Danish WW2 Pilots

FS Preben Brandt Gustavsen

(1923 - 1943)

Preben Brandt Gustavsen was one of the Danish volunteers in Bomber Command. The was born in Denmark, but emigrated to Canada at an early age. He enlisted in July 1941. He was killed in March 1943, when his Wellington crashed near Gelsenkirchen in Germany.

Preben Brandt Gustavsen was born on 10 July 1923 in Ringe, the son of gardener Carl Gustavsen and Nikoline Gustavsen (née Brandt).[1] The Gustavsen family emigrated to Canada when he was only four months old, parents and five children arriving in Quebec on SS Montrose on 16 November 1923.[2] The family settled in Red Head, New Brunswick.[3]

Gustavsen’s father and with him the children were naturalised in Canada on 14 October 1936,[4] but, being born to Danish parents, he was still a Danish national when he enlisted. Gustavsen served as a private in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (Militia) in St John, NB, in 1937-39. He finished high school in the summer of 1940 and worked as an office clerk in G. E. Barbour Company, Ltd. until enlistment.[5]

Gustavsen had two brothers and two sisters serving in the armed forces during the war and he was the nephew of Vilhelm Brandt (R.201566), who also served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

Incidentally, the family was one of the first settler families of the Canadian Pacific Railway agent in Copenhagen, Marinus Bonde Sorensen, who was also the father of Frank Sorensen, who served in the RCAF during the war. The family remained friends in Canada.

Preben Brandt Gustavsen in his uniform at 10 Air Observer School.
Preben Brandt Gustavsen in his uniform at 10 Air Observer School.

Trained as a Navigator

Gustavsen enlisted in the RCAF at the Recruitment Centre in Moncton, NB, on 17 July 1941. He was posted to 5 Initial Training School at RCAF Station Belleville for Course No. 37 from 25 September 1941 to 21 November 1941. The assessment at the end of the course, stated that he was

A quiet dependable type, of better than average intelligence and ability. Well suited to aircrew duties, temperament and intelligence adequate for an observer but educational background probably inadequate.[6]

He was promoted to Leading Aircraftman, reclassified as Aircrew/Air Observer, and posted to 10 Air Observer School at RCAF Station Chatham, NB. He followed Course No. 39 from 8 December 1941 to 13 March 1942. He continued training at 6 Bombing and Gunnery School (Course No. 39) from 16 March to 25 April 1942. He passed, was promoted to the temporary rank of Sergeant, and was reclassified as Air Observer.

Training continued at 2 Air Navigation School (Course No. 39) from 27 April to 25 May 1942. He passed, and the final assessment shows that his results improved during training. He was assessed as a

Clean cut, well-mannered person. Not a particularly steady worker. A little carefree.[7]

On 13 June 1942, he was posted to 1 “Y” Depot in Halifax, NS, for embarkation overseas, and on 23 July, he was reclassified as Navigator. He arrived in the United Kingdom on 27 July 1942, at following a brief stay at 3 Personnel Reception Centre, he was posted to 9 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit at RAF Penrhos in Wales. Then followed operational training at 23 Operational Training Unit, at RAF Penshore, from 8 September 1942. He was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 25 October 1942.

Gustavsen was posted to 428 Squadron on 26 November 1942. This unit was formed only weeks before, on 7 November 1942, at RAF Dalton in Yorkshire. It was assigned to 4 Group initially, but was reallocated to 6 Group RCAF with the creation of this group on 1 January 1943. The squadron was equipped with the Vickers Wellington bomber, and carried out the first operational on 25 January 1943.[8]

Gustavsen was due to take off on his first operation—a gardening operation—on the night of 27/28 January 1942, but the aircraft did not take off due to a short circuit in the start engine. He was part of Sgt Carier’s crew.

