|60 Years Florennes Belgian Air Force Base|
The first military aviation activities in the southern Belgian region between Sambre and Meuse took place during the First World War when the German army constructed an airfield near the village of Morville. Based there were Zeppelin dirigibles for operations over the IJzer front and Gotha bombers to attack the city of Paris and the fronts of Verdun and along the river Marne. In the 1930s, it was civil aviation that flourished in the region, mainly near the village of Saint-Aubin.
During the early days of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe established a rudimentary airfield in the region between Saint-Aubin and Hemptinne for its Junkers Ju 87 bombers and Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters in support of the Blitzkrieg advancing further west. To protect its territory against invading Allied bombers, the Luftwaffe set up a defensive line of night fighter bases from the northern tip of Jutland to south of Paris. A newly built airfield on the plateau of Florennes-Juzaine filled a gap in this defensive line between Sint-Truiden in Belgium and Reims in France. Messerschmitt Bf 110 and Junkers Ju 88 night fighters operated from this airfield from March 1943 onwards against RAF bombers attacking during the night. Focke-Wulf Fw 190 day fighters followed in November 1943 to combat the USAAF bombers, which operated by day. Upon leaving Florennes in August 1944 to escape the advancing Allied troops, the Germans destroyed the airfield for the most part. The next month, the Americans occupied the ruins of what was then called airfield number A78 and repaired it for operations by units equipped with among others the Convair B-24 Liberator, Northrop P-61 Black Widow, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and Martin B-26 Marauder. When the Americans definitively left, began the history of…
60 Years Florennes Belgian Air Force Base
When the Belgian Air Force decided in 1947 to form a second fighter unit under the designation of 161st Day Fighter Wing and consisting of the Nos. 351 and 352 Fighter Squadrons, Major R. Lallemant, DFC with bar, a World War II RAF veteran, was given the task to rebuilt the almost completely destroyed Florennes Air Base to make it the home of the new unit. In October 1947, the first Belgian Air Force aircraft landed at Florennes: a single Airspeed Oxford, a pair of North American Harvards and a pair of Supermarine Spitfires. Further deliveries arrived little by little and by early 1949, the unit not only had an additional Tiger Moth at its disposal, but also a complement of 17 Spitfires. A year before, in February 1948, the unit had been renamed the 2nd Day Fighter Wing and its squadrons had become No. 1 Thistle and No. 2 Comet Squadron. The worsening international political and military situation led to the establishment of a third, the No. 3 Holly Leaf Squadron, at Florennes Air Base. It too, was equipped with Spitfires, mainly coming from the 1st Wing at Beauvechain Air Base, where they were being replaced by the first Meteor Jets.
In June 1951 started the jet era at Florennes when 21 Republic F-84E Thunderjets were delivered to the 2nd Wing. The transition from Spitfire to Thunderjet, of which only a single seat version existed, was difficult as pilots had first to learn to fly the Gloster Metor T.7 to become acquainted with jets. This complicated procedure came to an end when Lockheed T-33s were delivered to the Belgian Air Force and numerous student-pilots were sent to the United States for flying training. As soon as April 1952, the more powerful F-84G started to replace the F-84E. Each of the three squadrons would receive 25 aircraft of this type. In the early 1950s, the infrastructure of the air base underwent major changes. The new runway and the numerous new buildings, mainly located to the north of the runway, significantly improved the operational capability and flight safety at Florennes.
The 2nd Wing became supersonic in August 1955 with the delivery of the first Republic F-84F Thunderstreaks. The early replacement of the Thunderjet by this more potent aircraft was an absolute necessity as the Korean War had proven that the Thunderjet was not able anymore to keep up with the latest aircraft of Soviet design. In 1956, Florennes Air Base was named Base J. Offenberg, in honor of Jean Offenberg, a Belgian fighter pilot who was killed in action during the Battle of Britain.
The sturdy F-84F fighter-bomber remained the unit’s workhorse for many years until it was replaced by the Mirage from June 1970 onwards. This Mach 2+ aircraft was not only purchased in the fighter-bomber version, but also as a dedicated reconnaissance aircraft. This meant that No. 1 Thistle Squadron had to move to Bierset Air Base, near Liège, to make place for No. 42 Mephisto Squadron, the dedicated reconnaissance unit of the Belgian Air Force.
An astonishing point of interest at Florennes Air Base is hangar D21. This hangar was constructed by the Germans during the Second World War and was one of the few buildings that survived destruction when they left Florennes. It served as a one-aircraft hangar and was built in the style of a local farm to deceive the enemy. The walls and the timberwork of the roof are original, but the doors and roof covering date from the postwar period. The Republic RF-84F Thunderflash inside symbolizes the air base’s Cold War era.
When the Soviet Union started to deploy the RSD-10 Pioneer, in western terminology the SS-20 Saber road-mobile intermediate range ballistic missile, NATO reacted with the deployment of the General Dynamics/Mc Donnell Douglas BGM-109G Gryphon nuclear capable ground launched cruise missile (GLCM). The USAF installed its 485th Tactical Missile Wing (TMW) at Florennes Air Base on 15 March 1984. Almost five years of construction works over an area of around 16 hectares had by than drastically changed the air base’s view, especially to the southwest of the runway. Talks between the USSR and USA resulted on 8 December 1987 in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), which called for the immediate withdrawal of the SS-20 and the GLCM from the European theatre. As a consequence, the 485th TMW was dissolved on 28 February 1989. Parts of the vacated infrastructure became the new home of the AIRCENT Tactical Leadership Programme (TLP) from April 1989 onwards. This high reputation training course with six sessions per year is aimed at forming specialists in setting up and leading large Combined Air Operations (COMAO).
