The Air Raid

The building shook harder than before. This was the fourth night in a week that Germany’s bombs had been dropped on Leeds. Jenny was terrified, she couldn’t show it. She had her children to think of. The first explosion seemed to be a few streets away but the second was much closer. The whole house shook and plaster fell from the wall. She expected there little terraced house to collapse at any minute. 

Jenny was huddled in the hastily built shelter in the cellar of their small home with her three children held close to her. Some of the families around her had evacuated their children at the beginning of the war, as had been the way in London and other major cities. When the raids didn’t come to anything many brought them home again. Jenny hadn’t sent hers in the first place. She had agonised about it but couldn’t be parted from them. She intended to keep her family together at all costs. Now of course that the raids had started she wondered if she had done the right thing. 

They had been lucky as Leeds hadn’t been a target so far in the war the way that other cities had. Whoever planned them had now realised that there were a number of strategic targets in this northern industrial city. 

The railway goods yards in the East of the city. The industrial might of Hunslet and Holbeck and Kirkstall forge were all targets. 

The shelter in Jenny’s cellar had been built rapidly at the outbreak of war. She was never sure how much use it would be if a bomb dropped on their house. What choice did she have? The public ones in the local park were too far when the bombs started falling, as were those in the city. 

Granddad was a problem, he was an old man and couldn’t move too fast. Each night the small family group managed to reach the shelter before the bombs fell. 

Forty-eight miles away in the tap-room of the Dale Head Tavern in Settle things couldn’t have been more different. Jack Sheldon had arrived earlier in the town and gone to the pub, his accommodation for the night. He was planning on a few drinks, a bite to eat and a good nights sleep.  He was on leave, the first he’d had in two years. 

After spending a few days with his mother catching up Jack had caught the train from Leeds to Settle. The public bar was a warm comfortable room. It was early October yet there was a real chill in Yorkshire air. Jack was ready for a bite to eat and a drink or two. He had a few more days leave before returning to his unit. He intended spending as much time as possible in the hills. 

The next day he was planning to walk from Settle to Horton in Ribblesdale taking in Fountains Fell and Penyghent. The day after that he would walk to Clapham taking in Whernside and Ingleborough. From Clapham he would get the train to Lancaster and then once again he would return to the war, as he made his way back to his unit in Scotland. 

Jacks first day passed quietly. He had barely met a soul as he travelled from valley bottoms to mountain tops and through remote villages. He had a pleasant evening in the village pub in Horton and was up early for his long hike to Clapham. On his way to Whernside Jack found caves and potholes along the way. He would occasionally stop and venture a little distance in them with his army issue torch. 

He reached the top of Whernside by lunchtime and was treated to several Lancaster and Halifax bombers flying through the valley below him, no doubt on some training mission or other. 

Jack liked Ingleborough but it had been a long day. He was happy to be making his way from the summit towards the track that would take him to Clapham. He had one last place to visit, Gaping Ghyll. It is a huge pothole where a stream plunges far below the ground. From afar there seems to be a large hollow in the moor. At the bottom of the hollow is a wide fissure. It is here that a stream disapears into the earths depths. 

Jack was fascinated by it and loved to just sit and imagine the network of caves leading off from the main chamber. For the first time on his days walk Jack found that he was not alone, a fellow rambler it seemed was already resting by the stream where it dropped into the chasm below. 

“Morning,” said Jack as he approached the stranger. 

“Morning,” said Gordon Field the village Doctor from Clapham. The two men exchanged pleasantries. The Doctor it seemed was having a day off from his busy rural practice and on his way up the mountain. As the two men talked a lone Lancaster flew low over the surrounding moorland. 

“He’s too low unless he pulls up now he’ll hit the mountain, said Jack. 

The plane flew overhead a few hundred feet above them, the top of Ingleborough was still seven hundred feet higher and they were flying directly into it. As the plane passed them a crew member jumped from the bomb bay doors. 

