On the morning of Saturday April 20th No.218 (B) Squadron was informed by No.75 Wing HQ that they would be required to operate that night and two sections of Battles would be required.
Wing Commander Lewin Duggan the WW1 veteran and squadron commander and the squadron duty officer, Flight Lieutenant Charles Crews would have decided what four pilots and crews would be required to fly that night, characteristically the first name down on the list was Charles Crews. The three other pilots chosen were Canadian Pilot Officer Howard “Hank” Wardle, Australian Flying Officer Terrence Newton and Sergeant John Horner.
The crews were briefed to carrying out a reconnaissance along the Rhine between Mainz and Worms, with one section to “Nickel” Mainz while the other Nickled Darmstadt. It was familiar route for Charles Crews, however it was the first operation for his fellow pilots. The first section departed at 20:35hrs lead by Flying Officer Newton in Battle L9235, he was followed 20 minutes later by Pilot Officer Wardle in Battle P2201. Both crews were carrying 17 bundles of leaflets destined for Darmstadt. Weather conditions were ideal as both crews headed for the border. The first to arrive over Worms was Flying Officer Terrence Newton. Contrary to the pre operation briefing no balloons were encountered as the crew headed up the Rhine on the lookout for river traffic. Such was the visibility the crew identified what was believed to be an airfield flare path at Gernsheim on the east bank of the Rhine, a number of factory complexes and the main railway line to Mainz. Searchlights were active, however flak was reported as non existant. The blackout over Germany was as usual excellent as the crew map read their way to the city. There was no familiar rivers or lakes to make identification certain, Darmstadt was one of a handful of cities in Germany not situated on a river or close to a lake. By aid of a hand held map and sheer good luck the crew found themselves approaching the blacked out city. On reaching Darmstadt Newton reduced height to just over 3000ft a suicidally low altitude and ordered Leading Aircraftman Herbert Baguley to drop the pamphlets over the side, the time was 21:55hrs. Canadian Hank Wardle and crew were also briefed to Nickel Darmstadt, the crew had flown together before but this was their first operational sortie. The exact circumstances surrounding the flight of Hank Wardle are unclear, what it not is that this crew failed to return to Auberieve-sur-Suippes. In a report submitted by Wardle in February 1944 he stated that the engine of the Stockport built Battle burst in to flames necessitating a quick exist for him and his crew, Sergeant Edward Davison and Aircraftman 1st Class Albert Bailey. Research into this loss throws doubt on this explanation, it is believed that the Battle may have been attacked and shot down by a Bf109E flown by Feldwebel Schmale of IV.(N) JG2 at around 00.45hrs German time. If this was the cause it would be one of the earliest if not the earliest night fighter victory of WW.II This may answer why Hanks crew did not bail out as ordered, severely injured or possibly already dead the two crew went down with the stricken Battle.The crash site is also intriguing, why was the crew 180 miles SSE of Worms and way off track, had the crew become lost?
On landing by parachute Wardle was almost immediately captured by a soldier on a bicycle. Sent to a local Luftwaffe base near Crailsheim he was initially interrogated by a senior Luftwaffe officer. After receiving medical attention Wardle was transferred to Oflag IXA Spangenberg. While a prisoner at Oflag IXA, Wardle successfully managed to escape via the camp gymnasium. He was captured after being on the run 24 hours. Due to his attempted escape Wardle was moved to Oflag IVC Colditz in November 1940. Within a matter of months Wardle was part of a 13-man escape team under the leadership of Captain Pat Reid, R.A.S.C. Wardle’s first escape attempt from Colditz involved escaping via a tunnel. The plan was to dig a tunnel under the canteen into the yard beyond. However unknown to the escaping team, the French were trying to escape via the canteen by filing the window bars. The activities of the French attracted the attention of the Germans, who expecting an escape attempt posted an additional sentry to the canteen. Fearing that the sentry would discover the tunnel the team tried unsuccessfully to bride him. Wardle and his team were betrayed.
Wardle’s next attempt to escape was made with three other officers. The originators of the escape were Major R.B Littledale, K.R.R.C, and Lieutenant Commander L.W.Stephens (RNVR). Major Little was captured on May 26th 1940 during the retreat to Dunkirk. At the time 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 of lock picking, this was Captain Pat Reid. It was decided that the best chance of escape was to split into two teams, Wardle and Reid joined forces. The escape began at 21.10hrs on October 14th. By sheer good luck and daring the two teams managed to escape Colditz. On their escape the teams went their separate ways. 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. At Zwickau 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. A meal was provided by the local home guard, comprising of soup, potato and vegetables. On reaching Munich, two further train journeys were required before their goal of the Swiss border could be reached. On October 18th, the Swiss Frontier was finally within their grasp. Both Wardle and Reid by sheer determination managed to slip over the border into Switzerland. They gave themselves up to the Swiss Police at 20.00hrs on October 18th. 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. In March 1944, Air Vice Marshall Harrison A.o.C No.3 Group signed a recommendation that Howard Wardle should be awarded the Military Cross, this award was published in the London Gazette dated May 1st 1944. On his return active service Hank was promoted to squadron leader and returned to flying ferrying aircraft to the Middle and Far East, he died aged 75 in 1995.
Flight Lieutenant Crews was airborne at 21:46hrs at the controls of Battle P2192, he was accompanied by Sergeant Cederic Jennings, observer and Leading Aircraftman Edward Evans, gunner. Weather conditions were still favourable as the crew started on the now familiar route to the frontier, their first objective was to Nickel Mainz . Mainz was an important in land river port with tributaries to the river Neckar and Moselle. A total of 17 bundles of pamphlets were unloaded onto the sleeping city from just 2,500ft, all the bundles had been dispatched by 23:06hrs. Once again flak was non existent however the searchlights were out in strength, a single blue master searchlight probed the sky in amongst the customary white searchlights, the crew remarked upon their return how brilliant this blue light was in comparison. Thankfully neither searchlights managed to find the crew as they slipped away from Mainz to carry out the reconnaissance of the Rhine. It was not long before a train was observed steaming north near Alsheim, this was followed by the crew witnessing what appeared to be red lights emanating from an industrial works, on closer inspection the lights turned out to be blast furnaces which were easily visible against the inky blackness below. At just under 2500ft the Battle raced down the Rhine Valley, very little river traffic was seen as the crew continued on until as briefed they turn for the border and home. The crew were back at base by 00:25hrs. The last crew aloft was that of Sergeant John Horner at 22:20hrs in Battle L5237. Horner was joined by Flight Sergeant Wavell and Leading Aircraftman Leslie Davies (537015). The crew were back at Auberive-sur-Suippes with W/T failure within twenty minutes. In an attempt to complete the operation the crew rushed to the spare Battle in the vain hope that they could get airborne into time meet the planned arrival time over target, however it was not to be, they were too late.
Thus ended Nickel raid No.7, the raid had cost the squadron its first operational loss of the war and first operational casualties. The following day Hamburg Radio announced that a machine had been brought down and crashed near Creilsheim and that the pilot was a prisoner of war. This was later confirmed by the Geneva Red Cross who sadly also confirmed the death of 26-year-old Edward Davison and Albert Bailey.
Within a matter of a few short weeks the squadron would be thrown into the desperate defence of France and endure horrendous casualties as a result. The loss of two young men on this operation would quickly be forgotten by the few survivors however their loss to family and friends would never be.