Worthwhile to visit is the GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area or GAMA. The presence of the nuclear capable cruise missiles at Florennes Air Base aroused numerous protest manifestations, not only around the air base itself, but also at many locations all over the country. Bilingual and trilingual signs give detailed information on most of the exhibits.
From the late 1980s onwards, the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon started to replace the 1950s era Lockheed F-104G Starfighter in the Belgian Air Force inventory. Part of the Mirage fleet would undergo the same fate soon afterwards, but as replacement of the entire Mirage fleet was budgetary not feasible, one wing would have to continue flying the venerable Dassault delta. Florennes Air Base began to transfer its remaining Mirages to the 3rd Wing at Bierset in October 1988 when its first F-16s were being delivered. No. 42 Squadron, the dedicated reconnaissance unit, returned to Bierset with its Mirage VBR aircraft and its place was taken by No. 1 Thistle Squadron on 15 March 1989. This unit would also adopt the reconnaissance role when the Mirage was withdrawn from service in 1994 and No. 42 Squadron disbanded.
The disbandment of the Warsaw Pact led to further drastic reforms in many European air arms. In Belgium, all training air bases were closed and their units brought together at Beauvechain Air Base, which became the Air Force’s Air Academy. As a consequence, one F-16 squadron of the 1st Wing moved to Kleine-Brogel and one, the famous No. 350 (Belgian) RAF Squadron, to Florennes on 4 March 1996. Further force reductions led to the disbandment of No. 2 Squadron of the 2nd Tactical Wing in Florennes and of No. 23 Squadron of the 10th Tactical Wing in Kleine-Brogel in 2001, leaving two F-16 squadrons at each of these airbases.
Since the end of the Cold War, the 2nd Tactical Wing participated in numerous international peacekeeping and air policing operations: Joint Guardian / Joint Forge (Bosnia, 1998), Deliberate Forge / Allied Force (Kosovo, 1998-1999), Eastern Eagle (Afghanistan, 2005) and NATO Baltic Air Policing (2004, 2006-2007).
Visitors can admire the broad range of air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry of the F-16 in one of the hardened aircraft shelters built during the Cold War. Note the brand-new GPS-guided GBU-31 2,000 pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) in the background.
60th anniversary celebrations
Florennes will celebrate its 60 years as a Belgian Air Force Air Base during almost two months, from 2 June till 21 July 2007.
The centrepiece of the festivities is a large historical exhibition, retracing with photographs, multimedia projections, works of art and numerous exhibits the past 60 years of the air base and some important historical events of earlier dates that still affect the present-day air base. The exhibition fills the entire TLP-hall, as well as the apron next to it, totalling more than 4,000 square metres. Each of the different squadrons and groups of the 2nd Tactical Wing is represented there, as are some of the major players in Belgian aeronautical industry and cities with close ties with the air base. The exhibition is set up in close collaboration with the Brussels Air Museum, the White Bison Museum relating the history of Bierset Air Base and of course the local Spitfire Memorial Museum.
Both squadrons are represented in the historical exhibition in the large TLP hangar.
A number of conferences will be held around topics like the creation of the Belgian Air Force and the reconstruction of Florennes Air Base in the wake of the Second World War or the participation of the 2nd Tactical Wing in international peacekeeping operations. Other themes are the development of the Belgian aeronautical industry and the synergy between the air base and its surroundings.
The exhibition offers among others the opportunity to have a look at the inside of the AN/ALQ-131 Self Protection Jammer Pod carried by the F-16.
Twice a day, it will be possible to join in on a one and a half our long guided tour along an educational route with numerous points of interest at different locations on the air base. The tour brings the visitor among others to the Spitfire Memorial Museum, to historical buildings going back to the Second World War and to the GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area (GAMA) from the 1980s and the brief nuclear era of Florennes Air Base.
A book describing Florennes Air Base as it was in the past and as it is nowadays and a DVD with many historical and topical stills and films are available for those who want to have a more in-dept look at the air base. Fabian Goossens, one of the pilots of the 2nd Wing with a talent for drawing, relates the air base’s history in comic strip form. Florennes has a close link with comics, not only because it regularly organises exhibitions around this theme, but also because one of the episodes of the French television serial “Les Chevaliers du Ciel”, which was based on the well-known comics of Tanguy and Laverdure, was filmed at Florennes Air Base in the late 1960s. The now 72 years old actor who played the role of Laverdure in this serial will be present at Florennes on 15 June. The next day a number of aviation comic strip authors will autograph their work.
The programme of events closes on 21 July with solo displays of the Fouga Magister and F-16, a mass fly-by of the aircraft participating in the Belgian national holiday fly-past and numerous free flights in an Embraer ERJ-135 or ERJ-145 aircraft of the 15th Transport Wing.
This Thunderflash and Fresco on the TLP apron are two relics from the opposing parties of the Cold War. The present-day control tower in the background is an enlargement of the former German air traffic control tower, which was so well constructed that the Germans were not able to demolish it when retreating from Florennes Air Base in August 1944. All major types of aircraft that once served at Florennes since it became a Belgian Air Force Air Base can be seen either in the temporary exhibition, the Spitfire Memorial Museum or along the educational route on the base.
Practical details on the different events can be found at www.florennesbase.be
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Text and pictures by
© Jos Schoofs (May 2007)
Last updated 16/03/12 07:29 Daniel Brackx