A Luftwaffe plane bearing the Swastika is pictured in Luxembourg during the occupation
Photo: Musée de l'Aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
To mark the centenary of the first international passenger flight (from London to Paris), Delano looks back each week at a different chapter in Luxembourg’s aviation history. This week we return to 1940.
In the space of just 20 years, aviation was taking off in Luxembourg and, in 1937, the Luxembourg government greenlighted the new airport at Findel. It seemed nothing could stop Luxembourg from becoming a global player in aviation. But, trouble was looming. On 10 May 1940, German forces invaded and occupied Luxembourg, its international airport ambitions were put on ice.
Former government aviation chief Pierre Hamer wrote in his book “L’aviation Luxembourgeoise, son passé son avenir” that flights from and over Luxembourg territory had been stopped from 2 September 1939 because of “international events”. Even the Luxembourg Listener, which relayed recordings back and forth between London-Croydon and Esch-sur-Alzette’s aerodrome for Radio Luxembourg, was forced to stop. Prior to 10 May 1940, one English pilot broke the rule, making an emergency landing in Esch when he ran out of fuel.
A Luftwaffe air base
The occupiers quickly seized on the military opportunities that Findel airport offered, taking control of the airfields in Findel and Esch. All aviation clubs were dissolved and aircraft repossessed. During this period, the skies over Luxembourg were busier than ever.
According to the Luxembourg Aviation Museum, Findel’s grass airfield was used by the German air force, the Luftwaffe, flying attacks during the Battle of France, from May to June 1940. Reconnaissance flights also operated from there.
Esch aerodrome served as a light aircraft base for the German occupiers. According to Hamer, these aircraft would tow targets that would be used for target practice by the DCA, the anti-air defence corps of the German military.
At the same time, Allied aircraft flew over Luxembourg while on raids or reconnaissance missions to Germany.
Photo depicts a Fairey Battle which crashed in Pétange, on 10 May 1940. Photo: John Derneden private collection
Not all aircraft made it back intact. According to amateur historian John Derneden, who has spent the last 30 years researching the subject, some 350 Allied and German aircraft crashed or crash-landed in Luxembourg. The first air casualty in Luxembourg, was a Fairey Battle, sent from France in an advanced airstrike and struck down in Pétange on 10 May 1940.
When crashes occurred, the occupiers would often strip the plane wreckage for valuable aluminium. If allied crews survived, the local resistance movement helped them to escape through France and Spain. “Most crashes were deadly,” Derneden explained. He cites one tragic accident in 1944 when two B-17 bombers collided mid-air and crashed in Perlé, killing 18.
In addition to researching crash sites, Derneden, who is about to publish his third book, has also successfully identified crash victims previously listed as missing in action. He says often they were not found because the crash occurred in an isolated place. After researching a plane crash in Kehlen, Derneden notified a professional excavation crew from Hawaii. They confirmed his hunch and identifyied the pilot as American First Lieutenant Harold Stalnaker, who was shot down by “friendly fire” on 23 December 1944. “He was listed in the American Military Cemetery in Hamm on the wall of missing. Now they’ve put a star next to his name because he was found,” Derneden said.
After Luxembourg’s liberation in September 1944, the US Army declared Findel Airfield as an Advanced Landing Ground. They based their ninth air force, the 363rd tactical reconnaissance group for missions and supply transfers there.
Following the end of WWII in 1945, the airfield passed back into the hands of the Luxembourg people. It was a chance to start over. Despite government reports saying Findel should only serve as a short-term airfield for tourists and post, it was selected to host the new airport.
John Derneden, pictured, has published two books on WWII plane crashes in Luxembourg and is working on this third. Photo: Maison Moderne
An airport takes shape
In 1946, Findel Airport was born, with two wooden barracks and a reinforced patch of grass serving as runway. In 1947, it gained a paved 1,160-metre runway, long enough to land a 30-seater aircraft, according to the then transport minister Robert Schaffner, writing in the Luxembourg Air Bulletin, dated March/April 1948.
In 1948, the runway was extended to give a total 1,500 metres, meeting the then requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. A 800-metre grass strip was meanwhile reserved for sport and tourism activity and third, completed in 1947, provided the start of a second, hard standing runway. A hangar and terminal building followed shortly afterwards. “The rooms are light and spacious, and a buffet will soon be opened there. The control tower will be completed by a glass cupola,” Schaffner wrote of the latter.
The airport was beginning to take shape. In 1947 alone, Hamer reported that 679 foreign aircraft landed at Findel along with over 2,000 sport and tourist planes. In total some 2,262 passengers touched down in Findel. During the summer, Belgian airline Sabena ran a daily service to Basel, Switzerland. All that Luxembourg was missing was an airline of its own.