Wings of War: Jan Olieslagers

By , in News

Jan Olieslagers was born at Antwerp, in Belgium on May 4th, 1883. He soon demonstrated a strong passion for all things connected to engines and speed. He used to race with his motorcycle in the “under 50 kilos” category, using for his record-breaking exploits very narrow Dunlop tires, which required replacement after only five kilometers. He was the first man to reach 100 kms per hour on a motorbike, an unheard-of speed for those times. In 1902 he became motorbike racing world champion, and in 1904 he won the prestigious Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race. Because all this he was nicknamed “Le Demon Anversois” (The Devil of Antwerp) or “Der Duivel van Antwerpen” in Flemish. “Le Demon,” written in Gothic script, would also appear on one of his wartime Nieuport planes.

In 1909, having become fascinated with aviation, Olieslagers bought a Bleriot XI, which he flew applying a number of different variations. On March 31st 1910 he earned his Belgian pilot's license no.5 on board a Bleriot. During the following four years he established at least seven world records: for example, at Stockel, near Brussels, he claimed from a Frenchman called Latham the world altitude record, reaching the 1525 limit.

When war broke out and German troops invaded Belgium Jan Olieslagers and two of his brothers immediately enrolled, placing their three Bleriot XI monoplanes at the disposal of their country together with their automobiles and their staff.

Olieslagers proved a brave and resourceful pilot: news reports mention him entering his first dog fight armed with a single pistol. His last combat flight on a Bleriot XI occurred in March of 1915, when he was involved in an accident for which he was hospitalized for three weeks. At the end of the summer of that year, he shot down an Aviatik while flying a Nieuport 10 - this was his first official victory. During the conflict, Jan Olieslagers was credited with only six victories, a number only just above the minimum quota necessary to be considered a flying ace. In actual fact he carried out 491 missions and engaged in 97 duels; however, it is well known that he did not attach any importance to his own personal fame, and never made any effort to prove 16 other victories, which were therefore never officially confirmed.

At the end of the war Olieslagers returned to Antwerp, and convinced local industrialists to finance the building of the city airport: he acquired eighty hectares in nearby Deurne, a city where a statue still stands as a memorial to him, and presided over the building of the airport structures, which were inaugurated by Princess Astrid and by Olieslagers in 1923. He also became the first president of the Antwerp Air Club.

Olieslagers died on March 23rd 1942. He was only 58 years old. His fame as a war hero earned him the Croix de Guerre (from both Belgium and France), the Order of Leopold II, the Order of Saint Stanislas, and the prestigious French Legion D'Honneur.

The airplane represented among the Wings of War models is the Sopwith Camel registration number Sk7 which he piloted. The Belgian Aviation Militaire received 54 Camels as of September 1917: the first 36 bore registration numbers ranging from Sc1 to Sc36. The numbers of the remaining 18 remains unknown, but a Sk1 and a Sk7 are known to have existed. None of Olieslagers official victories were earned on this machine, while two were earned on board the Hanriot included among the cards of the Wings of War – Watch your Back! game.

The Stampe & Vertongen Museum in Deurne (Antwerp) holds a replica of a Sopwith Camel from the Ryder collection in Alabama, restored with the colouring of the Sk7 which belonged to Olieslagers. This engine at present is mounted with a single gun: however, photographs taken at the time show the unmistakeable presence of two machineguns, which anyway constituted the standard weaponry of a Sopwith Camel.