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Archive Report: Allied Forces

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.
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331 squadron
27.08.1942 331 (Norwegian) Squadron, Spitfire Vb BL588, Sgt. Halldor Espelid MiD

Operation: ‘Roadstead’, France

Date: 27th August 1942 (Thursday)

Unit: 331 (Norwegian) Squadron, 132 Wing, Fighter Command

Type: Spitfire Vb

Serial No: BL588

Code: FN:A

Location: In the vicinity of Gravelines, France

Base: RAF North Weald, Essex, England

Pilot: Sgt. Halldor Espelid MiD, 378 RNorAF Age 22. PoW No. 643 */Murdered

* Stalag Luft 3, Sagan-Silesia, Germany, now Żagań in Poland. (Moved to Nuremberg-Langwasser, Bavaria).

REASON FOR LOSS:

Twelve aircraft took of from RAF North Weald on the 27th August 1942 at 11:40 hrs for a fighter Roadstead with 332 Sqn and 242 Sqn. They rendezvoused at Southend-on-Sea with 121 Sqn and then continued across the Channel at sea-level before they climbed steadily after crossing the French coast just east of Dunkerque until they reached an altitude of 14,000 ft.

Roadstead was the operation name for dive bombing and low level attacks on enemy ships at sea or in harbour.

Spitfire Vs of 331 (Norwegian) Squadron at Catterick on the way to North Weald spring 1942 (Created in January 1942. Public domain in Norway - Unknown author)

On the way in Sgt. Espelid’s Spitfire was hit by light flak at 2000 ft, but after smoking slightly and losing height, he then caught up with the rest of the formation. However, as they were leaving the French coast west of Gravelines Sgt. Espelid’s Spitfire was seen to turn inland and lose height. It was not known exactly what happened to him, but it was considered possible that he made a forced landing in France.

It was later reported that he had been captured and spent a short period at Oflag XXIb Schubin before being sent to Stalag Luft 3.

On the 8th April 1943 Oflag XXIb was cleared of PoWs who were sent to Stalag Luft 3.

At Stalag Luft 3 Sgt. Espelid worked for Flt Lt. Valenta’s Intelligence section being responsible for Scandinavia along with 2nd Lt. Nils Fuglesang.

Sqn Ldr. Bushell was made the head of the Escape Committee and he was known as "Big X". His plan was to cause the maximum amount of disruption to the Germans in organising a breakout by 200 PoWs. His plan was to commence digging three tunnels which were named "Tom", "Dick" and "Harry" under the premise that should one of the three be discovered the Germans would unlikely think that another was being dug let alone two.

Some 600 PoWs were involved in the planning, preparation of escape materials and construction of the tunnels. On the 8th September 1943 “Tom” was discovered and activity on the other two tunnels was shut down for two months to eliminate the risk of being discovered. When work was to recommence “Dick” was shut down because of the clearance for a new compound made unlikely that this tunnel would ever be completed and all efforts were redirected into completing “Harry”.

On the night of the 24th-25th March 1944, 76 officers escaped via “Harry” from the north compound which, at that time, held between 1000 and 1500 RAF PoWs. At about 05:00 hrs on the 25th March the 77th PoW was spotted by guards as he emerged from the tunnel.

An overview of the German response to the escape and the subsequent British prosecution of those responsible for the murder of fifty of the escapees is summarised in the report entitled “The Fifty - The Great Escape”.

At 22:30 hrs Sgt. Espelid, Lt. Fuglesang, Flt Lt. Valenta, Sqn Ldr. Bushell, Lt. Scheidhauer, Lt. Stevens, Lt. Gouws, Flt Lt. Plunktett and Flt Lt. Dvorak left the tunnel. They made their way to the Sagan railway station.

Sgt. Espelid and Lt. Fuglesang together with Fg Off. Tobolski, Wg Cdr. Day, Sqn Ldr. Catanach and Flt Lt. Christensen caught the Berlin express at 03:15 hrs.

Early on the 25th March Sgt. Espelid, Lt. Fuglesang, Sqn Ldr. Catanach and Flt Lt. Christensen arrived in Berlin. From here they made their way to the Danish border at Flensburg. Here their luck ran out when a policeman became suspicious after inspecting their papers and their adapted 'civilian’ greatcoats, which failed to stand up to close scrutiny. They were arrested and handed over to the Kripo at Flensburg.

