Wartime Memories

“...Being damned, I am amusedto see the centre of love diffusedand the waves of love travel into vacancy.How easy it is to make a ghost.”

- “How to Kill”, from a poem by Keith Douglas, killed during the Allied Invasion in Normandy, aged 24.
Helen Duncan
Helen Duncan

In September 1939, the Nazi War Machine began its attack on Poland, and the Second World War erupted when Britain and France honoured their defensive pact – this was a war in which statisticians claim nearly sixty-two million people lost their lives.  With six years of warfare before the War was finally won by the Allies, every element of life  at home in the England felt the effects, including those supposedly ‘spiritually’ inclined.

Public interest in spiritualism, and in this case the interest of the police and the Royal Navy, was perked in 1941 when spiritualist medium Helen Duncan reported during a séance the sinking of a warship before the news was broadcast to the public.  This again happened in 1943 when Duncan reported the appearance of a ghost who claimed to have died in the sinking of the Barham. – a ship that was only declared sunk many months later.  It seems that the Government took an interest in Duncan after this, citing her as a risk to the country’s security, speculation claiming that what they feared was for their D-Day plans to be ‘seen’ by Duncan and leaked to the wrong people.  On the 19th January 1944, Helen Duncan was arrested, charged with vagrancy.  However, instead of the small fine for this alleged crime, she was held in London’s Victoria Prison for four days before she was then charged with conspiracy.  This was changed yet again, and Duncan came before the judge at the Old Bailey charged with contravening the Witchcraft Act of 1735. And also a charge of Larceny.  

Helen Duncan was found guilty under the Witchcraft Act, but found innocent of other charges.  She was sentenced to nine months in jail, and denied the right to appeal.  Interestingly though, whilst in jail Duncan had many distinguished visitors, including Winston Churchill.

The War reputedly left its ghostly mark in many areas of the UK, especially in relation to bombers, fighters and aviation hangars.  In the Peak District, a ghostly Lancaster Bomber, thought to be the plane known as  Vicky the Vicious Virgin has been seen flying close to ground level and then the sound and sight of an explosion can be heard:  this apparition has been seen every fifteen years – the plane in question crashed in 1945 killing its crew, during a routine training operation.

A similar story can be found in Kent, at Biggin Hill, where a ghostly spitfire has often been seen and heard, as if it is coming in to land at the airstrip.

RAF Hendon, Surrey and RAF Cosford, Shropshire also have many tales of hauntings, from apparitions of airmen being seen, to disembodied voices and feelings of being watched.

An unusual case of a reported Second World War haunting can also be found at RAF West Malling in Kent, where people have reported a brick crashing into their car out of no-where, only for that brick to vanish upon trying to find it (though the damage done to the vehicles doesn’t… How on earth do you explain that one to the insurance company?!).  There have also been numerous sightings of a figure dressed as a World War II airman, who has been blamed for throwing the phantom brick.  Historians have surmised that this is a replay event when during the war a Spitfire crash landed, and the pilot was killed when a brick crashed through his canopy and hit him.

Perhaps a more grisly apparition awaits visitors to RAF Wellesbourne in Warwickshire:  this unfortunate soul is said to be that of a navigator who ran into the moving propeller blades of a stationary aircraft.  His ghost is now said to be seen retracing his final steps.

Up here in the North East, we have plenty of our own reported World War II ghosts.  

Just before the outbreak of war in August 1939, aircraft Hudson n7290 crashed into Cambridge Road in Middlesbrough killing the crew, though thankfully there were no civilian casualties:  the plot of land where the crash took place has been reported as very ‘atmospheric’, and occasionally passer-bys have reported the sound of crackling flames and the smell of burning.

Not too far away from this site, Thornaby Snooker Club can be found, sporting tales of a phantom airman being spotted within the main snooker hall, as well as the sound of balls being struck on the tables when in fact none are in play.  There has also been the sound of a distant aircraft being reported, with engines that sound way too old to be a modern aircraft.  Historically, this site is built over the Martinet Road Officers’ Mess of the Thornaby Airfield, dating to the War. 

The site of RAF Thornaby itself is also reputedly haunted, with sightings of airmen, reports of cold spots and also of being jostled, as if someone unseen had walked past.

The site of RAF Greatham, near Hartlepool, now used by the Fire Brigade, seems to have developed tentative stories about phantom airmen and even a poltergeist, though as only one source can be found for these stories, it can’t really be substantiated!

RAF Middleton St. George, known locally as Goosepool and now the Teesside Airport also has its share of ghost stories, with an airman dressed in helmet and jacket being seen a number of times around the area that was the Officers’ Mess, and ghostly footsteps have been heard in many of the hangars, following unsuspecting visitors around.

Newcastle upon Tyne’s Castle Keep (mentioned earlier as part of the Crime and Punishment section) was used as a joint fire-warden and air-raid post during the War, with the ground floor being used as an air-raid shelter.  The Keep itself escaped the ravages of the War, but occasionally men in wartime uniforms are seen in what is now the Museum Room on the first floor, usually standing in one of the western window alcoves.

There are also a few stories of a phantom plane being heard crashing into the ground at High Marley Hill:  could this be the replay of the death of Sergeant J. Graham of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who flew his Hawker Hurricane into the ground there on the 10th February 1942?  Unfortunately there have been no visual sightings of this event, only the sound of the engines and the subsequent crash, so perhaps we’ll never know.


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