France

On This Day in 1949; Germaine Leloy-Godefroy, last French woman to face the guillotine.


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The name of Germaine Leloy-Godefroy won’t be as familiar as that of Hamida Djandoubi, the last man to be guillotined in France, but she’s worth a mention. She was the last woman in France to face the dreaded ‘Timbers of Justice.’ Marie Antoinette is without doubt the best known victim of the ‘National Razor,’ but Godefroy’s was France’s final female execution.

Her crime was unexceptional. The wife of coal merchant Albert Leloy, she brutally hacked him to death with an axe while he slept, later trying (very ineptly) to disguise it as a random robbery gone wrong. A vicious murder inflicted on a defenceless victim simply to replace him with her toyboy lover, Raymond. Not a case deserving of much sympathy or, you might say, of any mercy. There probably wouldn’t have been any fuss at all if Albert Leloy had wielded the axe on his wife to run off with a younger woman. But France is France and, as in most places, executing a woman was a big deal regardless of her crime.

On December 10, 1947 Albert Leloy would succumb to the axe. On April 21, 1949 Germaine would succumb to a different kind of axe, and for the last time in French history. Germaine and Raymond were soon caught and, when tried in 1948 at the Assize Court of Maine-et-Loire, Raymond drew ten years as an accomplice. Despite trying to shift the entire blame onto Raymond and another toyboy named Pierre, Germaine wouldn’t be as lucky. She was transported to Angers Prison to await a date with the sinisterly-nicknamed ‘Monsieur de Paris;

‘The Man from Paris.’

In 1870, French law had changed. Regional executioners, long known by the towns from which they came, were abolished. From then on there would be only one chief executioner and, by law, he was required to live in Paris. While the likes of ‘Monsieur de Rennes and his brethren were disbanded, French convicts learned to dread hearing one guard say to another the simple phrase ‘Monsieur de Paris est arrivee…’

‘The Man from Paris has arrived…’

The then-current ‘Monsieur de Paris’ was one Jules-Henri Desfourneaux. Desfourneaux, like all French executioners for several centuries, came from a long-serving family of headsmen. Executioners, known disparagingly as ‘Bourreaux,’ were despised by the french public. They didn’t mind turning out to watch them work, but wanted nothing else to do with them. By abolition in 1981 all French executioners could trace their ancestry back to a mere handful of families, mostly intermarried with each other. The Desfourneauxs had been serving French justice for centuries. Jules-Henri himself had racked up scores of ‘customers.’

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Germaine Leloy-Godefroy wasn’t the only last of his career. On June 17, 1939 he’d been in Paris performing what would be France’s last public execution. German serial killer Eugen Weidmann would be the last to face the ‘People’s Avenger’ before an audience. So distasteful was the behaviour of the public outside Saint-Pierre Prison that day (an execution witnessed by 17-year old would-be actor Christopher Lee, that President Lebrun immediately banned any further public beheadings and, in the process, cut off centuries of French tradition as well.

Ironically, Lee (eventually to become Sir Christopher Lee) would later play legendary bouureaux Charles-Henri Sanson in one of his many screen and stage parts.

Eugene Weidmann Being Led to Guillotine

With her appeals denied and Presidential clemency not forthcoming, Germaine prepared herself for the end. France’s condemned weren’t informed of their impending execution until it was time to take their final walk. It hindered suicide or escape attempts and didn’t leave them sitting in tiny cells watching the clock tick as they brooded on their impending death.

At around 4:30am on the cold, grey dawn of April 21, 1949, Germaine Leloy-Godefroy’s time finally came. Desforuneaux, by then ageing and sliding into alcoholism, was ready for perform his grim task. Things moved swiftly from then on. After a brief talk with Chaplain Moreau she attended Mass before writing a final letter. The grim ritual known as the ‘toilette du condamne’ was performed, her hair being trimmed and her neck bared, ready for the blade. Offered the traditional final cigarette and glass of rum, she declined.

All that remained was one final piece of bureaucracy. Under French law a convict couldn’t actually be executed. Instead, they had to be formally paroled by the justice system into the custody of the executioner. With the paperwork attended to, nothing else stood between her and her unwilling date with destiny.

It was over quickly. Like England’s hangmen, the bourreaux didn’t waste time. As soon as she reached the guillotine after a brief walk from her cell, they laid her out and strapped her down. Without any further ado, the blade fell. The audience, now composed only of those specifically invited to view an execution behind prison walls, signed their witness statements and departed.

Germaine Leloy-Godefroy was dead.

 

 

I wrote a book.


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It’s been quite some time since I last posted ere, but I have been extremely busy with paid work and earning a living. Part of that has been writing my first book.

Criminal Curiosities is a collection of crooks, all with something about their crime, trial or punishment that is singular to them. The first prisoner to face the guillotine, the first to commit a robbery using a landmine, the first case in which the murder victim’s actual body had a starring role in reconstructing the crime for the jury trying his killer and so on.

