MOTORISTS have been left scratching their heads since the appearance of a mystery message turned up on the side of the A456 at Halesowen rekindling a bizarre unsolved murder.

“Who put Bella in the wych elm?” has been daubed on a piece of cardboard and propped up the side of the carriageway close to Hagley Woods – scene of one of the strangest crimes.

On April 18 1943 a woman’s skull was found by a young boy who climbed a wych elm looking for birds’ nests.

Bob Farmer, who was with three friends, made the startling discovery when he peered inside the hollow trunk.

The remains were that of a woman aged 35 to 40 who had been placed inside the tree “while still warm” where she had remained hidden for at least 18 months.

The cause of death was believed to be asphyxiation as a piece of taffeta was found in her mouth.

A murder inquiry failed to identify the woman and her killer, and after six months the appearance of graffiti across the region asking “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” suggested someone knew more than they were letting on.

But the crime has never been solved, although the circumstances have led to a number of elaborate possibilities, from an occult sacrifice to wartime espionage.

In 1953 Una Mossop claimed her cousin Jack had confessed to relatives that he and a Dutchman had put the woman in the tree to teach her a lesson after she became drunk and passed out.

Although he was confined to a mental hospital because he had reoccurring dreams of a woman staring out at him from a tree, the claim was doubted because Una did not come forward with the information until 10 years after Jack’s death.

Another possible victim was reported to police in 1944 by a Birmingham prostitute, who said a prostitute called Bella had disappeared about three years previously.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation was also revealed in the early 1950s when it was suggested Bella had been murdered by a German spy ring.

In 1968 writer Donald McCormick revisited the case claiming Bella had been a Nazi spy named Clarabella, who parachuted into the West Midlands in 1941 but failed to make radio contact and disappeared.

Wartime MI5 files reveal Gastapo agent Josef Jacobs, caught parachuting into Cambridgeshire in 1941, was the lover of cabaret singer Clara Bauerle, recruited by the Nazis as a secret agent, who had also been due to parachute into the Midlands in 1941.

Bauerle had spent two years working the music halls of the West Midlands before the war and spoke English with a Birmingham accent, but there is no record of her singing career after 1941.

Maybe English audiences more easily remembered her name as Clarabella?

Whether any A456 commuters can shed any light now on who Bella was and who put her in the wych elm is doubtful, but someone appears to be hopeful.