A few seconds later two things happened. Firstl, the plane veered wildly to one side and crashed into the side of the mountain. Second, the crew members parachute opened and he began his descent to the moorland below. 

Jack stood astonished at what he saw unfolding a half a mile or so away from them. 

“Quickly Doctor we need to get up there and see if there are any survivors”, said Jack. 

The plane by now was burning and billowing a plume of black smoke high into the sky. Jack and the village Doctor were standing on the limestone pavement by the edge of Gaping Ghyll. 

The first thing Jack felt was the thud in his back. He knew instantly what it was, the flat of the Doctors hand. Why? Was what he didn’t understand. The push caused him to stumble forward and loose his balance. The way he had hundreds of times before in sport or playing about. It was a simple manoeuvre to deal with for the complex human machine, one, two maybe three steps forward and everything would be fine. 

Unfortunately, Jack didn’t have three steps to take. He was standing at the edge of the deepest vertical shaft into a cave in Britain. From the surface, there was no sense of it being ten or ten thousand feet deep. To know its depth, we have to trust the good men and women who have gone before, descending on flimsy rope ladders. it has been suggested that St Pauls Cathedral would fit in the chamber below your feet. 

I guess people try to imagine what the moments before death are like. Romantic notions about life passing before you in an instant or being drawn towards white lights. Jack experienced none of this. He tumbled head long into the blackness, falling faster. Dropping into the great chasm. 

A sense of light behind him and an impenetrable blackness in front of him. He was overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness at the realisation that he was going to die. There would have been time for many more feelings of fear, sadness, regret, guilt on Jacks long fall to the cave floor. The thing that prevented this was the ledge half way down the shaft, just before the point where it opened into the huge chamber. He was already moving through the air quite quickly as his head hit cold wet limestone. He died almost instantly as the blow was massive and smashed his skull in many places. The blow slowed him and knocked him from a vertical descent into a raging, bouncing action through the narrowest part of the shaft. Smashing from side to side. His lifeless body though was always travelling down. 

Soon the shaft opened into the vast chamber. What an amazing sight Jack would have seen as he fell inside the waterfall. Anyone standing in the cave would have seen his tiny form appear high above. Coming through a small hole in the roof many hundreds of feet above their heads. The silver shower of water sparkling in the sun, shining down the shaft. Jack, tumbling, rolling, dropping to the cave floor fast and straight. There was no noise except the water falling to the floor of the chamber. Then a soft thud as the shattered body hit the ground. Jack lay broken and twisted in the wet and cold looking at some far-off point in the cave. 

Hans Overmeyer as the Clapham village Doctor was also known had to be careful as he pushed Jack. He didn’t want to lose his balance and follow him into the abyss. He knew it was possible and had put a foot forward to brace himself. He was no more than three feet from the edge and watched as Jack fell head first. He moved back away from the edge and sat on a rock. 

It had been a difficult few hours and things had not gone as planned with Jack appearing on the deserted moor. Hans just needed a moment to rest. He enjoyed killing people but it still took something out of you. His days work would soon be back on track. In the distance, the parachutist had landed. The plume of smoke was rising high into the clear autumn sky. 

Hans knew he would have to move fast. People in the village would no doubt already be making their way to the moor. Plane crashes were something that had been happening in the Dales since war began. Once word got around there would be a big commotion and a lot of people would start heading up the hill. He needed to meet his contact and get off the moor quickly. 

The parachutist had landed safely and Hans could see him in the distance making his way to the gate that led to the track off the moor. He set off confident that this was the only crew member that had escaped the crash. He was also heading to the gate. 

Hans reached the gate, the point where he was to have his rendezvous. He lit his pipe and was soon joined by the navigator from the crashed Lancaster. 

“Where have you been,” demanded Hans. “I have been hanging around here for hours. You should have brought the plane down over four hours ago.” 