So, if you’re curious as to who was really America’s first Public Enemy Number One, ever wondered who was first to take a seat in the electric chair or perhaps you’ve never heard of the art forger brave enough to bilk Hermann Goering out of sixty million dollars (at today’s prices) feel free to pick up a copy and please do leave a review.

You can do that here:

 

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

The First World War – The ‘Ace’ Myth.


Knights of the sky..?

We had a strict code of honour. You didn’t shoot down a cripple and you kept it a fair fight.

Captain Wilfred Reid May, Royal Flying Corps, 13 victories

Fighting in the air is not sport. It is scientific murder.

Captain Edward “Eddie” Rickenbacker, U.S. Air Service, 26 victories

Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, René Fonck and Eddie Rickenbacker were once household names, legends in their own lifetimes.. Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” is still the most famous ace of all time. Remembered today as the founding fathers of aerial combat, an entire generation watched these shooting stars blaze through the skies over the battlefields of the First World War. Their stars burned brightly (and often briefly). The ‘Cavalry of the clouds’ became almost instant legends, but subject nowadays to increasing debate.

Was there really chivalry between opposing fighter pilots? And did they really have the military value that folklore claims?

In short, no. Their bravery is beyond doubt. They all gambled their lives and frequently lost. At the time the risks, even of non-operational flying, were shockingly high by today’s standards. Over half the Royal Flying Corps aircrew killed during the First World War died in training accidents before even reaching a front-line squadron. Their work was necessary. Their having legitimate military value is undoubted. But the myths built round the early aces have seriously obscured the grim realities of early air warfare. Modern writers like Peter Hart and Joshua Levine have exposed the harsh realities behind the chivalric myth. To do these pilots justice an honest assessment is long overdue.

First, consider their purpose and value. Theoretically their duties were simple although the reality was infinitely harder and deadlier. Fighters destroyed enemy aircraft to protect ‘friendlies.’ Fighter pilots could frequently achieve more by successfully protecting bombers, reconnaissance flights, artillery-spotting aircraft and observation balloons than they were ever likely to by simply dogfighting. Near the war’s end RFC fighter pilots even found themselves flying ground-attack missions against the desperate ‘Kaiserschlacht’ offensives of Spring, 1918. During the ‘Kaiserschlacht’ fighter pilots successfully attacking advancing troops could achieve far more than merely increasing their personal score in dogfights. Granted, by actively seeking dogfights they might shoot down an important enemy ace, but the odds were long. Killing one or two enemy pilots, especially novices fresh from flight school, meant very little if ‘friendlies’ were still destroyed.

Germany’s Oswald Boelcke, the first leading fighter tactician.

If artillery-spotters were shot down, artillery effectively fired blind using map references. They might not know whether they were even hitting their targets. Without accurate reconnaissance photographs, major enemy attacks could go undetected until they actually started. When planning offensives, planners needed accurate pictures to plan effectively. For the British Army on the ground RFC ‘Contact Patrols’ became increasingly important. Contact Patrols provided almost-live coverage of the fighting as pilots flew low over the battlefields assessing the situation at close quarters and provide communication between the front-line troops and senior commanders. Protecting observation balloons (and destroying enemy balloons) meant the difference between observing enemy activity from a safe distance or possibly not observing at all.

For some aces ‘balloon busting’ was a swift (and near-suicidal) means to score victories. It denied the enemy important reconnaissance capability so was very useful. It was also immensely dangerous. Balloons were usually well-protected by anti-aircraft guns and machine gun nests with fighters often patrolling nearby. They were also deep behind enemy lines. The risks were enormous and many aces avoided balloon busting when they could. Richthofen never shot down a balloon. Mannock’s first kill was a balloon, the experience put him off ever attacking another. Aside from ground fire and fighters, balloons were sometimes booby-trapped. They might contain a mannequin and a basket packed with explosives detonated when a pilot flew too close. Despite the immense risks some pilots regularly went balloon busting. Many (such as Frank Luke) died doing so.

American ‘balloon buster’ Frank Luke.

None of this means that dogfighting was unnecessary or avoidable. As aircraft, weapons and tactics evolved dogfights increased in size and frequency. In 1914 a dogfight might consist of two aircraft firing bolt-action rifles or handguns at each other. By 1918 some pilots thought that less than fifty or sixty aircraft involved meant it wasn’t a proper dogfight. Fighters became indispensable. But fighter aces acquired far greater importance than perhaps they deserve. Their role was often inflated at the expense of other pilots doing equally important, equally dangerous duties like aerial reconnaissance, bombing or even dropping spies behind enemy lines. As former RFC pilot Stanley Walters put it:

“Nobody could say that Great Britain was winning the war when one German went down in flames. That meant nothing. We fighters were the glamour boys and that was all wrong. What we were doing was protecting the Royal Flying Corps while it did its job.”

Accordingly, aces on all sides were lauded as much on myth as hard fact. During the first half of the war they were often portrayed as heirs to a chivalric tradition and knightly honour. They were portrayed as “knights of the sky” rather than ruthless, hardened professionals. Stories abound of pilots waving to each other in mid-combat, returning to base with empty ammunition belts or jammed guns and claiming that an enemy pilot had realized they were defenceless and shown mercy.