U-boat pens in France

To nights later, the crew had more luck. The target was Lorient. At the beginning of 1943, Bomber Command was diverted from the campaign against Germany to another theatre of operations. Sailing from bases in occupied France, the German U-boats had been a threat to allied shipping since the beginning of the war. The main bases were placed along the French west coast at Lorient, Sainte-Nazaire, La Pallice, and Bordeaux. The Royal Navy had been pointing out that attacks on these bases were of great importance, but since these attacks could not be carried out without casualties among the French population, Bomber Command had refrained from bombing. Only days before Christmas 1942 did the War Cabinet decide to go ahead with the bombing. Harris received the order and the first operation on Lorient was carried out that very same night. Bomber Command was hereby ordered to area bomb French towns as a means to turn the tides in the battle against the U-boats.[9]

A U-boat pen under construction at Lorient in 1942 (Wikicommons: Bundesarchiv Bild 101II-MW-3935-02A, Lorient, U-Bootbunker im Bau.jpg)
A U-boat pen under construction at Lorient in 1942 (Wikicommons: Bundesarchiv Bild 101II-MW-3935-02A, Lorient, U-Bootbunker im Bau.jpg)

Seventy-five Wellingtons and forty-one Halifaxes was part of the operation on the night of 29/30 January 1943. Gustavsen’s crew was one of six participating crews from 428 Sqn. Wellington X HE174/NA-T took off from Dalton at 1711 hours for Lorient. The crews encountered thick cloud and icing. There was no pathfinder markings, and Gustavsen’s crew bombed by means of a GEE fix, and in spite of the heavy clouds. They reported very concentrated bombing over the target, though the post operation assessment was, that bombing was well scattered. They landed at Harwell at 2235 hours.[10]

Six nights later, on 4–5 February, the crew was one of nine crews from the squadron taking off for Lorient in an all-incendiary attack. A total of 128 aircraft took part in the raid. En route—off the coast near Pleubian—the rear gunner sighted a single-engined enemy aircraft, and the pilot turned to starboard to avoid further contact. The bombing was concentrated, and even before arriving at the target themselves, Gustavsen’s crew could observe a large fire and a column of black smoke from the target area.

On 7–8 February, both Andersen and Gustavsen took part in the attack on Lorient. Four days later, both crews were briefed for another raid, but Gustavsen’s crew had to abort the operation immediately after take off as the dinghy-cover blew off.

The crew did not have to wait long before returning to Lorient; on the night of 16/17 February, Bomber Command mounted the heaviest attack on Lorient during the war. A total of 466 aircraft including a majority of four-engined heavies were involved and dropped more than 1,000 tons of bombs. Gustavsen’s crew took off in Wellington X HE174/NA-T from Dalton at 1821 hours. They bombed at 2100 hours from 11,000 ft, observing numerous bomb bursts in the target area. The flak was heavier than on previous raid. The crew landed at Topcliffe on 0013 hours. The attack in general caused considerable further damage to the town of Lorient.[11]

Bomber Command returned to Lorient on 6 March, 16 April, and 17 May 1943 without any of the two Danes participating. A total of more than 1,850 sorties were carried out, and more than 4,500 tons of bombs dropped on the city. Gustavsen and the other crews had witnessed the destruction caused by the bombing, but despite the city being practically destroyed, the main objective was not achieved. No bomb penetrated the concrete roofs of the U-boat pen, and the raids did not greatly disturb the Lorient U-boats.

Battle of Ruhr

By March 1943, the striking force of the Bomber Command had increased considerably, and—thanks to new navigational aids such as Oboe and H2S radar—the Pathfinders were able to find and mark cities in the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany, with an accuracy not previously seen. This was the beginning of the period that Harris later in his post war despatch labelled the ‘main offensive’. From March to June 1943, some 14,000 sorties were dispatched in the Battle of the Ruhr, including attacks on Düsseldorf and Cologne.[12]

