On the afternoon of the 2nd, 88 and 218 Squadrons departed Boscombe Down for their new base at Auberive-sur-Suippes. Under the command of W/Cdr Duggan, sixteen Battles took off in two formations of eight for the flight to France, while the squadron’s remaining aircraft were dispersed to other units. The aircraft were; K9251, K9252, K9254, K9255, K9256, K9273, K9323, K9324, K9325, K9326, K9327, K9329, K9353, K9355, K9356 and K9357. The two squadrons formed 75 Wing under G/C Wann, whose HQ was at Auberive, with Mourmelon-le-Grand as a satellite, and 88 Squadron moved there on the 12th.
The squadron conducted its first operation on the 10th, when Duggan led a section of three aircraft to carry out a reconnaissance of the Reims, Nancy, Bitche and Sierck areas to enable the crews to familiarize themselves with the lay of the land. Pilot Officer Freeman led a further reconnaissance outing by two aircraft on the 15th, and on the 17th, F/L Daish and two others reconnoitred the Franco-German frontier as far as Lauterbourg, and became the first 218 Squadron crews to enter enemy air space. Wing Commander Duggan led a further six aircraft on the 20th in what was supposed to be an escorted incursion pushing ten miles into German air space at 23,000 feet. In the event, the seven French Morane Saulnier MS406 fighters of the Coupe de Chassde did not appear, and complete cloud cover invalidated the reconnaissance aspect of the operation. Despite these setbacks, the squadron continued as planned, encountering no opposition before eventually putting down at the aero-club at Gray due to failing weather conditions. The squadron returned home on the following morning. Two sections of three aircraft carried out separate reconnaissance flights over the frontier on the 22nd, and on the 28th F/L Daish led six aircraft twenty miles into Germany for high level unescorted reconnaissance at 23,000 feet. Pilot Officer Freeman had to return early when the oxygen system failed in K9355, but the others pressed on and encountered no opposition.
What the Americans dubbed the “Phoney War” provided a gentle introduction to hostilities for most squadrons of the AASF, but two incidents served to banish any complacency, and ultimately to restrict daylight operational activity for the remainder of the year. On the 20th 88 Squadron lost two out of three aircraft to Bf109s, and on the 30th 150 Squadron had four out of five Battles shot down in identical circumstances. From this point on the crews were involved in a boring round of training flights and exercises with the army, and it was during this period, that the squadron suffered its first loss of an aircraft and crew. Pilot Officer Thynne and his crew were engaged in a high level dive bombing practice over the airfield in K9356 on the 13th of November. The Battle appeared to commence the dive with something more like a half roll than a stall turn, and it was witnessed to go well over the vertical and begin to descend from 6,000 feet. With engine at half throttle the Battle gradually reached the near vertical dive, when, at 1,500 feet, the port wing ripped off. The aircraft began to disintegrate in mid-air, and at a sickening speed smashed into the ground with its three helpless occupants, exploding on impact. Robert Thynne, Richard Pike and Vivian Richardson became the first to have their names inscribed on the squadron’s wartime Roll of Honour. It had been twenty-year-old P/O Thynne’s first full dive bombing practice since joining the squadron.
A section of Fairey Battle Mk.I’s of “A”Flight over the French countryside January 1940. Battle K9325 D was shot down on May 11th 1940 with F/O Hudson at the controls. K9324 K survived the French campaign and was transferred to the RAAF in September 1940. Battle K9353 HA-J was shot down by light flak on May 12th with the crew of F/Sgt Horner.
As December progressed, a particularly harsh winter began to set in, and opportunities to fly became even more limited. Meanwhile, the home-based squadrons of Bomber Command had been active over the North Sea in search of enemy warships, and had suffered a number of bruising encounters with enemy single and twin-engine fighters. Unfortunately, lessons were not learned and insufficient account was taken of the threat. This was largely because of the prewar belief that the self-defending bomber formation would always get through to its target in sufficient numbers by daylight, even against the most determined fighter opposition. Two 3 Group efforts, on the 14th and 18th of December, proved so costly, that the decision makers were forced to re-evaluate the feasibility of daylight operations, and ultimately, to commit the Command, with the exception of 2 Group, to waging war by night.