“I’m sorry,” said Jim Patterson. “The pilot changed his route over here at the last-minute, I had to kill them all sooner than I had anticipated and fly the plane here myself. 

“It seems a day for problems,” said Hans. ” There was someone sightseeing on the hill just before you crashed. I have dealt with him. It will be some time before they find him. We’ll be long gone by then”. 

Both men looked back over the vast moorland and the thick plume of smoke was still billowing into the clear blue sky. The great bulk of Ingleborough framing the whole scene. 

“We must go quickly,” said Hans. “Rescue parties will already be on their way up from the village”. 

Both men set off towards the track that the doctor had walked up only hours earlier. As they approached the head of the track they could clearly see a convoy of small vehicles a few miles away working their way up from the village. This was awkward, there would be no explaining his situation.  The village Doctor on his way down from the crash site, with a perfectly healthy navigator and the rest of the crew shot dead. 

“Follow me,” said Hans. “My car is parked a mile or so down this ravine by the lake. I regularly come to this area bird watching. Once we get there I can put you in the boot and we’ll be fine. There will be nothing suspicious about it. They will think I have been bird watching near the lake. I can even go back up with them to the crash site.” 

Rushing down the slippery rock-strewn valley was difficult. It soon became clear that they wouldn’t make it to the car. The rescuers had reached the end of the track and were now making their way on foot up the mountain. Straight towards Hans and Jim. 

“Quick follow me, this our only chance now of not being discovered,” said Hans. 

He headed up the steep side of the valley. Jim Patterson was right behind him and they had soon reached a small crevice in the rocks about a hundred feet above the track. 

“Where are we going,” said Jim. 

“It is a place I have visited before, it is a hobby of mine exploring these caves and crevices,” said Hans. 

Both men were tired from their exertions. They had just reached the mouth of the small cave in time. The rescuers had turned a corner and reached the valley below them. The doctor dropped down into the crevice, onto a rocky gravel strewn floor about ten feet below. He was joined by the airman. They were safe and completely hidden from any direction above or below. 

“It will be dark soon we must wait in here and then go,” said Hans. 

He got a torch from his pack. There was a tunnel around head height leading away from the small entrance chamber. 

“Follow me,” said Hans. 

He set off along the passageway. This soon opened into a larger chamber than the first with no visible means of exit. The two men stood side by side in the cave. Hans shuddered not because he was cold. He had just been reminded of how his day was turning out. He had sent a man to his death in a place such as this, not far from here only an hour ago. Here he was about to do it again. 

The Doctor took off his sac and produced a complete change of clothes for Jim. He took his uniform and carefully packed it away. The navigator also handed over a leather-bound book and a set of plans. The items that the whole days operation had been about, the reason so many lives had been cruelly taken. 

The RAF had been trialing a new long-range radar system. It was revolutionary and would change the course of the war for the side that had it installed in its planes. Thanks to Jim an officer in the RAF, the German air force would soon be in possession of it. Jim Patterson had been recruited as a spy as the war had progressed. Hans Overmeyer felt like he had always been a spy. He was one of the Third Reichs best agents. 

“Your ID tags don’t forget those, I have a new identity for you when we get to the car. Here, have some chocolate you need some sugar after everything that has happened to you,” Hans handed Jim a small bar of chocolate and it his pipe. 

Hans stood and watched as Jim writhed in agony on the ground before dying. It wasn’t pleasant, the slow painful death of strychnine poisoning. Hans was pleased with his ingenuity and satisfied with the way he had dispatched the young RAF officer. He waited another hour until all the search parties had passed on their way up the mountain and went to his car. 

Soon he was on his way to Skipton Railway Station. He knew his time in England was over. The radar plans and codes must be taken to the fatherland and he trusted no one else to do it. 

