Tag Archives: World War Two

Madame Fiocca – Part Two

Madame Fiocca – Part Two Tales of History and Imagination

This is Part Two of a Two Part Series. For Part One Click Here

On 17th June 1943, Nancy arrived back in England. German U Boats had taken down a lot of Allied ships of late, so the escapees had to wait till there was cause to send an entire convoy back to Britain. This meant a stay of a few months in Gibraltar. She returned to find a vastly different London to the city she left in the early 1930s. The Luftwaffe had bombed the living hell out of the place. 

For a time, Nancy tried to return to Civvy Street. She rented an apartment in Piccadilly, and made a home for herself there. She bought nice furniture and furnishings. Soon, she presumed, Henri would join her. Days ran on to weeks with no sign or word of her husband. Knowing their phones were likely tapped, Nancy determined she would not call, but would wait it out. Restless in civilian life, and probably pining a little for Henri, she looked for a way back into France. Various military organisations were not keen to sign her up, but finally, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) took her in. They had a very important role in mind for Madame Fiocca. 

When the Nazis defeated the French, tens of thousands of men went bush, taking to the forests. These bands of merry men were known collectively as Le Maquis – the men singularly known as Maquisards. They were, by and large, untrained and underfunded – but were of great potential value to the war effort – if only someone could train them, organise them and arm them. Once organised, those partisans could wreak all kinds of havoc. Nancy was to be sent in as one third of a team code named Freelance. One of a number of similar teams, they would organise the Maquis. Freelance were trained up for the job in Scotland, then parachuted in to France, on 29th April 1944. 

I won’t go into a day by day breakdown of Nancy’s time with the Maquis of L’Auvergne – I’m still hoping to keep this one a half hour episode – give or take – but there are a handful of details I need to cover.

There were seven thousand men in the forest, living nomadically in temporary camps. They slept under the trees, and mostly lived off the land. They were already somewhat active, carrying out the occasional ambush or act of sabotage. The game, however, for the allies was to get the men prepared for a big operation on D Day. As the Normandy landing neared, airdrops of equipment ramped up. 

Even at this stage, the missions could get ropey. One day London sent a message to Nancy, to pick up a weapons instructor, code named Anselm. He was in a safe house in Montlucon with a former cook named Madame Renard. London presumed she would know the location of the safe house, and the password when she got there. The partisan who knew the house, and password had unbeknownst to London, ‘disappeared’ a while back. What’s more, Montlucon was by then swarming with Nazis who tended to pounce on any strangers asking questions. The mission was central to their plan – and it was also like looking for a needle in a haystack.  

This tale, it turns out, ended with no great drama. Nancy evaded Nazi scrutiny, and eventually deduced the location of the safe house. Madame Renard played dumb to Nancy’s questions when she answered the door, till Nancy complimented her on the aroma of a cake Madame Renard had in the oven – Her reputation as the former cook to the ambassador well proceeded her. Renard presumed no Nazi would know this about her and let Nancy in. Anselm was hiding in a cupboard, pistol at the ready if the visitor was from the Gestapo. Just one broken link in the chain could ramp up the level of danger.

On 5th June 1944, a cryptic message came through via a BBC radio broadcast. “The crocodile is thirsty. I hope to see you again, darling, twice at the Pont d’Avignon… You may now shake the trees and gather the pears”. D Day was coming and Le Maquis moved into position. Armed with guns, and several tons of explosives, they descended upon twelve hundred designated targets, in the dead of night. Factories, telephone lines, railways, bridges, roads – were all blown to smithereens. 

As the allies landed en masse at Normandy, Le Maquis did all the could to stop the Axis from deploying reinforcements from the South of the country.

Of course the Nazis weren’t just going to let them blow up all transport and communication lines, and fierce fighting broke out. Nazis being Nazis, where they couldn’t strike back at partisans, they took their anger out on the local population. Many houses were burned down. Many civilians were lynched in the streets, hung from lamp posts. Villagers were gathered en masse and executed by firing squad. Four days after the Maquis operation, the Nazis refocused and send an army of 7,000 troops, artillery and tanks into the forest, to crush a camp of 3,000 Maquis embedded at Mont Mouchet. A pitched battle erupted between the Nazis and the partisans. Nancy was tied up fighting her own Nazis too far away to help, but close enough to hear the carnage going on for days. The Maquis in the other camp, led by a man code named Gaspard, more than held their own. 

In the meantime, thousands of French civilians flooded in to Nancy’s camp, asking to join the resistance. They were suddenly flat out arming these newcomers and preparing them to take on the Nazis at ‘Gaspard’s hill’. Several days into the battle, with casualties well in excess of partisan losses, the Nazis withdrew. 

From here on in, the weapons drops increased, as the fight back took a pace. One day, a fatigued Nancy narrowly avoided being shot to pieces by a German plane, while she was picking up a supply drop. She dodged the planes strafing runs a couple of times by emergency braking, causing the plane to misjudge her trajectory. She abandoned the car at just the right moment. One final strafing run pierced the gas tank, and the car went off like a Roman candle. With just one package in hand retrievable – a special personal order of makeup and tea – she ran off into the forest. Another day, after several days of running on just two hours sleep a night, she narrowly avoided being blown to bits by German artillery. Worried she’d fall asleep at the wheel, Nancy took to a bed in a nearby abandoned farmhouse. A comrade burst in, warning the Nazis were coming. They relocated to the tree line just in time to see the farmhouse demolished by artillery fire. 

There are a couple further tales I need to cover in the Nancy Wake story. First there was that bike ride. 

In the days following their D Day operation, the Maquis withdrew to safer ground. They were fighting a guerrilla war after all. As they relocated, Nancy’s radio operator ‘Denden’- by all tellings a fascinating character as a wonderfully camp, openly gay man at that time – had been injured in battle, receiving a leg wound. He’d recover from the injury and did escape the Nazi grasp – but at the time he worried he’d be captured, along with the radio, so he destroyed his radio and codes. It was imperative get a replacement ASAP. Without contact with London they were flying blind.  

