Danish WW2 Pilots

FS Erik Mehlsen

(1920 - 1981)

Erik Mehlsen left Denmark in early 1940 to work at a coffee plantation in Kenya. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force and flew fifty-five operations with 18 Sqn from Italy.

Erik Mehlsen was born on 15 August 1920 in Skive, the son of managing director Søren Mehlsen og Ellen Johanne Jørgine Mehlsen (née Jeppesen). The family moved to Hellerup north of Copenhagen in the late 1920s, where Mehlen attended Hellerup Skole and later Gammel Hellerup Gymnasium.

Mehlsen became friends with Torsten Bursell, the son of Åke Bursell, a Swedish businessman in British East Africa (Kenya), who had been the first manager at Karen Blixen’s coffee farm at Ngong Hill. Torsten was born and raised in Kenya, but lived with his aunt in Hellerup, while attending school in Denmark. The two friends decided that Mehlsen would return with him to Kenya when time came. Åke Bursell accepted but insisted that Mehlen had some training in farming before he arrived and, therefore, he took up a position as apprentice gardener in 1938; at first near the town of Korsør and, from April 1939, at Vilvorde in Ordrup not far from his parents’ home.[1]


The voyage to Kenya came sooner than expected because of the war. Shortly before the German occupation of Denmark in April 1940, the two men left Denmark and travelled to Kenya via Genoa. Mehlsen soon developed an ambition to volunteer for the Royal Air Force, but he first had work at the plantation to pay back Åke Bursell, who had paid for his voyage.

Towards the end of January 1941, he enquired into the possibilities of joining the Royal Air Force. He was told, that he would be able to join, if it was allowed to leave the plantation. To his great disappointment Åke Bursell did not accept him leaving the plantation before he had earned enough money to repay his debt.[2] Mehlsen continued to work for Bursell at the plantations at Kalimoni, Mananja, and Como for some tiine. He settled with the situation, and even if his diary records much frustration over the situation and a reoccurring homesickness, all in all he was happy.[3]

In Royal Air Force service

Mehlsen finally succeeded in both being allowed to volunteer for and to be accepted for the Royal Air Force. The exact date is not known, but it is likely that it was in the second half of 1942 or early 1943. He was trained as a navigator/bombardier in South Africa and Egypt, before entering operational service in Italy.[4]

His crew—Sgt Edward Smith Payne (1398449), Sgt Walter Francis Hodgson (1800236), and Sgt Cyril John Goodfellow (1801705) and Mehlsen—was posted to 18 Squadron on 22 July 1944.[5] This squadron had moved to Cecina, about 30 miles south of Pisa on the Italian west coast, only days before. The squadron was operating Boston IV medium bombers, carrying out night operations attacking roads and airfields in the area. At this point, the Allied armies prepared an attack on the Gothic Line, a series of fortified positions extending across Italy from south of La Spezia in the west to Pesaro on the east coast.[6]

The first operation

On 28 August 1944, Mehlsen’s crew carried out their first operational sortie, bombing the marshalling yards at Imola. The crew took to the air again on 30 and 31 August; the 31st was Mehlsen’s first experience of heavy flak, which occurred during an attack on a factory near Pontepetri. Mehlsen had some difficulties identifying the target, but on the second bomb run he dropped the bombing load—as soon as the bombs fell, heavy flak exploded near the aircraft. The pilot, Sgt Payne, took evasive action and avoided any hits. In his diary, Mehlsen remarked that it was a lonely feeling to be sitting in the nose of a Boston in the middle of the night. Even if there was a crew of four, he was not able to see the other members of the crew.

Boston Mark IV, BZ463, on the ground at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, while undergoing armament tests with 1000-lb MC bombs mounted on wing pylons. This aircraft later served with 18 Sqn in Italy, with whom it went missing while on a night interdiction sortie on 9 August 1944, i.e. only days after Mehlsen had joined the squadron. (© IWM ATP 11755D)
Boston Mark IV, BZ463, on the ground at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, while undergoing armament tests with 1000-lb MC bombs mounted on wing pylons. This aircraft later served with 18 Sqn in Italy, with whom it went missing while on a night interdiction sortie on 9 August 1944, i.e. only days after Mehlsen had joined the squadron. (© IWM ATP 11755D)

During the first part of September, the crew was in the air four times. A severe thunderstorm on the night of 2 September made operations from the airfield difficult on the following nights. In the early hours of 13 September 1944, the Allies launched the attack on the Gothic Line. The Fifth Army advanced in the central sector and the Eighth Army advanced on the Coriano Ridge in the east. The squadron was involved in close support to the army in the area around Rimini. To ensure the accuracy demanded by this type of operation, the squadron introduced pathfinder aircraft that would drop incendiaries and flares to mark the aiming points. Mehlsen took off on two close support missions on the nights of 13 and 17 September. On 16 September, the crew took off on an armed reconnaissance mission on the Lombardy plains, attacking the railroad near Savignano and a convoy in the Rimini area. On 19 and 20 September, the Allies entered Rimini.[7]