Undoubtedly there were occasional incidents of that kind but, as the war continued, fighter pilots developed increasingly ruthless attitudes and tactics leaving chivalry as dead as their victims. By 1916, if dogfighting had ever really been regarded as a sport, it had become a business. Former RFC squadron commander Hugh Dowding (later chief of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain) described leading Fighter Command with pungent bluntness. According to Dowding it was a matter of putting his pilots in a position to shoot as many enemy pilots as possible in the back, preferably while escaping unscathed.

In the latter half of the war successful aces seldom challenged enemies flying undamaged aircraft. They seldom flew into the middle of large dogfights. Instead they often circled the fringes of dogfights looking to pick off damaged aircraft and novice pilots who were obviously vulnerable. Setting traps for enemy fighters became commonplace. Leaving flights of aircraft at lower altitudes invited attack until the attackers dived on seemingly easy prey and were ‘bounced’ from above by more enemy fighters. RFC ace Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock even admitted strafing a German pilot and observer after forcing them down, stating “The swines are better dead – no prisoners for me!” Toward the end of his career Manfred von Richthofen made no secret of firing at enemy aircraft until certain the pilots were dead or their aircraft on fire. Ruthless reality replaced medieval myth. To survive aces increasingly combined skilled flying and predatory tactics with an executioner’s ruthlessness. The ‘Cavalry of the clouds’ evolved into airborne assassins.

The principle means of assessing their effectiveness is also questionable. Much was made of individual scores. Scores were the simplest means to assess their worth. Propagandists used them freely, building gifted aces into instant heroes. Propagandists had to build them quickly because they could become fallen heroes at any moment. Richthofen claimed 80 kills. Rene Fonck claimed 75. ‘Mick’ Mannock was officially awarded 73 although 61 is a more commonly-agreed figure. The score of any pilot (on either side) is debatable. In chaotic dogfights it was perfectly possible for any pilot to mistakenly claim a kill. Pilots might attack and see their target apparently spinning out of control without seeing them recover and escape. Faking loss of control was a common last-ditch tactic on both sides. A number of pilots might attack the same enemy at the same time and all claim a kill without the enemy having even been shot down. There were always some  fraudulently claiming kills if they thought they might get away with it. Eyewitnesses needed to confirm a kill could easily make mistakes, hugely distracted as they were simply by trying to survive. Two aces commonly accused of fraudulent claims were ‘Billy’ Bishop and Frank Luke, both of whose scores attract scepticism and suspicion from some quarters. It’s also historical fact that claims by either side seldom match confirmed enemy losses.

Like their lives, their deaths are frequently obscured by myth. Max Immelmann died mysteriously. The British claimed a Lieutenant McCubbin shot him down. The Germans claimed he shot off his own propeller after his interrupter gear failed. Nobody knows who shot down Albert Ball although the Germans  credited Lothar von Richthofen on doubtful evidence. French ace Georges Guynemer disappeared during a patrol. French schoolchildren were told that he had flown too high and been carried away by the angels. The single greatest mystery belongs to the war’s greatest ace, Manfred von Richthofen. Even today there is no conclusive proof of who killed him. The chance of finding any is extremely slim as several different individuals were all credited.

French ace Georges Guynemer.

Deaths of famous aces posed serious propaganda problems. Once an ace was declared unbeatable by the media plausible explanations had to be found (or invented) when they died. These had to reflect well on the aces and perhaps badly on the enemy. Albert Ball didn’t fly into a cloud never to return, he died because he was perpetually reckless. Edward Mannock died needlessly exposing himself to ground fire after his last kill, something he always ordered his own pilots to avoid doing. Manfred von Richthofen died breaking most of his own rules. He chased Wilfred May deep behind British lines well within range of ground fire and without any wingmen to cover him. Whatever the explanations (from prosaic to absurd) they seldom even implied an ace had been foolish, unlucky or met superior opponents. That aces could suffer physical and mental ‘burn out’ was also never admitted, not once they became ‘immortal’ and ‘infallible.’ As writer Alexander McKee wrote

‘It was not a time for generals, but for `aces’, and they did not disappoint their audience.’

To sum up, the successful aces had many positive qualities. They were physically brave to take such extraordinary risks. They were mentally strong, often flying even while physical and mental strains often became increasingly unbearable). They were usually skilled pilots and accurate marksmen. Some of them (Manfred von Richthofen, Oswald Boelcke, Edward Mannock and others) devised tactics giving a previously blunt instrument a lethal cutting edge. But, as a rule, they were pragmatic, ruthless and deadly when necessary. As the war dragged on they went from being ‘Knights of the sky’ to professionals killing to order.

History’s most famous ace, the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen.

