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.]