Squadron Leader Florent V P Van Rolleghem DSO DFC. 103 Sqdn
Florent Victor Paul Van Rolleghem was born on the 11th November 1912 at Termonde, Belgium.
In 1927 he joined the Belgian army as a cadet and 3 years later attended the Royal Military Academy. In 1932 he was promoted to Second Lieutenant.
Van Rolleghem had always had a burning desire to fly and applied for aircrew training. At this time the Belgian Air Force was part of the army. He trained first as a gunner, then later wireless operator, navigator and finally pilot. He graduated from pilot training school in 1935. In 1937 he was promoted to lieutenant and then captain in 1939. At this time he was adjutant to a Belgian Air Force regiment.
When the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940 Van Rolleghem was forced to leave his homeland for France and reached Toulouse later that month. When France surrendered he returned home to Belgium and lived in Brussels working for the Belgian resistance movement. He had a strong wish to continue the fight against the Germans and decided to try and escape to Britain through France. At the start of 1941 he journeyed across France where he was assisted by a French escape organisation in the final part of his evasion and crossed the Pyrenees into Spain.
Van Rolleghem was interned by the Spanish and held in various prisons and camps for 3 months from which he finally escaped and eventually made his way to Lisbon in Portugal. From there he managed to get a ship to Britain.
On his arrival in Britain he was imprisoned for a month whilst the authorities checked that he was not a spy.
Although he could speak very little English at that time he was accepted for the RAF and went to No 1 Elementary Flying Training School in July 1942. He was then sent to No 5 Advanced Pilot Training Unit at Ternhill. At the end of the course he asked for a posting to Bomber Command. In his diary he writes “ I am a little old for fighters ( he was 30 years of age at this time). I prefer to be a good bus driver than a bad fighter pilot.” The term “bus driver” refers to a bomber pilot.
On the 28th September 1942 he was posted to Ossington 14 (P) AFU and trained on the twin engined Airspeed Oxford. On the 14th November 1942 he was posted to 81 Operational Training Unit at Whitchurch where his first crew was formed. This consisted of 4 Englishmen, 1 Canadian and a Scot. He was promoted to Flying Officer on the 9th December 1942.
In March 1943 Van Rolleghem commenced training on the Avro Lancaster with his first crew at No 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit at Lindholme and was posted to 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds on the 28th April 1943 to start his first tour with the squadron.
Above - Van Rolleghem with his first crew
Above - Bill Carlin and Tom Proctor - Air Bomber and Wireless Operator in Van Rolleghem’s first crew. Neither returned to Elsham Wolds in 44 to fly a second tour with Van Rolleghem. Carlin flew his second tour on 320 Sqdn 2nd TAF on Mitchells and Proctor is reported to have been shot down at some stage but seems to have survived probably as a POW.
From the start it was clear that Van Rolleghem was an exceptional pilot with tremendous determination and fighting spirit. He quickly welded his crew into a first class operational unit and on the 24th July 1943 was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. See pic below.
Van Rolleghem flew throughout the Battle of the Ruhr and his Lancaster sustained battle damage on several occasions but he always brought his aircraft and crew home safely. On the 1st August 1943 he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and by the 6th September 1943 had completed his first tour of 30 operations.
Above - Van Rolleghem’s air crew and two of his ground crew with their aircraft ED905 at Elsham Wolds 1943
He was posted too the Air Ministry and sent on a tour to lecture at factories in Britain.
After 2 months he served as an instructor at No 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit but wanted to get back to his old squadron to fly operations again as soon as possible.
Now promoted to Acting Squadron Leader he was posted back to Elsham Wolds to join 103 Squadron with 4 of his old crew on the 18th March 1944. After completing several operations Van Rolleghem fell ill and was taken to an RAF hospital on the 14th April 1944 where he was found to have the beginnings of a duodenal ulcer. He was put on a strict diet at this time to control the condition and prevent the need for an operation.
Whilst recovering in hospital Van Rolleghem was devastated to find out that his crew had failed to return from an operation to Hasselt on the 11/12th May 1944. Their pilot on this operation was Wing Commander H R Goodman RAF, the new squadron commanding officer, and there were sadly no survivors.
Van Rolleghem was classified as “ Unfit for flying duties” at this time but managed to get this changed to “ Unfit for flying at high altitude” He returned to operations with 103 Squadron and took over as pilot of an all British crew who had lost their own pilot. He completed his second tour of 20 operations flying in the bombing operations in preparation to the D Day invasion of Europe and in the bomber support operations in the aftermath of the invasion. He completed his second tour on the 3rd August 1944 and immediately started a third tour with the same crew. This was completed on the 26th October 1944. On the 22nd October 1944 he was awarded a well earned and overdue Distinguished Service Order. He had flown 70 operations in 18 months.
Above - Van Rolleghem with three of his second crew including former RAFEW Assn President Jock Murray at the rear.
The citation reads “ Since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross this officer, as Flight Commander, has completed a further 42 sorties against varied and heavily defended targets. He has displayed outstanding ability, enthusiasm and courage, qualities which have contributed largely to the high standard of morale maintained by his crews. Despite intense opposition Squadron Leader Van Rolleghem has never failed to reach and bomb his objective.”
At this time he was ordered off operations for good and posted to the RAF College at Cranwell. He returned to Belgium and his wife and family on the 25th December 1944.
Van Rolleghem served in the new Belgian Air Force after the war showing the same energy and determination in peacetime that he had during the war. He spent 5 years in Paris with SHAPE and 3 years in Washington on the NATO Military Committee. He received many high honours and promotions for his work after the war and was finally promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General ( Air Marshall ) of the Belgian Air Force. He retired on the 1st January 1970 and passed away on the 30th April 1983 aged 72 at his home in Belgium
Van Rolleghem was a very modest man and rarely spoke of his wartime experiences except to fellow aircrew and close friends. He believed that he had only done his duty during the war. Without doubt he was a credit to his country and served Belgium and her allies admirably and with great distinction in both war and peace.
Above - Van Rolleghem pictured post war at an American Air Force base on a NATO inspection.
Acknowledgements - Thanks to the Belgian War Museum, Alan Carlin and the Agar family for the pics.
Item written by David Fell