Thorsager as his instructor. Thorsager was a calm man who never yelled orders at Marius, but politely told him what he did right, and what he did wrong. With Thorsager teaching, the young lad flew solo after only six hours. After flying solo, Eriksen went up to Moose Jaw to get training on the Harvard. In November/December 1941 he boarded a ship for his journey back to Great Britain together with his friends Jan Løfsgaard and Rolf Engelsen.

Marius Eriksen then arrived at No. 61 Operational Unit at Heston, flying tired and old Spitfires from the Battle of Britain era. His instructor became Flight Ltn. Patrick Peter Colum “Paddy” Barthropp DFC, previously of 602 squadron. On Eriksens first flight in the Spitfire, Barthropp was rather quick in teaching him the instruments and forgot to tell him where the radio button was located. Eriksen landed safely again at Heston after his first nervous flight in the Spitfire.

Shortly after his spell at the OTU, Marius was sent to the newly formed 332 Norwegian Squadron at Catterick in Yorkshire. His first flight in a “Norwegian Spitfire” took place on the 3rd of April 1942. Together with Jan Løfsgaard, Marius took every opertunity to practise his skills in the air. Together with another friend, Eric Westly, Marius also got a dog which they named “Spit”.

Marius Eriksen with Spit (via Tor Idar Larsen)

On the 8th of May 1942, Marius got into his first fight with the enemy. Flying with Kjell Hanssen, he spotted a Junkers Ju88 over the North Sea. Both sides in the fight used up all their ammo, and so the battle ended with a draw. Eriksen was disappointed with the result, but excited over his first engagement. After running out of ammo, he had gotten very close to the German bomber, snapping pictures of the foreign bomber with his gun-cam. Back at the base, the pictures were simply deemed “too good” and Marius’ B-flight was grounded for two weeks as punishment. Reason? Putting war material in unecessary danger…

As 332’s sister squadron, 331, already was stationed at North Weald by May 1942, the 332 boys were hungry to follow their friends to the south. In the middle of June 1942, they finally followed suit. It didn’t take too long before Marius and 332 got into “trouble”. During one of these early missions from North Weald, Eriksen developed engine trouble and had to turn back to base. He got Ltn. Arve Aas as support going home. Just after turning, Aas’ Spitfire exploded. Without knowing, they had been attacked by Focke Wulf 190’s. It was a major blow to the squadron, loosing one of their flight leaders in such way.

Later that summer, he shot down his first Focke Wulf 190 over the coast of Northern France;

The Dieppe raid was a major event for Marius and all of his comrades. The Norwegians flew several missions that day, with Squadron leader Wilhelm Mohr leading the first mission, and Finn Thorsager leading 332 for the last three.

332 Squadron pilots, Catterick 1942; Left to right: Thor Wærner, Peder Mollestad, Jan E Løfsgaard (?) and Marius Eriksen

The daredevil

Marius could be a bit of a daredevil, and Wilhelm Mohr later told the author that Marius was almost “too good” in what he did. Marius, still very young, also needed a little bit of looking after according to his old squadron leader. He was also widely seen as perhaps the best pilot in the squadron in 1942 and 1943.

One of these rather daring moments happened during take off from North Weald. Eriksen was flying with his squadron leader and wanted to impress his boss during take off. He kept as close as he could to Mohr going down the runway, and instantly pulled up his wheels when he had reached flying speed. He heard a clackering sound, but didn’t think much of it, and finished off the patrol with no problems. Back at North Weald he quickly saw what the sound had been. He had retracted the wheels too early, and the propellors had touched the ground, bending the tips forward. Joking it away to his mechanics, they quickly put the jokes aside, telling him how lucky he had been.

Sorrow

Marius and Jan had developed a very tight relationship ever since they escaped Norway together. They were best friends, and stuck together through everything. Jan had become somewhat of a big brother to Marius. One day, their friendship would end. Together on a spot of leave in London, Jan left for North Weald a bit earlier than Marius. Quickly after he came back to base, he went out on his last mission. He was shot down by FW190’s on a sweep over France. He had been seen bailing out, and everyone had a glimmer of hope that Jan had survived. However, in January 1943 (Jan was shot down in October), the Norwegians got news from the French underground that Jan had been found shot dead on the ground. Marius always thought Jan had been shot in his parachute, but most likely he was shot trying to escape.

Jan E. Løfsgaard (Løffen). Marius’ best friend.

After the loss of his good friend, Marius started to drink more, and revenge filled his young mind. He also by his own account got more scared when flying, and didn’t trust himself as much as he used to. Marius was turning “yellow”. However, he kept going and his fellow pilots and friends tried their best to make him snap out of his condition. As Alf R. Bjercke later told the author, Marius was a superbly well liked person amongst the personell at the base.

Going into February of 1943, Marius got into battle once again. Alongside 332 squadron, Marius did several sorties escoring Americans bombers.

