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


Shot_at_Dawn,_National_Memorial_Arboretum_(15)
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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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. 

 

Albert Pierrepoint – Master Hangman.


 Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.

Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.

.Public Executioner. It’s not what you’d call an everyday profession. Unusual? Certainly. Skilled? Absolutely. Dark and scary? Well, it depends on why you fancy the job, really. But it’s certainly not the sort of work that most people would consider a life’s ambition or the family business unless you happen to be Albert Pierrepoint. Albert really wanted the job and even wrote a school essay on how much he fancied doing it, possibly because his uncle and father were hangmen as well and he ended up working with his uncle quite a few times. Albert ended up having legally killed more people (at least 435 men and 17 women) than any half-dozen British serial killers combined and then, having ‘topped’ that many people (as he so quaintly put it) the ‘Master Hangman’ (as he so modestly called himself) had a sudden revelation that killing people to demonstrate that killing is wrong slightly failed any semblance of logic or common sense. Which was bit late for him (after 25 years in the job) and ever so slightly late for the 450 or so people that dear Albert referred to as his ‘customers’ (although the complaints department phone never rang, for some reason utterly unrelated to their all being dead).

 The 'Execution Box' containing the tools of Albert's grisly trade.

The ‘Execution Box’ containing the tools of Albert’s grisly trade.

For our diminutive death merchant (he was a little chap, only about five feet and six inches tall) stringing people up wasn’t a sordid, grim, depressing affair that most people wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. It was a skilled and potentially dangerous ‘craft’ at which he liked to excel with his speed and skill. British hangmen had an unofficial competition to hold unofficial records for the fastest and cleanest killings possible. Sort of a ‘Death Race’ if you like. Albert managed to ‘top’ his rivals (not literally) when he executed a prisoner and took only 7 seconds from start to finish. 7 seconds. Not even long enough to say ‘Good Morning, Mr. Pierrepoint’ before his latest dance partner was doing the hangman’s hornpipe before a bevy of (somewhat stunned) local dignitaries. Still, it was Albert’s job to make things go with a swing, when you think about it.

 Where the bottom fell out of their world.

Where the bottom fell out of their world.

Albert was always somewhat irked by the miserly pay for what he considered a skilled and potentially dangerous profession. The pay for the job was, frankly, lousy. It was a small amount that was only paid half before a job and half after and if a prisoner’s sentence was commuted then the executioners weren’t paid anything at all, not even travel expenses. Albert often went from one end of the UK to another and came home penniless and that was why he quit the job in 1956, leaving the authorities to go hang, as it were. It didn’t matter to the powers-that-be that their master butcher ended up out of pocket, just as long as they saved some cash as well as saving a prisoner’s neck (literally).

 You weren't paid a thing if they didn't have to swing.

You weren’t paid a thing if they didn’t have to swing.

Still, Albert’s job did have its lighter side. He owned a pub when he wasn’t travelling round the country performing his famous rope trick and it had an amusingly appropriate name all things considered. His pub was named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’, something Albert had made a career out of. It’s even said there was an appropriate sign dangling over the beer pumps, presumably for the benefit of more tardy customers, which read ‘No Hanging Round the Bar.’

 Albert was a professional until the last drop.

Albert was a professional until the last drop.

Albert even found time to become an unwilling celebrity. He’d always kept his ‘craft’ a secret from anybody who didn’t absolutely need to know (it tends to invite a certain amount of unhealthy curiosity when you say you kill people for a living, after all). But his best efforts to stay out of the limelight ended courtesy of World War Two when it was publicly announced that he’d be popping over to Germany to perform his rope trick on over 200 Nazis. Not surprisingly in 1945 this made him a pretty popular chap all round. His amusingly-named pub did more business than ever as voyeurs turned up in droves just to look at him, get their photos taken with him, buy him pints of beer (which he kept behind the bar and sold back to other customers) and simply so they could say they’d shaken hands with the ‘Genial hangman’ as he became known.