 The last word on the “ace myth” is probably best left with Manfred von Richthofen. The ‘Red Baron’ perfectly defined the difference between myth and reality in his famous memoir ‘Der Rote Kampfflieger’ (The Red Battle Pilot). He wrote:

“I believe that the war is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar. It is very serious, very grim…”

Leaving Le Mans


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The race is over, but the flags are still flying, the airhorns are blowing and the fans are cheering.. The crowd will drift back to the campsites soon, either heading back tonight on the ‘ferry dash’ or for one last night on the beer before it’s all over for another year. The winning drivers have popped the champagne, cried a few uncharacteristically non-macho tears and posed for the world’s press. The latest Le Mans 24 Hours is done and dusted.

Me? Right now I’m having one last look round at the crowds and taking one last breath. A breath of hot air, exhaust fumes, burnt rubber, cooked food, French cigarette smoke, sweat and human happiness. I’m sweating in the sweltering June afternoon, thoroughly shattered after more than a week under canvas. It’s 3:30pm on a Sunday afternoon and I’ve been awake since 6am on the Saturday morning. I’m barely awake, barely able to stand up straight, barely able to think. I still have to get the 8pm TGV to Morlaix, travel three hours from the Western Loire into Brittany and doss down in Morlaix station until the 7am bus to Roscoff ferry terminal and then home. But, while I know what my body’s telling me, my emotions are everywhere at once.

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I don’t know what I’m feeling. What I’m supposed to feel. Only days ago I arrived on an almost-empty campsite and seen 300,000 people arrive, set up and party like we were all 18 again instead of the middle-aged, pot-bellied petrolheads that most of us really are. Part of me is glad I’ve only got one more night until my own bed, that I won’t have to queue for half an hour for 5 minutes under a tepid shower in a muddy cubicle, that I can have enough hot water for my first proper shave in over a week. That I can go home to my family.

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But part of me is sad. Sad that this year’s great adventure is over. Sad that it’ll be nearly a year before I pack and ship out to France again, to the sun, the people, the language, the food, the culture and the vibe of Le Mans. Sad that I’ve already been awake for 31 hours yet won’t see a bed until late-afternoon on Monday at the earliest and that I’ll be travelling or dossing down until then. Sad that I won’t hear the French language, that I won’t have French cigarettes that actually taste French, that it’s all over and it’s back to work and bills and washing dishes and the usual daily grind. Not that I really mind the daily grind, I just need one time in the year when I’m just having fun for a little while and leaving the day-to-day stuff to itself for a few days. I like my job. I like my life. I just need a change and a rest once a year.

So no, I don’t know what I’m feeling or how I’m meant to feel. Body and mind have fragmented to the point where simply sticking to my schedule on the way home, just putting one foot in front of the other, are going to be major challenges. My body’s been on the rack since I left home. My mind isn’t any better. But it’s worth it to me and I know, regardless of how spent and broken I feel right now, that I’ll be mad keen to come back months before I actually strap on a rucksack, make one last check of my tickets and passport and head off to the train.

It’s something I love.

It’s part of me.

And here comes the train to Morlaix…

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Graham Hill’s Last Hurrah (and Triple Crown).


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Graham Hill, AKA ‘Mr. Motor Racing’ and ‘Mr. Monaco’, twice winner of the Formula One World Driver’s Championship (1962 and 1968), winner of the Indy 500 at his first attempt (1966), five-time winner of the Monaco Grand Prix (1963, 1964, 1965, 1968, 1969), winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours (1972) and the only driver in racing history to have won the ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’ (F1 championship, Indy 500 and Le Mans). A hero to racing enthusiasts and petrolheads everywhere.

His win at Le Mans in 1972 sealed the Triple Crown and did so amid increasing opinion from racing journalists and fans that he was past, over the hill, washed up. He’d been racing professionally since 1958, was 44 years old and, despite his previous glittering career, was increasingly regarded as yesterday’s man. To many, the old lion had lost his bite and should have already retired. He hadn’t won a Grand Prix since Monaco in 1969, had been crippled by a horrendous shunt at the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen that year and, many thought, shouldn’t really be be racing any more. Team bosses were regularly overlooking him when choosing new drivers, he hadn’t had a big-name team employ him for a couple of years and his Grand Prix record since Watkins Glen consisted of a series of low-placed finishes and retirements. Things couldn’t really have looked any bleaker than they were.

But, while he was older than most drivers, still suffered to some extent after his Watkins Glen shunt and was regarded increasingly as a relic of a bygone age, the old lion still had one last roar left in him. He would prove his critics wrong where every serious driver longs to (on the track) and by winning a prestigious race (the Le Mans 24 Hours) when nobody really thought he had a chance in hell of winning and probably wouldn’t even finish.

Le Mans in 1972 was his last hurrah. He was sharing a Matra-Simca 670 V12 with French veteran Henri Pescarolo. Le Mans 1972 would be the first of three consecutive outright wins for Matra (1972, 1973, 1974), Pescarolo’s first of four outright wins (1972, 1973, 1974, 1984), the first outright Le Mans win for a French team since 1950 (Talbot-Lago) and, of course, made Graham Hill the winner of racing’s only Triple Crown. Things had changed a little for the track since the 1971 race. The dangerously-fast Maison Blanche section had been removed and replaced by the Porsche Curves and Ford Chicane. The entry rules for Le Mans had changed. Out were the big 5-litre monsters like the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 and in were 3-litre cars, many using the Ford-Cosworth DFV engines that were dominating F1 at the time. The big opposition to Matra were Alfa-Romeo, fielding 3 of their TT3 cars. Less serious opposition came from a plethora of Lolas and a single outdated, underpowered Porsche 908/L prepared by legendary Le Mans bigwig Reinhold Joest. Ferrari weren’t really interested in Le Mans that year, preferring to stick to the 1000-kilometre races that formed most of the ‘World Championship for Makes’ and didn’t field a factory team.