Hans wife in Clapham knew nothing of his double life. Her life would be ruined if this whole sordid affair became public knowledge. Alternatively she would be the unfortunate woman whose husband mysteriously left her. He wasn’t too concerned either way. He had grown tired of her in recent years. It had only ever been a marriage of convenience. He had considered driving straight to his rendezvous with the U-boat in Scotland. Petrol was in such short supply though he barely had enough to get to Skipton only a few miles away. 

It would be a long time before the two dead bodies were found. Nothing else so far linked him to the plane crash and theft of the radar plans. He felt safe to leave his car at Skipton railway station. He was after all simply a Doctor travelling somewhere on the vast British railway network during wartime. 

There was another reason he couldn’t drive straight to Scotland. He had become very fond of a young woman from Leeds over the last year. Hans in his role as village Doctor helped at hospitals in the city as part of the war effort. He had met the young widow at a dance and spent each weekend with her at his hotel. 

Unusually for him he had begun to put Jenny at the forefront of his thoughts. There was no doubt he would be at his rendezvous with details of the new radar system and would return to Germany. He was though working out how he would convince Jenny to travel back to Germany with him. He knew she loved him, as she had told him often. He knew she would be delighted when he arrived and said that he had left his wife. Even though it might not be under the circumstances she had wanted. 

Hans decided on the train to Leeds that he would tell her the truth. The truth about his love for her and his homeland. He knew he could win her over. Once Germany had won the war he would reunite her with her family. He would leave money for them to live on. Her eldest was almost sixteen, she could care for the rest. It wasn’t the best plan Hans had ever come up but under the circumstances it was the only one he could think of. The U-boat captain would probably take Jenny but not the rest of them. 

Jenny and her family had got over the previous nights raid and life the next morning began returning to normal with work and school for the family. The city had paid a heavy toll, twenty-five buildings destroyed including schools, houses and factories. Seventy people were either missing or dead. The bombs had missed the large marshaling yards in the East of the city but there was a feeling that this wouldn’t be the last time the city would be bombed. 

Things had been hard for Jenny since the war began. Her husband died during the evacuation of Dunkerque at the beginning of the war. Then her mother died unexpectedly though illness. She worked hard and struggled to contain her emotions. She did so for the sake of her children. Her grandfather was a good man who had taken care of them all for many years. He was old but still capable, if not a lot slower than before. She he hoped he would stay around for a while. She was not ready just yet to bury another member of her family. 

That evening Jenny was sitting alone in her small living room. Grandpa had taken himself off into the cellar pottering in the shelter. He said it needed cleaning and had taken tinned food and fresh water down for them. The children were at her sister’s house a few streets away having tea. She enjoyed these rare quiet moments. She wasn’t the type of woman to feel sorry for herself. Life was a struggle and if that was how it was meant to be, then so be it. 

The only glimmer of fun she had during this whole miserable time was the weekends she had spent with the Doctor from up Skipton way. She often fondly remembered the dance at the Mecca ballroom where they had met. Jenny knew that he was married but time with him had been a welcome distraction for her. He was kind and helped her out with gifts and money for the family. She enjoyed their time together and wondered if he meant what he said about one day leaving his wife. She wasn’t going to get her hopes up. Not the way this war was turning out for her family. 

The knock at the door woke Jenny. She had nodded off in her chair. She wasn’t expecting any callers and upon answering the door was surprised to find her doctor waiting outside for her. 

“Jenny my darling how are you,” said Hans 

“Gordon what are you doing here? We were to meet in Leeds on Friday or you would send a telegram to cancel, I thought that was the arrangement,” said Jenny 

“It was but something has happened, something terrible and I need help. You my sweet are the only one who can help me,” Hans took her hands in his and pulled her towards him. 

The couple were still standing on the doorstep, Jenny felt uncomfortable. This was a close community and although no one was in the street she couldn’t be sure neighbours weren’t watching. 

“We shouldn’t be out here together it doesn’t look right. Come inside,” said Jenny. 

