A nasty German in Woodville, Part One, the Legend

I grew up in a small village called Woodville, just to the south of Derby, in more or less the centre of England.

Derby was the home of an important Rolls Royce factory which made Merlin engines, the powerplant used by important World War Two aircraft such as the Spitfire, the Hurricane, the Mosquito and the Lancaster :

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Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, steps were taken to protect this important Derby factory from enemy air attack. Immediate measures included the installation of a large calibre ex-naval gun on the western side of Hartshorne Lane, on some grassland near the public footpath, just beyond the site where the Dominoes public house was to be built shortly after the end of the war. Look for the Orange Arrow, my hearties!! :

This naval gun, probably taken from a scrapped old battleship, was extremely powerful and extremely noisy. Every time it was fired in practice, it made all the cups rattle on their holders in the pantry at my grandparents’ house, “Holmgarth”, at No 39,  Hartshorne Lane, some half a mile away :

One evening, probably in the second half of 1940 or early 1941, a lone Heinkel III bomber was caught in the searchlights over Derby. This spectacular event was the signal for the Hartshorne gun to fire its one and only shot in anger of the entire war :

Needless to say, the shot was a successful one and the bomber was duly brought down. Later in the evening, the Home Guard was to capture the pilot, who had descended by parachute from his stricken craft. Another slightly different version of the story relates how the pilot was dragged semi-conscious from the wreckage of his aeroplane:

The pilot was subsequently brought to Hartshorne and then marched up the hill to the Police Station at Woodville Tollgate. He did not speak any English but seemed happy to rave loudly to himself in German. This gentleman was seen by the locals as being a typically arrogant Nazi, who believed that the war was already won. He was even smoking the Player’s cigarettes which had been captured in such large quantities at Dunkirk in June 1940. I couldn’t find a picture of this particular gentleman in Woodville, but the world at this time was not particularly short of arrogant Nazis:

The pilot was locked in a police cell overnight. This may well have been to his benefit, as the mood of the angry passers-by as he had been brought up Hartshorne Lane had largely been in favour of lynching him. Indeed, the crowd’s evident hostility had done much to quieten the pilot’s rantings on the long slow walk up to the police station.

Here’s the police station, in Edwardian sepia. If you look to the right of the police station, (which is right in the middle of the picture), there is a very tall chimney which is now long demolished but which, then, was the chimney of the Outram’s factory which made sinks, wash-basins, toilets and such. To the right of that chimney is a very stout looking house with two chimney stacks. The further one of those two is the chimney stack for my Mum and Dad’s house, “Clare Cottage, built 1890”, They lived there from 1949-2000 and 1949-2003 respectively.

So what? you may ask. Well, I know that with a little bit of luck, my instructions will be followed by a lady from India, a gentleman from Australia, my American friends from coast to coast, and citizens, perhaps, of other countries across the globe, as well as my valued readers in this country. I wonder what the newly married couple would have thought of that, when they moved in to what was then a semi-derelict house,  more than seventy years ago. People across the whole world looking at their chimney stack :

At the time the Heinkel was shot down, Fred, as a young man of some seventeen or eighteen years of age, was still awaiting his chance to go into the RAF. He had therefore in the interim become a young member of the local Home Guard, or L.D.V. (the Local Defence Volunteers, or as Fred always interpreted the initials, “Look, Duck and Vanish”). Neither the Hartshorne Home Guard or the Woodville Home Guard ever had as many rifles as these mean looking killers, though:

This episode, before he went away into the armed forces, was in actual fact the only time that Fred was ever destined to meet a Nazi in person. Indeed, in later years, Fred was to say that this was the most dangerous moment he was to experience in terms of being directly face to face with the enemy. The even greater irony was that the very real threat of violence inherent in the situation was provided exclusively by the English civilians, and not by the Luftwaffe pilot himself.

Conceivably, this particular Heinkel bomber was the same one which was later to be put on display in nearby Burton-on-Trent in an effort to raise funds for the war. I have been unable to trace an exact date for this occurrence, other than the fact that, with the decreasing frequency of Luftwaffe raids on England, it was more likely to have occurred sooner rather than later during the conflict.

