While Raids Over York focuses on the 10 targeted and deliberate raids on the city by the Luftwaffe, there were other incidences of bombs being accidentally dropped or “dumped” on or near the city by German bombers eager to lighten their load when either returning home or being chased by R.A.F. planes.
One such incident over the Osbaldwick predates the 10 raids completely, occurring on the 7th August 1940. As such, it technically makes it the first bomb of the war to fall in the city region. Tragically, it also caused the first York casualties of the war.
According to the reports of the 7th Anti-Aircraft Division, a solo Luftwaffe plane was responsible for the night raid and dropping of three anti-personnel bombs over Osbaldwick.
The weather that night was heavy rain with thick cloud at 5,000ft, and some lighter cloud at 15,000ft. The bomber plane flew over the Bridlington area at 23.10, then turned north over Filey before being detected over Pickering at 23.22.
At 23:47 the bomber entered the York sector, dropping to 5,000ft, before dropping “3 anti-personnel bombs with flat trajectory” over Osbaldwick at 23.52. Two bombs fell harmlessly in fields nearby [probably where the new Derwenthorpe development now stands], but one bomb fell in the middle of Osbaldwick Lane, near the then vicarage.
One woman, described in the Anti-Aircraft Report as “Mrs. Battie”, but later identified in the Hull Daily Mail as “Mrs Abbot”, was killed outright while out walking with her sister, who was also injured. A further man was injured was lying in his bed, as bomb shrapnel – or “splinters” as the reports call it – caused damage to buildings in a radius of 100 yards.
The “Mrs Abbot” was Jean Abbott (nee Colley), who died aged only 20 in the bombing. She had recently married to a soldier and had recently moved to ‘Braeside’, Osbaldwick, only 30-yards away from where the bomb that killed her struck. At the time of her wedding she was a ‘chocolate works packer’, no doubt at one of the city’s chocolate factories, and was living with her parents at 146 Tang Hall Lane. [It is understood that an image of the bomb damage to Osbaldwick Lane was published in the Yorkshire Evening Press on the 8th August 1940, but this image and article has not been found to date]
The incident was reported in the press the following day, but no particular details could be given for national security reasons, as it was assumed that Nazi German agents would be able to use particular details to feed back to Germany as confirmation of their intended targets being hit (or not) and that this would only hone the enemy’s ability to conduct more accurate raids in the future. All the same, the write-up in the North-Eastern Gazette is dismissive of the casualties, and it is hard not to read a misogynistic sentiment in the phrasing of it. [It is unclear if the mention of (Nazi propaganda) leaflets being dropped refers to this raid, possibly, or another.]
Today, traces of the bomb that fell on Osbaldwick Lane have been lost partially to post-war development of buildings that stood at the time of the bombing, but also new development since it. ‘The vicarage’ that is referred to in the A.R.P. report was demolished in in the 1970s and a new housing estate stands in its place (suitably called Vicarage Gardens).
Was it an accidental dumping of bombs? Probably not, but it was unlikely this was the target. (Or if it was, it would more likely have been The Derwent Valley Light Railway junction and depot to the immediate north-east of Osbaldwick Lane).
As the plane went on to drop a further seven bombs six minutes later in a field to the west of Wheldrake, it is likely that the R.A.F. station at Elvington was the intended target -although it is unknown if this was a chance, secondary objective chosen due to the cloud cover preventing another, primary target. The German bomber was last seen over Filey at 01:00 heading eastwards.
A letter from Councillor W. Bunch, the city’s Chief Air Warden, written the following day, underlies that lessons were still being learnt over best practice when dealing with bombing incidents in the city.
Bunch’s letter touches on a lack of established “Mutual Support” between City of York Council and North Riding would need to be reconsidered, as it had resulted in the casualties having not been removed for the scene of the bombing and dispatched for medical attention for “over an hour”, which was too long.
Bunch goes on to say that such a problem was a result of the City’s outer suburbs and villages being in the East, West, and North Riding areas, but the City of York being responsible in terms of many other amenity provisions, including housing.
And yet, further tragedy…
Sadly Mrs Abbott was not the only casualty of the 7 August 1940 bombing. Henry Hawley, a 26-year old motor van driver and part-time Air-Raid Warden, of 18 Plummer Avenue, was shot dead in Tang Hall Lane at 23.55 (ie. a few minutes after the bomb that killed Jean Abbott).
But it wasn’t machine gun fire from the Luftwaffe bomber that killed Hawley; it was an R.A.F. Sergeant firing his revolver.
How did this come about? From a report by the City’s Chief Warden and a subsequent trial, that featured in the Northern Echo, the sequence of events that led to the tragedy can be understood.
Hawley was on duty in Tang Hall Lane, and warning drivers there to put out their headlights due to the nearby bombing occurring. The R.A.F. Sergeant was also in the lane, probably concerned by the bombing nearby and a need to aid wardens in their work.
As a car, believed to be a taxi, approached with headlamps lit, Hawley, together with others, attempted to stop the driver and warn him of danger arising from having lit headlamps during a bombing raid. But as the car did not stop, the R.A.F. Sergeant drew his revolver, “saying ‘I’ll make him stop’. He fired a shot, presumably at the car tyres,” but Hawley was struck by the bullet in the shoulder. He was taken to County Hospital, but later died of his injuries.
At a subsequent inquiry held five days later it was established that Flight-Sergeant Patrick Murphy of the R.A.F, then on leave in Yorkshire, believed that he had the right to use firearms when he considered it called for, and irregardless of whether it was for a civilian situation or if he was technically on leave; “I have the authority of an airman in uniform” he argued.
It demonstrates a level of ambiguity that was occurring in the early stages of the war on the Home Front, when military and civilian codes were often blurred and, in the case of Murphy, a clear resentment form military personnel at the thought of having to answer to civilian authorities and members of the public during and after bombing raids.
Murphy had seen action in the First World War with the Tank Corps and had been with the R.A.F for 12 years by the time of the incident, meaning that he was in his forties, at least.
The Coroner considered:
“Air raid wardens are taught that their job is to remain cool, calm and collected in order to prevent that panic taking place. I have no doubt that is what all those good citizens who were undertaking that duty were performing on that night. …The morale of the ordinary man in the street was extremely sound. The object [of the bombing] was to cause panic and the only person who seemed to have panicked on this occasion was the Flight-Sergeant in uniform who was provided with a weapon. He lost his head and did one thing likely to cause panic, started shooting”.
[Northern Echo, 13 August 1940]
Despite no further action being taken against Murphy, the stinging, public rebuke from the coroner, especially the reference to this military man panicking and ‘losing his head’ whilst civilians did not, must have been greatly shameful to him.