Albert resigned in 1956 in a dispute over money. As usual, he’d been engaged to execute Thomas Bancroft, a murderer of no particular note, gone to Walton Prison at his own expense and then Bancroft was reprieved with only 12 hours to spare. Albert, tired of being stuck with travel and hotel bills, demanded that his superiors pay his expenses and they refused. So he quit as he’d rather be dropping convicts than dropping cash every time an inmate’s lawyer managed to get them off. His bosses begged and pleaded (they didn’t have anyone else who could do the job as well as Albert and you could call him ‘Top of the drops’ really) but he held firm and even refused their oh-so-kind invitation to go back on their list and continue providing cut-price carnage on their behalf. He finally turned against his former occupation (a bit late for himself and certainly far too late for 450 convicts) and later said that the death penalty achieved nothing but revenge.

Which was nice…

The Brits Who Fought For Hitler.


Insignia of the ‘British Free Corps’, former prisoners-of-war who enlisted in the infamous Waffen SS.

The SS motto – ‘My honour is loyalty.’

 

As a freelance scribbler and long-time student of military history I love finding the more overlooked or forgotten aspects of the subject. For instance, the popular narrative of the Second World War holds that the British people pulled together, fighting as one for a common cause.

Erm, not exactly.

While British troops and the vast majority of the British public did rally round, a tiny handful didn’t. Some turned traitor for money. The notorious ‘£18 traitor’ Duncan Scott-Ford (not one of Plymouth’s favourite sons), was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in November, 1942 for selling convoy information to German Intelligence at a bargain discount. For others the shift was ideological. They were in it for the cause, such as Wiliam Joyce (AKA ‘Lord HAW Haw’ and star of Nazi propaganda broadcast) and John Amery, founder of the ‘British Free Corps.’

The BFC were British troops, former prisoners-of-war, recruited in their camps by the Waffen SS. The BFC was originally Amery’s idea but, given his recruitment efforts were farcically unsuccessful, the unit was turned over to the Waffen SS in the hope that they would run it better than Amery (not difficult). Amery’s original idea was to recruit thousands of British prisoners ranging from committed Nazis and Fascists to disaffected soldiers, those whose anti-Communism outweighed their patriotism and so on.

Recruiting foreigners into the SS wasn’t nearly as rare as you might think. Scandanavia produced the ‘Viking’ Division, there were several thousand Indians possibly motivated by Indian nationalism, a Muslim division active in the former Yugoslavia and even Russian prisoners choosing to enlist. Far from an entirely Nazi unit with strict racial and religious selection criteria, the SS were far more flexible than many might believe.

With their previous success at recruiting foreigners, the SS thought that recruiting British traitors would be equally fruitful. It wasn’t. The BFC never had more than 27 members at any time and only 60 or so ever joined at all. Many who did claimed later that they joined either to escape or to gather intelligence and desert at the earliest opportunity. Throughout its (mercifully brief) existence the BFC never numbered a platoon, let alone a corps.

The BFC didn’t last long, either. Originally named the ‘Legion of Saint George’, recruitment started under Amery in 1943. Thousands of leaflets were delivered to POW camps all over the crumbling Third Reich. Recruiters like Amery visited camps, dishing out gifts accompanied by their sales pitch. The sales pitch appealed more to anti-Communism than outright Nazi or Fascist sympathies and, like the BFC itself, recruitment never really achieved anything. It achieved so little that Amery was replaced as recruiter in late 1943 and the unit handed over to the Waffen SS. By 1944 it was obvious to any British prisoner that the war was already lost and it was only months before the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ would collapse. Even if there were many receptive prisoners they were highly unlikely to join an already-defeated side when they could simply wait for liberation, rather than risk being killed in action or captured and hanged as traitors.

Enduring the POW camps was painful. Albert Pierrepoint’s rope was worse.