Kripo = Kriminalpolizei (Criminal Police).

The circumstances surrounding the death of Sgt. Espelid were established during the first of two British Military Courts which was convened at the Curiohaus, Hamburg between the 1st July and 3rd September 1947. This was the trial of Max Wielen and 17 others where they were charged on nine counts.

All of the accused were named on the first two counts. These counts were charges of conspiracy against Max Ernst Gustav Friedrich Wielen, the Kripo and Gestapo police chief of Breslau with the rank of SS-Obergruppenführer, together with SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, Head of the Gestapo (Amt IV of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt) (believed to have been killed or committed suicide) and SS-Gruppenführer Arthur Nebe, Head of the Kripo (Amt V of the RSHA) (Executed after the attempt on Hitler’s life) in the participation of the killing of the 50 officers.

In counts three to nine, six groups of accused were each charged with the killing of one or several officers. Every accused with the exception of Max Wielen figures in one of these counts and no accused figures in more than one.

On the seventh and eighth counts two groups of former members of the Kiel Gestapo were accused of killing Sgt. Espelid, Lt. Fuglesang, Sqn Ldr. Catanach and Flt Lt. Christensen in the vicinity of Roter Hahn on or about the 29th March 1944.

On the seventh count the accused were Johannes Post, Hans Kähler and Artur Denkmann. On the eighth count the accused were Oskar Schmidt, Walter Jacobs and Wilhelm Struve.

Johannes Robert Adolf Post was a former Kriminalkommissar (Detective Inspector or Superintendent) and an SS-Obersturmführer or SS-Hauptsturmführer (1st Lt or Capt);

Hans Kähler was a former Kriminalinspektor (Detective Inspector) and an SS-Obersturmführer (1st Lt);

The position and ranks of the remaining four accused have not been established.

The court heard that on the 29th March 1944 Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt, who was the Commanding Officer (CO) of the regional Gestapo headquarters (HQ) in Kiel, summoned the six accused to his office. He told them that four prisoners, who were being held by the Kripo at Flensburg, had been condemned to death and were to be shot at a location determined by him.

He told Post to go to Flensburg and interrogate the prisoners after which he was to take them to a pre-arranged location and shoot them. Friedrich Schmidt told Post that he was in charge and responsible for carrying out his orders. He ordered Oskar Schmidt to arrange for the cremation of the bodies taking into account the relevant formalities.

He instructed that service pistols were to be used to shoot the prisoners. Additionally, should the prisoners escape service rifles were to be used as pistols would not be sufficient. The drivers, Denkmann and Struve, were instructed to keep the road clear of curious passers-by.

The party then set off to Flensburg to interrogate the four prisoners. Post then ordered that each member of the party was to shoot the prisoner that he had interrogated. When they left Flensburg, Post and Kahler were in one car driven by Denkmann, with Sqn Ldr. Catanach as the only prisoner. During the journey this car became separated from the other and was the first to arrive at the pre-arranged place of execution. Sqn Ldr. Catanach was taken out of the car and led through a gate into a field where he was shot and killed. Post stated that Kahler’s rifle had misfired, and he had to give the prisoner the coup de grâce himself. However, Kahler denied having fired at all. Denkmann stood by the car.

Shortly thereafter the other car arrived with the remaining three prisoners. Oskar Schmidt was in charge, with Jacobs as an escort and Struve as the driver. Post was waiting for them at the gate. Sgt. Espelid, Flt Lt. Christensen and Lt. Fuglesang were led into the same field and shot. Post and Jacobs admitted having fired the shots at them, and Post stated that Oskar Schmidt also fired which he denied. Struve remained with his car.

They then all drove back and Post reported to Friedrich Schmidt. At some later date their report had to be re-written and it was suggested by Friedrich Schmidt and Post that the report should say that Denkmann and Struve each shot one prisoner as they tried to run away, but both refused to sign.

In their defence Post and Jacobs claimed that they had been misled by Friedrich Schmidt as to the identity of the four prisoners as spies and saboteurs. However, they admitted that when Sqn Ldr. Catanach was interrogated he stated that he had been in the RAF.

