A Bomber Command Navigator 80 Years On – Gnome-Rhone Works, Paris, 29th May 1942

After returning safely from Mannheim at 0440 on 20th May 1942, 218 Squadron enjoyed a 9-day break from operations, during which Alan took part in 3 training sorties (21st, 23rd and 26th May), as noted in the relevant logbook entry below. During this period, the whole of Bomber Command was engaged in intense training activity, focusing on formation flying and low-level bombing in preparation for a major operation at the end of May.

Extract from Alan’s Logbook (May 1942) – Source: S Green

According to the 218 Squadron Operations Record Book (ORB), “sixteen hours’ flying was completed by ten aircraft” on 21st May 1942, with “formation flying and fighter affiliation” accounting for most of the training. On 23rd May, “ten aircraft took the air, including two, who flew to Manston and back”, while “the total flying hours for the day was thirteen hours”, which included “four low level bombing attacks”. The 26th May 1942 was clearly the busiest of these 3 training days as “thirteen aircraft were in the air for twenty-two hours” and “formation and low-level bombing were the main practice features”, although reference to Alan’s logbook indicates more “fighter affiliation” occurred as well. All 3 ORB entries confirm “no operations took place, and nothing of importance to relate”, suggesting the training was carried out without incident!

Extracts from the 218 Squadron Operations Record Book (May 1942) – Source: National Archives:

Following this training, 218 Squadron deployed 11 Stirlings for its return to operations on 29th May 1942 for which it had been allocated 3 targets: the Docks in Cherbourg, the Gnome-Rhone Works in Gennevilliers near Paris and “vegetable planting” (Gardening) in the “Nectarines” area. In the end, only 10 aircraft took off “owing to unserviceability” issues with N3725, captained by Sgt Boyd. Four set off for Paris, three performed the minelaying duties, while Cherbourg was attacked by 3 “Freshman” crews on their first operations. Overall, six squadrons from 3 Bomber Command Groups were involved in these operations; in total 77 aircraft set off for Paris, with a further 31 sent to Cherbourg and 21 undertaking the mine laying in the Friesian Islands (Nectarines) off the coast of Holland, Germany and Denmark.

According to the ORB, “the gardening mission was very successful”, whereas “10/10 cloud frustrated the Cherbourg effort”. While no 218 Squadron aircraft were lost on these operations, the crew of DJ976 HA-A, under the command of F/Sgt Johnston, reported that “another aircraft was seen shot down in the target area” during the “Gardening” sortie. This aircraft, the sole casualty from this operation, was a 15 Squadron Stirling (W7515) from RAF Wyton, piloted by F/O Francis Doyle, which crashed without trace with the loss of all 8 crew members, after being attacked by a German night fighter, flown by Fw Hans Berschwinger of 4.NJG2. 

Meanwhile, at 0000 Alan took off on his 18th mission from Marham in Stirling W7530, commanded by S/Ldr Ashworth. W7530 was one of the four 218 Squadron Stirlings scheduled to target the Gnome-Rhone Works, which had been formed by the merger of the Gnome and Le Rhone engineering companies in 1915, eventually becoming France’s largest aircraft engine manufacturer by the start of WW2. Following the fall of France in 1940, the company started producing the BMW801 radial engine, which was used in several Luftwaffe aircraft, most notably the very successful Focke Wulf 190 fighter (shown below). Gnome-Rhone was nationalised in 1945 and led to the creation of SAFRAN (previously known as SNECMA), the world’s leading supplier of commercial aircraft engines, such as the ubiquitous CFM-56 used by Boeing and Airbus.

Upon their safe return to base at 0530, Alan’s crew noted in their ORB report “target seen but not very clearly owing to cloud drifting across” and “one bundle of nickles (leaflets) dropped over Paris”. Research by the Squadron Historian, Steve Smith, confirms that S/Ldrs Ashworth and Oldroyd dropped their bomb loads (8 x 500ib and 6 x 1000ib high explosives) from 8000ft, whereas P/O Bullock of the RNZAF, piloting W7475 HA-H, bravely launched his attack from 2000ft, such that the “bombs dropped on target (were) seen to burst”, while at the same time the “aircraft aerials were shot away by flak”.

Extracts from the 218 Squadron Operations Record Book (May 1942) – Source: National Archives

Unfortunately, W7535 HA-Q, commanded by F/L Arthur Jones, was hit by flak on approach to the target and crashed at Colombes in NW Paris with the loss of its crew members, who are buried in the Dreux Communal Cemetery. Since December 1940, when he was first posted to 15 Squadron, Arthur had flown 37 missions and he had been one of main instructors on the 218 Squadron Conversion Flight, overseeing the crews’ transition onto the Stirling. Tragically, Arthur had a younger brother called David, who was also killed serving in Bomber Command, when his Lancaster collided with another bomber over Sussex, while returning from a raid on Milan in August 1943. W7535 was not the only casualty from the Gnome-Rhone operation, as 5 other aircraft “failed to return” (4 Wellingtons and 1 Halifax), resulting in the overall loss of 36 men (33 killed and 3 taken prisoner).

Wreckage of Stirling W7535 – Source: Steve Smith (2020)
Focke Wulf 190 – Source: Flying Heritage Collection


AIR 27/1350 218 Squadron, May 1942

Chorley, William, RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War 1942 (Leicester, Midland Counties Publications, 1994)

Smith, Steve, From St Vith to Victory, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron and the Campaign Against Nazi Germany (Barnsley, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2015)

Smith, Steve, Courage Was Not Enough, No. 218 (Bomber) Squadron, Weston-super-Mare’s Own 1936-42 (Merthr Tydfil, Mention the War Ltd., 2020)

Hope, Barry, ‘and in the morning’ Database

Lecturer in Air Transport Management at Buckinghamshire New University, Module Leader in Aviation Sustainability Management. Experienced Airbus/Boeing Captain.

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