As the hours dragged by, day turned into night into day again and cars began dropping out through accidents and sheer attrition, Hill and Pescarolo took the lead. The Alfa challenge disappeared relatively early with mechanical breakdowns and the Porsche 908/L was never really in contention. Another 1950’s alumni, Jo Bonnier, set fastest lap with his Lola T290, lapping the Circuit de La Sarthe in 3:46.90 at an average speed of 134.532mph. By a truly bitter Irony Bonnier, one of Sir Jackie Stewart’s staunch allies in his campaign to improve racing safety, was killed in an accident involving Florian Vetsch and his privately-entered Ferrari GTB4 just before Indianapolis corner. Bonnier’s Lola somersaulted over the crash barriers into the trees and caught fire. Bonnier died instantly.

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Pescarolo and Hill inherited the lead shortly after midnight. Their Matra 670 V12 ‘short tail’ proved reliable, durable and fast enough to be competitive while faster cars dropped out with breakdowns. When Matra team-mate David Hobbs and Jean-Pierre Jabouille dropped out with mechanical trouble it began to look as though the dream might become a reality. Could Hill really do it? It’s a long race and there were still nearly 16 hours left to run. But, they were leading and if they could simply hold on then history was about to be made. But would it be..?

It would. At the finish the Hill/Pescarolo Matra was still out in front. Hill, ever the gentleman although he must have been burning to win his Triple Crown while at the wheel, was gracious enough to forgo this joy in favour of having Pescarolo, a French driver in a French car, provide the first outright win for a French team since father-and-son Louis and Jean-Louis Rosier took the chequered flag in their Talbot-Lago T26 GS in 1950. Hill and Pescarolo had survived 344 laps, covering 4691.343 kilometres at an average speed per lap of 195.472 kilometres an hour. Matra had their win, the Franch had their long-awaited glory and Hill had his Triple Crown. About the only people not popping copious amounts of champagne bottles were all those scribblers and talking heads who’d said he was past it and whom the old lion had just bitten soundly on their rumps. Even Lola, perennial also-rans in sportscar and endurance racing, had something to celebrate when their T290 entered by Kodak Pathe France became the first Lola to actually finish at Le Mans.

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I’ve always admired Graham Hill. He was a great driver with a stellar record. He held Team Lotus together after the death of Jim Clark at Hockenheim in April, 1968. He drove some of the finest cars ever to grace road or racetrack. He’s the only Triple-Crown winner in racing history. But, most of all, I admire him for Le mans 1972, when he showed the world that he wasn’t completely finished, did so at the toughest of races and, for anybody who dislikes journalists in general, put his media doubters firmly (and unanswerably) in their place.

Rest In Peace.

The First World War: A War Of Words.


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A while ago I posted something on the etymology of execution, how the death penalty has found its way into modern conversation via phrases and expressions used every day when so many of us have no idea of their origin. Today we’ll be looking at the etymology of war, the First World War, specifically words and phrases commonly used by British soldiers that are still in everyday use.

Have you ever felt ‘lousy’? Or ‘crummy’? Have you ever been ‘chatting’ or has something or someone unpleasant struck you as being ‘chatty’, just not in the conversational sense? Well. the clue’s in the first one of these everyday words. ‘Lousy’ is self-explanatory. Living outdoors, in large numbers and often dirty conditions meant soldiers regularly attracted lice. Hence, they felt ‘lousy’ or ‘chatty.’ A ‘chat was an individual louse and ‘chatting meant going to a delousing station and having your clothes fumigated (and possibly yourself covered in insecticide powder of one sort or another. ‘While soldiers were looking for any escaped lice in their clothes or on their bodies they’d stand around talking about nothing in particular. Hence, ‘having a chat’ or simply ‘chatting.’

Ever felt ‘fed up’? That comes from the trenches as well and means much the ame as it did then. If you’re bored, tired, uninterested and generally wishing you were anywhere else, doing anything else, then you’re felling ‘fed up.

‘Snapshot’ nowadays means taking a quick picture with your camera. In the trenches it meant getting a fleeting glimpse of an enemy and firing a shot without taking more than a second or so to aim your rifle. A snapshot to most of us means sending a picture of your foreign holiday home to your family. In the trenches a snapshot could see them getting a telegram instead…

Ever been on a ‘binge’ or got ‘blotto’? Probably. Most of us have at some point. Nowadays  ‘binge’ is a word used for general over-indulgence. Maybe you had too much to drink. Maybe you ate too much or smoked too many cigarettes today. On the Western Front it meant getting a rest break and heading straight for the nearest source of cheap alcohol and getting ‘blotto’ between spells in the trenches.

Have you ever been or felt ‘washed out.’ If you’d been ‘washed out during the First World War then you’d have failed officer training or flight school and be spending the rest of the war as a private. Given the huge casualties among junior officers and aircrew, though, that particular cloud isn’t without its silver lining.

If something is ‘dud or ‘a dud’ then it’s useless, broken, unfit for purpose. It hasn’t done its job. Annoying when it’s your mobile phone, cigarette lighter (they always fail when you’re really desperate, don’t they?) or something like that. On the Western Front a ‘dud’ was a shell, bullet or grenade that landed and didn’t explode. So ‘duds’ weren’t always unwelcome, especially if a large metal thing landed right next to you and simply sat there. ‘Wonky’ is another word we still use, usually for something that isn’t quite right. An unlevel portrait on a wall, for instance. Like ‘dud’, ‘wonky’ meant anything or anyone who fitted the same description.

Ever looked for a loophole? Course you have, like everybody else. But you wouldn’t have wanted to stick your had out too far because a loophole is a hole in a trench parapet commonly used (and targeted) by snipers. So by all means look, but don’t stand there for too long. In fact, with gunfire in mind, you’d be slightly safer avoiding the ‘loophole’ altogether and parking yourself in a ‘cubby hole’ instead. A ‘cubby hole’ being a small scrape in a trench wall providing marginally better protection against anything fired from directly in front of you. That didn’t mean you were perfectly safe but, as my dear old grandfather (a former Company Sergeant-Major in the Royal Marines) would have told you:

“You shouldn’t have joined if you can’t take a joke.”

A ‘gasbag’ nowadays is a blowhard, a loud character who talks endlessly but says little, somebody who inflates themselves to far more than they really are. It was originally a word for a balloon used to observe enemy positions and both types are full of hot air and not much else.  A ‘fleabag’, on the other hand, isn’t simply a name for your pet dog or cat. To a veteran soldier on the Western Front it meant a sleeping bag (if they were lucky enough to ever see one).

Like everybody, you’ve probably encountered a ‘Moaning Minnie.’ If you’re reading this then you didn’t encounter it in the trenches because, if you had, your friends would have probably buried your remains in a jam jar. To your average Tommy in the trenches a ‘Moaning Minnie’ was shell fired from a German artillery piece called a ‘Minenwerfer’ or ‘mine thrower’ the shells from which make a loud moaning sound as they hurtle towards you. The modern variety, a professional whiner who never has a positive prediction or cheerful attitude to anything, is at least less offensive landing near you than forty pounds of high explosive and shrapnel balls. Although after a few hours you might not necessarily think so.

Like everybody, you’ve probably been a complete beginner at something or other. We all have, there’s no shame in it and we all have to start somewhere. You’ve probably been called, sooner or later, a ‘rookie.’ In the British Army then and now, brand-new recruits in training are called ‘crows’ except in the Royal Marines where they’re known as ‘noddies’ because they wear the old-style Commando hat i(resembling the hat worn by Enid Blyton’s best-known creation, Noddy) nstead of the coveted ‘green lid.’ Crows are also called rooks, hence the term ‘rookie.’ The bootnecks have their own word for them, but then bootnecks, as anyone from other units will tell you, do like to be different. By the way, for the bikers among you who call your helmet a ‘lid’, so did your ancestors in the trenches.

Ever had a ‘blind spot’? Has your car ‘conked out? These come courtesy of the Royal Flying Corps, a ‘conked out’ aircraft being one that’s unlikely to fly again. Possibly because its pilot didn’t see the enemy who occupied his ‘blind spot’ and shot him down without being noticed.

We’ll finish our little trip through First World War slang with something a little more positive, something that isn’t a reference to disease-carrying lice, big lethal exploding things, people who shoot you without you even knowing they’re there, useless equipment and semi-useless recruits. Let’s find something ‘cushy.’ To a soldier, even today a ‘cushy billet’ is a posting that’s nice and soft. Something where yo don’t get shot at and get to sleep in a bed instead of a shell crater up to your clinkers in freezing mud. In short, if it’s ‘cushy’ then it’s nice. Now, we Brits sent our troops out to ‘acquire’ quite a few places for King and Country (and the enrichment of arms manufacturers and other already-rich and ethically-challenged individuals). One of those countries was India where, in the Hindi language, nice things are often referred to as ‘Khush’ (like Hindu Kush, the alarmingly strong strain of cannabis that I’d in no way admit having enjoyed a fair bit in my younger days. Allegedly). British troops came back from India with many things of interest. Wifves, malaria, various enticing curry recipes (just the thing after a few pipes) and many words entered the English language as corruptions of words picked up on foreign service and brought home.

I could go on for hours (coming from a military family has left me with a huge repertoire, not to mention the ability to curse in seven languages) but, seeing as it’s late and I have other things to attend to, I’ll leave it there for now. I’ll probably be back to crime again (writing, not committing) tomorrow, but I do like to throw in the occasional it of randomness. Helps keep things interesting.