The funeral of Pilot Officer Robert Thynne and his crew who were killed while carrying out a dive bombing exercise on November 13th. The crew received a full military burial on November 15th at the Franco-British Cemetery at Epernay.
The winter seemed to deepen as the New Year ground on and it would be towards the end of February before the freezing condition loosened their grip sufficiently to allow unrestricted flying. The squadron sustained its first prang of the year as the result of a training accident, when good airmanship on the part of Sgt Owen resulted in an excellent landing with a dead propeller at Monchy. Unable to return to the squadron, the crew spent a merry night as guests of a local French Transport Section. No 2 Salvage Section was dispatched to Monchy to carry out repairs on K9327, but the engine cut-out several times during the return flight. On the 15th a re-organisation took place, which removed the AASF from Bomber Command control, and made it an independent entity under Air Marshal “Ugly” Barratt. The five Wings were reduced to three, and 103 Squadron joined 88 and 218 Squadrons to make up the new 75 Wing, with HQ at St Hilaire. Landing after a training flight in K9329 on the 23rd, F/O Richmond collided with K9327, badly damaging both machines they would be abandoned during the withdrawal in May. Ian Richmond was injured in the crash, resulting in limited flying over the coming months. On February 22nd, Richmond was posted to the Photographic Development Unit based at Heston airfield, London. Here, he was trained to fly the Supermarine Spitfire. Posted back to France in March he eventually joined 105 Squadron on April 11th as squadron photographic officer. His stay was brief, within a month he was back with 218 Squadron. The Phoney War continued to drag on as both sides did their utmost to avoid civilian casualties and damage to non-military property for fear of reprisals. February passed without incident for 218 Squadron, but on the 1st of March K9252 crashed in bad weather some distance north of Dijon during a cross-country exercise. The pilot, F/O Eric Hulbert, the B Flight commander, survived, albeit with a broken ankle, but his two companions, Sgt Frank Dewar and AC Robert Wiltshire were killed.
The winter of 1939 / 40 was particularly harsh. Two ground crew are seen adjusting the covers over Fairey Battle K9324 HA-B. This photograph clearly illustrates the harsh conditions both the ground crew and aircraft experienced during the winter months.
On the 23/24th F/L Rogers and Sgt Dockrill carried out a reconnaissance of the Rhine and dropped what a future C-in-C would refer to as toilet paper on Mainz, while on the following night, F/O Shaw and P/O Imrie dropped their nickels (leaflets) on Wiesbaden and Frankfurt respectively.
At dawn on the 9th of April German forces marched unopposed into Denmark, and began landings by sea and air in southern Norway. The British and French responded by launching an expedition to Narvik in the north, and Bomber Command was ordered to slow the enemy advance by attacking shipping on the routes from Germany, and the airfields at Oslo and Stavanger. The AASF took no part in the campaign, which was ill-fated from the start, and occupied itself with further reconnaissance and leafleting sorties. 218 Squadron’s few losses to date had all been incurred during training, but its next was the first from an operational sortie. At 20.55hrs on the 20th, P/O Wardle, a tall and rather swarthy Canadian serving in the RAF, took off for southern Germany in P2201, one of four crews briefed to carry out a reconnaissance of the Rhine, and to deliver nickels to the residents of Mainz and Darmstadt. The other Battles and pilots were L5237 Sgt Horner, who was forced to return early, L5235 F/O Newton, and P2192 F/L Crews. On his return to England in February 1944 Wardle reported that his engine had suddenly burst into flames, and he had been compelled to order the crew to bail out. Sadly Sgt Edward Davison and AC1 Albert Bailey did not get out in time and both were killed. Recent research can now establish that Wardle had been shot down at around 00.45hrs by a Bf109E flown by Feldwebel Schmale of IV/NJG2. This encounter was one of the earliest known night fighter kills of WWII. On the evening of Sunday 21st, Hamburg Radio broadcast a report on the successful capture of P/O Wardle. The report confirmed that a British bomber had been shot down on the previous evening over Kreilsheim. Within days official confirmation was received from the Red Cross in Geneva.