The following day, Nancy rode twenty miles over the mountain to a pub where she hoped to make contact with another cell. She was greeted outside the pub by the publican. A communist was inside. He planned to shoot her. Nancy rushed into the pub, sat down across the table from the communist and slammed her pistol down on the table. 

“I hear that you are going to shoot me. Well, you’ll need to be very quick on the draw”.

Nancy ordered a drink, all the while eyeballing the communist. She discovered the cell had left town, and there were now Nazis all over the place. The next closest spare radio was two hundred kilometres down the road in Châtearoux. 

Given the distance and sudden influx of Nazis, Nancy decided her best hope was to get all dolled up, leave the gun behind – and do her best to pass for a local out to pick up the groceries. She left for Châtearoux in twilight. Sixty kilometres in, through hilly country roads, Madame Fiocca was exhausted, but she pushed on. As she reached some town or other on the way she’d stop for a drink, and do her best to glean whatever information she could about Nazi movements in the area. She’d jump back on her bike and continue. She arrived at the town of Bourges to find it boarded up. A troop of Nazis massacred a group of locals earlier in the day, and everyone was keeping their heads down. As she inconspicuously passed through, a group Nazis were packing up to leave for the next town. 

The town of Issoudon was safer, and Nancy had a chance to have a drink and clean herself up a little. On her journey she did pass several troops of Nazis. Some waved as she went by, others cat-called after her. So far, no one bothered to ask her for her identification papers.  

Within eighty kilometres of Châtearoux, the road was too congested with German trucks, so Nancy took a detour – and within a day and a half, she reached her destination. 

When she finally found the radio operator, he obstinately refused to help her. She didn’t have the password. Prior to her run in with the radio operator, Nancy came across a Maquisard from another camp who was there to contact another radio operator in the town. Could he help her perhaps? She was told not. The contact had legged it, and there were Gestapo officers laying in wait in his apartment for whoever showed up. There was yet another cell camping out in the forest on the other side of town, however, and they had a spare radio. The ride back was complete agony. Every muscle in her body ached, and by now Nancy had worn away the skin on her thighs. Kilometre after kilometre she pushed on, not daring to stop as she worried she’d never get going again. 

Three days after she left, Nancy returned – exhausted and in need of medical attention – having covered 400 kilometres. 

For context the cyclists on the Tour de France cover a little over 3,300 kms in 23 days. She’d kept up one hell of a pace for an amateur, unaccustomed to riding, on an old-fashioned bike.  

There are many other tales – many stories of gunfights with Nazis – one tale from July 1944 when the Maquis decided the Nazis needed a good shake up, so Nancy and a group of other Maquisards drove up to their makeshift headquarters at the Montlucon town hall at midday. The building was unguarded outside, so they had no trouble bursting through the doors, tossing hand grenades in, then running off. This attack maimed or killed 38 men, mostly officers. There’s also the story of the time Nancy killed a man with her bare hands. She was on a mission to take out an armoury in Mont Mouchet. Two guards would pace the perimeter in opposite directions, meet in the middle, then turn around. Once they walked a significant distance away from one another, the plan was to jump the guards and incapacitate them. Nancy and her comrades mistimed their run, one guard stabbing Nancy in the arm with his bayonet – before Nancy took him down with a karate chop to the neck. The chop allegedly broke his neck. A doctor at the camp patched her up afterwards.

And then there were tales of an aggrieved Maquisard who tried to have Nancy killed, so for some time she had a crew of Spanish Maquisard bodyguards with her wherever she went. There was another tale of Maquis behaving atrociously, when Madame Fiocca discovered one day one of the camps had a couple of women held captive – one a girl from the village who was being pimped out to the men, and another, a Nazi collaborator. One should never play ‘both sides had…’  around Nazis – they are always the worst people in any room – but it’s disturbing to think of this cell of Maquis who kept a woman as a sex slave. 

Nancy freed the sex slave, but she begged Nancy to let her stay on as an assistant, which she assented to. The other lady was far more problematic – if they let her go, she would bring the Nazis back to the camp – On the other hand, she couldn’t be left with a cell of men who kept sex slaves. Feeling she had no other choice, Nancy executed her with her side arm. There were other tales that were far more acadian, like the night the partisans held a grand celebration in the forest to celebrate the beginning of the end for the Nazis, or another feast in honour of her 32nd birthday. 

We probably know the broad strokes of how his tale ends, right? On August 25th 1944 Paris was liberated, and town after town were quickly freed from the Nazi yoke. The Nazis high-tailed it back to Germany, to protect their motherland, as the noose closed in on them. The Eastern front had very much turned the way of the Allies, though at an absolutely staggering loss of life. By late 1943 the USSR had recovered half of their land lost to the Nazis. Throughout 1944 they pushed on and on, till they were in Germany. The war in Europe effectively ended in a Berlin bunker, 30th April 1945. The Russian Red army had the city besieged, an ailing Hitler had just married his mistress Eva Braun on the night of the 28th. Probably thinking of how Mussolini was hung from a lamp-post and shot, Braun bit down on a cyanide pill – Hitler unholstered his gun. For decades rumours would circulate about their charred remains, and speculation the Hitlers faked their own death to live out the rest of their lives under the surname Wolff, somewhere in Argentina. 

But those two monsters are certainly not the lovers we’re interested in. The question remained, what became of Henri? 

Soon after the war, Madame Fiocca got the awful news. As Nancy arrived in Vichy she came across a woman she knew from Marseille. This lady was now working the reception desk at a hotel. The two women spoke, and the receptionist asked her what the future held for Madame Fiocca? Nancy answered she was going back to Marseille, and Henri. The receptionist, aghast, exclaimed ‘Oh no, Nancy, don’t you know? He’s dead.’

She was unable to provide any further details. 

It was a long, arduous journey back to Marseille – some roads were too strewn by the wreckage of Nazi tanks. Bridges were blown to pieces – but she eventually found a path through. Once there the story came in bits and pieces. 

Not long after Nancy’s escape, in March 1943, Pat O’Leary was arrested by the Gestapo. In May he stumbled across some random piece of information that simply had to be passed to the resistance. He shared this information with a prisoner who was due to be released, asking him to pass it on to Henri. It was all a ruse. The prisoner was a Nazi spy. It is not clear to me if the information was fake also.   