Jenny took Hans by the hand and led him into her little terraced house. One room with a settee, chairs, a table and radio. A door in the corner led to the staircase. Upstairs were two bedrooms and an attic. To the right of the house door was a small kitchen, with a door at the end that led to the cellar. 

“Are we alone Jenny my darling?” asked Hans. 

“Yes, the children are at my sisters they will be a few hours yet. Grandfather is out too” said Jenny. Something had stopped her telling the whole truth to Hans. 

The couple sat on the settee in front of the fire. The story Hans proceeded to tell Jenny was extraordinary. She didn’t understand why was he telling her this. Why would he tell her all of this and then expect her to leave her family behind. He was clearly under great stress and had been drinking. 

The stress of a lifetime of lies and now this mission was taking its toll on him. After he had got off the train he had drunk several large whiskies in the station bar before he left for Jenny’s home. He always knew he would return to Germany with the plans. He had realised though that he loved Jenny. He knew what he must do if she wouldn’t agree to come with him. Jenny and her family were a loose end and he must kill them all. 

Hans reached into his rucksack and took out his Luger pistol already fitted with its silencer. He felt now was time to explain to Jenny her options. Leave her family and live with him in Germany or die in a moment’s time here in her living room. He had never met her children or the grandfather and they didn’t know him. It looked like he might get away with only killing Jenny. He should never have confided in her he knew it was a mistake. Killing her would be hard. Hans stood up and moved towards the door, he stood a few feet away from Jenny with his back to the open kitchen door, sideways on to the house door. 

“You are not coming with me are you Jenny?” asked Hans. 

“No of course not my grandfather fought in the first war, my husband died in this one. I have three wonderful children. Here you are asking me to betray them and go live in another country with a Nazi spy. You’re not going to kill just leave, leave now and I won’t tell anyone you’ve been here,” said Jenny. 

Hans knew that wasn’t true, Jenny knew it wasn’t true. He raised the gun and took aim at Jenny’s head. He had no doubt going to kill her. The first knife wound missed Hans heart by a fraction, the large kitchen knife sunk into his upper back-breaking through skin, bone and muscle. Much as a butcher would make the first cut into an animal carcass. It wasn’t a killing blow but a shocking one. Hans dropped his gun and fell forward to his knees. Blood was flowing from the deep wound, dripping onto the carpet below him. 

Grandpa was standing in the doorway holding the kitchen knife. He had been on his way up from the cellar as Hans arrived and hadn’t wanted to disturb his granddaughter. He knew of her relationship with the Doctor and was happy for her. She worked so hard and he didn’t begrudge her some fun and happiness. That was why he didn’t want to disturb them. He thought it unusual that the Doctor was visiting her at home but decided to wait in the kitchen. He took a seat in the corner and heard events unfold. 

Grandpa didn’t wait for Hans to gather himself, he could see his right hand feeling across the carpet towards the Luger. He moved closer to Hans and followed up the first blow with several more. By now Jenny had joined her grandfather raising her hand to stop the old man. The exertion was already beginning to tell on him. In her right hand was Hans Luger which she raised and fired once, directly into the back of the German spies head. 

Jenny’s children spent the night at her sisters while her and her grandfather cleared the mess in their lounge. Later the pair moved Hans Overmeyer a few streets away. Other members of her family were on hand to help. In the dead of night, the small group managed to bury Overmeyer deep in a bombed building. It was to be made safe the next week and flattened. Jenny was unsure when he would be found but with luck it wouldn’t be for a long time. The final job she had to do next was return the plans for the radar system. She dropped them off the next week at the city’s war department office. 

Jenny pinned a note to the front of the large brown envelope containing the book and plans; 

“Secret RAF documents, stolen by a German spy. Returned before he could take them to Germany. He was a bad man and died for his trouble. Signed ‘A loyal subject of the King’”. 

The three skeletons were found at various times over the next fifty years. Each one becoming a mystery in its own right. This has been the story of how they were all linked and what happened during those few days in October 1942. 

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