Bomber Crash in Idle, 1941

The Night the War came to Idle

Britain had declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939 and soon horrendous events were taking place across Europe. Britain was spared until Germany began its aerial offensive in the summer of 1940.  Thereafter many towns became the target of heavy and sustained bombing.  But until the late spring of 1941 the war had little effect on the north Bradford suburb of Idle.  There had been disruption to sleep with air raid sirens sounding and the distant thud of bombs dropping and anti-aircraft guns firing around Bradford, but life went on as normal in this small village..

But things changed with a vengeance just after midnight on Monday 5th May 1941 when Bradford experienced its highest civilian casualties of the war; not from bombing but from a German bomber shot down by the RAF.

Residents were awoken by the sounds of machine gun fire followed by the loud noise of a labouring aircraft engine.  Moments later, before anyone had time to take shelter, they were stunned by a terrific explosion which shook many local houses.  People rushed out onto the streets to discover that a German bomber had crashed into houses near to the centre of the village.  The aircraft had struck the wood-yard of J.W. Barker at 1 Jasper Street, and the neighbouring row of cottages on the High Street. Numbers 9 to 15 were badly damaged, as can well be imagined with a twelve ton aircraft falling from the sky.

The story of the events that took place that night had its beginning at 23.15 hours in German occupied Netherlands, where Kustenfliegruppe 106/2 was based.  Nine Junkers 88A-5 bombers, the Luftwaffe’s most versatile aircraft, with a wingspan of 65ft and a length of 52ft, took off on their mission to attack the harbour facilities in Belfast.  One bomber was piloted by Oberleutnant Ernst Jurgens and his crew: observer, Oberleutnant z. See Reinhold Metzger, wireless operator, Oberfeldwebel Hans Beeck, and gunner, Feldwebel  Heinrich  Janichen.  As they crossed the English coastline they were attacked by Beaufighter R-2156, an RAF night fighter aircraft of 25 Squadron, crewed by Sergeant Ken Hollowell and his radar operator, Sergeant Richard Crossman.  The right wing of the Junkers was hit causing the engine to burst into flames.  In a desperate attempt to save the aircraft Janichen and Beeck parachuted out to reduce the weight, while the remaining crew jettisoned as much equipment as possible in an attempt to regain height and return over the North Sea.  Before they could achieve this they were attacked by another fighter and the aircraft spiralled out of control, with the only option for Jurgens and Metzger to abandon their aircraft and bale out.

The German Bomber crew, reproduced with permission from the publisher of Broken Eagles: Luftwaffe losses over Yorkshire 1939 – 1945, Pen and Sword Books

Janichen bailed out and landed near Farnley where he was captured by a policeman patrolling on a motorbike  He was taken on the pillion to Otley police station.  Metzger landed near the Ings Hotel, Guiseley and was also taken to Otley police station.  It is not recorded where Beeck landed, but he too was soon arrested by the police.  Jurgens landed in a field off Idle Moor and was also soon captured. All four were later transferred to the Bradford police station.[1]

Idle High Street, showing the site of the most serious damage

Following the crash, which destroyed two cottages and caused extensive damage to adjoining buildings, fire immediately engulfed the area.  Several people saw the crash and rushed towards the scene, where they were quickly followed by many neighbours who had been roused by the noise.  The local fire brigade and police were soon in attendance and began to rescue the injured some of whom were unconscious.  Living at number 9 High Street were John and Sarah Boyd, both aged 27, along with their son Garth who was just 20 months old.  When the plane came crashing through the roof of their home they were sound asleep in bed.  Burning beams fell down on them trapping them in their bed.  Sarah died at the scene and her husband, who was badly injured, was rushed to St Luke’s Hospital where, despite the best attention, he was to succumb to his injuries six weeks later.  Their son Garth’s cot was tipped upside down by the impact and pushed beneath the open staircase.  This offered him some protection and certainly saved his life, but he was described by one of the rescuers as “glowing like a coal” and was badly burned. He was rushed to St Luke’s hospital where his grandmother, Mrs Elizabeth Boyd, persuaded doctors not to amputate one of his legs.  However his burns were so intensive that he was still receiving treatment three years later.[2]  Living next door at number 11 was Sarah Boyd’s mother Eliza Clayton who suffered serious injuries but luckily survived.  At number 13 Mrs Ethel Green was injured but her young baby, Elsa, died. The fourth person to die was Herbert Jowett, aged 64, who lived at number 15. The injured were taken to local shops and houses where they received first aid until the ambulances arrived to take them off to hospital.  Sarah and John Boyd were later buried in Idle Holy Trinity Church graveyard, Herbert Jowett was buried in Bowling Cemetery in an unmarked grave.  Unfortunately the final resting place of little Elsa Green is unrecorded.

