Local Rotherfield wartime History #3 – Squadron Leader Rodney Levett Wilkinson – 266 Sqn, Rotherfield’s very own Battle of Britain Pilot

Posted: August 16, 2015 in local history

Sqn Ldr Rodney Levett Wilkinson - CO 266 (Rhodesia) Sqn

Sqn Ldr Rodney Levett Wilkinson – CO 266 (Rhodesia) Sqn

By a strange quirk of fate, while conducting research on another airman, I unexpectedly discovered that the Parish had its very own Battle of Britain airman (ack. Battle of Britain Monument). His story is not documented, so on the anniversary of his death it felt the done thing to redress the balance and remember one of our Few.

Rodney Levett Wilkinson was born on 23rd May 1910 was born in Atcham on the outskirts of Shrewsbury on 23rd May 1910 the only child to Maj Clement Arthur Wilkinson (Kings Shropshire LI) and Ruth Violet Esther Wilkinson (née Mirehouse). 11 days before his fifth birthday he lost his father, killed at Ypres. At some point after this tragic event his mother moved to Rotherfield with her young son taking up residence at The Gables in Argos Hill. The young “Wilkie” began his education at Wellington College and then followed in his fathers military footsteps by entering the RAF at Cranwell College in 1929. After a stint in the Middle East with HQ Transjordan and Palestine in Jerusalem he returned to the UK as an instructor eventually taking an Air Ministry post in January 1939. One wonders whether Wilkinson thought his flying days were over but with the outbreak of war he turned down an offer of appointment of ADC to the Duke of Kent and took a refresher course at 5OTU Aston Down. On the 6th July, and was given command of 266 (Rhodesia) Sqn as Squadron Leader.

266 Sqn was the very same that fictional boys own hero “Biggles” had flown with during the First World War. Reformed in 1939 as a “gift” squadron from the people of Rhodesia, it bore the name in their honour, a Bataleur as its symbol (a Rhodesian Eagle) and the motto “Hlabezulu” (The Stabber of the Sky”  The Sqn was based at RAF Tangmere, Eastchurch and Hornchurch during the height of the Battle of Britain in August 1940 and equipped with the outstanding Supermarine Spitfire.

The Sqn had seen relatively little action until the 12th August when it was scrambled to intercept an enemy raid. German Junkers Ju88 bombers with a strong fighter escort attacked the Isle of Wight RDF station at Ventnor as well as Portsmouth docks. Wilkinson led his Sqn into battle engaging the bombers over both targets and in a fierce battle, 10 were shot down by a number of RAF Sqn’s defending the area. Wilkinson opened his account claiming a Dornier Do17 bomber. Checking the records of the day I suspect he mistakenly accounted for a Ju88 as no Dornier’s participated in the attack. His combat report states that he expended all his ammunition of 2800 rounds at which point “Enemy aircraft was then losing height in  a spiral and the port engine was on fire…..the aircraft hit the sea vertically and a large pool of flames spread across the water” The result of this action wasn’t to be without cost to 266 Sqn who lost 2 aircraft with 1 pilot missing.

After the following day when the Sqn’s airfield at Eastchurch was bombed, they were back in action on the 15th August fighting a series of keenly contested engagements over Kent. Two aircraft were lost and one damaged with 2 pilots missing although a very heavy toll was inflicted on the enemy who lost 17 Ju88’s and a similar number of Messerschmitt Bf110 fighter escorts. Wilkinson again “bagged” one, another Ju88 bomber reporting this time “I attacked from above, behind giving him bursts with no deflection and experiencing no fire from him. His left engine went on fire and e/a finally landed in the sea“.

Friday 16th August dawned a beautiful sunny day, and for the pilots of 266 Sqn none of them could have predicted that in the space of one hour six of their number would either have been shot down or badly shot up and in some cases killed in action. At 11.53am 10 Spitfires from 266 Sqn were scrambled towards Manston. Joining 32 and 111 Sqn they approached a bomber formation near Folkestone and at 12.15pm attacked en masse at the centre of the bomber group. Hundreds of aircraft became embroiled in the bitter violent maelstrom of battle. At 12.35pm over Deal, Wilkinson was set upon by 2 Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters. What happened next is unclear but the result was disastrous. His Spitfire (serial R6768) was observed going down in flames crashing and burning out at Eastry Court, Aylesham. Reportedly the result of a collision with the Bf109 of Uffz Buder of 4/JG51 who baled out and was captured, Wilkinson was not so fortunate, dying in the crash. He was 30 years old. 2 days later his mother received the dreaded telegram “Deeply regret to inform you that your son Sqn Ldr Rodney Levett Wilkinson previously reported as missing as the result of our operations on August 16th 1940 is now reported to have lost his life. Letter follows. The Air Council express their profound sympathy.” He was buried on 22nd Aug. 2 other pilots from the same Sqn died that day with 2 more wounded. It was a devastating blow for the Sqn and just 5 days later they transferred to a quieter sector at RAF Wittering to recover.

Rodney Wilkinson is buried in St John’s cemetery, Margate, plot 15939. He is remembered on the WWII memorial plaque in St Denys and the Memorial board in the Village Hall as well as the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne and monument in London. His mother who had lost both husband and only child fighting in both World Wars eventually left the parish and reached the age of 101 before passing away in 1984.

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and danced the skies on laughter silvered wings” – from High Flight - Magee - St Deny's memorial plaque

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and danced the skies on laughter silvered wings” – High Flight – Magee. St Denys’ memorial plaque

Left – St Denys’ WWII memorial plaque

Below – Foxley-Norris wall – Battle of Britain Memorial to the Few Capel-le-Ferne nr Folkestone Kent.

IMG_3904 (800x600)

  1. simonsmrt says:

    Reblogged this on keepituryens and commented:

    Updated 2016

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