Bullets across the pitch
My friend Norman was lying on a grassy slope at the side of the village cricket field awaiting his turn to bat when Unteroffizer Theo Frank tried to kill his school friends out on the pitch.
Frank was a fair-haired German airman, only 20 years old, the wireless operator and rear gunner of as JU-88 bomber that was racing over the rooftops of New Mills in North Derbyshire one sunny summer’s evening in 1942.
Norman saw Frank’s aircraft, which was accompanied by another bomber, streaking towards the cricket field and thought they were RAF planes on a low-flying exercise, but his friend Roy Bainbridge, who was at the crease and preparing to receive his first ball, raised his bat and stopped the bowler in mid-stride. The aircraft roared over their heads and there was a sudden chatter of machine gun fire. A stream of 7.92mm bullets thudded into the turf in a straight line all the way from cover point to fine leg. The boys threw themselves flat and, mercifully, were unhurt.
A few seconds later they heard a loud explosion and saw smoke rising beyond the stone tower of the village church. The cricket match was abandoned and many of the lads ran to see what had occurred. A bomb dropped from one of the planes had destroyed a couple of houses and killed two people. Then there were more explosions. The war, which until then had seemed so far
away, had suddenly come to New Mills in dark and sombre fashion.
Unteroffizer Frank was one of four airmen in his Junkers plane. The bombers had taken off from their base in France with orders to make a surprise low-level daylight attack on the de Havilland propeller factory at Horwich, near Bolton. They had flown north up the Irish Sea, and to avoid anti-aircraft guns clustered around Merseyside had crossed the coast near Southport before heading for Bolton. Apparently they’d missed their target, and flown on at tree-top height across Lancashire and Cheshire to escape detection by ground radar. At Woodford airfield in Cheshire, where Lancaster bombers were built, they circled the hangars and workshops but, unaccountably, failed to drop their bombs. Then they headed towards the Pennines, still flying at little more than 100ft.
The villages of New Mills and Hayfield were the last clusters of buildings they came across
before reaching high moorland. Frank opened fire with his machine gun, hitting the local gas-holder, a railway signal box and the cricket ground. His colleague, bomb-aimer Horst Wie-berny, released bombs that dropped in the River Goyt and others that demolished two groups of cottages, killing a total of eight people.
F. Sgt Mieczyslaw Popek, whose 303 Sqn. Spitfire downed one of the Junkers. The iron cross seen on the side of his aircraft had been attached to one of the Junkers.
The two planes climbed over the Peak District hills and turned south-east for home, the gunners not being able to resist firing more rounds of ammunition at the windows of Chats-worth House, then in use as a girls’ school, before speeding on over the flat fields of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.
By this time, however, telephone lines were humming and four Polish pilots of 303 Sqn based at Kirton-in-Lindsay, near Scunthorpe, took off in their Spitfires at 8.05pm on an interception course. They immediately sighted the raiders and dived to attack. Fit. Sgt. Popek fired a long burst before
Left: Two cottages demolished when a bomb fell on Hayfield during the 1942 raid.
breaking off only 20 yards from the right-hand German plane. Frank’s colleague, Karl Schute-schneider, sitting immediately behind the pilot, swung his gun upward and fired back desperately at the Spitfire, hitting the fighter’s propeller – but both engines of the Junkers burst into flames and the machine plunged into farm buildings near the small town of Wragby.
The other German aircraft, also damaged, made a forced landing in a nearby field, the crew running from the wreckage until they were taken captive by members of the local Home Guard. Unteroffizer Theo Frank and the fellow members of his crew, however, were killed instantly. It had been a high price to pay for their miniature blitz on New Mills.
When Norman and I walked to school the next morning our path lay across the River Goyt. An unexploded bomb had been pulled out of the river by workmen from a nearby mill and rather recklessly placed in a wheelbarrow on the muddy bank. We walked up to the wheelbarrow – ignorance being bliss – and examined the canister at close quarters. Later in the day warning signs were erected and the entire area cordoned off by police.
Two days later Norman and I returned to the village cricket ground. Much of the excitement had died down. The holes made across the pitch by Theo Frank’s bullets could clearly be seen as play was resumed in the interrupted match. Norman went on to score 27 runs, but I forget which side won.