Henri was arrested, and brutally tortured. To compound matters, the Gestapo approached Henri’s parents to say he was being tortured because he refused to divulge Nancy’s location. If someone gave up where the White Mouse was hiding, Henri would be released. It’s unlikely he would ever have been released, and Nancy was safely in Gibraltar by then. The Fioccas’ blamed Nancy for Henri’s death. Henri’s torture continued until October 1943, when he was finally lined up against a wall and shot. Heartbroken, and with nothing to stay for, the widow Fiocca set off for London. 

She did return to Paris, spending time working for the British Air ministry in the city – before returning, briefly to Australia in 1949. Nancy ran for a seat in Parliament under a conservative ticket (one fault I guess, was she wasn’t a Labour supporter, but there you go). After a loss in 1949, and subsequently in the 1951 election, she returned to Britain. Back in London, a 1956 newspaper article on Nancy caught the attention of a former Flight Lieutenant Nancy had met in Paris named John Forward. John served in the war, but, having been shot down in 1942, spent most of that time in a German prisoner of war camp. One day he looked Nancy up, and dropped by her flat. The two hit it off, and would remain married for 40 years until John’s passing in 1997. In 1959 the couple moved back to Australia, and had two kids. 

Nancy Wake passed 7th August 2011, aged 98; having lived several lifetimes worth of adventure. One wonders what Aunty Hinamoa would have thought of her investment? 

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? Tales of History and Imagination


When trying to imagine the lives of Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne on April 18th 1943, I get a certain picture in my mind’s eye. Four teenaged schoolboys from Stourbridge in the British Midlands, head off on an adventure into the woods – free from the encumbrances of adult supervision. I imagine something out of an Enid Blyton book, or perhaps a scene from Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. An image of kids just being kids. Wrongly I suspect, I want to imagine those four kids too preoccupied with schoolyard politics, games, pop culture and urban legend – kid’s stuff – to think much on the backdrop of a world war. 

The adults that weekend perhaps read the Luftwaffe bombed a church in Algiers – killing a group of nuns. Hitler ran into opposition from one of his own allies, Hungary’s Miklos Horthy – who refused to send 800,000 Hungarian Jews off to be killed in Nazi concentration camps. The Americans, acting on cracked Japanese codes, targeted a plane carrying Japan’s Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto above Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. They took their revenge for his part in Pearl Harbour, shooting the Admiral out of the sky. 

Truthfully I don’t know what occupied these kids’ minds on April 18th 1943. If they sang ‘Bless em All’ as they rode into the forest… maybe singing the ‘other’ lyrics? (The ones likely to get me an adult rating on iTunes). For that matter if those kids themselves had family serving abroad in the war. I do know the boys were on a covert mission to steal whatever birds’ eggs they could from Viscount Cobham’s ancestral land – Hagley woods – and that the day would conclude more like a Stephen King novel for the young lads.    

The so- called Witch Elm

The boys searched high and low for bird’s nests, till they came across the skeletal remains of an old Elm tree. Bob Farmer clambered up, and peered over the edge, only to find an old animal skull staring back up at him. Farmer picked the skull up – presumably to make his friends jump a little – but as he did, he noticed tufts of hair, a human jaw bone and traces of human flesh still attached to it. In a mad panic, the boys ran for their bikes, and took off for home. The gravity of their find had dawned on them, but as they frantically pedalled home it also dawned on them they were illegally poaching on the lord of the manor’s land when they found the skull. A sound thrashing from angry parents was one thing, but would they risk a criminal record over the skull? I cannot say what else the boys may have been thinking – whether it felt to the boys like they’d just fallen into a gothic horror tale, spy novel, or crime procedural. It appears the boys were all spooked by the experience. Before they split from one another, they made a pact not to disclose their grisly find to anybody else.  

But, as anyone who’s ever picked up Shakespeare might tell you “Murder cannot be hid long… at length the truth will out”.  Tom Willets, the youngest of the boys, had an especially hard time dealing with the find, and told his father about the skull. They reported it to the Worcestershire police, who entered Hagley woods the following day. 

Officers reached into the tree, and finding much more than a skull. A near complete skeleton was laying inside ‘The Witch Elm’. Her right hand was missing, apparently amputated. The hand bones would be found 13 paces away from the tree as investigations continued. Taffeta cloth had been shoved a long way down her throat. Some scraps of clothing, and shoes were found. As was a rolled gold wedding ring – a thin strip of gold bonded or fused to the outside of a brass or copper base. It was a cheap alternative to a solid gold ring. 

The remains were taken to Professor James Webster, the local pathologist. The body was of a woman of between 35 and 40 years of age. She stood around five feet tall, had distinctively irregular lower teeth, including a tooth pulled a year before her death. She had given birth at least once. 

The body had been placed in ‘the witch elm’ “While still warm”, and she was presumed to have died of asphyxiation from the cloth shoved down her throat. She was put in the tree some time around October 1941. 

The police worked exhaustively to identify her. They identified her shoes, tracking down the shoemakers in Northampton, and all but six owners of that model of shoe. Six pairs were sold at a market stall in Dudley, in the West Midlands. The stall holders there kept no records. They scoured through lists of missing persons but were unable to make a match. The ‘Battle for Britain’, where German planes flew over British cities at night, bombing the hell out of the locals – had left no shortage of missing people. Most were presumed buried under the rubble somewhere. None of those people matched the lady. Her irregular teeth were checked against dental records throughout the United Kingdom. This too drew a blank.

There was a single incident in the vicinity of Hagley wood in late 1941 that seemed very promising. A businessman and a school teacher separately phoned the police to report a woman was screaming uncontrollably in the woods. Police were dispatched to the scene, but found nothing on arrival. That lead was re-opened, but led nowhere. 

Then, around Christmas 1943, several taunting notes appeared locally in the form of graffiti. They were written in chalk, all in a similar hand. The first one read, ‘who put Luebella down the Wych- elm?’. Soon after ‘Hagley Wood Bella’ appeared etched on a wall. Finally the phrase ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?’ Started to appear in the vicinity. Police presumed the graffiti was always done at night, as they were never able to locate a single witness to the act. An inky darkness owing to the wartime blackouts no doubt helped the mystery tagger. They rechecked their missing persons lists, looking specifically for a Luebella, or a Bella. They investigated the kinds of people known for defacing walls and obelisks – but could not get a break in this case.

