VE (Victory in Europe) marked the official end of hostilities in the European theatre of operations and probably the largest, most joyous celebration in human history.Unless, of course, you happened to be former US Army Air Forces Private George Edward Smith.
While most of the rest of the world basked in the joy of victory and the relief of the European war being over, Private Smith had a rather more pressing engagement to think about. The rest of the population might be about to enter a brave new world, but Smith was about to depart rather suddenly from the old one. It was his execution day.
Smith, previously serving at RAF Attlebridge in Norfolk with the US Air Force’s 784th Bombardment Squadron, wouldn’t be celebrating the end of the European war. He’d be watching the clock tick relentlessly down to 1 a.m. when he’d be escorted from the Condemned Cell at Her Majesty’s Prison, Shepton Mallet, Somerset (loaned to the US military for the duration of the war). He’d be sat near the gallows pondering a past that was about to cost him his life while hoping for a reprieve that wouldn’t arrive and a future that was already lost.
While most of the world celebrated, George Edward Smith was going to die.
Smith’s guilt wasn’t in any doubt. Near RAF Attlebridge lay the sleepy Norfolk town of Honingham and the stately home named Honingham Hall (demolished in the 1960s). Honingham Hall and the adjoining land were home to distinguished diplomat Sir Eric Teichmann, a long-serving figure vastly experienced in the Far East and serving as advisor to the British Embassy at Chungking. He’d noticed, as so many country gentlemen do, that he had a problem with poachers. December 3, 1944 would be the last time he had a problem with anything. It was in the small hours of the morning that he met George Edward Smith.
Smith and his accomplice Private Wijpacha had ‘borrowed’ a pair of M1 carbines from the base armoury and decided to do a spot of poaching. Teichmann, familiar with the fact that poachers aren’t usually violent offenders and usually run if challenged, heard gunshots from nearby woodland and went out to investigate. He went out unarmed, challenged Smith and Wijpacha — and Smith promptly shot him once through the head with his M1. Both men fled hurriedly back to their base, hoping that their absence wouldn’t be noticed. Of course, a senior British diplomat lying murdered in the woodland was noticed.
Before long both men were arrested and questioned, during which Smith gave a full confession he later retracted claiming it was made under duress. That, not surprisingly, cut no ice whatsoever with either the American military or British civil authorities. Smith and Wijpacha were court-martialled at RAF Attlebridge and Wijpacha (who hadn’t fired a shot) received a lengthy prison sentence. Smith, the triggerman, drew the death penalty.
Under the Visiting Forces Act, 1942 the Americans were free to try, imprison and condemn their own criminals independent of the British system of justice, not that it would have made any difference to Smith’s case. Murder was then a capital crime in Britain regardless of the criminal’s nationality. If Smith hadn’t been condemned by an American court-martial then a British trial would have seen the judge don the legendary ‘Black Cap’ and pass what British reporters once called ‘the dread sentence’ especially given the status of the victim. Smith was promptly shipped to the prison at Shepton Mallet in the county of Somerset to await a mandatory review of his case and, if clemency was refused, execution.
Shepton Mallet had been a civilian prison for centuries before being turned over to the British military, who lent it to the Americans as part of the Visiting Forces Act. Until its final closure a few years ago Shepton Mallet remained the oldest prison in the UK still operational, a dubious distinction now belonging to Dartmoor. There were, however, a few difficulties with the arrangement. The US military were allowed to perform the death penalty, but under English law only executioners of the ‘Official List’ kept by the Prison Commissioners could do the work.
The Americans carried out 18 executions at Shepton Mallet during their tenure between mid-1942 and September, 1945. Two (Alex Miranda and Benjamin Pyegate) were by firing squad, upsetting local people who knew very well what it meant to live next to a military prison and hear a single rifle volley at 8 a.m. The American military also preferred hanging common criminals to allowing them to be shot like soldiers.
The locals disliked firing squads and, not surprisingly, there were complaints. The US military felt being shot was too good for most of its condemned and the British didn’t like the methods and equipment used by American hangmen, who had acquired a nasty and thoroughly-deserved reputation for using badly-designed scaffolds, the wrong type of rope and often the antiquated standard drop instead of a drop scientifically calculated by the prisoner’s weight, height and build.
The British also regarded American hanging equipment as outdated, while American military hangmen John Woods and Joseph Malta were entirely unfamiliar with the British equipment or method. British hangmen had evolved hanging to almost an art, needing mere seconds to complete the procedure. The gallows were different. The design and type of rope were different. It was illegal for American hangmen to do their job on British soil.