I was told this story about the naval gun more than once by my Dad, Fred. It seemed so far fetched that I began to think that he was suffering from false memories. I thought that perhaps my Dad had confused 1940 or 1941 with a very famous episode of the comedy “Dad’s Army”. But he hadn’t. Fifty or so years after I first met him, my oldest friend revealed that his mother, as a young girl, had been in that crowd at Woodville Police Station and had seen the arrogant Nazi smoking our Player’s Cigarettes.

Any excuse for a bit of Dad’s Army:

That moment has won more than one award as the funniest moment ever on BBC TV.

 

 

 

 

 

26 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Personal

26 responses to “A nasty German in Woodville, Part One, the Legend

  1. More fascinating history with very poignant thoughts about what, 70 years ago, we would have thought of today’s blogosphere.

    • Thank you very much, Derrick, you are very kind.
      I was taking my Dad out in my new car a few years back, and he said he was hot and asked if it would be OK to open a window. I did it for him with my driver’s remote control and he reacted as if it were witchcraft and satanism combined. A couple of weeks later though, and he had his new TV with a remote control which he soon learned to operate like a veteran.
      And I suppose we all adapt to new things. But that makes me wonder whether, if I time travelled back to 1905, I would be able to light the gas (if it is gas!) and make myself a nice cup of tea.

  2. I often wondered if the Nazis were as arrogant as the movies and TV portrayed them. I guess they were, eh?

    • The hard core ones, mostly the officer class but not always, certainly were very arrogant, but like all nations, there was good and bad to be found. A follow up post will be entitled “A nice German in Woodville”, as an illustration of that very point.
      My Dad had a cliché for every occasion, and, as well as his firmly held belief that you can always recognise a German by his bull neck, he could summarise the history of Europe from 1870-1950 in just one much quoted sentence. “The Germans are either at your feet or at your throat”.

  3. Interesting story, John. Love the detail to include the kind of cigarettes he had. I could see his pose and expression.

    • Thank you, Cindy. During the war, there were two main brands of cigarettes in England, one produced by the Wills company and called “Woodbines”, and the Navy Cut brand with a sailor on the front, produced by Players. That iconic packet design provided Procol Harum with a cover for their LP “A Salty Dog” in the 1960s.
      The British army had to be evacuated from France in 1940 but they would have had to leave behind all of their cigarettes. The Germans, of course, smoked them for free. I like to think that these freebies lasted the Germans for two and a half years, until they ran out of British cigarettes in a place called Stalingrad.

  4. Do you think the pilot was really a Nazi? Probably just an ordinary decent German doing his duty.
    That must have been one hell of a good shot.
    Love that clip.

    • All Germans were happy all-conquering Nazis until they started losing the war. That came in late 1941 as the first snow fell in the Soviet Union and they failed to take Moscow.
      I shall be doing some posts in the future about a modern German book called “Soldaten” which reveals that ordinary decent Germans doing their duty were a little thin on the ground during WW2. Nevertheless, there were people who fought Nazism and they mostly ended up dead for their trouble, but I don’t think many of them flew Heinkel IIIs in combat.

      • I am not sure that I agree.
        I think some sort of collective madness descended on Germany in the 1930s and Europe was unfortunate to get Adolf Hitler. But they have got over it now. Nothing wrong with Germans in my opinion.
        All countries suffer collective madness at some point – ours was 19th century colonialism. We have to live with that in the same way that Germans have to live with the Nazis.

      • I don’t agree at all. I think that it is completely impossible to compare the slaughter of at least 16 million Jews and 20 million Soviets, carried out just by the Germans, with the British Empire, which was just one colonial empire along with the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Danish, the Portuguese and so on.
        The final word about the pilot comes though from a comment made by the son of a witness to the incident, his mother. It is lower down the page but the key sentence is “My mother has told me this very story of the ‘nasty Nazi who came to Woodville’. She was in that crowd and recalled that the man spat at them so was clearly not trying to endear himself to the locals.”

