Pays-Bas / Cimetière

Air warfare in Friesland - Makkum




Fierce battles raged in the skies above Friesland throughout the occupation. Allied bombers heading for targets in Germany were constantly besieged by German (night) fighters taking off from the 'Fliegerhorst Leeuwarden'. Resulting in hundreds of casualties. In the immediate vicinity of this route through Friesland, aircrafts came down in Sonnega, Offingawier, Hieslum, among others, as well as in the IJsselmeer. In many cemeteries, white tombstones are a tangible and striking reminder of the air war over Friesland, such as in Wolvega, Workum and Makkum. A significant number of crew members survived the crash after shelling and were brought to safety by Frisians. Frisian resistance fighters tried to get pilots to England at the risk of their own lives. Other airmen went into hiding with Frisian families and stayed until after the liberation.

During the occupation, Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe were on the front line of the air war. Many Allied air routes to Germany were situated over these provinces. Especially during bombings on northern German cities, there was a constant coming and going of hundreds of heavy bombers. Initially, this was only done at night, but from 1943, it also happened during the day.  

For protection, the occupying forces built a formidable defence line. Cities and key military targets were secured by anti-aircraft guns. In Friesland, anti-aircraft guns were located on the Wadden Islands, the coastal strip of Het Bildt, in Harlingen, Lemmer, Franeker and Gaasterland, and in the area around Leeuwarden airfield. 

German observation posts gave directions to the Flieger Abwehr Kanone (Flak) to take Allied aircrafts out of the sky. Radar stations could detect enemy aircrafts as far away as 120 to 150 kilometres. The German radar positions in Friesland were 'Schlei' (Tench) on Schiermonnikoog, 'Tiger' (Tiger) on Terschelling, and 'Eisbär' (Polar Bear) near Sondel in Gaasterland.  

Flak alone, however, proved insufficient to intercept the Allied bombers. During the first two years of the war, night fighter units were stationed at eight Dutch airfields, including Leeuwarden. From here, German pilots shot down hundreds of Allied planes. Most ended up in Friesland, Groningen, northern Drenthe, in the IJsselmeer and in the Wadden region.   

The air war over land and over the IJsselmeer cost the lives of hundreds of crew members. Many have a seaman's grave, others a final resting place under a white headstone in cemeteries around the IJsselmeer. At the Protestant Cemetery in Makkum, there are about 40 of them. The reason why relatively many 'airmen' have been buried here compared to other places in the area is probably its location on the IJsselmeer. Southwest winds and fishing nets along the Afsluitdijk ensure that many bodies of fallen crew members are found here and taken by fishermen to Makkum, after which they are buried. A tailpiece of an aircraft that crashed into the IJsselmeer can be seen in the Kazemattenmuseum Kornwerderzand. 

Some 450 Allied aircrafts and about 150 German fighters are estimated to have crashed in Friesland during the war years. Fallen Allied crew members were usually buried in the nearest cemetery. German casualties were taken to the North Cemetery in Leeuwarden. Surviving Allied pilots were taken into captivity or went into hiding with the help of the resistance. Many pilots remain missing to this day. Some of them were buried as unknowns.  

After the war, the US victims were reburied at the American Military Cemetery in Margraten. The fallen Germans were interred in the German war cemetery in Ysselsteyn near Venray after the liberation. British, New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans and Canadians, along with Poles and Czechs, rest in fifty-seven different cemeteries in the province to this very day. The names of 511 are known; the others have unnamed graves.    

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