So who was Bella in the Wych Elm? Today I can only offer a handful of theories on the case. 

Starting with Margaret Murray. Murray was an Egyptologist and archeologist who taught at University College, London from 1894 till 1935. Her career in active field work was hampered, first by most field work being given to her male counterparts; then later by the First World War. Murray diversified – becoming an expert folklorist, most notably writing a series of books on witchcraft that the modern Wicca movement based itself on. In 1945 she weighed in on the case – offering a possible explanation. Was Bella murdered by occultists? Was she in fact a witch herself?

Her reasoning was twofold – the amputated hand, and the tree. 

The following is far too vague for it’s own good, but to explain her reasoning. Several groups of people have had a funny thing with hands and thieves since at least as far back as the Mesopotamian lawmaker Hammurabi wrote his famous law code. With many punishments being like for like – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – the lawmaker stated if a thief took property with their hand, that hand should be cut off as punishment – hardly like for like, but you get the gist. This piece of ancient Talionic law morphed into something wildly different throughout parts of Medieval France. From there the idea spread throughout Europe. 

If you cut the left hand off a dying criminal as they twisted on the gallows – or if the criminal in question were a murderer, then whichever hand did the killing – you now had a ‘hand of glory’ in your possession. The hand of glory, once pickled, was believed to have magical powers. If you yourself were a thief, your mere possession of the hand rendered sleeping occupants of a house into a deep trance. You could rifle through their prized possessions without fear you too might end up on the gallows. A hand of glory presented to an attacker could freeze them. It also protected the possessor from evil spirits. Treasure hunters believed a hand of glory could also lead them to buried treasure troves. 

A hand of glory

That the hand was cut off was a clue to Murray. That it was eventually discarded 13 paces from the body suggested an occult link to the folklorist – as did the disposal of the body inside a tree. 

According to Murray several pre- Christian European societies believed burying dead criminals inside trees trapped their spirits inside the tree – preventing their ghosts from seeking revenge on the living. 

Her assertion was lent some weight by a murder in Lower Quinton, 40 miles South East of Hagley Wood, on Valentines Day 1945. 

Charles Walton, a local 74 year old was brutally murdered while out doing a day’s agricultural work. While doing some grounds keeping, he was slashed and stabbed with his own scythe. As he lay on the grass, bleeding out from a cut throat, he was then pinned to the ground through the throat with his own pitch fork. Circumstantial evidence pointed towards his employer, Alfred Potter, being the killer – as Walton was said to have loaned Potter a sum money he couldn’t afford to repay. Others placed the blame on Italian prisoners of war kept locally. The Italians having surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the POWs were at ease to freely wander the town in the day. 

In 1954, local papers reported on another, similar killing. This murder in the town of Long Compton, fifteen miles from Lower Quinton. The murder happened back in 1875. The victim was an octogenarian named Ann Tennant. Newspapers reported locals whispered behind Tennant’s back that she was a witch. She too was killed, ritualistically in this case, by being pinned to the ground with a pitchfork. 

Ann’s killer was a man named James Heywood – a man variously described in the press as ‘simple-minded’ and a ‘village idiot’. Heywood was tried for murder, but spent the rest of his life in an asylum. He claimed he was a witch hunter, and would kill more witches ever let out – so authorities threw away the key, leaving him there. The press largely underplayed Heywood’s mental illness, and many wondered aloud what secret groups of witch-hunters, Satanists or witches had lived among them for at least the past seven decades?

All this fed back into Murray’s witchcraft theory. It was hardly the only theory, however. 

Another possibility centres around a troubled young man named Jack Mossop, and his enigmatic drinking buddy – a man known as ‘Van Raalte’. 

Jack Mossop was an engineer, employed making plane parts in a Banner Lane factory during the war. In 1937, prior to the war, he’d taken flying lessons, and was an air reserve. When asked by workmates why he was in a factory, rather than having aerial dogfights with Nazis, he claimed he’d crashed too many planes in RAF training, and suffered from a traumatic brain injury. This is often presented in Bella lore as fact, often cited as an explanation for his subsequent behaviour. There’s no evidence he was ever in the RAF, let alone invalidated out after a crash. It appears far more likely he had essential skills, so was unlikely to be called away to fight. 

It can neither be confirmed, not denied whether Mossop had crashed a plane while taking flying lessons – and certainly it would explain his subsequent descent. 

Mossop was a heavy drinker, who it appears, followed in the loutish footsteps of his father and uncles – known to locals as the ‘seven sods’ for their rowdy behaviour. It must be said, he wasn’t brought up by his father, but by the parents of the ‘Seven Sods’. His mother died of the Spanish Flu when he was six years old. He was subsequently brought up by his grandparents. Mossop was a bright child, and often suffered from debilitating headaches, and regular nightmares. As the war progressed, he grew increasingly distant from his wife Una. 

At 1am one morning, believed either in March or April 1941, Jack returned home to Una in a terrible state. He was accompanied by drinking buddy, a Dutchman Una knew only as Van Raalte (or Van Raalt). Una suspected Van Raalte was a spy, as the man never worked, but always had plenty of money. It’s since been suggested he was a local rogue, making his money by selling rationed goods on the ‘black market’. 

On the night in question, both men came in terribly shaken by an incident which may have haunted Jack for the rest of his life. 

After settling his nerves with another drink, Jack told Una the following. They had been drinking at the Lyttelton Arms, not far from Hagley wood with a woman he only referred to as that ‘Dutch piece’. At some point in the night, Van Raalte and the ‘Dutch piece’ possibly got into an altercation (Jack states simply she got ‘awkward’). The three then left the pub together. 

They piled into Van Raalte’s Rover, Jack in the driver’s seat, Van Raalt and ‘Dutch piece’ in the back. Something never properly explained happened in the back seat, and the woman ‘passed out’ slumping towards Jack. Van Raalt ordered Jack to drive towards the woods. The two men got out of the Rover, carrying the unconscious woman to a hollowed out oak tree in Hagley Wood. The two men placed her inside the tree. 

