Nickel No.3

Reconnaissance over the Rhine

Since the New Year the squadron’s main occupation was short penetration reconnaissance flights just inside the German border. Tactically these flights were of only limited value but psychologically for the crews it was a tremendous boost to moral. After the weeks and months of practice flights the crews enjoyed putting their years of peace time training to the test against a real enemy.

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A section of No.218(B) Squadron Battles over the French countryside

With an increase in activity it was inevitable that the squadron would be required to penetrate deeper and deeper into German air space. The BEF  had learned the lesson from the Great War and realised that up to date information on the enemies movements was vital , reconnaissance was a now key.    In addition to the reconnaissance role crews were now asked to drop leaflets,  or Nickeling. The distribution of propaganda leaflets was becoming an important factor in the physiological war against Germany and one that Bomber Command would continue to undertake for the next 5 years.

 One such raid was undertaken by the squadron on the night of Saturday March 23rd 1940. During the day German forces by way of Belgium had enter France, by-passing the impregnable Maginot line. Their aim was to rescue a number of German paratroops who had drifted into France by an unexpectedly strong wind during a training exercise along the German/French Border. The stranded German paratroops had been surrounded and were being attack by French forces. The British Government receives requests from the Belgian and Dutch authorities for the provisions of the Leiden Treaty to be enforced. Britain confirms that it will honour the treaty.  The Leiden Treaty was signed in January 1939 by Great Britain, Denmark and The Netherlands, guaranteeing British military assistance to Denmark and The Netherlands in the face of a hostile external act.

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Flight Lieutenant Alan Rogers on the left weeks before the operation of March 23rd. On the right is Flying Officer Charles Crews who would be shot down and made a PoW on May 11th while attacking the bridges at St.Vith.

 With tensions high the operations of that night were even more important; two crews were detailed and briefed.  The pilots chosen were Flight lieutenant Alan Vernon Rogers RAF, he had joined the squadron on August 31st 1936 from No.2 Flying Training School RAF Digby and was a old hand. The other pilot was twenty Six year old Sergeant Charles Dockrill  from Hounslow, Essex. Both pilots had been briefed to undertake a similar operation the previous night but adverse weather conditions intervened.  The first away was Flight Lieutenant Rogers, he was accompanied by Sergeant Andrews, Observer and gunner Corporal 1st Class Conneeley who’s day time job was canteen corporal.   Aloft from Auberieve-sur-Suippes at 22:10hrs in Fairey Battle P2249 HA-U the crew slowly climbed into the freezing blackness and their operational height.  Once reached the crew flew along a pre-routed corridor, the pilot was in touch by WT with the ground station if needed however communication would be at a minimum. Thick cloud was soon encountered though it did not prevent the crew from continuing on to their first objective, the town of Boppard. Situated on a bend on the west side of the  Rhine nestled in a valley the town was easily located even with the use of just a hand held map for navigation. On reaching the first objective the crew turned south west and followed the Rhine, visibility was slowly deteriorating with a solid bank of 10/10th cloud at 10,000ft and 5/10th cloud between 4-6000ft. Losing attitude the crew began their reconnaissance along the Rhine. Surprisingly there was no river traffic seen between the cloud breaks. At Bingen the crew turned sharply to port and followed the river to the next objective Mainz.  It was on this leg of the flight the crew started to encounter flak and searchlights near Wiesbaden. The defences increased as the crew started their run over the city, with a solid cloud base at 10,000ft and intermittent cloud below the searchlights were able to illuminated  the clouds making the crew feel very exposed. Anti aircraft fire was now pumping up from Mainz, thankfully the accuracy was poor as Corporal Conneeley having dismantled the single .303 K gun from its mount, unravelled the 16 packets of propaganda leaflets and started tossing them over the side, the freezing slip stream did the rest, thousands of leaflets littered the sky over Mainz, the time was 23:12hrs.   

Sergeant Charles Dockrill was airborne at 21:15hrs strangely the squadron Operational Records Book does not record the serial of this Battle. Joining Sergeant Dockrill was Observer Sergeant Dormer and gunner Leading Aircraftman Davies (136). The crew like that of Flight Lieutenant Rogers were routed to cross the frontier and fly direct to Boppard however the crew turned north up the Rhine. The crews objective was  to nickel Coblenz and fly onto Linz where they would on completion turn for the border and home.  The cloud that had hindered Rogers was also causing Sergeant Dockrill problems, however unlike Rogers Sergeant Dockrill brought the Battle down to 6000ft. Losing altitude immediately paid off, just north of Boppard the crew located six barges nestled close to the river bank. The loss of altitude however exposed the crew to the defences. Opposition was much stronger than expected on reaching Coblenz. Anti aircraft batteries were reported to being working in fours and in conjunction with the searchlights. Over the city the  Battle was coned, somehow at this low altitude Sergeant Dockrill managed to elude the searchlights and flak, it was an excellent piece of flying. Now down to 4,500ft Aircraftman Davies quickly disposed of the pamphlets over the side of the Battle, it was 22:56hrs. Once clear of Coblenz the crew continued searching for river traffic, they must have hoped that they had left the flak behind them, it was not to be. Between Coblenz and Linz the crew were continually bracketed by both light and heavy flak. Obviously undeterred the crew recorded how good the German blackout was as opposed to the French one.!  On reaching Linz the crew turned to port and headed for the frontier, it had been a rather hectic sortie. The Battle landed back at Auberieve-sur-Suippes at 01:25hrs five minutes after Flight Lieutenant Rogers and crew.  No.218 (Bomber) Squadrons Nickel Raid No.3 was completed. Little information had been obtained and its use was debatable.

For both crews luck and a rugby match would decided who of the two crews would survival.

On the afternoon of April 28th all available transport carried squadron personnel to Parc Pommery to watch the final rugby match between No.75 Wing and No.71 Wing.  During the game Flight Lieutenant Alan Rogers broke his collarbone in a tackle, stretchered off he would be grounded for the next for 6-8 weeks, unbeknown at the time this injury may well have saved his life. With his arm immobilised Flight Lieutenant Rogers was not able to fly and as such he missed the bloodbath of May and the annulation of his squadron.  I have not managed to find any details on  F/Lt Rogers did  during this period, what I have discovered is that he joined  Training Command, where he was award the AFC in January 1944, the citation reads : “Wing Commander Rogers, who is assistant chief instructor at his unit, has had considerable experience as a flying instructor. He sets a fine example to all and his flying, both by day and night, is of a high standard. Over a long period his devotion to duty has been worthy of the highest praise.” He survived the war and retired as a Group Captain. The observer Sergeant Andrews is believed to be Clifford Andrews, sadly the Operational Records Book gives no clues to the identity of the NCO.  Sergeant Clifford Andrews was killed on operations with No.218 Squadron on April 25th 1941 while attacking Kiel. Corporal 1st Class Conneeley does not appear in the Operational Records Book again.

Sergeant Charles Dockrill was killed on Saturday May 11th 1940 while on a low level attack on the bridge a St Vith. Flying with him was his 27-year-old observer Sergeant Percy Frank Dormer. Hit by ground fire the crew crashed near Troisvierges on the Luxemburg /Belgium Border. They rest side by side in Grave 26 & 27 of the Bas Bellain Churchyard. I have not yet established the identity and fate of  AC Davies. There were two Davies’s on the squadron and both operated in the air gunner role, the other was Leslie Douglas Davies(537015)