Anders Lassen and Kaj Birksted

Outside the ”Kastellet” in front of the Frihedsmuseet (Museum of WW2) we’ll find bronze-busts of two real Danish war heroes, one of whom died in battle, and the other got sadly mistreated by his country after the war. The first of the two is Anders Lassen:

 
 

Anders Frederik Emil Victor Schau Lassen (22nd September 1920 in Høvdingsgård – 9th April 1945 at Comacchio, Italy) served as an officer in the British army, and served during most of WW2.

Anders Lassen received as the only foreigner during WW2 the Victoria Cross, the highest order for bravery of Britain – but almost more impressive is, that he received the Military Cross THREE times, which generally was believed to be even harder in the British army, since you might win the VC from one single act of bravery, but MC three times demanded constant bravery.

He was at sea at Eleonora Mærsk when war broke out.

9th April 1940 in the morning Eleonora Mærsk was in the Persian Gulf, when the captain received telegrams from home, saying that German forces had occupied Denmark, and that the ship was ordered to seek neutral, German or Italian harbor. Anders got angry, and suggested the captain to go to allied port – if necessary he would commit mutiny to make him do that. The ship went to South Africa, where Anders left it in order to join the British forces.

In order to get to Britain, he accepted hire as a gunner on board the merchant vessel S/S British Consul, which was repeatedly attacked by German planes. Yet they reached Scotland safely, where Anders together with other Danes he made oath to King Christian 10th and also swore allegiance towards the British King and the allied forces in the fight against the Germans.

After this he joined the British Army.

In British Service

After joining the army, he first got attached to an Infantry Regiment, but was appointed for special duties and transferred to Poole in order to undergo training and take part in establishing a new special force, which in start was known as Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF).

Its purpose was mainly execution of commando raids against targets on the French coast. During the training, he proved an ideal soldier.

His first real assignment was to go by sail boat from England to Dakar in West Africa, where the unit was ordered to neutralize or conquer an Italian steamer, which was delivering supplies for German U-boats in the Atlantic. The mission was successful, and after the return to Britain Anders was promoted Second Lieutenant. That the task was successful was due to the fact that all members were seamen, and well trained – but also very brave. Anders was also awarded his first Military Cross.

The unit’s name later was changed to Special Boat Service (SBS), which today is an independent part of the British Marines.

After these assignments, Anders was sent to Beirut for special Officers’ training, including parachuting.

Later Anders Lassen was sent to the Greek Archipelago with the SBS to fight the Germans, who occupied several islands in the area. As in earlier operations small boats were used, often disguised as fishing boats, but in reality well armed. His earlier experiences proved to be of great importance for the operations in the Archipelago.

Anders Lassen took part in countless raids against German air fields and command posts. At the same time he performed a great work in helping the local Greek population and the partisans that he and SBS cooperated with. This included shipments of weapons, food, medicine and clothes.

In his reports, the Head of SBS said, that even though Anders has kidney trouble, he was a soldier of extreme standard. At this time, he had been appointed Captain.

Anders Lassen was a respected soldier and even very popular due to great moral, courage, originality, humor and pity for his fellow beings. 9th October 1944 he was appointed Major, and at this time had won three MC’s

Last Mission

In the days just before his death, Anders Lassen was ordered to lead a patrol to attack a German fortification by the northern part of Lake Commachio in Italy in order to create so many enemy losses and to create so much confusion, that the Germans would believe that a major attack would happen here. The area of operation was unknown due to lack of information.

When the patrol crossed a dam and started to advance towards the city of Commachio, they were challenged from a German position. They tried to make the Germans believe, they were local fishermen, but the Germans opened a fierce fire at them.

According to survivors, the fire was so intense that they had to stay down for cover, a situation which may have cost all lives. Anders singlehandedly advanced against the German position which he attacked with hand grenades in a hail of bullets.

This gave the rest of the SBS patrol air to advance too and destroy another two positions. Anders Lassen was about 100 meters in front of the other patrol members in the attack on the next position, when the Germans shouted that they wanted to surrender. As Anders stopped to accept their surrender, a hail of bullets hit him. Deadly wounded he fell to the ground, but managed to throw two hand grenades into the German bunker, killing all in it.

Sergeant Leslie Stephenson wanted to retrieve Anders, but Anders refused, believing that he would die anyhow, thus would not delay the advance. He died from his wounds shortly after.

The patrol made it back with only 3 casualties, among these their leader Anders Lassen, who for his fight at Commachio was later awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.

Decorations

  • Victoria Cross – Britain
  • Military Cross and two bars (awarded three times) - Britain
  • 1939-45 star (Campaign Order) Britain
  • Medal of Defense - Britain
  • War Medal - Britain
  • Africa Star (Campaign Medal) – Britain
  • Italy Star (Campaign Medal) – Britain
  • Kong Christian X's Erindringsmedalje for Deltagelse i Krigen 1940-45 – Denmark
  • Greek War Cross – Greece
 
 
 

Kaj Birksted in November 1942 as Squadron Leader
of the Free Norwegian 331st Squadron in Britain

 

The other war hero is Kaj Birksted – Denmark’s only flying ace.

