263 Squadron land at Lake Lesjaskog

A pre war RAF Gloster Gladiator

The British land forces operating in central Norway were to bitterly complain that they rarely, if ever, saw their own aircraft. It was not for want of trying by the Fleet Air Arm. They were now operating aircraft from the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and Glorious. Because the air threat to the ships themselves they stayed 100-150 miles offshore, which in consequence stretched the operating capabilities of their aircraft. An account of the difficulties encountered by Midshipman ‘Doc’ Goble when he ran out of fuel when flying a Skua from the Ark Royal on the 24th April 1940 can be found on Dinger’s Aviation Pages.

RAF Bomber Command were making frequent sorties to [permalink id=4395 text=’bomb the German held airfields’]. An attempt was now made to base a RAF fighter squadron in Norway itself but they would have to operate from an improvised airfield in the snowbound centre of Norway to support the troops intended to attempt to take Trondheim. For this reason 263 Squadron, equipped with eighteen Gloster Gladiator aircraft, believed to be suitably robust to operate in these conditions, were embarked on HMS Glorious.

The official history provides a graphic account of the problems that had to be overcome before they flew into Lake Lesjaskog on 24th April:

Lake Lesjaskog is a long, narrow lake, about eight miles by a half mile, bounded by woods. High and desolate mountains skirt the southern shore but there is easy access on the north from the road and railway connecting Dombaas and Aandalsnes, which lie almost within a stone’s throw. The servicing flight arrived there in two parties on 23rd and 24th April, having experienced great difficulty in sorting their stores (which were neither listed nor labelled) and getting the essential items sent forward by the only two lorries which could still be found in Aandalsnes.

A runway measuring about 800 by 75 yards had been prepared with local labour, which had also swept the snow from a track between the main road and the lake edge. Unfortunately, only one inadequate route had been swept from the edge to the runway; this was half a mile long and a foot deep in snow, and the stores had to be conveyed over it on three horse-drawn sledges, intermittently available. The village of Lesjaskog was two miles away, so that even the provision of forage for the horses involved difficulties.

However by 5 p.m. (24th April), the servicing flight had laid out fuel and ammunition along the runway in small dumps and collected every possible tin, jug, or other container for refuelling. It had at once been perceived that the essential work of refuelling and starting machines would be difficult: only two refuelling troughs had been despatched, and the starter trolley could not be used as the batteries were uncharged and no acid had been sent with them. Moreover, the ground staff included only one trained armourer to maintain seventy-two Browning guns for the squadron. Two guns from a naval battery of Oerlikons, which was landed at the same time as the R.A.F. stores, had also arrived for anti-aircraft defence and a platoon of Marines to guard the petrol supply.

Such was the position when No. 263 Squadron, commanded by Squadron-Leader J. W. Donaldson, took off from the deck of the Glorious, with four maps among eighteen pilots, none of whom had been in action previously, 180 miles from shore, in a snowstorm. Their aircraft were Gladiators—obsolescent biplanes which could operate from small landing-grounds. Escorted by two Skuas of the Fleet Air Arm, they descended on the lake at 6 p.m. without serious mishap, although the heaped-up snow at either side of the runway had melted during the day so that its ice surface was half covered by trickling water. Meanwhile, the Germans had flown high above the lake and reconnoitred it. Our aircraft were immediately refuelled and one section placed at instant readiness, but the enemy did not return that evening.

Gloster Gladiator landed on surface of snow covered frozen lake
A Gloster Gladiator of 263 Squadron on Lake Lesjaskog on the evening of 24th April 1940

25th April 1940

Unfortunately the morning of the 25th brought worse problems. The bitter cold of the night froze the engines of the Gladiators. It was two hours after first light before the first aircraft could take off. Although two more were brought in to service later it was not enough to protect the airfield, much less provide air support to British troops as intended. A series of German bombing raids during the day destroyed or seriously damaged thirteen of the Gladiators.