At least this was the story Una finally gave the police in 1953. 

Una was long separated from Jack at this point. Furthermore, Jack was long deceased. He became an even heavier drinker after after that night. His headaches and nightmares increased. He worked less – but if anything, his cashflow seemed to increase. Una was convinced Jack too was a spy. He became increasingly emotionally distant, violent and moody. While Jack may well have been seeing other women before the incident with the ‘Dutch Piece’ he was now increasingly turning to other women for comfort. A fed up Una had enough, and left him in December 1941. 

After Una left, Jack Mossop’s behaviour became noticeably erratic – and in June 1942, he was committed to a mental health facility. He died there in August 1942, aged 29. His coroner’s report has been read by some to that he was suffering from the chronic traumatic encephalopathy punch drunk boxers, professional wrestlers and American football players can often suffer from. My read, as a former investigator often employed to find next of kins of deceased customers with unclaimed insurance policies – ie. not a medical professional, but someone who has read many death certificates – His heavy drinking had badly damaged his heart. His kidneys were also shot. He more likely than not died of a stroke caused by the heart damage. 

This Tale was kept under wraps to the public at large, but leaked to the newspapers by a whistleblower, in 1958. That leaker, Anna of Claverley was Una. These articles told of a Nazi spy ring in the Midlands, who were out to infiltrate the many arms factories dotted across the region. Bella was, according to this telling, a Nazi spy and occultist known as ‘Clarabella’. She’d parachuted in earlier in 1941, under the direction of a Nazi intelligence service known as the Abwehr. Abwehr records released postwar state a woman, code named ‘Clara’ was parachuted into the West Midlands – but after she failed to make contact, they presumed her killed in action. ‘Clara’ was far from the only Nazi spy parachuted into the United Kingdom. Seventeen spies were caught entering the UK in 1941 alone. One worthy of discussion is Josef Jakobs.

Josef Jakobs

Josef Jakobs was 43 years old when he was captured in January 1941. Born in Luxembourg, he fought for Germany in the First World War. When World War Two broke out, he was called up to fight – serving as an officer until the Nazis discovered he’d spent four years in jail in Switzerland between the wars, for selling imitation gold as real. Surprisingly Nazi Germany felt this made him unfit to lead men into battle. This didn’t make him ineligible for a job as a spy.

On 31st January, Jakobs parachuted into Ramsey, Huntingdonshire – in the East of England. He landed badly, breaking his ankle. He was arrested the following day – hobbling along in his flying suit. He was carrying £500, a counterfeit ID, a radio transmitter, a photograph and a German sausage. He was caught after he fired his pistol into the air like a flare gun. The pain of his broken ankle had gotten too much for him to bear. The home guard arrested him, then handed him over to MI5.

Jakobs gave a voluntary statement to MI5. This included an explanation of the photograph of a woman he had on him – the woman was not his wife. The woman in the picture was his lover, a German cabaret singer and actress named Clara Bauerle. Bauerle was also a spy, and, according to Jakobs, was due to jump somewhere over the West Midlands. She knew people there. Bauerle was a cabaret singer in West Midlands clubs in the 1930s. Jakobs was court-martialled as an enemy combatant, and executed by firing squad on August 15th 1941. He was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. 

So mystery solved? Bella was a German cabaret singer and actress – allegedly with occult leanings – parachuted in to sabotage weapons factories? Had she, for some unexplained reason, fallen out with her compatriots – who then killed her? For decades this was advanced as the most likely scenario. This theory imploded in 2015. First, Clara was six feet tall. Second, her death certificate was unearthed in Germany in 2015. Clara died 16th December 1942, in a Berlin hospital from barbiturate poisoning.

So where does this leave us? Use of DNA as with Australia’s Somerton Man case in Australia? Impossible in this case, as Bella’s remains went missing at an undisclosed point between her discovery and the advent of DNA testing. Currently there is one lead. Bella’s skull was photographed, and those photos do still exist. In 2018 Caroline Richardson, an artist who specialises in creating facial reconstructions of the long deceased created a portrait of Bella. It’s always possible someone, somewhere has a shoebox of old family photos. While these are often treasured items for the children, such ephemera often gets donated to museums by the grandkids’ generation. It’s not inconceivable a photo may surface – not out of the question someone will recognise it’s significance when it does. Who put Bella in the Wych Elm is a nice to know, and we may never know – but who she really was? That’s the question I’d really like answered. 

Quick sidebar especially for the New Zealanders: Viscount Cobham, family name Lyttelton, had a son who became New Zealand’s 9th Governor General. He was a member of the English cricket team, who toured New Zealand in 1935. Charles Lyttelton Cobham fell for our little part of the world while here. He served as Governor General, from 1957 to 1962. 

Governor General Cobham was a popular proxy for the crown. He established Outward Bound, a non-profit organisation who help struggling kids by providing them adventures designed to teach the kids they are capable of much more than they ever realised. He compiled a book of his speeches while in office, which sold well. All profits from the book were donated to Outward Bound.

The Lytteltons’ had deep ties to New Zealand. Charles’ great grandfather, George Lyttelton was head of the ‘Canterbury Association’ – who planned the European settlement of Christchurch. There is a reason several names in this tale may ring a bell. Lyttelton Harbour and Hagley Park were both named in honour of George, the elder Lord Cobham. 

Balloonfest!

What goes up must come down – sorry to begin a blog with an old cliché, but we all know there is some truth in the old chestnut. I’m currently writing this in COVID-19 lockdown from Auckland, New Zealand – the Hegemon of New Zealand cities. Currently we’re up – a boom town with much of the wealth, and the largest portion of the population. This will not always be so. Dunedin, at the other end of the country, was once the hegemon. Westport, a town with a current population of around 5 thousand once dwarfed Auckland. Things go up, things go down. I say this, Cleveland, hoping you don’t judge me a snob over city size for telling this tale. I mean no malice and I know what will eventually come to the City of Sails.
I am well aware at some point in the future the air will begin to seep out of Auckland’s balloon, and as the tumbleweeds roll along Queen Street unobstructed, a new hegemon will rise to take it’s place.

