Famous (and not so famous) Last Words.


A person’s last words are often revealing, telling us something about them and their outlook on the life. Coming, as they do, right before that person’s death, it often doesn’t really matter to that person what they say or how it’s interpreted afterwards. From the intentionally funny (gangster George Appel), to the philosophical (spy Mata Hari), to the steely and courageous (Marshal Michel Ney), to the defiant (Australian soldier William ‘Breaker’ Morant), all usually tell us something, even if it’s only what they were thinking or feeling at their final moment.

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Supposed superspy Mata Hari, for example, is quoted as saying in her final letter before the firing squad in 1917 ‘Everything is an illusion.’ A philosophical remark, you might say but, given that she was less a master spy and more an expendable dupe served up on a plate to appease French ‘spy fever rampant in 1917, could just as easily have been a comment on her entire existence. She was never a Balinese exotic dancer, her alias ‘Mata Hari (meaning Eye of the Dawn’ in Javanese) should have been ‘Eye of the Storm’ as she merrily blundered her way around war-torn Europe, bouncing from one scrape to another until her own naivete finally sealed her doom.

Queen Elizabeth I was equally philosophical, summing up the feeling, perhaps, of many a dying person who knows the end is near:

“All my possessions for one moment of time.”

New York gangster George Appel opted for humour, albeit of a distinctly tasteless variety. In 1927 he’d been convicted of capital murder. In 1928 he’d just walked his ‘last mile’ between the ‘death house’ cells and execution chamber at the notorious Sing Sing Prison and was standing right in front of the electric chair when he made one final statement to the reporters and officials who’d come to watch him sit in the infamous ‘hot seat’ and ‘ride the lightning.’ His final words?:

“Well, folks. You’ll shortly be seeing a baked Appel.”

In 1966, Oklahoma murderer James French, the last Oklahoman to be electrocuted before that State switched (no pun intended) to lethal injection, opted for similarly-tasteless food-based wittery. His response to reporters talking to him hours before his execution was blunt and to the point:

“Hey fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s papers? ‘French Fries.'”

One of the most famous, unintentional and wildly inaccurate final statements comes from the American Civil War and General John Sedgwick. During the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 Sedgwick, wanting to inspire by example some nervy staff officers, stood up to his full height in spite of Confederate gunfire and loudly declaimed:

‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-“

Unfortunately for the suddenly-late General Sedgwick, they could. And they just had.

Douglas Fairbanks was equally off-the-mark. Shortly before suffering a fatal heart attack in 1939 he rose up in his bed (having had a previous heart attack only hours before) and uttered a remark that proved far more immortal than its originator:

“I’ve never felt better…”

Oops, Dougie. You might have been wrong on that one.

Repentance for past sins is a hardy perennial when choosing one’s final, parting words. Former Continental Army General Benedict Arnold, who had betrayed his American comrades to the British and spent his final years in exile, departed his rather sad and depressing existence thus:

“Let me die in the old uniform in which I fought my battles for freedom. May God forgive me for putting on another…”

Decidedly less repentant was New Mexico outlaw Tom ‘Black Jack’ Ketchum in 1901. Complaining bitterly about being hanged at dawn, and being denied a final breakfast in the process, he loudly declaimed:

“I’ll be in Hell before you start breakfast! Ler her rip, boys!”

They did. The length of drop was too long for a man Ketchum’s burly height and weight and the noose neatly (and messily) beheaded him when he reached the end of the rope. Still, at least he wasn’t hungry for too long.

The last word on, well, last words, rightly goes to Napoleon’s favourite general after the disastrous Battle of Waterloo in 1915. Marshal Michel Ney was legendary for his courage, known in fact as ‘The bravest of the brave’ for his seemingly total fearlessness on battlefields all across Europe. Originally sent to capture Napoleon after his escape from exile on the island of Elba, Ney instead threw in his lot with his former Emperor and turned traitor in the process. On being captured, tried and condemned for treason, Ney was asked the night before his execution if he had any last requests and he did. Remarkably, he wanted to command his own firing squad. And the authorities let him. His final words to his executioners were:

“I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her. Soldiers… Fire!”

Whatever you may think of his turning his coat, Marshal Michel Nay’s courage is not in question.

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Papillon – The Butterfly Pinned..?