Debris and damage from the crash, Idle High Street

One of the first to arrive at the scene of the crash was Arthur Taylor of New Street, Idle who was in charge of the local ARP.  On hearing the explosion he ran to offer his assistance, and on reaching the scene saw a lady trapped in her house.  With the aid of a local policeman they managed to rescue her through a shattered window.  While working at the site of the crash Mr Taylor found what he thought was an Iron Cross in the wreckage and quickly put it in his pocket.  The medal which is now in Idle Library and labelled as an Iron Cross is in fact a Faithful Service Medal, an award which was given to German citizens who worked in local and national public service.  There was a silver version for 25 years service, but the one in Idle Library is a gold version which was awarded for 40 years service.  There is no indication as to why it was in the aircraft or to whom it belonged but was most probably awarded to a close relative of one of the air crew.

The Faithful Service Medal, now held by Idle Library

What happened next comes mainly from an account by 15 year old Stanley Wilkinson.  Stanley had recently left school and was a trainee reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post, based at their Bradford office.  He lived with his parents in Cockcroft Lane, Idle.  On hearing the noise he got out of bed, quickly donned a jacket and trousers over his pyjamas and raced out to the scene.  However, possibly owing to his youthful looks, he was turned away by the police, but undeterred he decided to visit friends of his family who lived at Laverack Hall Farm on High Busy Lane. They had seen the aircraft and told him what had happened.  Heading back up the hillside as he passed Carcase End Farm he saw a man standing in a field, looking over a gate.  Realising he must be the pilot Stanley bravely approached him.  The man was able to speak some English and as Stanley had a smattering of schoolboy German they were able to manage a conversation.  The boy guided the pilot towards the police box at the top of the High Street, not far from the crash scene.  On the way they were joined by a local shoe repairer, the Sunday School caretaker and several others before they handed their prisoner over to the police.[3]

As daylight broke workmen got on with the job of demolishing the two badly damaged cottages and making the remaining buildings safe. A cordon was placed around the site by the Idle Home Guard with the police warning people against trying to obtain souvenirs, however this did not deter some enterprising children. Several pieces of the wreckage were collected by the young David Hogg, and his daughter Mrs Gill McFadden still has them in her possession.  Later in the morning RAF workers arrived with trailers to remove all of the remains of the aircraft, but it has been said that they failed to recover one of the engines which buried itself deep into the ground. It will be interesting to see if any remains are discovered if the site is ever redeveloped.

Gussie Fink-Nottle

[1]Norman, B.  Broken Eagles: Luftwaffe Losses over Yorkshire 1939-1945. Pen and Sword Books, 2001., G Myers, Mother Worked at  ‘Avro’,   1995   

[2] There is an interesting coincidence concerning little Garth Boyd’s fate in the crash. In 1958 John Braine’s novel Room at the Top was filmed in Bradford and Garth acted as an extra in the film. A little later in an interview John Braine related that he had been an ARP warden in Idle during the war and attended the crash, and he took the idea of the central character in his book, Joe Lampton, from a little boy who was pulled from the wreckage.

[3] Idle and Thackley Heritage Group.  Idle at War, Memories of 1939-45

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