Sergeants Mess, Auberive 1940. Wing Commander Duggan (six from left front row) looking considerably older than his crews. To his right is Pilot Officer Crane. A remarkable photograph depicting the majority of the NCO aircrew on the squadron at the time, tragically almost all would be killed by the end of the year.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the loss of Hank Wardle, he was not destined to return to the squadron. Wardle was captured almost immediately and sent to a local Luftwaffe base near Kreilsheim, where he was initially interrogated by a senior Luftwaffe officer. After receiving medical attention Hank was transferred to Oflag IXA at Spangenberg. While a prisoner at Oflag IXA he succeeded in escaping through the camp gymnasium, but he was recaptured after being on the run for twenty-four hours. As a result of his escape Wardle was moved to Oflag IVC at Colditz Castle in November 1940, where, within a matter of months, he found himself as part of a thirteen man escape team under the leadership of Captain Pat Reid, RASC. Wardle’s first escape attempt from Colditz involved a tunnel. The plan was to dig under the canteen into the yard beyond, but, an unknown rival plot by a French team, who planned to file through the canteen’s window bars, attracted the attention of the Germans. They were expecting an escape attempt and posted an additional sentry to guard the canteen. Fearing that the sentry would discover the tunnel, the British team tried unsuccessfully to bribe him, and that was the end of the plot.
Wing Commander Lewin Duggan officer commanding No.218 (Bomber) Squadron greets the Mayor of Auberive upon the squadrons arrival from England in September 1939. Forty one year old Duggan had served in the trenches in the Great War before joining the RAF. He served with No.99 Squadron during the last months of the war.
Wardle’s next attempt to escape was made with three other officers. The originators of the plan were Major R.B Littledale, KRRC, and Lieutenant Commander L Stephens (RNVR). Major Little had been captured on May 26th 1940 during the retreat to Dunkirk, when he was serving as a brigade transport officer for the 30th Infantry Brigade. Lieutenant Commander Stephens was the commander of H.M.M.L 192, which took part in the heroic attack on St. Nazaire Docks on March 28th 1942. The fourth member of the team was chosen for his experience in lock picking, and he was the legendary Captain Pat Reid. It was decided that the best chance of escape was to split into two teams, Wardle and Reid forming one. The escape began at 21.10hrs on October 14th, and by sheer good luck and daring the two teams managed to escape Colditz. Once on the outside the teams went their separate ways, and for the next two days Wardle and Reid walked at night and lay up during the day. On the 16th they boarded a train at Penig and headed for Zwickau, where tickets were brought for Munich. To help pass the time before their train’s arrival, which incidentally had been held up due to an air raid, both Wardle and Reid spent the evening at the cinema. The pair reached Munich at around 10.30hrs on the 17th, where a meal of soup, potato and vegetables was provided by the local home guard. Two further train journeys were still required before their goal of the Swiss border could be reached, but on October 18th it was finally within their grasp. By sheer determination both Wardle and Reid managed to slip over the border, and they gave themselves up to the Swiss Police at 20.00hrs. Howard Wardle completed his ‘home-run’ by travelling via Spain to Gibraltar disguised as a hair stylist named Raoul. He left Gibraltar on February 5th 1944, and on his return he was award the Military Cross and promoted to squadron leader. He returned to flying, ferrying aircraft to the Middle and Far East.
Five aircraft were sent to the same region on the 22/23rd to fulfil similar tasks, and this time, all returned safely home. The gallant failure at Narvik demonstrated that the Scandinavian affair had already effectively run its course, and it was at this point that events elsewhere grabbed the attention of the world. At first light on the 10th of May German forces began their advance across the Low Countries, triggering a week of unimaginably furious fighting, in which the AASF would be all but annihilated. Its squadrons, and those of the home-based 2 Group of Bomber Command, would be thrust into the unequal contest against marauding Bf109’s, and be required to fly into the teeth of murderous flak defences in prepared positions.