What goes up must come down.

Now that is something Cleveland, Ohio knows all too well. Established in 1796, and named after their founder Moses Cleaveland (president Grover Cleveland was a distant relative) – the settlement saw a population boom in the 1830s as the Eerie Canal was cut, allowing transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. With access north to Canada, and not terribly far from the Mississippi river, south all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, Cleveland made a great trading post. Following the American Civil war Cleveland became a manufacturing centre – due to their close proximity to coal and iron ore deposits in neighbouring states. John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil in Cleveland. Their steelworks, early adopters of the Bessemer process were on the rise in the late 1860s. The motor industry first started in Cleveland. Where there was industry there were jobs, and people flocked to Cleveland. What had started as a settlement of just seven people was, by 1913, calling themselves the ‘sixth city’ due to having the sixth largest population of any city in the USA. In 1926 Cleveland constructed the Terminal Tower, a 52 floor monster which was the 2nd largest building in the world upon completion.

The Great Depression slowed their rise upwards, but World War Two gave a boost to the economy. Cleveland was the USA‘s fifth biggest contributor to the war effort. Following the war their economy boomed and they had tagged themselves ‘the best location in the nation’. For a while their sports teams were very formidable – their baseball team won the 1948 world series, their hockey team topped the American hockey league, and their football team dominated for much of the 1950s. A Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed picked up on a convergence of trends across several styles of music and named it Rock and Roll. They had little to do in it’s invention, but Cleveland is forever linked to rock and roll music. Cleveland was on it’s way up, sports up, rock and roll was on the rise.
But what goes up, inevitably, must come down.

First industry waned. Restructuring of the international steel industry saw less business coming their way. Postwar changes to infrastructure (someday I’m going to take a shot at explaining Kondratieff waves, and the effects of long term economic waves on infrastructure – today is NOT that day however) – led to huge highways, and the rapid spread of the suburbs. Other cities, Detroit I’m looking at you, had become the centre of the motor industry – Motown certainly was up. The population of Cleveland shrunk as many of its citizens moved out for a home with a backyard, in a car built in another city. What was left behind however was industrial pollution, lots and lots of it. As the city descended the Cuyahoga river burst into flames, not once or twice – that would be bad enough – but 13 times! It’s last time, in June 1969 earning Cleveland the moniker ‘The Mistake by the Lake’. By 1986 the sixth city had become the 18th …. with an anchor. What could one do to raise morale, and maybe start bringing Cleveland back up?

The Cuyahoga river in flames.

Well……… What goes up?

Balloons.

On 5th December 1985, 84 years since Walt Disney was born and 30 years since Disneyland had been opened – 1 million helium balloons were released into the skies of Anaheim, California. There is news footage of the then Guinness world record release and it does look impressive – like a sea of floating jelly beans. The stunt must have been the hot topic around the water cooler the next day at the United Way of Cleveland – a non profit organization who runs charity fundraisers for needy causes. What can we do to promote Cleveland which we could turn into a money spinner – and symbolically suggests a rising from the ashes of the Cuyahoga river fire? That thing Disney just did – only bigger. United way soon committed $200,000 of their own money to the project, and hired Balloon Art by Treb, the company who organized the Disney launch. The plan was to take up an empty block next to Terminal Tower, building a three story high enclosure around the square plot – and to get 2,500 volunteers in to blow up the biodegradable balloons. The plan was to fill 2 million balloons and charge members of the public to sponsor the balloonfest at a cost of $1 for 2 balloons.


Throughout the day, and all through the night of September 26th 1986 the volunteers, mostly high school students, labored away filling balloons. Throughout the night they soldiered on, into the next day. On the 27th September a storm was setting in but they had come too far now to stop. At 1.50pm, with a little over 1.4 million balloons, the decision was made to loosen the giant net keeping all the balloons- free those colourful little spheroids, out into the universe – Cleveland’s commitment to rise again analogized in a cloud of coloured orbs. Off into the grim day they flew.


They flew aimlessly into traffic, causing multiple pile ups – motorists and vehicles alike crumpled by the impact. They flew out over the tarmac of the local airport – ceasing air traffic to and from the city until every last balloon was coralled. Some flew to Canada, washing up on their shores. Though biodegradable, marine and bird life tangled up and choked on them. On a horse ranch in Medina County Ohio, a stable of Arabian horses became spooked by the invading balloons, causing several stallions to trip and maim themselves. Their owner, Louise Nowakowski, sued Cleveland for $100,000 in damages.

Most disturbing of all, a fishing boat ran into trouble on the lake that day. The coast guard dispatched a rescue party, but when they arrived at the scene – where one would normally see two brightly coloured life jackets bobbing in the water, there were thousands and thousands of brightly coloured balloons obscurring the view. The two sailors bodies would wash up the following day. One of the widows would file suit against Cleveland for over $3 Million – later settling out of court for an undisclosed fee.

What had seemed such a fun publicity stunt quickly turned tragic. All up it cost the city of Cleveland millions more than it made. Balloonfest soon came to signify something altogether – that the rise up may be spectacular – but the inevitable fall is bumpy at best.

Adrian Carton de Wiart

This Tale was a script for the ill-fated first attempt at a podcast. I may revise and redo some time. It was also originally a two parter – since combined into one post. Scroll to the bottom of the page, hit the 2 for part two.

Hi folks I’m starting today’s tale on 18th November 1914. The setting Shimber Berris, the tallest mountain in Somaliland – a state often lumped in with Somalia in general, but who had it’s own self determination – and who were damn well going to keep it that way, regardless of what the British, Italians or Ethiopians said. Our hero tells us the Kharif, “a hot labouring wind heavy with sand” was in full force, but up in the hills the air was quite pleasant. All the same he was at the head of a group of soldiers sent up to capture Shimber Berris. Up the steep, rocky hills with little more than a few shrubs to cover their ascent.