Kahler’s defence was that he hung back as Post and the prisoner left the car and never fired at all. Oskar Schmidt claimed in his testimony that he never fired and that he had been reported by Post to Friedrich Schmidt for failing to obey orders, and was rebuked.

In their defence, Denkmann and Struve, claimed that they had been conscripted into the Gestapo and were not members, and that they had nothing to do with the whole affair and were merely driving the cars. Struve admitted having been at the CO’s conference whereas Denkmann was the only one of the six accused who denied being at the conference.

The court found Post, Kähler, Schmidt and Jacobs guilty of their respective charges and sentenced them to death. They were executed by Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by RSM Richard A. O'Neill, on the 26th February 1948 at Hameln prison between 09:54 hrs and 10:50 hrs.

The court found Denkmann and Struve guilty of their involvement in the killings and sentenced both to 10 years imprisonment. The final dispositions of their sentences are unknown.

Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt was not before the court for his involvement in the killings as it appears from unsubstantiated reports that at the end of April/beginning of May 1945 he obtained false papers and fled across the Bavarian - Austrian border. However:

On the 11th November 1961 Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt, alias Schütte, and his Nazi past was uncovered. He eventually lost his job at Hamburg-Mannheimer (Insurance Company) and in 1962 was sentenced by the Munich District Court to three months in prison for "false certification, making a false affidavit and offences under the passport law", but he did not have to serve the sentence. He continued to live under the name Schmidt-Schütte.

On the 18th December 1963 he was arrested and remanded in custody on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by the Kiel District Court. The background to this was investigations into crimes committed and specifically his responsibility for the murders of the four Allied officers on the 29th March 1944, which were committed on his instructions.

Schmidt-Schütte was released from pre-trial detention in 1965 because he was unfit to be imprisoned and was able to resume his employment. On the 20th May 1968 Schmidt-Schütte was sentenced by the Kiel District Court to two years imprisonment for aiding and abetting the murder of the four Allied officers. The sentence was confirmed by the Federal Court of Justice on the 14th January 1969. However, his sentence was deemed to have been served through pre-trial detention.

Burial details:

Memorial to “The Fifty” near to Żagań (Courtesy: CSvBibra - Own work, Public Domain)

Above: Sgt. Espelid (Courtesy of Operation:PictureMe - FindAGrave and grave marker (courtesy of TWGPP)

Sgt. Halldor Espelid MiD. Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Collective Grave 9.A. Born on the 6th October 1920 in Askøy kommune, Hordaland Fylke, Norway. Son of Ivar and Gudrid Espelid of Askøy kommune, Hordaland Fylke, Norway.

It was possible that he was promoted to Lt. which was recorded in German documents as Plt Off. However, his rank is recorded as Sgt. on his grave marker and on the North Weald Memorial at St Andrews Church, North Weald.

He was posthumously Mentioned in Despatches (MID) for his actions as a PoW. The award was not published in the London Gazette on the 8th June 1944 when the British and Commonwealth personnel were honoured for fear of reprisals against his family in German-occupied Norway.

Halldor Espelid, 110378, enlisted in the Norwegian Army Air Service as a student pilot. He sailed at around Christmas 1940 to Canada and onto the basic flying training establishment at the Toronto Island airport on Lake Ontario known as "Little Norway".

On 21st November 1941, Espelid was awarded his pilots wings and was promoted to Sgt. His instructor recommended that he had the aptitude to become a fighter pilot. He probably went onto advanced flying training at No.32 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan. On successful completion of his training he embarked for England where he joined an Operational Training Unit (OTU) to train on the Supermarine Spitfire.

On the 15th July 1942, he joined 331 (Norwegian) Sqn, RAF, which was manned by Norwegian personnel. Sgt. Espelid’s first mission was on the 24th July 1942 when he flew a sector reconnaissance sortie (Spitfire Vb AR293, FN:F). He flew missions over the English Channel to occupied France and covered the amphibious landings during the Dieppe Raid on the 19th August 1942 where the Sqn was involved in significant air fighting, particularly over Dieppe.

Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this pilot with additional thanks to Traugott for his work on the VitzArchive.

Thanks to The War Graves Photographic Project (TWGPP)for their great work.

Other sources as quoted below:

RS & TV 16.03.2022 - Initial upload

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Acknowledgements
Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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