Memories of the deadly raider which came to stay

Eighty years ago, as Miss Vera Duppa cycled along a country lane on her way to work at Much Wenlock Post Office, an injured stranger appeared.

Raising his hands, he called "Mercy Fraulein." Vera was too frightened to stop and rode on to get help.

That stranger was a downed German airman, one of two survivors of a Heinkel bomber which had plunged to earth near Bridgnorth during the height of the Blitz – the first Luftwaffe raider to crash in Shropshire.

Their encounter was in the morning of November 16, 1940.

As the news spread that a bomber had come down, it created a sensation, and was fully reported in the local press. Sightseers went to the scene, where the wreckage was under armed guard.

The aircraft, Heinkel He III, serial code A1+LN, was on its second operational raid against a target in Coventry but then got into difficulties when ice building up on its wings made it uncontrollable. The plane went into a dive and broke up.

Years later the Heinkel's observer, 26-year-old Alfred Achstaller, who came from the tiny village of Mambach im Wiesental in the Black Forest, was to recall what happened.

“We were climbing when suddenly the aircraft had a problem. I shouted to Karl: Karl . . . out . . . get out . . ., everybody get out . . . I jumped out without knowing what was up and what was down. It was pitch dark.

"I pulled the ripcord on my parachute and it deployed, but I didn’t know when I would touch the ground. I landed on my back on a fence post, hence the big scar on my right shoulder blade.”

The tail of the plane and the rear part of the fuselage snapped off and floated to earth to come to rest on an even keel in the centre of a ploughed field at Monkhopton. Much of the rest of the aircraft crashed about a mile and a half away, in pastureland at Netchwood, and the engines came down at Rutnoll.

There had been four on board – pilot and captain, Leutnant Karl Svata, aged 34, who was a former member of the SS; Alfred Achstaller; wireless operator and gunner, Unteroffizier Josef Mutzl, aged 23, from Augsburg; and flight engineer and gunner, Feldwebel Heinrich Engelken, aged 26, from Ostendorff.

Svata and Achstaller landed in fields close to Spoonhill Wood, a relatively remote area close to Callaughton.

Mutzl was found dead in a garden in Callaughton. His parachute was draped in a tree and he had suffered severe facial injuries. It seems his parachute did not open properly. The body of Engelken was found about 200 yards from the main wreckage, from which he had seemingly been thrown clear.

For some detail of what happened as dawn broke, we can turn to research in 1970 by the Rev John Durnell, who at the time was the rector of Church Aston but both during the war and later took a keen interest in Shropshire crash sites. He died in 2014.

Mr Durnell sought out eyewitnesses to the Heinkel crash and his notes show that on the evening of December 4, 1970, he gave Miss Duppa – by then Mrs Vera Childs, living in Southfield Road, Much Wenlock – a ring.

"She recalled on morning of 16 Nov 1940 it was just breaking light when she was cycling from Spoonhill Farm to Callaughton and work at Much Wenlock Post Office," he recorded.

"As she came to edge of wood leaving Spoonhill a German airman crawled out of the field. He raised his hands and called 'Mercy Fraulein.' He was in flying kit and his parachute was draped around him. His legs were broken.

"She was too frightened to stop and went on down road where she met a man and Home Guard. Came back with them, airman shouted out when he saw guns." (?, this final word is uncertain, the handwriting is unclear).

The two survivors, Achstaller and Svatha, were taken by ambulance to Cross Houses Hospital.

Mutzl and Engelken were buried with full military honours by the RAF at Bridgnorth Cemetery on November 20, 1940. Their bodies were exhumed on January 30, 1963, and reburied in the German military cemetery at Cannock Chase.

Immediately after the crash there was an investigation – secret of course – for the Air Ministry, by one Squadron Leader S D Felkin.

In the "morale" section of his report, he said of Achstaller: "Good. A reasonable type who makes a good impression and has no pronounced political views. Other survivor – too ill to judge."

At the end of January 1941 Achstaller was moved to Canada as a prisoner-of-war, finally being repatriated to Germany in the spring of 1947.

He died in 1988, but years later there was to be a sequel to those events of 80 years ago.

His son Manfred tried to find out more about his father's wartime experiences – with the upshot that in 2012, out of the blue, he contacted the Durnells.

The Achstaller family were eternally grateful to the people living in and around Much Wenlock who had treated Alfred in such a decent and humane way.

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