Douglas Bickle’s wedding

This lovely little church, a few miles from Plymouth and overlooking a beach and the English Channel, is St Werburgh’s in Wembury, Devon. Parts of the church go back to the 11th century, although it was extensively renovated in Victorian times. It was here on 9 August 1943 that William Douglas Bickle, aged just 21, and Violet May Bickford, 20, were married. The groom was described as a Sergeant in the RAF but no occupation was given for the bride.

Neither of them came from Wembury, although they were both West Country natives. Douglas Bickle was born on 6 March 1922 in St Ann’s Chapel, a small hamlet near Calstock on the Cornwall side of the Tamar river. Violet Bickford was born just seven months later, on 15 October, in Lamerton which is a few miles away, but over the county border in Devon. So it is likely that they knew each other before Douglas enlisted in the RAF in October 1940.

By 1943, Violet Bickford was living with her family in Wembury, where her father, Edgar Bickford, kept bees and was also employed as a NAAFI canteen manager. The Bickle family meanwhile had stayed in the Calstock area, where Douglas’s father Percy worked as a coach builder and carpenter.

Douglas was the only child of Percy and Alma Bickle. He joined the RAF in 1940, soon after his 18th birthday, and was selected for training as a wireless operator/air gunner. After qualifying he was posted to 25 Operational Training Unit, where he crewed up with pilot Cyril Anderson. They moved on to 1654 Conversion Unit, where the whole crew was formed up.

The crew’s first operation together was an attack on Essen on 12 March 1943. After a successful bomb drop, they lost power in one engine on the way home. Their second trip was to St Nazaire on 22 March.

At this point, it seems that the request from Group HQ to send a crew to a new squadron being formed at Scampton to train for the Dams Raid was received by 49 Squadron. The CO nominated Bill Townsend and his crew, who had mostly nearly finished their tour, and therefore fell precisely into the category of “experienced crews” which had been demanded. He then chose to add the Anderson crew to the posting, for reasons that have never been explained.

Anderson, with just two operations under his belt, did not demur from the request, but asked to gain some further experience in 49 Squadron before moving. He and his crew were therefore sent on three operations in the next five days, flying to Duisburg on 26 March and Berlin on both 27 and 29 March.

They were posted to 49 Squadron in February 1943, and did their first operation together as a crew on 12 March. After their second trip, they were posted to 617 Squadron but in fact stayed on 49 Squadron to do three more operations, including two to Berlin.

On the Dams Raid Anderson and his crew were the last to take off, leaving the ground at Scampton at 0015. Having crossed the coast AJ-Y encountered heavy flak north of the Ruhr, and was forced off track. By then the rear turret began to malfunction, which meant that it was difficult to deal with searchlights. These caused it to divert off track again five minutes before it reached Dülmen. At 0228, Bickle received the signal “Dinghy” which directed the aircraft towards the Sorpe Dam. By now, mist was rising in the valleys which made the identification of landmarks almost impossible.

So it was that at 0310, after consulting his crew, Anderson decided that with dawn approaching and a rear turret not working he should turn for home. Rather than risk following the briefed return routes, he decided to go back the way he had come, crossing the coast at the Schelde estuary. AJ-Y landed at Scampton at 0530, its mine unused.

Cyril Anderson and five of his crew, photographed after an operation in 49 Squadron, in the summer of 1943. Left to right: John Nugent, Gilbert “Jimmy’ Green, Douglas Bickle, Arthur Buck, Cyril Anderson, Robert Paterson. Pic: Dominic Howard.

Gibson was not happy with Anderson’s explanation, and sent the crew back to 49 Squadron. Hindsight suggests that this was harsh treatment by Gibson, with him failing to take account of the conditions under which the later crew had flown. Anderson and his crew resumed their operational career with an attack on Krefeld on 21 June. They flew on 14 more operations, but on 23 September they failed to return from a successful attack on Mannheim. As they headed home, their aircraft was shot down by a night fighter near Offenbach.

Bickle was buried along with his comrades in the local Offenbach cemetery. After the war, their remains were exhumed and reburied in Rheinberg War Cemetery.

Douglas and Violet Bickle stood at this altar in Wembury church some 76 years ago, wed by the vicar Rev Kenneth Tagg. By the time of Douglas’s death, they had been married for less than seven weeks. They were far from the only couple to have such a fleeting time together.

[Thanks to Peter Lugar for help with this article.]

Dambuster of the Day No. 130: Douglas Bickle

Anderson & Crew - 1943Slightly out of focus, Douglas Bickle is third from the left in this picture of Cyril Anderson’s Dams Raid crew, taken in the summer of 1943.  L-R: John Nugent (navigator), Gilbert “Jimmy” Green (bomb aimer), Douglas Bickle (wireless operator), Arthur Buck (rear gunner), Cyril Anderson (pilot), Robert Paterson (flight engineer). [Pic: Dominic Howard]

Sgt W D Bickle
Wireless operator

Lancaster serial number: ED924/G

Call sign: AJ-Y

Third wave. Did not reach Sorpe Dam because of navigation problems, flak damage and weather conditions. Returned with mine intact.

William Douglas Bickle, known to his family and friends as Douglas, was born in St Ann’s Chapel, a small hamlet near Calstock in Cornwall on 6 March 1922, the only son of Percy and Alma Bickle. His father worked as a farmer.
Bickle joined the RAF in October 1940, soon after his 18th birthday, He was selected for training as a wireless operator/air gunner. After qualifying he was posted to 25 Operational Training Unit, where he crewed up with Cyril Anderson and the core of the crew who would later fly on the Dams Raid. They moved on to 1654 Conversion Unit, where the whole crew was formed up.
The crew were posted to 49 Squadron in February 1943, and did their first operation together as a crew on 12 March. After their second trip, they were posted to 617 Squadron but in fact stayed on 49 Squadron to do three more operations, including two to Berlin.
After their trip on the Dams Raid, the Anderson crew returned to 49 Squadron and resumed their operational career with an attack on Krefeld on 21 June. Altogether, they flew on 14 more operations in 49 Squadron, but on 23 September they failed to return from a successful attack on Mannheim.
Bickle had got married on 9 August 1943, a few weeks before his final fatal operation, to Violet Bickford, a woman from his home village. They were married in Wembury, Devon, where her father was working as a NAAFI canteen manager. Violet Bickle remarried after the war, and moved to Liverpool.
Bickle and his comrades were all originally buried in Offenbach cemetery. After the war the bodies of all seven were exhumed and identified. They were then taken to Rheinberg War Cemetery.
Bickle is commemorated on the war memorial in Albaston, a small village on the western side of the Tamar river, just over the border from Devon.

Thanks to Dom Howard for help with this article.

More about Bickle online:
All the Anderson crew are commemorated on Dominic Howard’s excellent website. Each of the crew has their own page with biographical details, there is a complete list of the operations undertaken by the whole crew and a full account of their final flight on 23 September 1943.
Entry at Commonweath War Graves Commission
Entry on Albaston War Memorial page

KIA 23.09.1943

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.