Since 1899 the British had Somaliland in their sights, and had been at war with the local Dervishes, led by a man they called ‘The Mad Mullah’. The sources point out Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a Sufi poet, turned freedom fighter, turned General was neither mad nor a Mullah- but a man who was willing to stand up for his people for decade after decade, because he believed their way of life was worth defending. Our hero himself writes somewhat respectfully of them and expresses regret that they finally lost out to the invaders when they brought planes in, in 1920. The job of him and his men today though is to take over a stone blockhouse which looks out over the valley, thus making it harder for the Mullah’s soldiers to launch guerrilla attacks on the British below.
As they got closer, within 400 yards of the building, the dervishes from inside the blockhouse began taking pot shots at the British. The shots fall well short – from how our hero describes the scene, particularly that they were mixing their powder low to conserve resources- I presume the Dervishes are firing with muskets rather than rifles. The British fire back at the stone building. The Dervishes return fire with cutting comments on the British soldiers parentage. Our hero turns to his commander, Lord Ismay and begs to be the one to charge the defences – All we have to do is cover the 400 yards, make a 3 foot jump across a deep embankment, then in the front door. Once we breach the front door it is all over for them. Ismay lets his eager second in charge lead the assault. Our hero, Adrian Carton de Wiart would write years later how they charged the enemy – returning a volley of bullets with their own volley. They were quickly up the hill and within feet of the target, when he catches a bullet to the face. To quote

“By this time I was seething with excitement. I got a glancing blow in my eye, but I was too wound up to stop – I had to go on trying to get in.”

Following the bullet to the eye, Carton de Wiart gets hit with a ricochet, striking him in the elbow. Frenetically he returns fire. Another bullet hits him, this time glancing along the side of his head and going through his ear. Our hero steps back from the melee long enough to have his ear sewed back up, then re-joins the fray. This time a second bullet ricochets, catching him again in his damaged eye – so close to his target, yet so far. Adrian Carton de Wiart is taken away from the front line. His men relieved for a while by an Indian battalion, who similarly cannot make their way to the front door, and eventually have to give up. The next day they ascend Shimber Berris, only to find the Dervishes have scarpered. I imagine to the defenders this experience birthed tales of noble defence akin to the siege of Saragarthi, or Rorkes Drift – what we have though is a chapter in the life of the unkillable, Adrian Carton de Wiart – often his tale was of insane misadventure, when compared to, say Mad Jack Churchill or Audie Murphy – but it is far too crazy a tale not to share. Welcome folks to Tales of History and Imagination Season 1 Episode 7, The Unstoppable Adrian Carton de Wiart.


(Theme music- Ishtar ‘The Enemy Within’)

Adrian Carton de Wiart was a lifelong, professional soldier who saw action in many, many theatres of war. He served for many years as a British officer, spent some of his life as a mercenary in the employ of Poland, then returned to the British when World War Two broke out. His career spanned from the 2nd Boer war in 1899, till just after World War Two ended in 1945. You just don’t see that kind of longevity, and normally when you do – like in the case of Baron Edmund Ironside – the model for novelist John Buchan’s Richard Hannay – well, his short stint in World War Two was a desk job. Another thing which makes Adrian Carton de Wiart so remarkable is the number of scrapes he survived, and the number of serious injuries he shook off. At least eleven serious gunshot wounds, including multiple shots to the head, over two occasions. Shots to the stomach, leg, groin, hand and ankle. He survived two plane crashes, being shot at by planes while driving at dangerous speeds down winding country roads; survived trenches, revolutions, and mad mullahs, dug his way out of a prisoner of war camp- literally single-handed at an age where many would be collecting their pension. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s cover a little early biographical information.

Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was born 5th May 1880 to an aristocratic Belgian family in Brussels. Whether true or not there is a rumour he was the illegitimate son of King Leopold II. Regardless of this his father, his family were noteworthy – his father Leon being a well to do international lawyer . He grew up in Belgium, after the early death of his mother Ernestine, Egypt, then on to private schooling in Britain – first a posh prep school then Oxford University’s Baliol college, to study law. While he enjoyed the company at Oxford, he was a terrible student, and in 1899, seized upon the 2nd Boer war in South Africa as a means of escape. At this point he was still a year too young to enlist, and being a Belgian citizen (his mother was part Irish being the only tie to the country) ineligible to serve for the British – so he changed his surname to Carton, got hold of some fake documents, and enlisted under phony details.

Adrian, at this time a bottom of the rung grunt in Paget’s Horse, Yeomanry regiment fell in love with soldiering. His stories in South Africa at this time are nothing special. Not long after arriving, and acclimatizing, and before he’d seen any significant action he was ambushed by a couple of Boer soldiers while crossing a river. He was shot in the stomach and groin and sent home – His dishonesty was uncovered, and his father, Leon was furious at Adrian for enlisting. Once recovered he would beg his father to allow him to re-enlist – he was just wasting his time at Oxford after all, and had found his niche in the army. Leon relented. Adrian Carton de Wiart became a naturalized British citizen and re-enlisted, being sent back to South Africa, with the Imperial Light Horse Brigade. The remainder of his time there would consist of drudgery – next to no action, a lot of aimless wandering from one post to another. In 1902 he took his first commission as an officer, and tried to get himself sent to Somaliland – remember the war there started in 1899 – but got sent to India to serve with the 4th Dragoon guards.

Most of his next 12 years was more or less free of conflict – and full of sports, hunting – a lot of killing animals for sport – the kind of hi-jinks you imagine when talking of upper crust Brits and use the word Hi-jinks really. Drinking, gambling, party tricks. In 1904 he was sent to Pretoria for more of the same – loved playing polo there. In 1908 he was sent back to serve in Britain, and only decided to look for an overseas posting when, on 3rd January 1914 his father sent him the message he had gone bust playing the stock market, and the allowance he got, which propped up his gambling, horses, sports and hi-jinks – would cease immediately. Needing the money Adrian signed up to fight in Somaliland, not knowing World War One was only around the corner – something which made him sad to hear, as for now he was trapped in an obscure country on the horn of Africa fighting in a sideshow to a sideshow, while all the big action was going on, on the continent.