Before the start of this campaign on Ruhr, Gustavsen operated on several other targets in Germany. He was part of the operation when Bomber Command returned to Wilhelmshaven for another attack on the night of 19/20 February. A force of nearly two hundred aircraft targeted the city the previous night, but although the Pathfinders claimed to have marked the target accurately, most of this attack had fell in open country to the west of the city. The following attack was another failure; the Pathfinder marking caused to Main Force bombing to fall north of the city.[13]

Gustavsen’s crew took off from Dalton at 1752 hrs in Wellington X HE175 NA-E and bombed a little more than three hours later. Despite poor visibility due to smoke and haze, they were able to bomb what they believed was the target as it was marked by the target indicators. They observed many bomb bursts and fires in the area, before landing at Topcliffe at 0020 hrs.[14]

Two weeks later, on 3/4 March, Gustavsens crew was briefed for an attack on Hamburg. More than 400 aircraft were to attack the city, however the Pathfinders made a mistake and marked the small town of Wedel in stead of the Hamburg docks.[15] Fourteen Wellingtons from 428 Sqn took part in the operation. Gustavsen’s crew did not reach Hamburg. Due to a shortage of fuel they could not make it to the primary target and bombed the town of Wesselburen some 60 miles northwest of Hamburg at 2130 hrs.[16]

On 8/9 March, the big raid of the night was an attack on Nuremberg. In a minor operation, sixteen Wellingtons carried out minelaying operations in the Frisians. Gustavsen’s crew was one of three aircraft participating from 428 Sqn.

More than two weeks passed before Gustavsen was in operation again. On the night of 26/27 March, a force of some 455 bombers took off to attack Duisburg. The raid was a failure; it was a cloudy night and accurate sky-markings from the Oboe Mosquitoes was lacking as five Mosquitoes had returned early and one was shot down.[17] Gustavsen’s crew took off in Wellington X BK564 NA-R at 1929 hrs, and bombed at 2155 hrs. Heavy flak over the target was very accurate. They returned to Marham at 0051 hrs.

Two nights later, 28/29 March, Gustavsen’s had the chance to return to the U-boat pens, when the crew participated in an attack on St Nazaire. They took off at 1908 hrs in Wellington X BK564 NA-R and were able to identify the target visually. They bombed at 2217 hrs. The many fires in the target area were visible 120 miles from the target in the return journey. They landed at Leeming at 0221 hrs.[18]

Only seventeen hours later, at 1937 hrs on the 29th, the crew took off again. A force of some 149 Wellington bombers were to bomb Bochum. The raid as such was a failure as only few buildings in the Bochum were destroyed. Eleven aircraft from 428 Sqn participated; Gustavsen’s crew was one of two who failed to return on this night. Wellington X BK564 NA-R took off from Dalton at 1934 hrs, but nothing was heard from the crew after take off. The Wellington crashed near Gelsenkirchen; Gustavsen, Plt Off. Cartier, and Fg Off. Spencer died in the crash. Sgt Rhodes baled out, but died from his injuries on 12 April 1943, and Sgt King became a prisoner of war.[19]


[1] DNA: Parish register, Ringe Sogn.

[2] LAC: Form 30A Ocean Arrivals (Individual Manifests), 1919-1924; Rolls: T-14939 - T-15248.

[3] Ancestry: Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935.

[4] The Canada Gazette 1 March 1937.

[5] LAC: RG24/27656, R113728 Preben Brandt Gustavsen.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] NA: AIR 27/1849.

[9] Bradham, Hitler’s U-boat fortresses (2003).

[10] NA: AIR 27/1849; Middlebrook and Everitt (2011), Bomber Command War Diaries.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mace, Martin and Harris, Bomber Harris (2014).

[13] Middlebrook and Everitt (2011), op.cit.

[14] NA: AIR 27/1849.

[15] Middlebrook and Everitt (2011), op.cit.

[16] NA: AIR 27/1849.

[17] Middlebrook and Everitt (2011), op.cit.

[18] NA: AIR 27/1849.

[19] LAC: RG24/27656, R113728 Preben Brandt Gustavsen.