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Meet Henri Charriere. Frenchman, Venezuelan, career criminal, transportee to Devil’s Island, denier of the murder that sent him there, happy to claim to have committed a murder while he was there and general storyteller and writer. Also known as ‘Papillon (due to a butterfly tattoo on his chest) and writer of the eponymous book turned into the 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman (on which he was also technical adviser).

We know that Charriere was convicted of the manslaughter of Roland LeGrand, a pimp of no particular note or repute. We know that Charriere received a sentence of life in the penal colonies of French Guiana with an extra ten-year sentence tacked on to it. We know that he actually went to Guiana aboard ‘La Martiniere’ and that he did indeed know Louis Dega, and that Dega was indeed a forger (and a very good one apart from getting himself caught and sent to Guiana for the rest of his life).

We know that he was married before his exile to Guiana and married again in Venezuela after his successful escape from the penal colonies. We know his mother died when he was only ten years old and that he served two years in the French Navy before joining the Parisian underworld as a safe-cracker. Everything else that appears in ‘Papillon’ is open to question. Did it happen to Charriere personally? Did he steal other inmates’ stories, passing them off as his own personal experiences? How many of them were his experiences or even happened? Was Henri Charriere really ‘Papillon’ at all?

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Charriere definitely arrived on the 1933 shipment from France to St.Laurent, capital of the colony and of the numerous prison camps that formed the ‘Penal Administration, French Guiana.’ He claimed that his first escape was made within weeks of arrival. Penal colony records state he was there for nearly a year before his first unauthorised absence. That he made eight further escapes, this too can’t be confirmed. That he killed an informer after being transferred to Royale Island, odd to admit that murder while denying the one that sent him to Guiana in the first place. He claimed to have spent several months with Guajira Indians while on the run through Colombia during one unsuccessful escape, which is also unconfirmed except by Charriere’s own account. Charriere also claimed to have saved a young girl’s life by fending off sharks during a swimming break when he was in solitary on St. Joseph Island for an escape attempt. A different account states that the incident did indeed happen, but that the inmate who made the save lost both his legs to a shark and died soon afterward.

While transferred to Royale Island (home to so-called ‘Incos’ or ‘Incorrigibles’, Charriere claimed to have been both a ringleader in a convict mutiny and also to have calmed the same mutiny down, his status as an ‘Inco’ being enough to persuade other ‘Incos’ to abandon their insurrection. Again, other inmates and penal colony records suggest strongly that Charriere was actually a peaceful inmate who caused very little trouble except for escaping. They also suggest he was largely content in his job on Royale Island cleaning out the latrines. According to Charriere he was a hardened felon and desperate escaper. According to seemingly everybody else, official or otherwise, he was happy to work most of the time as a shit-shoveller for other convicts.

There’s also the small matter of his supposed escape from Devil’s Island itself by floating to the mainland aboard a sack of coconuts with another inmate named Sylvain. Sylvain drowned in mud while trying to reach land, according to Papillon, which leaves nobody to corroborate his story or to explain why a conventional criminal like Charriere would be confined to Devil’s Island when that island was only used to hold political prisoners. In fact, of the 70,000 or so inmates sent to Guiana, only around 50 were ever confined to Devil’s Island itself. Neither Charriere nor his supporters can explain that or why, according to Penal Administration records, Charriere’s legendary successful escape through the Guiana jungle was made from St. Laurent where he was assigned at the time. Nor is there any explanation as to why Charriere freely references events in his book such as a convict-turned-executioner’s sadistic murder or the so-called ‘Cannibals Break.’ During that particular escape a group of escapers became so desperate they cooked and ate one of their group to survive. One member of that group (who declined the free buffet) was fellow-inmate Rene Belbenoit, himself a successful escaper and author of the far more reliable ‘Dry Guillotine,’

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The biggest problem of all for Charriere’s devotees, aside from the many inconsistencies and contradictions is Charriere’s book, a book he passed off as a memoir and not as a work of fiction, is the existence until 2007 of one Charles Brunier. Charles Brunier was a First World War veteran, armed robber and murderer sent to Guiana before Charriere. According to Brunier, he was ‘Papillon’, not Charriere. Brunier openly acused Charriere of lying and stealing the experiences of other inmates while claiming them to be his own. Brunier was also an unwilling resident of the colonies until 1940 when he escaped and joined the Free French forces under Charles de Gaulle. He also wore a number of tattoos, one of which just happened to be of a large butterfly adorning his chest and the withered little finger, both identifying marks of the real ‘Papillon.’ In 1970, former Paris-Match reporter Gerard de Villiers wrote ‘Papillon Egpingle’ (‘Butterfly Pinned’), openly accusing Charriere of being a fraud and producing much evidence to prove his case. Charriere, infuriated, didn’t try to debate de Villiers’s book, he simply tried to have it banned instead rather than disprove the allegations made. A distinct body of opinion began to coalesce around Charriere being a plagiarist and a fraud, not least the damning opinion of Truman Capote who openly derided him as a liar and a fake.

There’s no denying that Henri Charriere knew how to write, he knew how to tell a story and how to spin a few myths. But as other inmates accused him of stealing their experiences, the official records show him to have lied on numerous occasions, French officialdom openly states that the truth of his book can be divided by ten to get to what he actually experienced, a reliable journalist has solidly disproved many of his claims and Truman Capote openly called him a fraud, it’s pretty hard to deny that he was also a professional liar as well.

That said, he was a pretty successful one. Certainly a better author and liar than he was a safe-cracker. And is anybody of reasonable intelligence really so surprised to read a criminal memoir and then find it’s been spun like a DJ’s record collection?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Anybody looking for a longer account of the Guiana penal system can  find one here, published by my colleagues at History Is Now Magazine:

http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/#.VEbKyPl4q3v

Happy Birthday, Mata Hari. Top-level Courtesan And Second-Rate Spy.


Crime Scribe

download mata hari

 

Dawn, Vincennes Barracks, October 15 1917.

Brought from her cell at the Saint-Lazare Prison less than an hour after hearing that her final appeal had been denied by the President of France, alleged superspy Mata Hari faced her firing squad seemingly calm and unafraid. She may well have led a somewhat ethically questionable life, but in death she seems to have shown considerably greater courage, fortitude and integrity than those who had conspired to place her there.

Mata Hari has long been the stuff of legend and myth, the glamorous, sexy superspy effortlessly using her feminine wiles and her physical charms to extract the highest level secrets from foolish, lecherous and indiscreet Allied officers through pillow talk before daringly passing the stolen secrets on to her German handlers. But how much spying did she actually do? What level of secrets, if any at all, did she manage to extract?…

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Edith Cavell – Selfless Martyr..?


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“I am glad to die for my country.” – The last words of Edith Cavell.

Edith Cavell was shot by a German firing squad at the Tir National rifle range near Brussels on October 12, 1915, having been convicted by a German military court of aiding the enemy by helping Allied soldiers and escaped prisoners through Belgium into neutral Holland. Her death brought international condemnation for Germany, aided to the maximum by British propaganda seeking to take full advantage of her death. But, despite their publicly-stated desire to see her reprieved, how much could the British have done to save her? Did they do all they could? And, as a martyr to the British cause, was Edith Cavell worth more to them dead than alive?

The British propaganda machine certainly exploited her execution to the absolute maximum. Published accounts of her death range from the mildly-exaggerated to the blatantly dishonest and don’t tend to coincide with the eyewitness accounts of those whose grim task it was to actually watch her die. One then-popular account states that she completely lost her nerve at her execution and, far from facing her death in the stereotypically heroic fashion, fainted. Having fainted, according to this rather creative version of events, the officer in charge simply walked over to her prone figure and calmly shot her in the head with his service pistol.

Looking at it from a propaganda perspective, Edith Cavell was worth more to the British dead than alive. Having already been captured her work helping escaping Allied soldiers was over so her purpose as an active agent was already served. Even if she had been reprieved which, with bitter irony, would have aided the German cause far more than that of the British, she would certainly have spent the rest of the war in prison and thus of no further value to the British. After being shot, on the other hand, she became a far more damaging British weapon than running an escape line. She became a martyr instead.

The facts of the case were fairly straightforward. Cavell admitted under questioning that she’d helped over 200 Allied fugitives escape through Belgium into neutral Holland. She was proved to have given them shelter and supplied them with food, money and false identity papers to help them across the border. In short, she admitted committing capital crimes under German military law at thetime, and it was under German military law that she was tried, convicted and condemned.

Whether or not she at any time involved herself with active espionage as well is debatable. Noted espionage expert Nigel West is positive that she did and that she did so knowing the risks if she was caught. M.R.D Foot, a distinguished military historian and former intelligence officer who also served with the SAS during the Normandy campaign, is absolutely positive that Cavell was originally engaged by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) to assist with a spy ring, but turned her back on espionage to instead assist Allied fugitives. Beyond West and Foot’s accounts, however, there’s so far no evidence that she engaged in active espionage. It would have made no difference anyway as she was never tried for espionage, but for aiding the enemy and neither Cavell nor the British ever denied that she did do so.

Another, rather distasteful, speculation concerns her brief time under a death sentence. The British don’t seem to have done all that much to save her. but what could they have done? That she was guilty is undoubted and the Germans were hardly likely to grant any clemency request coming from the British, especially as the British shot eleven prisoners during the First World War convicted of espionage on behalf of the Germans. It does seem as though, in the absence of any meaningful options to stop her execution, British propagandists made the best use possible of an execution their superiors could do little or nothing to prevent.

Cavell herself seems to have made much less fuss about her death than propagandists did. According to Chaplain Gahan (who made a final visit hours before her execution) she was calm, rational and accepted her fate with great dignity and fortitude (far from the image of the prostrate victim callously finished off with an officer’s service pistol as she lay catatonic on the Tir National rifle range). She went to her death composed and calm, not collapsed on the ground before her executioners. She even refused a blindfold, which hardly suggests she was unable to face her final ordeal.

There isn’t any evidence to suggest that Edith Cavell’s death was actively connived at by the British authorities. The evidence for her actively involving herself in espionage is equally debatable. But what can’t be denied is that she knew what she was doing, she knew the likely outcome if she were caught and yet she chose to do it anyway and take the risk. She gambled her life for her principles, and lost. What’s also undeniable is that, not having prevented her death, British propagandists made as big a meal of it as they possibly could. Granted, that isn’t the same as doing less than they could have to secure clemency, but it’s still thoroughly distasteful and opportunistic on a grand scale.

The German authorities, themselves conflicted about executing her, finally decided to make an example of her via the firing squad. Like the British authorities after the 1916 Easter Rising, they did make an example of Edith Cavell. Unfortunately for both governments it was seen by many as an example of their own cruelty and callousness and they couldn’t have handed their opponents a bigger propaganda victory. Instead of setting examples to avoid, they set examples to follow.

What we’d nowadays call sexism also played its part. The Germans were keen to show that being female wasn’t an ‘get out of jail free’ card for condemned prisoners. British propagandists were equally keen to exploit her gender. whining bitterly about how barbarous it was to execute a woman. Bitter irony when you consider that British women were routinely hanged for murder at the time. False reports of her collapse before the firing squad, the suggestion that she should be reprieved simply on account of her gender and the general idea that shooting a woman for aiding the enemy was an atrocity while no similar degree of attention would have been lavished on a man condemned for exactly the same acts do her memory no favours.

Was she the proverbial ‘Weak and feeble woman’? No.

Did she know what she was doing and the penalty if she were caught? Yes.

Was she also at any point actively spying as well as helping Allied fugitives into neutral territory (and then on to Britain to continue fighting the Germans)? Maybe.

Edith Cavell was a brave person who made freely the choice to risk her life. She did so knowingly. She faced her end as bravely as any man, not as some hysterical banshee unable to face the consequences of her actions. German authorities at the time may have done themselves a disservice by not commuting her sentence, but British propagandists have done far worse to her memory and her place in history.

On True Crime Writing.


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 True crime is one of the fastest-growing genres for writers today and it polarises opinion among readers and writers alike. Many consider it a genuinely useful genre that, tastefully and intelligently written, can contribute to greater understanding of criminals, their crimes and their motives. There are also those, especially of the more ‘highbrow’ mindset, regarding the genre as at best voyeuristic, at worst outright sleazy and its writers as peddling ‘trash for cash.’ Neither opinion is entirely accurate, but neither is entirely unfair either. True crime writing varies from ‘cash in’ hackwork appearing almost as soon as particular crimes are committed to genuinely intelligent, far-more-tasteful work making a real effort to educate and inform the reader.

Like any other genre true crime has its big names like Ann Rule, Wensley Clarkson, former FBI undercover agent Joe Pistone and lawyer Vincent Bugliosi. Bugliosi’s book ‘Helter Skelter’ covers his successful prosecution of Charles Manson and his ‘Family’ and is still the biggest-selling true crime book with 7 million copies sold. Celebrities like actor Ross Kemp have produced well-received work such as Kemp’s ‘Gangs’ books and bookshop shelves everywhere groan under the weight of memoirs from retired criminals of all types. It’s a growing market if you have the stomach for the source material and the ability to produce accurate, tasteful, intelligent writing, although peddling ‘trash for cash’ will probably provide bigger money. So what do you need to be a decent true crime writer?

A strong stomach is essential. Spending your days looking through crime scene pictures, watching documentaries, reading trial transcripts and pondering the darkest aspects of the human mind really isn’t for anybody particularly squeamish. Personally, although true crime is my main breadwinner, I regularly cover other subjects as a form of light relief. It’s also unhealthy, for me anyway, to spend your entire professional life immersed in other people’s suffering. So I’d certainly advise having other subjects you can work on whenever the need hits you to take a break from the Dark Side.

A degree of humanity is also essential. Remember, true crime is NOT fiction. It involves real people, real crimes and real suffering. Granted, you may become hardened to some degree when writing true crime over an extended period. That’s to be expected and isn’t something to be concerned by provided it stays in check. But if you want to write true crime to a decent standard then you also need to maintain a sense of perspective and a professional attitude to the subject matter and source material even when it is unpleasant. A lot of the time, it will be. Also consider whether or not you can handle the more personal aspects of the genre like interviewing criminals. Many people, even professional true crime writers, find it uncomfortable sat across a table from a retired gangster or sitting in a prison visiting room with someone jailed for repeated crimes of violence. You may very well find that, after your first interview with a professional criminal that you’re more comfortable sticking to historical true crime, cases from decades or even centuries ago where you’ll have no need to meet people you might prefer to avoid.

Your professional attitude should extend into your writing style. Make your writing respectful of the subject matter without being mawkish and dripping with excess pathos. Always be clear and concise while retaining enough sensitivity to write like a human for other humans, not a robot devoid of any gentler feelings. Above all, if you’re serious about true crime and trying to elevate it from its oft-perceived level of voyeuristic sleaze (true crime written in a style almost pornographic) then definitely stay as far as possible from anything tacky or cheap. Be empathic without making it a pity party. Be objective without sounding more like a robot than a person.

Regarding basic writing standards, the same applies. Be thorough in your research. Check your facts. Where different sources give conflicting accounts consider those sources carefully. You can often tell truth from lies depending on whose account it is. For some reason, criminals have a terrible tendency to lie whenever convenient. Always bear that in mind, especially when they are denying having done something. As an acquaintance once put it “There’s no place like prison for meeting innocent men.” A healthy degree of cynicism and never taking anybody’s word as gospel are important in solid, competent true crime writing.

True crime writing has a particular inherent challenge. Unlike genres such as history, those involved tend not to leave smoking guns lying around. A military historian still has to check facts, ask questions and draw conclusions based on available evidence, but generals tend to leave diaries, logs, written orders, battle plans, messages and other evidence adding up to ‘Who? What? Where? When? Why?’ Hardened criminals facing life without parole (or worse) for a day’s work tend to do the exact opposite. Incriminating evidence (witnesses included) tends to be quickly disposed of and not left lying around for anybody to find. Evidence can be lost, never discovered to start with, deliberately suppressed or destroyed and so an important part of true crime writing is being able to assess what evidence is available, where and who it came from, how it was found and then filling in any gaps as best you can with what seems the most educated guesswork. By the way, the most solid explanations aren’t always the first ones that come to mind. Don’t take the most obvious, simplistic ideas and present them as hard fact and always differentiate between what the evidence confirms and your personal speculations. Always trust your readers to be bright enough to make up their own mind (because they are) and give them the best means to do so (solid, honest writing).

Market research matters. It’s not simply finding true crime websites, blogs and magazines, there are plenty around. But if you want to be a serious true crime writer then you’ll want customers who avoid shameless ‘trash for cash,’ preferring serious writers offering intelligent contributions and (like any job) you want customers who’ll pay fees agreed and pay promptly. A good example of an honest broker is www.crimemagazine.com, my main customer for true crime work. ‘Crime Magazine’ is popular online (great for high rankings on search engines), the writing is intelligent and tasteful (‘trash for cash’ is definitely not welcome here), the editor has high standards for what’s publishable and (if your work is published) he always pays what’s agreed, pays promptly and (good news for novices just starting out) takes chances by actively encouraging new writers provided their work is up to scratch. If you’re either looking to make some extra cash or you’re just starting out and building your client base then it’s a great place to start.

When you’re deciding what to write about don’t automatically go for the most obvious ideas. By all means consider the ‘classics’ like Dr. Crippen, Al Capone, John Dillinger, the Mafia and so on. But don’t be afraid to dig deeper. Find lesser-known cases with features that particularly stand out. For example, Herbert Rowse Armstrong was the only British lawyer ever to hang for murder and the murder committed by John Lee was far overshadowed by his failed execution (making him famous as ‘The man they couldn’t hang.’ Offering lesser-known cases with particular quirks shows original, fresh thinking. True crime editors probably receive a dozen pitches, queries and unsolicited articles every day about the likes of Capone or Crippen often containing little information not already revealed and so they probably don’t need another one. Originality often counts when pitching and querying potential customers so, if you’re serious about true crime, start with plenty of reading and perhaps collecting books to build a reference library. Amazon is a particularly good place to buy true crime books (often including rarities unlikely to be in mainstream bookshops). Amazon’s prices can often be lower as well, which cuts your overheads and gives you access to books you might not otherwise obtain.

True crime is much-maligned in some quarters, not always unfairly. It doesn’t need to stay that way provided writers themselves deliver intelligent, tasteful writing over ‘trash for cash’ muck-raking. It’s not for the squeamish, but not for the callously indifferent or voyeuristic either. True crime might be seen by some as a poor relation to more ‘respectable’ genres, but that doesn’t mean you can lower your writing standards. Your writing style should be engaging and interesting, but never sacrificing substance for style. Consider covering the ‘classics’ while still looking for either original cases or enough new information to revitalise old ones.

True crime might be looked down on by some people and its writers looked upon as ‘Miserable children of a luckless tribe’ (a remark made about the early war correspondents), but it has its uses and it’s a fascinating genre. Assuming I haven’t put you off already, give it a try. The competition helps keep me sharp.

Dawn Of Destruction – History’s First Air Raid.


 Giulio Gavotti, history's first bomber pilot.

Giulio Gavotti, history’s first bomber pilot.

 

“Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane. It is the first time that we will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it.”

2nd Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti, Italian Air Force.

November 1, 1911.

It is dawn at an Italian airstrip somewhere in Cyrenaica, what we now call northern Libya. After a scanty breakfast and the usual pre-flight checks Sottoteniente Giulio Gavotti fires up the engine of his ‘Etrich-Taube’ monoplane (barely more than a powered glider) for a standard flight over enemy territory during the Italo-Turkish War.

But this will not be a standard flight at all. Gavotti has resolved to attempt something never before seen or performed in flying history. Gavotti intends to find enemy targets and deliver history’s first-ever airstrike by dropping several ‘Cipolli’ anti-personnel grenades onto whatever targets of opportunity present themselves. To do this, Gavotti will have to fly his underpowered and sluggish aircraft one-handed while rummaging in a bag for his grenades, pull their pins with his teeth, swap each grenade and the control column from one hand to the other and then drop the grenades over the side onto his targets. Assuming he isn’t hit by ground fire, doesn’t drop a grenade inside his cockpit, his engine doesn’t break down and he doesn’t run into bad weather, Giulio Gavotti will take his place in the Pantheon of pilots as having flown history’s very first bombing raid.

 History's first aerial bombing raid.

History’s first aerial bombing raid.

His weapons, by today’s standards, are pitiful, a leather satchel containing four ‘Cipolli’ grenades each weighing four pounds and about the size of grapefruit. His targets are far too large for such weapons, with the benefit of a century’s hindsight. He doesn’t even cause any casualties, not a single enemy soldier is dead or wounded. But within its context, its time and place, his actions are momentous. From the First World War (involving the first destruction of an entire army entirely using air power) to the Second World War (Hamburg, Cologne, Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki) via Vietnam’s ‘Linebacker’ raids and the ‘Shock and awe’ tactics employed against Iraq, all flowed from Giulio Gavotti’s one-man airstrike.

 The Rumpler-Taube, history's first bomber.

The Etrich-Taube, history’s first bomber.

Gavotti’s aircratf wasn’t exatly a Stealh Bomber, either. The Etrich-Taube could carry two airmen (Gavotti’s bombing raid was a solo flight to make room forhis bombs). It was just under ten metres long with a 14.3-metre wingspan, was 3.2 metres high and had a top speed of 62mph provided by a Mercedes engine that was outclassed even by some racing cars of the period. Hardly what you’d call a thoroughbred by today’s standards but, again, this has to be put into context as this was less than a decade after the Wright brothers made the first-ever manned, powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. In 1906 they gave their first European demonstration flight at Le Mans along a stretch of road nowadays known as the Mulsanne Straight’ as it form part of the Le Mans 24 Hours circuit. No doubt, Gavotti might have preferred to be at the controls of a B-52 or a Lancaster but they simply didn’t exist.

 A 4-pound 'Cipelli' anti-personnel bomb. Not much, but enough for the first air raid.

A 4-pound ‘Cipelli’ anti-personnel bomb. Not much, but enough for the first air raid.

His cargo wasn’t exactly on a par with later raids such as those of the Luftwaffe or RAF Bomber Command, either. Just four ‘Cipolli’ anti-personnel grenades each weighing four pounds and about the size of a grapefruit. Hardly Dresden or Hiroshima, but certainly we have to put this into the same context. As nobody had performed an aerial bombing raid before and nobody happened to have a crystal ball, nobody could have predicted exactly how far (or how quickly) aerial combat, bombing and bombers could (or would) advance, especially not when forged into a full-scale armed force during the crucible of the First World War.

Gavotti first targeted the Jaguiara Oasis (nowadays submerged beneath downtown Tripoli). He flew over at 600 feet to avoid ground fire as, while he didn’t know if he could kill enemy troops, he had a reasonable idea that their guns could kill him if he strayed low enough to make an easy target. With three of his four bombs dropped successfully on the oasis he turned to his secondary target, the Ain-Zara military encampment. His fourth and last bomb fell successfully and detonated, without any of the four causing a single casualty. Still, it was a first in world military history and the precursor to infinitely worse death and destruction.

And it wasn’t Gavotti’s only first, either. On March 20, 1912 he also performed the first aerial reconaissance by night. Other pilots (Gavotti included) had successfully performed and survived aerial recon by day, but nobody had even attempted it by night. It was considered just too dangerous until Gavotti proved the doubters wrong.

Josef Jakobs – the Last Execution At The Tower Of London.


 Josef Jakobs, the last person executed at the Tower of London.

Josef Jakobs, the last person executed at the Tower of London.

The Tower of London, nowadys a popular tourist destination. Once also a prison, defensive fortress, a crime scene (if you believe, as I do, that the ‘Princes in the Tower’ were murdered here) and also the site of a number of execution. Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey (who was the shortest-reigning Queen in British history, in office for only nine days), and of host of others. And it’s one of those others that we’re looking at today.

If you’re thinking, as so many do, that the Tower’s reputation for executions ended in medieval times then you’d be wrong. 11 German spies were shot there in the First World War and one in the Second. He was Josef Jakobs from Luxembourg, executed by firing squad on August 15, 1941, who holds the grim distinction of being the last prisoner executed at the Tower. August 15 was also the date, in 1961, of the last hanging in Scotland, that of Henry Burnett at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen and, in New York in 1963, the last execution in New York State, that of Eddie Lee Mays (by electrocution). But I’ve covered Mays already and we’ll get round to Burnett in due course. It’s Jakobs we’re interested in today.

Jakobs was a Luxembourger born on June 30, 1898. He was a veteran of the First World War (he served as a lieutenant in the 4th Foot Guards of the German Army), was drafted back into the German Army as an Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) in June, 1940 and then his career (and life) took a disastrous downturn when a previous conviction for selling counterfeit gold (and its accompanying stretch in a Swiss prison) saw him demoted to Feldwebel (Sergeant) and transferred to the Meteorologischen Dienst, the military weather service. His demotion also brought him to the attention of German Military Intelligence, the Abwehr, under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who recruited him to spy in England. Ironically, given Jakobs’ grim distinction, Canaris himself was executed for treachery on April 9, 1945 at Flossenburg concentration camp after his implication in the July Bomb Plot of1944 where Hitler narrowly escaped assassination.

His being a Luxembourger wasn’t unusual, many agents recruited by the Abwehr were either non-German or indigenous to the countries they betrayed (such as Duncan Scott-Ford whom I’ve already covered). He was trained in espionage, equipped with £500 in forged money, a radio transmitter, a pistol, civilian clothes, forged identity papers and a sausage, an obviously German sausage which wasn’t all that smart of his recruiters as it would have stood out like a sore thumb in wartime Britain.

Arthur Owens. Not a man of doubtful loyalties, because he simply didn't have any.
Arthur Owens. Not a man of doubtful loyalties, because he simply didn’t have any.

He flew out Schiphol Airport, in the Occupied Netherlands, landing by parachute near Ramsey in Huntingdonshire on January 31, 1941 and promptly broke his ankle on landing. Crippled and with no means to pursue his mission, that of discovering troop movements and monitoring weather conditions to aid air raids on British targets. He fired his pistol repeatedly into the air until two local farmers came to his aid. Charles Baldock and Harry Coulson promptly notified the local police and Home Guard who detained him for transfer to London. He was still wearing his flying suit with a civilian suit underneath and his equipment. Jakobs was promptly arrested and transferred to London to the secretive ‘Camp 020’ used for holding German spies while deciding whether they’d be more useful as double agents or simply be tried secretly and executed. Jakobs wasn’t seen as useful enough to be a double agent which made his trial, held secretly, a foregone conclusion.

His trial was held in secret because the British wanted to protect the ‘Double Cross’ system used to ‘turn’ captured German spies and use them t feed disinformation back to Abwehr HQ in Berlin. It was via ‘Double Cross’, at the instigation of a singularly unsavoury Welsh nationalist, MI5 agent, Abwehr agent and self-interested ne’er-do-well named Arthur Owens (codenamed ‘SNOW’) that Jakobs and many other German agents dropped into Britain and were almost immediately caught, then either ‘turned’ or executed. Owens was devious, selfish and only acted on one side, his own, while making as much money as he could from whichever side paid best at the time. He betrayed scores of Abwehr agents, knowing full well the fate that awaited them. He was an opportunist, a crook, a mercenary and quite possibly a psychopath.

Jakpbs ended up at ‘Camp 020’ via Ramsey Police Station and Cannon Row Police Station in London. He was interrogated, harshly but not mistreated, by an expert in the art of mentally breaking prisoners, ‘Tar’ Robertson of MI5’s Section B1A to help decide if he’d be offered the chance of working for the British. He was kept at Brixton Prison’s infirmary and again interrogated, thsi time by MI5’s ‘Tin-Eye’ Stephens, an even more ruthless interrogator who, like Robertson, disdained physical torture. Like a small fish, Jakobs was thrown back as not worth keeping. He was, in fact, thrown in among sharks. His secret trial was forgone conclusion, given that he’d been caught with spying equipment, had already admitted arriving for the purpose of espionage and hadn’t inspired any respect by readily offering to betray the Abwehr. If, MI5, reasoned, he would fold so quickly on capture then he’d be of no use to them. Jakobs spent another two months at Dulwich Hospital being treated for his ankle injury before his trial on August 4-5, 1940.

Jakobs was given a military court-martial rather than a civilian trial with Lieutenant-General Sir Bertram Sergison-Brooke presiding. The evidence of eight witnesses, Jakobs himself and his own equipment was overwhelming and he was promptly sentenced to death by shooting. In deference to his being a soldier he was allowed shooting rather than the civilian method of hanging, affording him the chance to die like a soldier instead of as a common criminal at the hands of Britain’s chief hangman Albert Pierrepoint like Duncan Scott-Ford in 1942. Jakobs appealed to King George VI by letter, offering again to spy for the British and claiming he had always intended to turn himself in. It made no difference, the judgment was affirmed and his final, desperate appeal was rejected. His execution would take place on August 14, 1941 at the miniature rifle range at the Tower of London. Nobody had been executed at the Tower since 1747.

 Place of execution: The miniature rifle range at the Tower.

Place of execution: The miniature rifle range at the Tower.

At 7am that morning Jakobs, still hobbling on his injured ankle, became the last inmate to be executed at the Tower. He was assisted into a chair set up on the minature rifle range and a white target maker was pinned over his heart. An eight-man firing squad from the Holding Battalion of the Scots Guards, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Gerrard (Deputy Provost-Marshal for the London District) performed the execution. At 7:12am Gerrard gave a silent signal and a single rifle volley echoed round the Tower grounds. Josef Jakobs was dead. Seven bullets had struck him on or around the marker while one sturck him in the face. It was over.

 The chair in which Josef Jakobs died.

The chair in which Josef Jakobs died.

Jose Jakobs was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetary after his execution.