Another problem was that the gallows at Shepton Mallet hadn’t been used since March, 1926 for the execution of murderer John Lincoln by Thomas Pierrepoint. Thomas, brother of hangman Henry Pierrepoint and uncle of Albert, would handle most of the military hangings during the US military’s time at Shepton Mallet. By 1942 the prison’s original gallows was considered unfit for service and needed replacing. A compromise had to be reached, and was.
The Americans could continue executions at Shepton Mallet, but the vast majority (16 out of 18) were performed by British hangmen using a British gallows in an extension built onto the end of one of the cellblocks. The Americans were permitted their usual practice of having the condemned stand strapped, noosed and hooded on the gallows while their death warrant and charge sheet were read out and then being asked for any last words. This caused executioner Albert Pierrepoint, master of the speedy hanging, to complain at what seemed to him a cruel, unnecessary delay in ending the prisoner’s misery.
Pierrepoint also complained about overcrowding in the gallows room during executions. At a British hanging there would be the prisoner, the hangman and his assistant, the prison Governor, the Chief Warder, the doctor, the Chaplain and two or four prison officers. For double hangings four hangman would be present. At an American military hanging there were usually twenty or so people clustered around the trapdoors and lever of a room not designed for so many people. Pierrepoint felt a hanging should be both quick and perfect and that an overcrowded gallows room invited disaster. Pierrepoint
By VE Day the arrangement was well-established and a familiar figure returned to the prison. Thomas Pierrepoint performed 13 of the 16 hangings at Shepton Mallet, Albert performing the remaining three when he wasn’t busy elsewhere. Their assistants were Steve Wade, Herbert Morris and Alexander Riley. Tom Pierrepoint had performed the last hanging at Shepton Mallet in 1926 (that of murderer John Lincoln) assisted by Lionel Mann. While the two firing squads were performed at 8 a.m., the hangings would be carried out at 1 a.m. which was discreet enough not to upset the neighbour.
Under military law it was standard practice to review Smith’s case. Not surprisingly his appeal was denied as were other clemency requests including (most generously, under the circumstances) one from Lady Teichmann whose husband Smith had murdered. His date was set for 1 a.m. on what turned out to be the very day Europe’s guns fell silent. Tom Pierrepoint would do the job assisted by Herbert Morris. Smith was transferred to the Condemned Cell a few days prior to the execution date where he was granted free access to the military Chaplain.
When the time came the rest of the population celebrated the arrival of a new world while Smith contemplated his departure from the old one. He had little time to do so and it went as smoothly as could be expected. Smith was taken from his cell wearing standard military uniform, from which any insignia had been deliberately removed. Paperwork was completed signifying his dishonourable discharge from the US military as a common criminal. The US military were determined he should die like one. Shooting, they felt, was a death for a soldiers, not common crooks.
Given the delays caused by the reading of the charge sheet and death warrant and Smith being asked for his last words (he apparently had none) it took 22 minutes between Smith leaving his cell and being certified dead by the prison doctor. Compare this with a standard British execution (minus the bureaucracy and speechifying) where 22 seconds would have been considered twice as long as was needed to do the job. A British hangman taking so long would likely have been fired for incompetence. Smith’s punishment, however, wasn’t done yet.
Executed American servicemen were initially buried at Brookwood cemetery, but then moved to the notorious ‘Plot E’ of the Oisne-Aisne Military Cemetery in France. Plot E is deliberately hidden from the rest of that cemetery. Its residents have no names on their graves, only numbers. They have no headstones or crosses, only flat stone markers. No American flag hangs in their plot. It doesn’t appear on the plan of the cemetery even today and the markers are placed facing away from the graves of other Americans. Visits to Plot E are still discouraged and it wasn’t until a Freedom of Information request in 2009 that the names of those buried there were released.
Whatever they may have done, and some committed truly dreadful crimes, it seems distasteful to virtually deny their existence and shame them even after death. It also denied their families and friends the chance to visit and grieve, despite the fact that they themselves had committed no crime. When British TV’s Channel 4 contacted one of the families in the early 2000’s while researching a documentary the family had had no idea their relative had been executed, only that he had died in military service.
That said, it was the same routine imposed on condemned British criminals. In fact, until the Homicide Act of 1957 the British death sentence expressly mandated that inmates be buried in unmarked graves within the prison walls inflicting exactly the same suffering on their friends and relatives. The British hanged were officially designated ‘Property of the Crown,’ and many were not properly reburied until after abolition. At many British prisons they still remain in unmarked graves according to their original, chilling sentence:
“Prisoner at the Bar, it is the sentence of this Court that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. Remove the prisoner …”
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