In the early hours of December 17, 1949, the Knie Circus was headed to Birmingham to perform at a Christmas show.
After a successful summer season at the Blackpool Tower Circus the popular company had been quartered at Staining when they boarded a train at Blackpool North for the journey south.
But after travelling a few miles they found themselves stranded just outside Preston as a peculiar drama unfolded.
Among the cast of travelling showmen, women and their various performing animals – including four elephants, a troupe of horses and 11 bears – was one of the stars of the show, Tarka the African elephant.
The creature had become spooked by passing trains and around 4.30am broke free from its restraints.
The train’s driver spotted the first truck carrying the elephants was swaying and he halted the engine just north of Preston railway station.
As the panicked animal caused havoc in the confined area circus worker, Auguste Natsch, who went to investigate the noise, found himself flung around by the enraged elephant.
At one point he was knocked through the carriage’s glass window and on to the railway line. Luckily for the 22-year-old, he sustained no serious harm and was discharged from hospital later in the afternoon with cuts and bruises.
Tarka’s trainer, Frederick Oehme, was also present when the elephant began to cause mayhem but, fortunately for the 51-year-old, he managed to escape harm while the three and a half tonne beast had its attention turned towards Natsch.
Swiss national Natsch told the Post: “I’ve had a very lucky escape. Tarka was trying to trample on me when she spotted the trainer and got hold of him. If Tarka had not seen the trainer when she did I might have been killed.”
The men’s ordeal lasted for four hours as Tarka caused chaos for rail services between Preston and the Fylde coast with all rail traffic halted and passengers forced to travel by bus from Preston to Kirkham.
Elephant keeper Tony Wood, of Blackpool, said: “We were asleep when Tarka woke us up. She was stamping about and kicking away at the sides of the truck.
“Auguste Natsch, who trains bears, went into the compartment to quieten her. But Tarka hurled Natsch to the floor with her trunk and tried to trample him.”
A trackside conference was held between police, railway and RSPCA officials to determine what to do as Tarka’s head and trunk thrust through the wrecked carriage and his trumpeting echoed across the district.
They decided it would be too dangerous to approach the elephant - valued at £3,000 - and concluded there was no alternative but to shoot the animal. A firing squad of 10 Royal Artillery men from Fulwood Barracks was sent for to kill the animal.
A party of riflemen aimed carefully at Tarka’s eyes, with the hope of killing it instantly with a shot through the brain, while a soldier with a Bren gun put a burst into its body while aiming for its heart.
Col EG Coventry told the Post: “We could see the elephant had smashed one of the chains on its forelegs and had injured its head in smashing up the truck. It was too dark to make any moves with safety. We had to wait for the dawn to break. Then as the light came up we had a truck shunted slowly towards the elephant. We wanted to kill the animal without pain and to make sure that it was not merely wounded. We managed to kill it with the first shots.”
In 2014 Patrick Hull, of Penwortham, who was 16 at the time, recalled his journey to work that morning in The Lostock Hall Magazine. He said: “I arrived at work over an hour late and my shop manager Mr Leonard Ball asked me why I wasn’t on time. He didn’t believe my explanation about the elephant and as punishment sent me upstairs to brush his prize blue napp coat.
“At dinnertime Mr Ball went across the road to Tokyo’s for lunch and upon reading the Blackburn Telegraph he found my story to be true. He apologised for not believing me being the nice chap that he was”.
Dorothy Pemberton told the magazine: “I was six at the time, we lived in Mona Street and straight across from our house was the Preston to Blackpool railway line. “My mother told me a circus elephant was trying to escape and if it did it might destroy our house. I was so frightened. Next, lots of police cars and the Army arrived and bright lights were switched on to give a better view of the railway line.
“Eventually the police came and told us the elephant was under control and the danger was over. She was making such a noise we all thought it was going to charge down the road. Even now at 70-years-old I can still picture the scene”.
Gerry Cooke told the magazine: “My dad was a railway traffic controller on the night shift in 1949 and I remember when I was eight years old he told me soldiers used a Bren gun to kill a rampaging elephant. I was interested as to where the elephant ended up. The story going round was make sure you don’t eat any pies”.
Tarka was not the only elephant to make a bid for freedom that day. Punschi, who was Tarka’s performing companion, had only a thin steel chain preventing it from breaking free from a compartment in the same carriage and entering the crowded nearby streets.
Onlookers watched as handlers attempted to load Punschi into another truck ready for transportation.
It was being prodded and poked but seemed oblivious to the drama. Three times they tried, but three times Punschi turned away, seemingly uninterested in co-operating. Circus hands had to stand firm and block the exit which led toward a busy Preston shopping centre and tried to persuade the animal to move away.
Reluctantly, Punschi eventually plodded back towards its transportation much to the relief and delight of everybody present.