On the afternoon of the 10th the squadron dispatched four aircraft to attack a troop column on the Luxembourg to Dippach road, and all returned showing the scars of battle, L5402 being deemed beyond repair. Flying with F/O Crane in L5232 was LAC Baguley, who on return to base died from chest injuries shortly after 14.30hrs. The injuries were received when his magazine exploded after being hit by enemy cannon shells. At 09.30hrs on the following morning four more aircraft were sent for a low-level attack on a German column on the Dahlem – Olzsheim Road, and not one of them returned. Approaching the target over the densely wooded Ardennes the formation came under intense ground fire, F/O Crews had his instrument panel shatter in front of him. After being hit again, flames and smoke entered the cockpit and it was clear that P2326 was finished. They were too low to bail out safely but trees stretched endlessly around them preventing a forced landing. Crews dragged the last inch of altitude out of the failing Battle, and all three men jumped clear. Crews and his observer, F/Sgt Evans finding themselves instantly among the treetops where their parachutes snagged and arrested their descent. Sadly Sgt Cederic Jennings, the gunner, fell between the trees, his parachute only partially deployed, and he was killed. He was buried next to the remains of his aircraft near Amelscheid. The two survivors were unable to evade capture, and were soon in enemy hands. Charles Crews made a number of unsuccessful attempts to escape and ultimately, by feigning illness, he managed to get himself repatriated in September 1944. Twenty-six-year-old Sgt Charles Dockrill, his observer, Sgt Percival Dormer and gunner AC1 Kenneth Gregory were killed when P2203 crashed near Troisvierges, ten kilometres north of Clervaux. Flying Officer Hudson and his crew all survived the demise of K9325 and were taken prisoner, and a similar fate befell New Zealander P/O H Murray and his crew in P2249. The following is an account written by Peter Stubbs, the observer in Murray’s crew.
Found within the squadron Records Book this photograph is believed to depict a low level attack on a German column. This fascinating photograph clearly shows a group of German troops rushing for cover while smoke rises from the transport column further along the road. The photo also gives a vivid idea of the remarkably low level the crews operated.
May 11th 1940 was warm and sunny as we climbed in to our vehicles which would take us from the village of Auberive-sur-Suippes to our airfield a mile away. That was all it was, a field with a wooden hut set in some trees, the nerve centre of 218 squadron. As we carried our gear into the briefing room German aircraft were flying a few thousand feet above us on their way to bomb the airbase at Rheims. They did not notice our small grass field with twelve camouflaged Battles dispersed around the perimeter. Our target was to be an area near St Vith in Luxembourg, where the German tanks were massing to support the spearhead thrusting into France. We were to fly in pairs at very low level to attack with our 4 x 250lb bombs. Important modifications had been made to the aircraft, in that the bulky bomb aimer’s equipment was found to be useless as we hedge-hopped across the ground, so it was removed, and replaced by a forward K gun to give us more protection against the intense ground fire. At 09.30 we were airborne and heading for the front, flying as low as possible to avoid the enemy fighters. However, long before reaching the front line positions marked on our maps, we ran into a hail of machine gun and cannon fire, so rapid had the German advance been. Astonishingly, as we flew further behind the enemy lines we found the roads packed with horse drawn transport, hauling supplies to the advancing German columns. The new K gun proved superb against these targets, and as we swooped over the roads I fired off the pans of ammunition. I could clearly see the chaos as the drivers fell from their carts and horses crashed into ditches as they run amok in their death throes. It was then that Adams the w/op reported that our accompanying aircraft had crashed. The last he saw of it was the face of AC1 Kenneth Gregory, a gunner in Sgt Charles Dockrill’s flaming P2203, which exploded at thirty feet and hit the trees below. It was obvious that we could not last much longer. The rattle of bullets hitting the aircraft was continuous now, and cannon shells were tearing holes in the wings. As I lay on the floor firing at the enemy below, I felt a couple of shells bend the armour plating beneath me.
Soon flames leaped out from the engine and smoke and flames surrounded P/O Murray, my pilot. All I could see through the hatch was a forest of trees very close. Then there was a grinding crunch as we hit the ground. We had just missed the trees and crashed into a field beside a farm house at full speed. My “monkey chain” snapped with the impact and I shot forward hitting the instrument panel with my face as earth and stones roared through the hatch. I crawled to the rear of the aircraft to climb out and found my right hand would not work. It had been hit by a cannon shell, but in the chaos I had not noticed it. I was wondering how to climb out went the tanks collapsed, pouring blazing petrol into the cabin. The heat was unbelievable and a few seconds later I was outside the aircraft standing on the ground. My chest parachute had come undone and the white silk was covered in blood. The Germans continued to fire at us as we crouched beside the burning Battle. About a hundred yards away was a potato field with deep furrows, and knowing it would not be long before the bombs exploded in the heat of the fire, we decided our best chance was to make a dash for it. Murray was badly burnt, but Adams was uninjured. I was rather slower than the others and a bullet hit me in the elbow as we ducked in the furrow. The enemy continued to fire at us as we lay on the ground, then around sixteen Germans walked towards the blazing Battle cheering at their success at shooting us down. Suddenly the bombs exploded and lumps of debris screamed down on the surrounding area. We looked up again and there was no Battle and no Germans, just an enormous hole in the ground.