Once in London, met an American pilot in a club, and they got talking. Marius told him what type of flying he did in those days, escorting American bombers into France. The American proceeded to tell Marius the story of how him and his crew had been out on a mission to Dunkirk where they were badly shot up and lost four men before they ditched in the sea. A Spitfire had followed the bomber all the way which, according to the American, saved their lives. Eriksen stopped him in his tracks, and told the American the rest of the story. Marius had been flying the Spitfire. By an amazing coincidence, the two pilots had met in the air. The American started crying in surprise and gratitude.

Marius Eriksen seated on the wing of a Norwegian Spitfire V, most likely spring 1942 (via Tor Idar Larsen)

Scramble wearing nothing but shortpants and a shirt

Perhaps the most interesting of all of Marius’ “kills” happened in April 1943. Already ordered on a rest period, Marius was at North Weald only wearing a thin shirt and shortpants. He did not want to go on rest, so he biked over to have a chat with fellow Spitfire pilot Werner Christie and asked if Christie could talk with the CO on his behalf. They agreed that while Christie would do so, Marius would take his place on readiness. Just as Christie left Eriksen, the alarm went off. Marius took Christies Spitfire, and climbed after a Junkers 88 reported in the area. He pushed the Spitfires engine so hard it needed a complete overhaul once he got back. Marius caught up with the enemy aircraft, managed to open fire at it.

A few days later, confirmation came in that the Junkers 88 had indeed been shot down. The plans were then drawn up to have Marius meet the German pilot, and bring a few items to the emprisoned German as a sign of friendliness. Most likely to see if the Allies could get information out of him. The British were especially interested in getting information about the engines and their performance in high altitude.

The meeting would not take place. Marius’ luck was coming to an end.

Shot down

2nd of May 1943 would be Marius’ last day with 332 squadron. Leading Blue section, 332 squadron was attacked head-on by hords of Luftwaffe fighters. Marius ordered his section to break, but ended on a head-on course against a 190. None of the two backed out, and they both fired their guns going straight towards each other. Eriksens Spitfire caught fire, and he had to bail out. Unluckily, he pulled too hard on the hood releaser. He was now caught inside the burning Spit. Then everything around him exploded. Marius regained consioscness from the explosion while still in the air, and managed to pull the ripcord on his parachute. A German FW190 showed up, and went in for an attack on Marius, still in his parachute. The bullets went too high, and Eriksen got away with it. The 190 went in for another attack, but this time a lone 332 Spitfire came to Marius’ rescue, and he was safe. This could be the reason why Marius always suspected that Jan was shot in his parachute.

Prisoner of war

Marius was unlucky, and landed in the middle of several young German soldiers, barely 16 years old. He was taken to a hospital where a German doctor managed to cover up most of his wounds from the explosion and parachute landing. At the hospital, a few German pilots showed up, and Marius spoke to them not only about the dogfight he had just been in, but also of his contacts in Germany and Austria. The pilots were more than impressed, and even offered him a place in a squadron at the Eastern Front. Eriksen said a politely “no thanks”. Marius was then taken to Stallag Luft III, where he would spend the last two years of the war.

A young Marius Eriksen, 1942-1943 at North Weald (Ole Friele Backer)

Freedom

On the 12th of January 1945, the Russian started a major offensive, and all prisoners were ordered to march out of the camp, away from the Russian lines, only 20 km away. It was a long and very tough march, where Eriksen and his fellow prisoners lived on very little food, and slept outdoors in the rain. In retrospect, Marius understood that their march was far from bad compared to other death marches from concentration camps.

On the 2nd of May, Eriksen and his fellow prisoners were liberated by the British army in the area of Lubeck. In Brussel, Marius Eriksen and Rolf Engelsen, another friend from 332 squadron, ran into previous 332 pilot Olai Grønmark, now flying B-25 Bombers due to his much bigger body than what the narrow Spitfire could fit in. In the B-25, they flew back to London. Eriksen then went straight to North Weald, hoping to find his former friends from 331 and 332 still at the airfield. Little did he know both squadrons had left for the continent shortly after D-Day.

From Leuchars in Scotland, Marius got onboard a Lockheed Lodestar to Gardermoen outside Oslo (now Norways main airport). From there he found his way to Hotel Bristol in Oslo before he headed home to his parents after five years abroad. They greeted him in the street with flags and banners.

Peace time

Marius Eriksen continued as a pilot with the Royal Norwegian Air Force from October 1945 to 1950, ending his time in the air force flying the first jet fighter Norway got, the de Havilland Vampire. He then joined the family business, a sporting good store in Oslo until the 1960’s. Marius took part in many national ski competitions after the war, and also joined the Norwegian olympic team in St. Moritz. In 1954 Marius also starred in a movie about fighter pilots.

Marius Eriksen sadly died on the 6th of July 2010.