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Walter Mitty Surfaces in No.914 Squadron at Northfield Birmingham

Walter Mitty was one of the characters in James Thurber's first short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". In February 1941 one of the Barrage Balloon Squadrons had a Walter Mitty as one of their own!

849817 Airman 1st Class Harold John Land was charged on February 8th, 1941, under the Defence Regulations at Birmingham Court that on 6th February he did an “act calculated falsely to suggest that he was acting in the service of His Majesty”.

The evidence was given that he had gone to a Birmingham newspaper and talked to the commissionaire and was sent to see the Deputy Overseer and handed him a piece of paper requesting that they place an advertisement that said: “ Lonely Airman would like to meet lady 30-35, all confidence”. Land told the overseer that the message was in code. This caused some concern as newspapers were careful in wartime about any messages that might be in code as it might damage the war effort. They needed to establish the bona fides of any such person requesting an advertisement in code. In response Land told them that they could contact Superintendent Richardson to confirm his message was acceptable.

He then mentioned that he was having problems with the lights in one part of the town and that as he approached the lights they would go out. Based on this conversation and the mention of Superintendent Richardson, it was thought that land must be working in conjunction with the police and the C.I.D. about these lights. The newspaper gave him a receipt for cost the placing of the advert. He asked for any replies to be forwarded to a Box No.

He referred to the coded message telling the newspaper that he had to get in touch with others about the lights. The newspaper was concerned that Land had said about his connections to the police and so they decided to check with the police.

He was subsequently brought to the police station for an interview. He insisted that he was No.71 in the Secret Service! He told them that he was placing his message in the newspaper in response to one that read “Victory, Read Psalm 124, last verse, A.A.A.”

He told the police that he had never said that he was working with the C.I.D. or that he had mentioned Superintendent Richardson. He also told the police at interview that “he would rather not discuss with whom he was working as it was secret work! The police discovered that the advert mentioning Psalm 124 had been placed by an elderly lady keen to promote interest in the bible and she had no knowledge of anyone called Land.

Eventually the police had grown tired of his fanciful stories and told him in no uncertain terms that they knew he was not telling the truth.

He then changed his story to say that all he had told them was nonsense. He said he had put the message in to get in touch with a lady he had met on the bus! He had told the newspaper the fanciful tale hoping that would convince them to insert it without any questions.

Detective-Inspector Sellek told the Court he had known land since 1931 and during that time he had been in one or other of the armed forces. He had dealt with numerous complaints about Land and in the past he had told people that he was in the Secret Service, and mentioned that he had seen spies in the area and he had told stories about the I.R.A. and their outrages. Dealing with these stories had caused considerable work for the police and had wasted much police time.

As an example, in April 1939 he had told the police that there was going to be an I.R.A. attack in the Snow Hill area of Birmingham.

Based on this many police lay in wait, but the information was false. In May 1939 he had told the police that he had genuine information that the I.R.A. planned to blow up schools in Durham Road, again this proved fruitless.

In August 1939 he had approached a sentry and asked him to hand over his rifle. When the sentry refused Land told him that he was from the Secret Service.

In June 1939 he had told the police that he had seen a group of Austrians. This proved to be untrue. The Court suggested that it seemed that land did this for his own gratification and no other reason.

Detective Inspector Selleck told the Court that he believed “drink had softened Land’s brain” and that he was dangerous.

An R.A.F. officer told the Court that he could not say anything to Land’s credit. land told the Court that it was the drink that made him say these things. The Court said he was a positive nuisance and in these times of war his romancing had become a serious matter. They sentenced him to 3 months imprisonment for the offences. His address was given as St. Helier’s Road, Northfield. However, this subsequently proved to be untrue.

He was released from prison in early May and by July was back before the Courts charged with the theft of a service revolver and ammunition from an armoury valued at £4-3s-6d. Land told the Court that he had only borrowed the revolver to loan it to a Hiram Brady and had intended returning it to the armoury once Brady had finished with it. He claimed that the money he had taken from Brady was a deposit to ensure the safe return of the revolver and ammunition. He had take 17s-6d from Brady and they had both met in a pub.

Brady had taken the revolver back to his lodgings in his attaché case, but it was discovered by his landlady and in Brady’s absence she decided to dispose of it in the Mersey. Lands told the Court that if it had been given back to him, he would have replaced it into the armoury before anyone had missed it.

Brady insisted that Lands had offered to sell it to him he had paid the money a week later. Brady lied to the police when he said he had stolen the revolver from an unknown man who had been flashing it around in a pub. He told the police he made up this story to protect Lands. He had planned to surrender the revolver to the police but was thwarted when his landlady threw it in the river. Brady told the police that he did not know that the revolver had been stolen by Lands. When the police interviewed Brady’s landlady, she was able to show them where she had thrown the revolver in the Mersey. Using a large magnet, the Mersey police were able to recover the revolver from the river.

Brady was fined £5 with 10s costs and Lands was sent back to prison for a further 3 months.

He surfaced in the Birmingham news in November 1945 when he was in Court again for assaulting Mrs Frances Brakewell a bus conductress on 6th November. At 10.30 p.m. he pushed past the people in the queue at Aston. An argument broke out and he was eventually allowed to remain. At Witton Road he wanted to get off but did not get off and continued arguing. He then swore at the conductress and punched her in the face causing her to pass out. She was unable to work for ten days. He was fined £6 including costs. He seemed to stay out of trouble after that and died in 1957. During his time in the Balloon Barrage Harold John Land was court-martialled twice and had to face numerous R.A.F. charges. 


 Peter Garwood December 2020

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