Enduring mystery of a death in Paradise

Death in Paradise – and one Shropshire mystery that has never been satisfactorily solved.

How the discovery was reported in February 1949.
How the discovery was reported in February 1949.

It was a riddle which long vexed the North Shropshire coroner who, while he was unable to crack it, had his suspicions that there had been a body-swap murder.

And after we featured the conundrum of the late 1940s death of a German prisoner-of-war the other day, Mike Williams of Wem has got in touch to share his own memories of the incident which made headlines and was surrounded by much rumour.

On January 27, 1949, a skeleton was found in woodland near Hawkstone, and was identified as 39-year-old SS man Wilhelm Fradrich, who had gone missing from the nearby prisoner-of-war camp on May 13, 1948 – for years after the end of the war tens of thousands of German POWs continued to be held in British prison camps.

For North Shropshire coroner Alfred Thomas Smith it didn't add up. According to the assistant camp commandant, Fradrich had blond hair. Unhelpfully, all his personal records had disappeared, but when Mr Smith insisted on forensic checks they showed the hair of the victim was brown, and a very dark shade at that.

At the inquest the coroner recorded an open verdict on what he described as an unidentified adult male.

How the discovery was reported in February 1949.

Reflecting on his long career years later, he recalled the puzzling case and speculated that another SS man, perhaps fearing retribution on his eventual return to Germany, had murdered a fellow prisoner, made it look like suicide, and stolen his identity.

Mike, who is now in his mid-80s, lived for many years up the Guinea Lane at Weston-under-Redcastle, and must be one of a dwindling number of Salopians to remember the affair, and recalls that the local rumour mill at the time had a somewhat different explanation.

"The prisoner-of-war camp the victim came from was at Weston-under-Redcastle on the site where the first five holes of Hawkstone Golf Course now stand," he said.

This map, drawn by the late Hodnet historian Gerald Mothershaw, shows where the German prisoner of war camp was at Hawkstone.

The story he heard was that, while awaiting repatriation after the war, one of the prisoners was employed in the gardens at Hodnet Hall where he struck up a friendship with the head keeper's daughter, and asked her to marry him – all a ruse, it was suggested later, to enable him to remain in Britain.

But the girl's father was strongly opposed to the marriage and demanded that the prison camp commander confine the prisoner to camp and expedite his return to Germany.

"Despite this, only a few days later the man was found to have gone missing, and after some initial searches it was decided by the authorities that he had returned to Germany using a different identity or was now on the run in the UK.

"While I’m sure you know that in World War Two only one German prisoner-of-war escaped back to Germany, I remember at least one attempted escape from the Weston camp when, having managed to crawl out under the barbed wire fence undetected by the guards, two prisoners were eventually rounded up after they were found hiding in the White Tower, a castle-type monument that is now part of the Hawkstone Follies."

Part of Hawkstone golf course was a prisoner of war camp during, and in the time immediately after, the war.

The discovery of the remains, most of which were under a tree, many months later set tongues wagging.

"The gossips in Hodnet and Weston had a field day suggesting that, after escaping, the prisoner had gone to collect his girlfriend but had been killed by her irate father and his body hidden on the estate and only moved to where it was found when the whole family left the area, hence the missing bits of his skeleton. When the bones had been collected from under the tree were pieced together it was found that both his hands and feet were missing. It was decided they must have been eaten by foxes.

German prisoners of war escaped too, and according to the late Mrs Mab Vere Robbins of Much Wenlock this picture she took shows the exit of an escape tunnel made by German prisoners held at Donnington, although the well crafted stonework does raise a question mark about that.

"If the police suspected this then nothing came of it as I'm sure if any arrests had been made it would have been the talk of the village.

"As I remember, following several weeks of speculation as to how he had met his fate, the whole sad saga eventually got lost in the mists of time.

"Incidentally, the place where the body was found is called Paradise, Kenstone. The house where my dad was born there is now a popular nudist colony. Unfortunately I am the last member of our family alive who witnessed the event and I don't suppose there are many people in either village who are either."

Thousands of German prisoners were held in Shropshire camps for years after the war ended. This photo from historian Phil Fairclough shows "Walter and friends" – "Walter" surrendered in April 1945 and was held at various camps including Hawkstone Park, Shelton, and Atcham. The shirts they are wearing were made from parachutes.

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