Early on the 12th the Luftwaffe paid a visit to Auberive, but failed to inflict significant damage. At 16.30hrs that afternoon F/Sgt Horner, P/O Bazalgette and P/O Anstey took off to attack enemy columns near Bouillon, two of them failed to return. Flight Sergeant John Horner’s K9353 was hit by flak at a thousand feet and lost its starboard wing tip, before crashing in flames near the Belgian/Luxembourg border with no survivors. Marie Anciaux was living in Bouillon, she witnessed the crash of K9353, “the aircraft was inflames, it just grazed the village rooftops before crashing near the road. Indifferent to the machine gun firing around her, the wife of Joseph RENAULD was the first on the scene. She seems to hesitate, prays for an instant with a Cross and then starts gathers the scattered human remains all around her. She took off her blue linen apron and lays it on the ground placing the grisly remains on to it. Both Joseph MUCHUROT and I are quickly assisting her, bringing large jute bags. A German officer stops his command-car in front of us, threatening us, we are not affraid.
The ranking soldier then tries to reason with us in broken French, saying that we should go home because the battle has not ended and then threatens us saying that civilians do not have to get involved in these things. Joseph MUCHUROT who has known the horrors of WW1 returns to the village. We, the women, are made of stronger stuff, we persist and continue our macabre task. After a while, Joseph MUCHUROT returns to the scene with a shovel and helped by Joseph PONCELET we dig temporary graves while we are praying. German soldiers start descending en masse to Bouillon, all are looking at the scene with indifference. Little after, villagers put wooden crosses and flowers on the graves. You know, it still makes me sad. Poor young guys”.
This touching gesture on the part of the villagers in the midst of a frantic battle is perhaps one of the more poignant actions during an otherwise savage day. Pilot Officer Frederick Bazalgette successfully bombed the target, but P2183 picked up sufficient damage to necessitate a crash-landing close to the village of Donchery, which at the time, was still unoccupied by the Germans. Bazalgette had sustained a severely injured arm and his crew made every effort to save him by carrying him between them towards the front line, but the twenty-two year-old pilot succumbed to his wounds on the night of May 12th. The only survivor from the formation, New Zealander P/O William Anstey, headed back to Auberive-sur-Suippes at 500 feet on completion of his bombing run. In 1947 he recorded his memory of the day.
May 12th 1940, I took off on my first operational trip. The target was a motor convoy moving through Bouillon north-east of Sedan. The payload comprised of 4 x 250lb bombs. We flew as No.2 in a formation of three, and the first indication that we were over enemy territory was the sound of exploding shells. This was followed almost immediately by seeing the roundel of our leader’s wing, on which I was formating as closely as possible, suddenly disappear into a large gaping hole. A few seconds later smoke and flames began pouring from the leader’s engine, and he passed under me in what appeared to be a shallow controlled dive. His gunner/wireless operator gave a “thumbs up” sign. A few minutes later the convoy was sighted, and No 3 aircraft dropped his bombs and was last seen still continuing on his course behind enemy lines. We dropped our bombs from about 100 feet, but were unable to observe the results as the machine gun and pom-pom fire was becoming too intense and accurate. On the way back we passed over the burning wreckage of our leader’s aircraft. By now we were on our own and receiving the whole undivided attention of the enemy. We were flying at ground level, and as we flew down a valley we could see the tracer bullets coming down from either side. I will remember to my dying day seeing the black and white cows peacefully grazing in the valley as we zigzagged our way out of what seemed to us to be the valley from hell. Right then I would have given anything to be one of those old cows. After getting out of the valley in more or less one piece we found the front line and returned to our base without further incident. Our ground crew greeted us with traditional open arms, and after ascertaining that we had dropped our bombs and fired our guns and that the aircraft had flown alright, they transferred their attention to the aircraft and proudly informed us that we had collected over seventy bullet holes for our fifteen minute joy ride over enemy territory.