The weather was the worst enemy

For the next six weeks, the operations of 18 Squadron were heavily affected by bad weather. Mehlsen flew another three armed reconnaissance missions in September, before the squadron left Cecina on 16 October and moved to the east coast, only some 60 miles from the front line. In October, the weather was so bad that only sixteen operational missions were carried out by the squadron. Mehlsen and crew took part in one of them, flying an armed reconnaissance mission over Imola, River Po and the battle line on the night of 20–21 October. On 20 November, the crew was operating for the first time in a month. The mission was an armed reconnaissance in Yugoslavia, this being the squadron’s first operation in this area. The crew attacked a train north of Sibibi, hitting the rear wagon. On 1 December, the crew took off at 6.24 p.m. to drop supplies, weapons, and ammunitions to Italian partisans in the Po Valley. At the drop zone, the aiming points were a large ‘T’ of flash lights on the ground. The crew dropped one container, but had to bring another back as it was hung up in the bomb bay. Another two operations were carried out during the early part of December: both were armed reconnaissance between Imola, Bologna, and Ferrara.

At this point, Mehlsen was hospitalised with malaria and he did not operate again until 4 January 1945. The malaria had been reoccurring from time to time since early 1940. The weather continued to trouble operations, and, in large parts of December 1944 and January 1945, the aerodrome was unserviceable. Nevertheless, when possible, the squadron continued to operate on armoured reconnaissance missions and as close support to the army at night. Mehlsen flew four operational missions during the month. On 18 February 1945, fourteen crews were briefed to operate during the night, but only two took off before the weather deteriorated. Mehlsen’s crew was one of the crews bombing the marshalling yards at Cormons, near the Yugoslav border, and explosions and fires were seen as a result of the bombing. Returning to base, Mehlsen was unable to locate the airfield, even at a height as low as 150 feet, and had to be guided by radio to the base.[8]

End game in Italy

During the next two months, Mehlsen took off on another eighteen operational missions. The operations were a combination of armed reconnaissance missions and ones targeting infrastructure such as railways, marshalling yards, ferries, and barges in the foothills of the Alps. On 5 March 1945, the squadron had moved to Forli airfield, not far from the front line. As the artillery barrage began on 8 April, before the final push by the Eighth Army in north-east Italy, the noise shook the windows, and a continued red glow could be seen from the airfield to the north. The following day, 234 medium bombers and and 740 fighter-bombers of the Tactical Air Force, accompanied by 825 heavy bombers of Strategic Air Force, carpet-bombed the defended areas west and south-west of Lugo, and gun positions south-east of Imola, across Route 9 between Bologna and Rimini.[9] Again, the squadron operated as close support to the army. The proximity to the front line meant that some crews were able to do double trips during the nights—Mehlsen’s crew was one of them, flying double missions on the nights of 9/10, 11/12, and 16/17 April, as well as a single mission on 13/14 April in close support of the Eighth Army. Bologna fell on 21 April, and on the 23rd the Eighth Army reached Ferrara. At night, German troops trying desperately to cross the River Po from the south were attacked by 18 Squadron. Mehlsen and his crew flew double missions on the nights of 20/21 and 22/23 April, attacking crossings on the river; these were followed by armed reconnaissance missions and an attack on a bridge north of Padova on 25, 27, and 28 April. Back at Forli on 29 April, Mehlsen noted in his diary that everyone was beginning to feel the pressure from the continuing operations. He thought there might be one or two operations left, but, as it were, he had been on his fifty-fifth and final operational mission of the war.[10]

On 2 May 1945, the squadron became non-operational as the Italian Campaign ended. The squadron moved to Aviono on 10 May. On 10 July 1945 the operational record book of the squadron recorded that

F/Sgt Milsen [Mehlsen], our Danish Observer was flown to Naples to-day, on his way back to Denmark, via England. He left Denmark in 1940 and has served a year on the squadron in Italy.[11]

He was finally going home to see his family.


[1] Mehlsen, K. (2005c). Erindrings glimt, part 3, p. 50-51.

[2] Mehlsen, K. (2005c), op.cit., p. 70.

[3] Mehlsen, K. (2005c), op.cit., pp. 70-91.

[4] Mehlsen (2005b), Erindrings Glimt, del 2, p. 9.

[5] NA: AIR 27/245 and 251.

[6] Butterworth (1989), With Courage and Faith.

[7] Mehlsen (2005b), op.cit., p. 11-13.

[8] Mehlsen (2005b), op.cit., p. 14-16.

[9] Butterworth (1989), op.cit.

[10] Mehlsen (2005b), op.cit., p. 17-28.

[11] NA: AIR 27/245.