The Night that the Germans bombed Upton

At the time of the incident the reporting of bombing raids was prohibited but the incident is briefly referred to in the “North Berks Herald and Didcot Advertiser” 14/3/1941 headlined Home Counties Raids. It mentions several bombs being dropped in fields near a small village and many windows being broken, but that there were no casualties.

A little imagination has been used to suggest what actually happened that evening, much of it is true as told to me by two witnesses still living in the village.

Mike Brown

The date was the 9th March 1941, the time approaching 8.30, it was a fine and pleasant evening with thin cloud cover. Across the small village of Upton darkness prevailed with blackouts in place as Mr Newman the Air Raid Warden completed his routine patrol of the village streets.

The area around Upton had been relatively free from the ravages of the war but the previous August there had been two very damaging raids on the nearby Harwell airfield that had killed a total of 8 airmen and on November 13th 1940 a Ju88 bomber attempting to attack the same airfield had been intercepted over Upton by two Spitfires with the result that the bomber was brought down and crash-landed at Woodway Farm. Since those incidents things had been quiet through the winter months but in February attacks in Oxfordshire had begun to escalate so Mr Newman was out with some purpose.

There were two small cottages located some 500 yards from the village at the bottom of Frog Alley, both were occupied by ladies living alone. In one of the cottages lived Miss Partridge who shall we say was somewhat unconventional in her habits. Both cottages had paraffin lamps and candles as their only means of lighting and unfortunately Miss Partridge could not understand the requirements of the blackout laws or why they should apply to her as she lived well away from the village. To say the least she was a problem to Mr Newman who had spoken to her about the situation on several occasions but on this particular evening he decided against going down the muddy lane just to check on one light although, yet again, unbeknown to him, it was clearly visible from the back of the cottage.

One of Miss Partridge’s strange habits was that she often went for a walk just before retiring to bed but in her case it was more of a scuttle than a walk as she bustled along at near jogging pace. During the winter months she still took her late evening walk whenever she could and would carry a paraffin lantern to see her way around the puddles in the lanes.

So it was on March 9th that Miss Partridge set off on her customary walk at just about 8.30. She was half way back down Pink Hedge Lane when coming in over Blewbury was a Ju88 German bomber laden with 500 incendiary bombs and two 500lb bombs. The bomber, whose target was again the airfield at Harwell, had succeeded in making its way undetected across the country probably because there were heavy air raids taking place at that time both in the Midlands and on the South Coast. As he approached his target, the navigator was on full alert, he knew his course would take him close to the airfield and was looking for a break in the cloud such that he could pick out the inevitable odd light that would indicate the location of a working airfield. As he came in over Blewbury the cloud broke and below he could pick out two lights, one was Miss Partridge’s cottage where the light had been left on and the other was the lady herself scuttling back down the lane with her swinging lantern which he easily mistook as a slow moving vehicle.

Confident he had located his target the navigator called to his pilot “target ahead” and ordered him to swing north towards Didcot such that he could turn and strafe the airfield from north to south. The plan was to drop the incendiaries across the accommodation area and finish with the two big bombs on the aircraft hangers.

Down below Miss Partridge was blissfully unaware whether the plane was friend or foe and as it began its turn over Hagbourne she decided that as it was a pleasant evening she would continue on down the lane past her cottage for a little extra exercise before returning for a visit to the outside loo and then to retire to bed, her decision to walk on was later to prove to be very fortunate.

The Ju88 headed back towards Upton aiming to be just west of the lights, only one light was now visible which was still moving slowly and was assumed by the navigator to be on the road that ran past the airfield so he instructed the pilot to fly just west of the light as that line would cause maximum damage to the airfield. As the aircraft drew level with the bobbing light it began to release the incendiary bombs but instead of causing mayhem at the airfield they fell relatively harmlessly on to Frank Napper’s apple orchard, the field between Frog Alley and Coffin Way. Finally the two big bombs were released and these fell just short of Coffin Way and only 80 yards from the Manor House, their explosion resulting in two huge craters.

An actual incendiary bomb case that was dropped on Upton. It is still in the village, kept as a souvenir.

The incendiary devices that had been dropped were fitted with small fins that caused them to spiral as they fell such that they spread out over a wide area setting fire to many of the trees and resulting in a swathe of damaged orchard some 200 yards wide. The first devices to be dropped fell on Frog Alley and one of them spiralled away towards the cottages and exploded right next to Miss Partridge’s outside loo setting fire to the wooden door. The fall of a number of the devices was slowed by the branches of the fruit trees and when they landed on the very wet ground their soft landing meant that they did not explode.

The greatest damage to the village came from the explosion of the big bombs, some 30 windows were shattered in that corner of the village, pictures were shaken off the walls and crockery fell off sideboards and shelves. The Misses Fry living in the Manor House suffered the greatest damage losing 10 windows as well as some valuable china and porcelain.

As the aircraft pulled up and away towards the East the navigator looked back to see burning trees instead of burning buildings and realised they had just scored an embarrassing miss. Less than an hour later their evening got a lot worse as they were tracked back across the country and intercepted by a Spitfire as they crossed the east coast. The bomber was brought down, crashing into the sea with all members of the crew reported missing presumed dead.

Back in Upton, Mr Napper’s son had been driving his Austin 7 car towards the village at the time of the attack and was one of the first on the scene quickly to be joined by many of the villagers including 13 year old Gordon Churchman, all keen to see the extent of the damage and to have a quick look for souvenirs before the Military Police got there to seal off the site. The whole area was illuminated by the remains of the incendiaries that had exploded and by some 40 odd trees burning like giant candles. Most of the souvenir hunters were content to come away with fragments of the big bombs or a distorted burnt out incendiary case but one or two decided that an unexploded incendiary was more interesting and several of them were secreted away including six taken by the farmer’s son who took them and immersed them in a tank of water behind Owlscote Farm.

Mr Newman and his team of firewatchers had gone down to deal with the fire at Miss Partridge’s loo and as for the lady herself, greatly shocked by the raid she had rushed back to her cottage in desperate need of the small room to which access was barred by a burning door. Had she not decided to extend her walk that evening she would probably have been sitting behind that door when the device exploded and would have almost certainly been seriously injured.

Over the next few days the farmer’s son who was an adventurous and inquisitive young chap decided he would try his hand at a little bomb disposal work and managed to dismantle the devises he had secreted away, keeping the undamaged cases as treasured possessions (assuming that he led much of his life along similar lines it is pleasantly surprising to record that he is still alive and well and still living in this area).

At the Annual Parish Meeting on 17th March Mr Newman thanked all the parishioners who had helped on the evening of the bombing to bring the incident to a safe conclusion with no casualties, little did he know that around the village some dangerous souvenirs were hidden away or that bomb disposal activities were taking place behind Owlscote Farm. For his services to the village over many years Mr Newman was honoured by the naming of Newman’s Close.

As for Miss Partridge who on her own had set up a decoy for the German Air Force that saved the country a huge repair bill and probable saved the lives of many servicemen her only reward was the mother of all reprimands from Mr Newman. With hindsight surely it would have been appropriate if at the time the parish elders could have recognised her achievement by renaming one of our footpaths Partridge Way.

Footnote:

Miss Partridge eventually died in 1952 and shortly afterwards her cottage was demolished, the remains of the other cottage can still be seen at the bottom of Frog Alley in the small wood.

Mike Brown

9th March 2011