Recruitment wasn’t confined solely to British prisoners. Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians and others were approached. Only a handful ever enlisted, many who enlisted didn’t stay for more than a few days before returning to their camps. Very often, they simply signed up for a few days of forbidden pleasures (beer and prostitutes being the most popular) before deciding it wasn’t for them. The supposed Corps never even reached platoon strength at its largest.

Nazi and traitor John Amery, founder of the British Free Corps.

John Amery, like the ‘Cambridge Spies’ after the war, was an unlikely traitor. He was the son of one of Churchill’s War Cabinet, Leo Amery (then Secretary of State for India). His brother Julian did excellent wartime service in the British Army and, after John was condemned, did his best to secure clemency. Decades afterward he still refused to discuss his brother. John Amery was an arch-imperialist, a raving anti-Semite, an equally raving anti-Communist and a traitor. His far-right beliefs led him to claim he’d run guns to General Franco during the Spanish Civil War (this was a lie, but gained widespread belief). After bankruptcy in 1936 he moved to France, briefly visited Spain, became further embroiled in Nazi collaboration while living in Vichy France and made propaganda broadcasts for Nazi radio during the Second World War. His final treachery was forming the British Free Corps. He was, according to British upper-class stereotypes, the last person expected to turn traitor.

But his family connections, his fictional gun-running for Franco (still ruling Spain at the time) and his brother’s efforts to gain clemency didn’t save him. Amery was captured by Italian partisans weeks before the German surrender and handed over to the British for trial on a charge of high treason. High treason carried a mandatory sentence, death by hanging. At first Amery tried to claim Spanish citizenship, arguing that as a naturalised Spaniard he was no longer British so couldn’t be tried for treason. His lies caught up with him. The Spanish government denied Amery had smuggled them weapons during the civil war. They also confirmed that Amery had taken some steps towards Spanish citizenship, but not all of them. Legally, Amery was still British. His defence simply didn’t exist.

Amery knew it. In an almost-unheard of move he stood before Justice Humphries at the Old Bailey on November 28, 1945 and pled guilty. Humphries warned Amery of the mandatory death sentence before accepting the plea. Amery refused to change his mind. The trial lasted only 8 minutes before Humphries donned the ‘black cap’, a square of black silk traditionally placed on a judge’s wig before a death sentence.

Humphries spoke briefly and bluntly:

“John Amery… I am satisfied that you knew what you did and that you did it intentionally and deliberately after you had received warning from your fellow countrymen that the course you were pursuing amounted to high treason. They called you a traitor and you heard them; but in spite of that you continued in that course. You now stand a self-confessed traitor to your King and country, and you have forfeited your right to live.”

“The sentence of this Court is that you will be taken from this place to a lawful prison and then to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead and that afterward your body will be cut down and buried withing 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…”

Final Destination: The gallows at Wandsworth Prison where Amery met his end

Amery’s brother Julian did his best for a reprieve. There was no chance of that. In 1945 the public mood was vengeful, especially towards homegrown traitors. At 9am on December 19, 1945, John Amery took his final walk. It was brief, seven steps from condemned cell to gallows. He walked firmly, unaided, as the prison clock started chiming the hour. By the time the chimes stopped, Amery was dead. It took only seconds. Chief executioner Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant Henry Critchell had achieved their usual speed and precision. After hanging for the traditional hour to absolutely ensure death, Amery was cut down. A post-mortem was performed and he was buried, as was traditional, in an unmarked grave within Wandsworth Prison.

Oddly enough, it was Albert Pierrepoint who complimented Amery’s courage at the end. In an article written for the ‘Empire News and Sunday Chronicle’ but not published after official pressure, Pierrepoint described Amery as ‘The bravest man I ever hanged.’ Considering Amery’s Nazi beliefs, his treachery and that Pierrepoint hanged 433 men and 17 women in his career, perhaps the most positive thing about John Amery’s life was the manner in which he met his death.