I’ll be back again tomorrow. Toodle Pip!

The Le Mans Start.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One of the highlights of my year. 56 cars and a combined 30,000 horsepower blasting by me only feet away.

 

The Le Mans Start.

 

It’s always a little different at Le Mans. For starters, fans are still treated like fans, not as walking wallets like at Grand Prix. You also get more racing in 24 hours than over an entire Grand Prix season. You get it without feeling like you might as well just turn up, throw your wallet over the security fence and go home.

Eevry year since 1923 (barring war, civil unrest and economic disaster) the people of the city throw their town wide open. In fact, so many come from all over the world that the population triples during race week. Day to day, you’ll find around 150,000 people living there. In race week you’ll find the best part of 500,000. And at 3pm on the Saturday afternoon most of us are sat, beer flowing, flags waving and airhorns tooting, awaiting the latest chapter in motorsport history. Some are there just to party, some are there just for the racing, most of us are there for a little of both.

The ‘Circuit de la Sarthe’ has changed many times since 1923. Safety concerns, increasing speeds, local building projects and, sadly, the ‘Le Mans Disaster’ of 1955 (still motorsport’s worst-ever accident) have all forced innovation and change. But the atmosphere at the start, as the noise of the crowd builds along with the anticipation, as the relentless sun beats down or we sit soaked to the skin by yet another downpour, never changes.

The announcers are chattering. The national anthems of every race team and driver are playing. The smells of burnt rubber, brake fluid, racing fuel, cigarette smoke and sweat hang heavy in the air. The tension builds along with the temperature or the downpour depending on which we’ve got this year. It builds, feeds on itself like a cloud forming. And it builds. And it builds. Right up until engines roar, ears ring and eyes water at the sudden smoke and deafening racket. The cars are off on their formation lap. The old ‘Le Mans start’ where drivers ran over to their cars, jumped in and sped off without seatbelts or safety harnesses, is long gone. But the tension and anticipation always remain, fierce and undiluted.

There’s a cheer as the cars head of down the pit straight, head off in the wheel-tracks of the legends, of Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill and many greats. Some are still remembered, some long-forgotten. But here, briefly, even the least-famous racers live again in a welter of smoke and noise as the annual cheer swells, rises and falls among the crowd.

We’re almost there.

It’s almost time.

It’s time.

If you pick the right spot along the pit straight you can see the cars as they approach. See them sliding through the Porsche Curves, hear them jazz their engines, hammering past the pits under the world-famous Dunlop Bridge,into the Dunlop Curves, smell burnt fuel and rubber as 56 cars and 30,000 horsepower obliterate all else for just a few seconds.

 Then it’s over. The race has begun. As the euphoria fades a brief pang knifes through me. I’ve waited an entire year for these few seconds. It’ll be another year before I feel this again.

 

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.

Archie Scott Brown: Racing’s Forgotten Hero.


Archie preparing for the 1958 Spa Sports Car Grand Prix. He crashed and was fatally injured while dicing with friend and rival Masten Gregory, also driving a Lister-Jaguar..

A while ago I combined two big interests, true crime and motorsport. Today I’ll mix motorsport with another passionate interest, disability. Archie Scott Brown was Scottish, born in Paisley, Renfrewshire on May 13, 1927. His mother contracted Rubella (German measles) during her pregnancy, leaving Archie with serious physical handicaps. He had only one hand and seriously deformed legs. Archie spent his childhood in and out of hospitals, undergoing dozens of operations to mitigate his problems. As he found mobility harder than most, Archie’s father built him a scaled-down car with a small engine. Archie learned to drive almost before learning to walk.

Archie walked well enough, eventually. He was stubborn and wouldn’t quit. He demanded to be treated equally rather than as a cripple. Archie wasn’t expected to be able to do much, by some people, but he thought differently. He became one of the most respected racing drivers in Britain, racing against legends like Sir Stirling Moss, Roy Salvadori, Tony Brooks, Sir Jack Brabham and ‘El Maestro’ himself, five-time F1 champion Juan Manuel Fangio. It was Fangio who called him:

“A phenomenal pilot, with an uncanny degree of car control.”

Not bad, coming from Fangio, widely considered the greatest ever. Archie didn’t merely race against top drivers, he regularly beat them.

Ironically, Archie’s disabilities were almost as big a help as a hindrance. Simply to walk he developed fast reflexes, unusually sharp balance and finely-honed judgement that many able-bodied people never need. For a racing driver these are essentials without which they’re no good on the track. For Archie they meant being almost as mobile as anybody else and his problems gave him another edge. Being born into adversity, Archie simply didn’t know how to quit.

He first raced in 1951 in a customised MG roadster. After some early scrapes, he did well. He formed a close friendship with engineer and jazz musician Brian Lister. When Lister started his own team, Archie drove the Lister-Tojeiro and the fearsome Lister-Jaguar, known as the ‘Knobbly’ because of its shape. Between the Tojeiro and the Knobbly he tried a Lister-Maserati, which proved extremely disappointing. The Lister-Tojeiro was nicknamed ‘The Asteroid’ for its enormous power, ‘interesting’ handling and frankly alarming brakes. It scared some drivers so much that the ‘Asteroid’ became ‘The Haemorroid.’