Now, back to the aftermath of Shimber Barris, where Adrian had been shot – technically twice – in the left eye. The field surgeons could do nothing for him, and sent him to Egypt. The Egyptian doctors wanted to remove his eye, but Adrian refused – he had a reason for this. Now, while his autobiography does give an indication he was far more upset by this twist in the tale than most of the articles do, he knew if he was fixed up in Egypt he would be sent back to Somaliland – If he is sent to London, he would be, if found fit for duty after the surgery – sent to Europe to fight in the main event. Back in England his eye was removed. He is declared fit for service so long as he wore a glass eye (he didn’t) and sent him to France.

he got his wish redeploying in France and Belgium, where he saw action at the battles of the Somme, Passchendaele, Cambrai, 2nd battle of Ypres and Arras among others. In February 1915 he sailed for France with his own infantry battalion, later on commanding a whole brigade. Adrian Carton de Wiart would win much praise for his soldiering and leadership, and he would also pick up several injuries. On arriving at the 2nd Battle of Ypres his battalion was sent out to relieve a previous battalion. On getting to the site he wandered ahead with a small group to meet the staff officer, only to be greeted by a pile of dead- mostly German bodies. Out of nowhere a volley of fire came their way, Carton de Wiart catching a shot to the hand which sent his watch out as shrapnel – embedding into the wound further. His hand badly mangled, Carton de Wiart got back on his feet and pursued his attackers, who fled. He then turned around and headed back to base. The terms in which he described his injuries are probably gory enough that I could get the podcast marked explicit, but will say he had all but lost two fingers and a whole lot more besides. He was sent back to London to recuperate – doctors trying, for the rest of 1915 to save his hand, and removing a little more at a time as it went bad. Eventually they amputated the hand, and three weeks later Adrian Carton de Wiart was on a boat headed back to the continent.

There is a tale, soon after returning and being posted to the Somme, Adrian Carton de Wiart is called on to clear the Germans out of the village of La Boiselle, France. They had tried twice before, both times leading to a bloody defeat. This was confirmed on their arrival, by large piles of dead British bodies in the middle of no man’s land. In a particularly tough battle three unit commanders were killed, and things had taken a dire turn. Carton de Wiart, through force of personality, and tactical smarts, took command of all 3 battalions and rallied the troops, winning the battle. This was a hard won battle with many casualties but it highlights why he was so highly regarded.

The Somme laid waste to whole stretches of forest, and over 1,000,000 soldiers lost their lives.


Later, In the battle of the Somme he was shot, again, through the skull, and ankle. The head injury is particularly shocking. Sent out at night to capture a particularly dangerous wooded area, high wood – named the Devil’s wood by some, Carton de Wiart was surprised by a sudden attack from out of nowhere. Carton de Wiart, quote

“We were still moving up when suddenly I found myself flat on my face, with the sensation that the whole of the back of my head had been blown off”

Holmes, his servant, managed to get him to shelter and they sat the battle out, before attempting to get medical help. He had been struck by a machine gun bullet at the back of the skull – which had gone clean through the back of his skull – managing to avoid anything necessary for life. This wound did not keep him off the battlefield for long. That night though he was one of a very few survivors of the botched attack.

On the eleventh hour on the eleventh day on the eleventh month of 1918 Armistice was signed and the First World War all but ended. Adrian Carton De Wiart summed up his wartime experience simply “Frankly I had enjoyed the war”. When I say the war was all but finished – in an effort to rearrange post World War One Europe several new conflicts broke out. Take Poland as an example. We’ll take a quick break here, and return to discuss the next chapter in the life of Adrian Carton De Wiart

A “Tales of History and Imagination are all around us” moment: a spy, a physicist and a pop star

Hi folks, …. any time I start with “Tales of History and Imagination are all around us” I’ll be dropping some random snippet of something that has jumped into my head that day [Edit: I dropped this plan soon after. Simone]. The ‘tales of…are all around us’ are just random, off the cuff things that pop up in everyday life, when everyday stuff meets historical insight. As such they won’t have photoshopped [or cartooned] pictures. More official tales are coming.

My random “all around us” piece today. For context I’m at the hair salon, catching up with the gossip in the women’s magazines. I have the magazine open to a page featuring Aussie icon Olivia Newton John quoting Mark Twain
“reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.
The story of course that the cancer that has plagued her was back, giving her just two weeks to live. Someone said it on social media, so it must be true right?.

“It is terrible someone would tell such an awful lie about her” the lady painting my grey hairs out of existence said. I agreed. I did stop short of sharing why I find her story interesting however. Spoiler, it has nothing to do with Xanadu, Grease, or the deadbeat ex Patrick McDermott who faked his own death – apparently- to run away from a massive debt… well OK, he is an interesting tale too. What fascinated me about Ms Newton John is tales of her father, and grandfather.

Olivia Newton John’s grandfather was Max Born (1882- 1970), a Jewish- German physicist and mathematician. Vitally important to the development of quantum mechanics, he was nominated numerous times for a Nobel prize in physics – finally winning one in 1954. While at the university of Gottingen, the university became one of the main hubs of physics in the world. His list of notable students is a long one including Enrico Fermi, Max Delbruck, Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. He served in the German army during the First World War. He was peers with Werner Heisenberg.

In 1933, when the Nazi party came to power, Born and other Jewish academics were suspended from Gottingen. Seeing the writing on the wall early on, Born packed up his life, and his family moved to the UK.

Not long after moving to Britain his daughter, Irene, met and fell in love with a Welsh academic, with a background in German literature – Brinley (Brin) Newton John (1914-1992). When World War Two broke out, Brin enrolled in the RAF. Due to his language skills, hwever, he would become an intelligence officer, interrogating captured German pilots – then later a code breaker at Bletchley park. One night in May 1941 he was sent out to Scotland on a secret missing to bring in a recently captured German pilot. The pilot, who deserves his own Tale of History and Imagination, had flown to Scotland to demand an audience with the Duke of Hamilton, and Prime minister Winston Churchill. His mission, unbeknownst to Hitler, was to petition a peace treaty with Britain. The captive was none other than Deputy Fuhrer of Germany Rudolph Hess. Hess would never meet Churchill, and would die a very old man in Spandau prison, but he did get to meet the dad of a bona fide pop star.

Originally published after an appointment at the hair salon, January 27th 2019 by Simone T. Whitlow. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow