On This Day in 1918; Privates Ernest Jackson and Louis Harris, Shot Four Days Before The Armistice.


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The memorial to over 300 British soldiers shot during World War One. Jackson and Harris were the last.

In keeping with the Remembrance theme of this week I’ve decided to share this with you. During the First World War the British Army carried out over 300 executions by firing squad, around 10% of those British servicemen actually sentenced to death for crimes such as desertion, cowardice, striking a superior officer and mutiny among other capital military offences. This is the story of the last two men to shot at dawn during the First World War. They were shot on November 7, 1918, four days later the war was over and all military death sentences were commuted to prison sentences.

Private Ernest Jackson went first. He’d been conscripted in 1916, arriving in France that November. In April 1917 he went AWOL, Absent Without Leave, for 28 hours. The court martial sentenced him to two years hard labour, a non-capital sentence that was often commuted to a lesser punishment. Jackson’s sentence wasn’t commuted and he didn’t return to active service until August, 1918 when he was returned to his battalion after sixteen months behind bars.

It wasn’t long before he was facing another court martial, this time for a much more serious crime with fatal consequences. On September 29 he reported sick and was sent to Flesquieres to wait for transport to a military hospital via field ambulance. He was arrested by military police and returned to his unit at Noyelles, some 3000 yards behind the British front line trenches where, on October 3, he vanished again and was arrested near Douellen. On October 8 his weapons and equipment were found stashed away, not far from where he’d gone absent for the second time.

Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial on charges of going AWOL, desertion and ‘Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy.’ Going AWOL wasn’t a shooting offence, but desertion and casting away arms both were. The court martial showed him no leniency and nor did his superior officers when they considered his appeal. He was taken to the town of St. Python and shot at 6:10am on November 7, 1918. He was 32 years old.

Private Louis Harris was shot 19 minutes later and 25 kilometres away at Locquignol. Harris wasn’t originally a conscript. He’d volunteered in 1915, but been discharged as medically unfit. With mounting casualties and a constant need for replacements the Army relaxed its medical criteria to admit more recruits. Harris, despite having been previously medically discharged, was now considered fit enough to be conscripted. By peacetime military standards Harris wasn’t fit for service. In wartime and with a desperate need for more men, the Army decided he was still fit enough.

He arrived on the Western Front in July, 1916 and it wasn’t long before he began getting into difficulties with higher authority. On September 2 he disappeared from his unit during a skirmish at Rocquigny. Not a major battle, but a small action where witnesses reported there being “No firing and practically no opposition.” .

Harris had simply deserted his unit, thrown away his weapons and equipment and vanished. He was arrested the next day and brought before a Field General Court Martial on capital charges of desertion and cowardice. He put up almost no defence before the court and it seemed to some who were there that he either didn’t understand or didn’t care how much trouble he was in. He was convicted and condemned in short order, acquitted of cowardice but convicted of desertion, and his case went to appeal.

It did no good. Harris’s commanding officer recommended execution, not commutation. He described Harris as having a bad record in the battalion and his military value as being ‘Nil.’ The Brigade Commander was equally firm in denying clemency. He wrote:

‘I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:

  1. Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.
  2. He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.
  3. He is worthless as a soldier.
  4. During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.
  5. His example is a disgraceful one.’

Private Harris was shot at Locquignol at 6:29am on November 7, 1918. He was the last British soldier shot during the First World War. The bitter irony for both Private Jackson and Private Harris was that, with the Armistice starting at 11am on November 11, 1918, the well-known ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh month’, all existing military death sentences were then commuted. Had these men been sentenced a few days later they wouldn’t have returned home as conquering heroes, but then they wouldn’t have been shot either.

In 2006 all those shot at dawn during the First World War were pardoned. A permanent memorial now stands at the National Memorial Arboretum in the county of Staffordshire. Rudyard Kipling, whose son died during the battle of Loos, immortalied them long before it was fashionable to fight their corner. His poem ‘The Coward’ best sums up their fates:

‘I could not look on Death, which being known, men led me to him, blindfold and alone.’

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Edith Cavell – Hand-wringing propaganda is not enough. Nor does it do her any service.


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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 the time, 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. According to archive evidence studied by former MI5 Director Dame Stella Rimington, Cavell knew at least something about information being passed back to England via her network.

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.

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.

download mata hari

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.

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. 

 

The Strange Case Of Leroy Henry


 Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn't need.

Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn’t need.

The strange case of Leroy Henry attracts me for two reasons. One is that I like to look at the unusual. Even if posting on a widely-known and common story then I prefer one with a twist. It helps keep things interesting. Leroy Henry’s case was very interesting. Private Henry was one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who flooded the UK in preparation for Operation Overlord, the liberation of Europe. He arrived in 1943 and was assigned to the 3914 Quartermaster Gas Supply Company delivering fuel to various US Army units. He was also black and so had to endure both the racial segregation in the Army at the time and no small amount of racial prejudice, particularly from his fellow Americans. He was based in Somerset, near Bristol and it was at Somerset’s Shepton Mallet Prison that he nearly, but not quite, kept an unjustified date with the hangman.

The summer of 1944 was, for obvious reasons, a rather busy time for Americans and their British hosts. Few people knew when or where the forthcoming invasion would happen, but it was no secret that sooner or later it would. Private Henry, like most young soldiers abroad, liked to spend his time off relaxing. A few drinks, a dance or a movie and maybe some time with a woman. There’s nothing unusual about that, or about the fact that he was apparently paying for her time. But Leroy Henry was a black man in a segregated US Army from a country with a long-established history of keeping people like him in what many whites thought was their place. In the South lynchings still occurred, a black defendant stood a far higher chance of conviction (especially if the injured party was white) and, if convicted of a capital crime, was much more likely to face execution. Leroy Henry was black, came from Missouri (not the most racist state in the Union, but no sinecure, either) and was on trial for the alleged rape of a 33-year old British woman. A white 33-year old British woman. Rape in the US Army was (and still is) a capital crime under Section 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and defendants at the time would be tried for their lives under the US Army Articles of War of June 4, 1920. A black defendant, an institutionally racist Army and a white alleged victim didn’t look promising for the defence. And it wasn’t.

Henry was court-martialled at a US Army camp near the town of Warminster. Under the Visiting Forces Act, Parliament had agreed that the US Army could handle its own criminal cases unless the Army waived that right and handed the case over to the British police and legal system. They didn’t. The court-martial was presided over by a Colonel, prosecuted by a Captain Cullison and Henry was defended by a Major Drew. The jury consisted eight officers, seven white and one black. 

Henry’s alleged victim (who shall remain nameless) alleged that he had appeared at her home in the village of Combe Down late one night lost, asking for directions to the city of Bristol. She also claimed her husband was present and that he had no objections when she offered to go out with Henry and personally direct him to the road for Bristol. Having left the house, she alleged that Henry had assaulted her, threatened her with a knife, thrown her over a wall and then raped her at knife-point. There were, however, some serious doubts about her having made a genuine allegation. Inquiries revealed that she had been, at least, a part-time prostitute, offering sexual favours to soldiers in return for money, food and goods often entirely unavailable to civilians due to strict wartime rationing. That in itself isn’t proof of perjury, not in the slightest, but more doubts were to follow. Chief among them being that, while medical examination did reveal evidence of sexual activity, it didn’t reveal any trace whatsoever of physical injury, signs of a struggle or indeed any evidence of physical mistreatment whatsoever. Inquiries also revealed that Leroy Henry and his alleged victim were known to each other and had been for some time.

Leroy Henry, not surprisingly gave a different version of events. He admitted sleeping with the alleged victim, but claimed he had agreed to pay her for doing so. According to Henry he had been prepared to pay her £1 (worth far more then that today) but that she had demanded twice that. According to Henry, he told her he didn’t have £2 and was prepared to pay half that, at which point she flew into a rage and threatened to report him to the Army for raping her.

So, the jury had two different stories. One came from a black defendant without any supporting eyewitnesses who may or may not have been lying to save himself. The other came from a white woman whose character would have been considered dubious by the standards of the time and who claimed to have been victim of a violent attack while having suffered no physical injuries. The jury chose to believe the alleged victim. Private Leroy Henry was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging, sentence to be carried out at Shepton Mallet Prison, using a standard British gallows operated by British executioners. Henry was shipped to Shepton Mallet, a British civilian prison loaned to the US Army by the British authorities for the duration of the war, with an armed escort and under sentence of death. 

147 US servicemen were executed for crimes committed during the Second World War, 70 of whom died in Europe. All were convicted of rape and/or murder. All were either hanged or shot, shooting being the preferred choice for purely military offences such as desertion or mutiny, with the exception of the US Army’s sole execution for desertion during World War II, the widely-known case of Private Eddie Slovik.. Having been convicted of a capital crime involving a civilian, Leroy Henry would hang unless a Board of Review rejected the sentence or a General signed a commutation. Under the circumstances, neither a sympathetic Board of Review or equally sympathetic General were especially likely prospects. 

 The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.

The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.

Shepton Mallet had become the US Army’s princpal military prison for the ‘European Theater of Operations’ (ETO). It wasn’t the only place in Europe where American soldiers were condemned and executed, but it was one of the more regular spots for eithet a firing squad or a hanging. At Shepton Mallet firing squads were conducted at 8am. There were two prisoners shot at dawn. Sixteen were hanged in the newly-constructed gallows room, built to British specifications and operated by British hangmen. Hangings were usually performed at 1am. Sixteen men were hanged at Shepton Mallet while two more were shot. Of those hanged, nine had been convicted of murder, six of rape and three of both. Six of them were executed standing side-by-side in three double hangings, a British gallows being designed to hang two inmates at once if needed. The average age of those executed was twenty-one years old. No officers were executed, they comprised seventeen Privates and one Corporal. The principal executioner was Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his son Albert, Herbert Morris, Steve Wade and Alexander Riley. Albert did perform three himself, but Thomas pulled the lever most often. 

General_of_the_Army_Dwight_D._Eisenhower_1947

 

Lodged in the specially-built ‘Condemned Cell’ at Shepton Mallet, things looked very bleak indeed for Leroy Henry. At least they did until the intervention of a local tradesman, a local dignitary and 33,000 local people. Jack Allen was the local baker who started the petition. Appalled by the quality of incriminating evidence (more the rather striking lack thereof) he began to collect signatures. This wasn’t unusual in cases involving British condemned inmates and was seldom successful. In Leroy Henry’s case it was, especially when in the nearby spa town of Bath Alderman and local Magistrate Sam Day added his voice and signature to the chorus of disapproval. What resembled a case of ‘Jim Crow Justice’ now became a political and diplomatic football.

Campaigning proceeded quickly and snowballed equally fast. Faced with a petition of 33,000 names, wide local outcry, highly-connected locals like Sam Day and finally the attention of the national press, General (and future President) Dwight D Eisenhower swiftly brought matters to a head. Not only did he refuse to confirm the death sentence, he also threw out the entire case. Private Leroy Henry was now free to return to his unit without a stain on his record. It’s unusual that so high-ranking a figure as ‘Ike’ would personally involve himself in a routine court-martial, or that he would take such decisive and far-reaching action. It’s especially indicative of the pressure placed on him behind the scenes as Henry was condemned only a few days before June 6, 1944 when, for obvious reasons, this was an extra headache on top of the D Day landings that he really didn’t need.

So, justice was served after all, albeit in highly convoluted fashion.with an unexpected guest appearance from General Eisenhower…