But, if the Haemorroid was scarily fast, deafeningly loud and handled like a badly-thrown brick, the Knobbly was its evil twin.

The Knobbly was one of the all-time great racing sportscars. It wasn’t a car for anybody with shaky nerves, limited skill or unable to keep it firmly under control. If you didn’t drive it, it drove you, usually into something solid at great speed. It was light for a 1950’s sportscar and, powered by the legendary 3.8-litre Jaguar XK engine, extremely fast. Its brakes were known for either locking completely or not functioning at all. But, by 1950’s standards, it was safe, fast and reliable. It did as much to make Archie’s name as Archie made Lister’s. Archie and the Knobbly were like Jim Clark and the Lotus 49. They were made for each other.

Driving the Knobbly, Archie won regularly. When he didn’t win or retire he was often highly-placed. He was a fierce competitor, but never dirty or unsafe. Archie’s driving could seem wild to spectators who didn’t fully understand it, but other drivers didn’t mind. He was often sideways, always fast, but never reckless. He also went faster sideways than many did going forwards. With Archie’s entertaining style and regular wins Lister became a fixture at sportscar races. They enjoyed a particularly fierce rivalry with Aston Martin. Aston Martin had big names like Stirling Moss, Peter Collins, Tony Brooks and Roy Salvadori. They also had vastly more money. It caused great frustration to be beaten regularly by the comparatively tiny Lister team. Especially by a driver with a difficult car, deformed legs and one hand.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Archie’s disabilities did have one major drawback. Some race organisers (Le Mans and Monza in particular) barred Archie because of them. Archie was also barred occasionally at British events like the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in Northern Ireland. Archie’s race licence was suspended at Dundrod when another team filed a protest. Great fuss and greater effort saw his licence reinstated. Archie’s revenge was winning yet more races. The Tourist Trophy was also moved to Goodwood, partly due to driver deaths in 1955, but partly due to their treatment of Archie.

Sadly, after winning many domestic races, being highly placed in many others and 15 international race wins, Archie’s career ended badly. In May, 1958 Lister were at the Sports Car Grand Prix run on the old Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. Even in the 1950’s Spa was one of the three fastest tracks in Europe (Reims and Monza being the other two). The track was narrow, over 8 miles long and, being Belgium, the weather was usually bad. Spa’s length meant you could be on a totally dry road at one point and into a cloudburst round the next corner. Also, being a street circuit, Spa was littered with hazards. Road signs, ditches, houses, walls, barbed wire fences, telegraph poles and trees lined both sides of the track. Even then Spa produced average lap speeds of over 150mph. In short, it was a deathtrap that already killed dozens of drivers.

On race day the weather was damp with occasional rain. The track was wet and greasy. Belgian driver Paul Frere specifically asked that a road sign on the exit of Clubhouse Corner be removed for safety’s sake. The organisers agreed, but the sign wasn’t removed. That was Archie’s downfall. Early on, Archie was fighting American driver Masten Gregory for the lead. Gregory was also driving a Lister-Jaguar, for Scottish privateers Ecurie Ecosse. Being friendly (but fierce) rivals, they duelled hard and fast. On lap three Archie dented the Knobbly’s nose on Gregory’s tail. On lap six, still battling, they shot through Blanchimont into Clubhouse. Archie ran a little wide on the exit. It was disastrous.

As Archie exited Clubhouse, he hit the sign. The front right track rod snapped causing instant suspension failure. Archie was just a passenger. He left the road and rolled through a ditch, landing on inflammable straw bales used as improvised crash barriers.  The fuel tank fractured. As the almost-full tank emptied over the red-hot engine, the Lister exploded. It took time to remove Archie from the wreckage. When he was finally pulled free he’d been dreadfully burned over most of his body. Archie was taken to the nearest major hospital in Liege, but it was only a matter of time. He was 31 years old.

With Archie’s death the heart left the Lister team. They finished the 1958 season, entering a few races with different drivers and an improved ‘Knobbly.’ But with Archie gone so was the enthusiasm. The team closed down at the end of 1959. Cars were still designed and built for customers, but the factory team were gone. Existing cars and equipment were sold and front-engined cars were already dinosaurs, rendered obsolete by the new rear-engined Coopers.

His memorial outside the ‘Archie Scott Brown Centre’ at Snetterton, Archie’s home circuit.

 

 

Archie’s one of racing’s forgotten heroes. It would be patronising to say he was Britain’s greatest disabled racing driver. Archie himself would have disliked being regarded as anything other than ‘a driver.’ When Archie died he’d won 71 races including 15 international wins. He also took 34 second places and 12 thirds. His memorial plaque at Snetterton (his home circuit) stands outside the VIP Centre named after him. His epitaph reads simply:

‘He represented everything that was best in the sport.’