Shot down over Dortumund – Per Waalers story
Per Waaler, a Gladiator-pilot on the 9th of April 1940, found himself in combat with German aircraft, and fired his guns. Later he got confirmation that he had shot down one of them. He was later shot down over Dortmund flying as a “second dicky” on a Halifax bomber on the 23th of May 1943. He was captured and, and emprisoned in Stalag Luft III for the remainder of the war.
“Fornebu Tower, this is Alfa Lima Kilo on holding 19 and all set”.
“Alfa Lima Kilo enter 19 and hold – Alfa Lima Kilo cleared for take off, left turn”
“Tower – Lima Kilo request permission to make a quick climbing left turn”.
We are given permission, and with full throttle we’re airborne. Landing gear retracted, and the Cessna Cardinal builds up speed parallel to the runway. At intersection we’re closing in on 100 knots, and we pull up into a left turn and 500 feet over the tower.
“Wow, this is almost like a fighter”, says Per Waaler.
On our way to Sørkedalen, we go through the rest of the instruments, and he’s clearly impressed with the great difference of the modern times with GPS, DME, VOR/ILS, ADF and autopilot.
Per carefully takes the stick and does a few controlled test movements. We’re soon over very known areas.
“In front of us is Storflåtan, and back there is Ringkollen” he says.
We fly past them both, and do a 180 degree turn with a 500 feet decrease in height. The Cardinal is quickly reaching 160 knots when we slide in over Storflåtan, and pulls up for another 180 degree turn. Again we find ourselves over Ringkollen, and in front we see the beauty of Randsfjorden. Per tells me about all the training he did with the Gladiator over the area. We continue towards Tyrifjorden and Per is getting housewarm. He pulls a superbly executed steepturn and is back to the days of youth. We go into a shallow dive, and with 160 on the clock we pull up into a beatiful stallturn to the left and then another to the right.
As with so many of us, there’s always questions to ask a man of Per’s calibre.
“What did it feel like to see German war machines in front, underneath – what was it like?”
Per tells me that during those days before the 9th of April, all the pilots were keen on getting that first “black line” above the fireplace in the mess.
“When the day came we were all so furious, and when I saw that bomber I simply had an immense aggression inside of me. And, I hit it. I got it confirmed as shot down later”.
I’m sitting here, flying and listening to a man who was involved in the first aerial combat ever over Norwegian soil.
We’ve cleared Drammensmarka underneath, and sets course towards Sollihøgda. We call the tower, and gets clearance for further flying to Kolsåstoppen. At the same time we’re notified of air traffic at 1500 feet. That is, underneath us. The old fighter pilot waste no time and spots them first. We fly past Kolsåstoppen and observe climbers on the mountain, then we fly to Stabekk and get permission to land on runway 19. Wheels and flaps out, and a silky smooth landing results in praise from the Gladiator veteran. We taxi in, and I ask him what episode from the war he remembers most vividly. Personally I have a feeling it might be the 9th of April 1940, or maybe the time in Ferry Command when he had a whole squadron of aircrafts landing, and literally crossing his own landing strip. Maybe the more brutal one, when he was to be checked out on Halifax bombers;
“It was on the 23th of May. I was assigned to Bomber Command, and it was to be my first of two missions as second dickie (co-pilot) before I got my own crew. We were supposed to go to Dortmund with a thousand allied bombers. We got quite close to the city before we were attacked by a Junkers 88 nightfighter. He fired on us and set fire to the the outer starbord engine. We got that engine under control, and continued towards the target, but the fighter attacked a second time. The Halifax caught fire, we were doomed. The captain gave orders to bail out”.
“Four men died, and four survived. I walked for several days, and tried to get back home. I stole a bit of milk in the morning for example, but was eventuelly caught and imprisoned in Stallag Luft III where I spent the rest of the war”.
“I also have to admit Rolf Torbjørn Tradins words in the air on the 9th of April 1940 “We attack, every man for himself” has also left an ever lasting mark.
Per Waaler was one of the first. He passed away 4 June 2014 in Oslo.
This piece is translated to English from Norwegian and is based upon Gunnar Støltuns meeting/interview with Per Waaler in the 1990s. Translated and published as an agreement between Støltun and Tor Idar Larsen that these stories should have a broader international audience.
A meeting with a legend, Oslo March 2011.
In 2011, Gunnar Støltun arranged for the author, Tor Idar Larsen, to meet the only remaining veteran of 9 April 1940, Per Waaler. The meeting was memorable.
«Yes, here they are now» Kari Støltun says and puts her coffee down. Downstairs, in the hallways at Gunnar Støltuns house, Per Waaler enters with Støltun himself close behind. Gunnar has picked up Per and is bringing him home for one reason; so I can meet this legendary Gladiator-pilot.
Per is the only remaining veteran of 9th of April 1940 at 93 years of age. Despite his age, Per still has his driving license intact. He is the proof that it’s very possibly to keep mind and body sharp even if the age is creeping up on you. Per was nearly retired the year I was born. That says something (but I have a feeling it says more about how young I am, than how old Per is).