      • I think it is important to differentiate between Germans and Nazis. Nazis came from a bigger pool, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia maybe even Switzerland. If we accuse Germany and forever make it hang its head in shame then we should not excuse the other Nazi countries that enthusiastically contributed to the holocaust or the Soviet invasion. Just saying.

      • What percentage of the Germans were pro-Hitler Nazis a week after Dunkirk is a very difficult question to answer. At our school, I used to help to take groups to the Beth Shalom Centre where they learnt about the holocaust. I met an old man who had been personally spared death by Dr Mengele at Auschwitz and he told my colleagues and myself at lunch that he had only ever seen Germans in the concentration camps he was in. Only ever Germans. He also said that with Germans born after May 8th 1945 he had no quarrel whatsoever and they carried no guilt at all in his eyes. That is my point of view, really, and I have always found the modern Germans I have met to be exemplary human beings, much better than the members of the Dagenham Ladies Darts Team in actual fact.

      • That is exactly my point John.
        People get misled. BREXIT is a good example of that. Collective madness.

  5. A fascinating part of history John. I had a sudden large number of ‘readers’ in India who seem to have taken a huge interest in the blogging world it’s nice of them to link it to their own site selling medicinal goods and entertainment. A single shot from a naval gun to hit a moving aircraft must have been a very lucky one, I’ll bet there was one heck of a party that night in downtown Woodville!

    • I recently finished reading a rather exhaustive book about kamikaze pilots. If they got as far as to see their target, they then had a 40% chance of hitting it. The Americans soon worked out that they really took some stopping at this point. Aircraft with both wings shot off still hit their targets and caused large numbers of casualties. The only 100% certain way of stopping them was to use the big naval guns on the US warships as anti-aircraft fire. They did this, and it was successful up to a point. Any kamikaze they hit stayed hit! At the same time though, that does not mean that the naval gun at Woodville necessarily did hit that Heinkel, which is why I chose my title carefully “A nasty German in Woodville, Part One, the Legend”. The follow up will be “A nasty German in Woodville, Part Two, the True Facts”.
      Incidentally, not many books I read change my opinion right round 180°, but this one did. Those kamikaze pilots were not crazy, they were brave men, with nothing else left for them to do to defend their families back in Japan.

      • I eagerly await part two John to see how the legend differs from the fact. I have found that quite a few stories from the war have been ‘edited’ over time, not intentionally I don’t think, but because memory does play tricks on us as we get older.

      • No, it’s not intentional but basically, my Dad saw the German in the police station once, thirty or forty years before he told me about it. And then a very similar event was portrayed in Dad’s Army which he was able to watch (as always on BBC) time after time after time. Gradually, the TV has perhaps leaked into reality, with different details changed every time he watched it.
        I was delighted when my friend’s mother was able to corroborate my Dad’s story and prove that the whole event did actually happen.

  6. It was good to see the house where your parents lived 🙂

  7. Did they live there all their life ?

    • All their lives together until they died, yes. My Mum came from Lancashire and died in 2000, so she was 1947-2000. My Dad lived there as a child from the age of eight onwards so he managed 1930-2003 except for the RAF where he spent 1941-1946. And they really loved that house. It was very sad when my wife and I had to empty it and repaint it before it was sold. Hopefully, the people who bought it are just as happy.

  8. Chris Waller

    My mother has told me this very story of the ‘nasty Nazi who came to Woodville’. She was in that crowd and recalled that the man spat at them so was clearly not trying to endear himself to the locals. His war was definitely not going the way he had possibly imagined it would. I wonder what became of him?

    • I think that the likeliest scenario is that he was sent to either Canada (before Pearl Harbor) or the United States (after Pearl Harbor) as a prisoner of war. He would then, if he wished, exercised his officer’s right not to work. or, if he was an NCO, he would have worked, often in the wheatfields. Some POWs were kept in England, but this was not thought ideal, as far as I know.
      Again, the officer could have been detained at Trent Park or a similar country house where British Intelligence listened to their conversations, after they had been taped (unknown to the prisoners) and then translated into English by German Jews.
      I have a series of posts in the future about a book written by two current German university professors on the subject of these very men, after one of the professors found 60,000 pages of transcripts in the National Archives, long forgotten about.

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