St Woolos Cemetery - The Haunted Holy Ground

From the book "The Haunted Holy Ground" by Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame published in 1988.

About the Authors






A Terrible, Double Irony

By Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame
First published 1988

© Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame 2012

When the Heinkel bomber smashed into the home of the Phillips family in a comfortable middle class suburb of Newport during the night of the 12 and 13 of September, 1940 there was a double irony.

Despite or perhaps because the officially sanctioned barbarity of the Nazi regime then waging war against Britain the family were pacifists.

They were also Jewish.

Two of the children of the Phillips family and three aircrew ended up in St Woolos cemetery after that night. The bodies of the airmen have long since been transferred to the large plot at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, which has been set aside for the interment of the German war dead but the Phillips children sleep forever in their native Newport.

drawing by David Pow

The terrible day which saw warrior and pacifist, Jew and German united in death began not long before midnight on the night of December 12 when nine Heinkel 111 aircraft heavily laden with bombs heaved themselves from the runway at their base at Rennes in Northern France.

The crews had orders to carry out nuisance raids over Liverpool and Bristol with instructions to hit Swansea and Newport as secondary targets.

Contemporary reports say that at four in the morning on the thirteenth - Friday the Thirteenth - Monmouthshire air raid wardens received the signal that could only mean very bad luck indeed.

“Condition Red! Condition Red!” barked the voice over the telephone as one of the aircraft, piloted by Oberleutnant Harry Wappler roared in over Belle Vue Park, Newport. But all of the bad luck that befell that night, a great deal went the way of the German aircrew. Since taking off from France the aircraft and its crew had encountered anti-aircraft fire and must surely have been praying for a safe return to base.

But the gods of war ordained that this was not to be. The already damaged aircraft had been forced to fly low and while approaching Newport had a wing sheared off by a barrage balloon cable.

As soon as the balloon cable sliced into the Heinkel, Oberleutnant Wappler grabbed his parachute and baled out leaving the aircraft a wreck spinning out of control.

Moments later is smashed into the ground floor of the Phillips’ home at 32, Stow Park Avenue, Newport where the two children, Malcolm and Myrtle were sleeping. If fate had any more terrible twists in store that night it was that the two children were sleeping downstairs because their father thought it safer in the event of an air raid.

The aircraft exploded instantly hurling pieces of flaming debris in all directions. Malcolm burst into his parents’ room shouting that their house was on fire and immediately ran back to his room in an attempt to save his sister.

His parents followed only to meet a sheet of flame roaring up the stairs. Their only means of escape from the house was by the bedroom window, from which they lowered themselves by tying sheets together.

When they reached the ground Mr Phillips smashed the library window, severely burning and cutting his arms in the frantic attempt to reach his children but was beaten back by the flames. Undeterred, he ran to the back of the house but was restrained from making another attempt by firemen.

As daylight came the shattered remnants of the Heinkel formed a sombre backdrop to the procession of bodies from the house.

The Phillips home was rebuilt and now stands rather different in outline from its undamaged neighbours. Wappler, the pilot and the only aircrew member to escape the inferno was captured immediately and taken to St Woolos Hospital with a broken arm. Later that same morning Mr and Mrs Phillips arrived at his bedside and forgave him for the death of their children.

There is a headstone for Malcolm and Myrtle in Jews’ Wood at St Woolos cemetery.

But perhaps the most lasting memorial of all is the compassion and forgiveness of the parents, compared with which all else seems temporal and bound to fate.

Les Thomas remembers being at home that day when the milkman told his father there had been a terrible crash in Stow Park Avenue.

“We went there and they were bringing the bodies of the airmen out. I was shaken and upset by it all,” he said.

Visitors to the cemetery today will see a patch near the graves of the British war dead where the German crewmen were at first buried. It was not until long after the war their bodies were exhumed and moved to the cemetery in Staffordshire the Germans have for themselves.