Kaj Birksted (2nd March 1915 in Copenhagen – 21st January 1996 in London) was a Danish fighter pilot and Ace credited with 10 confirmed and 10 unconfirmed kills on German aircraft during WW2, where he served with the RAF with a final rank as Wing Commander and Lieutenant Colonel of the free Norwegian forces. 

Shortly after his birth, his family moved to USA, and returned 12 years later. Birksted went to a bording school in 1928 (Birkerød Kostskole). He then graduated from Business School and was accepted 136 in the Maritime Flying School. Two years later he was promoted Flight Lieutenant of the Reserve.

Shortly after the German occupation of Denmark, Birksted fled together with Flight Lieutenant Charles M. Sundby to Norway, where they got in contact with the Norwegian Forces fighting the Germans. Later same year he was evacuated to England, and then accepted on the Norwegian Flying School “Little Norway” in Canada where he acted as an instructor as well as being a pupil himself.

From August 1942 to April 1943 Birksted flew 60 offensive missions against the Germans.

The greatest achievement by the Norwegians and Birksted was on 12th. March 1943, as 331st Sqn. Under command of Birksted took to the sky at 07.00 with 11 planes during a German attack on London. They cut off 12 FW-190 fighters, shot down six and damaged 4. This action drew big headlines in the London papers, like “Norwegians kills 6 Preussians before breakfast”.

Statisticly Birksted is the Wing Commander with the highest kill/loss ratio during the war.

At the end of the war Birksted served as operational planner in the HQ/RAF, where he among other things was responsible for fighter cover and escort in daytime on D-Day.

After the war Birksted continued in the Danish defense, and after 1950 in the newly formed Air Force till 1960, when he took a position in NATO with rank of Colonel.

Kaj Birksted was an eksponent of a technological and operational development, which was poorly understood in Denmark. His views were difficult to combine with the political thinking, as well as with the traditional thinking of the main topics of Danish defence.

When the independent Danish Air Force “Flyvevåbnet” was established in 1950 a new head was to be appointed, and the then 34-year-old Lieutenant Colonel  Birksted was a natural choise as he had operational experience and had done superior Staff work during WW2.

Yet Birksted did not become the first leader of ”Flyvevåbnet”, but instead the 59-year-old C.C. Førslev. As arguments against Birksted were: Too young, only a reserve officer, missing formal staff education and experience. In short: Deep envy among the “old” officers without any war experience.

Memorials

In  memory of Birksted two similar busts have been erected at“Danmarks Flyvemuseum” in Stauning og at “Forsvarskommandoen” in Holmen in Copenhagen. Yet another version besides the bust of Anders Lassen at the entrance to the ”Frihedsmuseet” – the museum of WW2.

Biographical timeline

  • 1936 – Naval Flying School. 
  • 1938 – Flying Lieutenant at the ”Luftmarinestation København” 
  • 1940 – Fleeing via Sweden to Norway with a colleque – get in contact with fighting Norwegian Forces. Was evacuated to England. Accepted as Flying Student as well as instructor in Norwegian training camp in Canada. 
  • 1941 – England, serve with 43. Sqn flying Hawker Hurricane. Later transferred to a new Norwegian squadron, 331st Sqn flying fighters of the type Spitfire. A short period later promoted Squadron Leader. 
  • 1942 – after shooting down his first German aircraft, a FW-190, he is promoted Norwegian Captain and later Major. Receives his first British decoration, the DFC. 
  • 1943 –Serving for a short time as instructor, then returns to the Norwegian Squadron, now in command with rank of Wing Commander and promoted Norwegian Lieutenant Colonel ( oberstløjtnant.) 
  • 1944 –switching between active and passive duties. Serving as operational planner at HQ of 11th Group’s Combined Control Center, RAF, where he among other things was responsible for Fighter Cover and Escort in day time during the invasion of France
  • 1945 – Taking position as Lt. Colonel in Danish defense, leader of Office for Air Military Matters, later appointed chairman of the Air Military Committee and advisor for the Minister of Defense.
  • 1950 – Promoted Colonel and Head of Air Staff. 
  • 1960 – Dismisses his position in Flyvevåbnet and taking a position in NATO. 

Decorations

  • 1942 – Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) – Britain. 
  • 1943 – Distinguished Service Order (DSO) –  Britain
  • 1944 – Officer of the most excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) –  Britain
  • 1949 – Ridder af Dannebrog – Denmark. 
  • 1944 – Krigskorset med to sverd – Norway (given twice)  
  • Dannebrogordenens Hæderstegn - Denmark
  • Kong Christian X's Erindringsmedaille for Deltagelse i Krigen 1940-45- Denmark 
  • Kommandør med stjerne af Sankt Olavs Orden - Norway 
  • Krigskorset med sværd og stjerne - Norway 
  • Norsk krigsmedalje . Norway
  • kong Haakon VII's 70 år medalje - Norway
  • Norske Deltagermedalje (krigen 1940-45) med stjerne - Norway

Citation (unconfirmed)

Kong Haakon VII, during a visit in Copenhagen after the war:

”You may keep Tordenskjold, if only we may have Kaj Birksted!”

 
Kaj Birksted in his Spitfire