Downstairs, Per is quickly reaching out, shaking my hand. He tells me that both him and his wife Ruth (originally from Canada) have read «Gladiator» and thought it was terrific. It feels a bit surreal getting a message like that from one of those who actually lived through the war, but I put on a brave smile, and thanks him for his kind words. He knows who I am, and he remembers the letter I wrote him almost six years ago. He sent a picture and an autograph in return. I keep it framed.
Going upstairs, and to the living room, Per is instantly curious about me; why I am writing about historic aviation, and why I got the «mad idea» of writing a book about one of his good friends. I explain as best I can, how it all started and where it [the book] is heading now. 15 years of interest in historic aviation packed into mere four minutes explanation.
Per gladly tells me about his years at the air force academy before the war, and the message they got on the radio from Rolf Torbjørn Tradin on the 9th of April 1940. He remembers that message very well (every man for himself, good luck).
«We should have shot more of them down» Per states seriously. He means it. I thought the result they did in their primitive Gladiators was more than impressive.
«Did you have altitude on them?» I wonder.
«Oh yes, we had plenty of height on them, we were in a perfect position,» Per says.
We talk about the years of war, and eventually focus on the short time Per had with a Halifax squadron before he was shot down on his first mission as a second dickie. We jump back to 1941 again, and I mention the injuries he got as an instructor in Canada. I’m pleased I read the book Pers pupil wrote about that fatal day. Per tells us that the aeroplane stalled during landing, and went straight in. It took months before he was on his feet again. The pupil was in fact an experienced one, and Per never expected him to do such a brutal mistake. Both of them had to pay for it. Physically, and I expect also mentally.
The most surprising to me is his explanation as to why he ended up in Bomber Command, and not with Fighter Command. He was, after all, a fighter pilot.
« I wanted to make use of myself in the best way possible» he tells me. Per felt that by the time he got on his feet again after the accident in Canada, the defense of Britain was secure. He was sure that he could do a more important work for the war effort being a Halifax-pilot than a Spitfire-pilot.
«But were you aware of their losses?» I wonder. I was quite surprised to hear his reasons for choosing Bomber Command. I always thought it was something he was ordered to do.
Per nods as confirmation. He knew.
The fact he chose to go to Bomber Command says all about Pers integrity and personality. I hardly thought it was possible that anyone wanted to fly bombers over Germany in 1943. Per is proof of the contrary. The bombers went down in large numbers, but he took the risk.
Bomber Command suffered heavy losses, and Per got to experience it first-hand. On his first mission to Dortmund, half of the crew of the Halifax he was on, lost their lives. Per got out of the stricken bomber in one piece, and started to make his way towards the channel coast.
«However, I had not really figured out how to cross the Rhine» he laughs.
He was captured after five days walking. Together with Marius Eriksen, he walked through the gate at Stallag Luft III. In this camp, Per would spend the last years of world war two.
Per remembers «The great escape» well, and the devestating result of the escape with all those pilots executed on Hitlers command. They thought the most serious that would happen if they were caught was a lone cell for a couple of weeks.
«Isn’t it interesting that it was two Norwegians and a Pole that were the only ones to get out alive?» I ask him.
«Oh, he wasn’t a Pole, he was Dutch,» Per replies, and corrects my mistake. He knew several of those who did escape and got executed, amongst them Norwegians Nils Jørgen Fuglesang and Haldor Espelid.
We keep talking, and all those familiar names pop up; Rolf Arne Berg, Tarald Weisteen, Oscar Albert Lütken, Arve Braathen, Svein Heglund and Ole Reistad. Per knew them all. They were his friends and collegues. I drop him the name Arne Austeen, and Per can confirm that he knew him too. I talk about about the street in Gjøvik in his name, and about the unknown grave in Germany that could be Austeens. Per listens with interest, and tells me it was all new to him.
Time is running fast, and Per have to get back to his wife Ruth. On the way back we drive towards Oslo, and Per can inform us that his parents got married in a church we drive past on our right hand side for exactly hundred years ago. I imagine that the area must have been slightly different back then.
Going up a small hill before we reach our destination, a car suddenly pops up just infront of our own. Gunnar steps on the break immediately, and avoids a head-on collision. The speed wasn’t all that great, but the cars would have been quite banged up nonetheless. Gunnar starts laughing, and says he can confirm with great confidence that even if he’s not 20 years old any more, his reaction is just as good as before. Per couldn’t agree more.
I shake Pers hand one last time before he leaves us for his beloved Ruth, and thank him again for taking the time to meet me. A few days before our meeting, I had spoken to Gunnar about being born just a little too late to meet all these heroes from world war two, and how one might get a bit jealous of those who actually did have the chance to do so. Per has gotten word about my feelings, and gives me one last comment before he goes;
«It’s me who should be jealous of you, you know, you will live a lot longer than me!» he laughs and waves goodbye.
So, if I am as lucky as Per and can celebrate my 93rd birthday, I will remember back to the day I met Per Waaler. I can proudly announce that I actually met one of the few who flew a Gloster Gladiator into battle on the 9th of April 1940.
This piece about Per Waaler is dedicated to Gunnar Støltun who passed away 12 September 2019.