The mangled remains of Flight Sergeant John Horners Fairey Battle. A curious German soldier picks over the wreckage of K9353 HA-J.
The squadron was not called into action on the 13th, but the afternoon of the 14th was to prove disastrous. Seven aircraft departed Auberive to bomb troop columns on the Bouillon-Givonne road while four others were to target the Douzy bridge near Sedan, which was the alternative objective for the first mentioned. It seems that most of the aircraft were carrying a two man crew but the squadron’s records were lost during the subsequent withdrawal, and it is not possible to determine either the circumstances of the losses or the names of all those taking part in the operation. What is not in doubt is that five of the eleven Battles were brought down and the following details are known. L5232 was shot down over France with a three man crew, and only the pilot, P/O William Harris survived to return to the squadron in an injured condition. L5235 and L5422 also came down in France, P/O Arthur Imrie surviving in enemy hands from the former, while his gunner was killed, and F/O John Crane in the latter losing his life, while his replacement gunner also became a PoW. Pilot Officer Donald Foster and his gunner survived the loss of P2324, and P2360 was lost without trace with the crew of P/O Robert Buttery. Two crews who managed to survive the massacre were those of F/O John Hughes and Sgt Charles Owen. John successfully bombed the target and his gunner, Corporal J A Drummond, managed to shoot down a Bf109. Charles Owen’s gunner also claimed a Bf109, and all four men would receive awards for their bravery during this period. John McCulloch Hughes’ citation is as follows:
Fairey Battle L5235 HA-W guarded by two German soldiers. The Battle was shot down while attacking troop columns near Sedan on May 14th 1940. At the controls was Rhodesian Pilot Officer A Imrie who survived as a PoW while his gunner AC1 T Holloway succumbed to his wounds.
During a period in May 1940, this officer led many successful raids. On one day an attack was made on an enemy column at Dippach. Four days later he successfully pressed home a bombing attack on an enemy position, although attacked by a strong force of Messerschmitt 109’s, but by skilfully manoeuvring his aircraft he enable his air gunner to shoot down one enemy fighter. Flight Lieutenant Hughes has shown magnificent leadership as a flight commander and by his coolness and initiative, had maintained the excellent spirit and moral of all his flight personnel.
Fellow pilot, Sgt Charles Owen was recommended for the DFM, his recommendation reading:
On 14th May 1940, whilst carry out a raid on Bouillon, he was attacked by a very heavy formation of enemy fighters. Although his aircraft was badly damaged Sgt Owen pressed home his attack and by his skilful manoeuvring materially assisted his air gunner in shooting down one of the enemy fighters and having completed his mission brought his aircraft safely back to base.
Strangely the DFM was never awarded.
The squadron had effectively been wiped out, and those aircraft and crews that did return were declared non-operational. Within three bloody days seventeen aircraft and twelve brave crews had been lost. The Luftwaffe returned on the 15th, and hit a fully loaded Battle, which was totally destroyed. Later in the day the squadron moved out, and set up temporary lodgings at Moscou Ferme. On the following day a further move was undertaken to St Lucien Ferme, the squadron had already effectively been knocked out of the battle, and would take part in only two more operations. On the 19th the squadron contributed aircraft to attacks on enemy troop columns, and flew some night sorties on the 20th, before its remaining serviceable aircraft were deposited with the now non-operational 105 Squadron on the 24th. Also on the 24th 218 Squadron was transferred from 75 Wing to 71 Wing. All personnel proceeded to 2 Base area at Nantes, where they remained until their evacuation back to England took place. All remaining airworthy Battles belonging to 105 and 218 Squadrons which at this stage was pitifully few were handed over to 98 Squadron, a training unit, on the 4th of June. The dismantling of the original squadron began on the 6th of June, when some of the senior NCOs, together with a number of wireless operators and air-gunners were posted to other squadrons. Wing Commander Duggan had done his best to keep them at 218 by visiting Base Personnel Staff Offices HQ on the 4th, and 2 Base area commander, G/C “Roddy” Carr, a future A-O-C of 4 Group, on the 6th, but his pleas fell upon deaf ears. The remnants of the squadron proceeded to Cherbourg where they would meet the liner Prince Albert, which set sail for Southampton on June 12th. The following day the squadron or what was left of it started to arrive at their new home, RAF Mildenhall.