The murder of an unarmed British policeman is, thankfully, a very rare occurrence, but when three officers are shot and killed at the same time, the event takes on the mantle of a national tragedy.
On the evening of December the 16th 1910, the city of London police received reports of strange noises coming from a certain house, and the suspicion was that people were trying to tunnel from that house into the jeweller’s shop next door.
The house and the jeweller’s shop were in a little cul-de-sac with the rather misleading name of the Exchange Buildings. Seven police officers went to the address and knocked on the door. The police were admitted only to be ambushed with deadly force. Within a matter of seconds Sergeants Tucker and Bentley and Constable Choat were shot to death, and Sergeant Bryant and Constable Woodhams were so seriously wounded they were invalided out of the police. Also, in the melee, a stray bullet struck the leader of the gang, and although he escaped, he later died from his wounds
Later enquires discovered the villains were anarchists, mostly from Russia, bent on revolution in their own country and prepared to kill anyone who got in their way.
The saga came to its ultimate conclusion early in the following year when the last two of the gang still at large were located in a house at 100 Sidney Street. Because the police did not possess adequate weapons, they asked the Home Secretary for assistance from the army. The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, called in the Scots Guards, who poured a withering fire into the house. Eventually, the two remaining anarchists set fire to the house and died in the flames.
The public of Britain were shocked and horrified at the murder and the later incident which became known as ‘The Siege of Sidney Street’. However, the British public reasoned that the crime was carried out by foreigners against unarmed police, and that British criminals did not carry guns, and so such a terrible tragedy could never happen again. But they were wrong…
History was to repeat itself 56 years later, and — in some respects — in an almost identical fashion.
On a sunny Friday afternoon on August the 12th 1966, Detective Sergeant Christopher Head, Acting Detective Constable David Wombwell and their driver, Constable Geoffrey Fox, were patrolling in the Shepherd’s Bush area of West London.
Their Triumph 2000 ‘Q’ car, out of Shepherd’s Bush police station, was in the vicinity of the notorious Wormwood Scrubs Prison, when, as they turned into Braybrook Street, Sergeant Head spotted a suspicious vehicle.
The vehicle that had caught police attention was an old Standard Vanguard with three men on board and a broken exhaust. The proximity to the prison, and three men dawdling along in the afternoon, when most law-abiding citizens were at work, gave Sergeant Head sufficient suspicion to, in police jargon, “Give them a tug”. Constable Fox drew the ‘Q’ car alongside the Vanguard, while Head signaled them to stop. The Vanguard pulled in and Fox positioned his vehicle just ahead of the Vanguard in a classic police stop.
The two detectives, Sergeant Head and Constable Wombwell, got out of the police car and walked back slowly towards the Vanguard. As they approached, both noticed the dilapidated appearance of the car and its three worried occupants. Sergeant Head went to the driver’s door and said, lest there could be some misunderstanding, “We are police officers. Mind telling me what you’re doing running around three-handed in a vehicle like this, at this time of day?”
The driver made no reply and so Head asked, “Is this your vehicle and has it got a road fund license?”
“No” admitted the driver.
“Why not?” demanded Head.
“Because I can’t get her taxed until I get an MOT certificate.”
“Right” acknowledged Head. “Perhaps you can show me your driver’s licence and insurance certificate.”
The driver handed over both documents but Head exclaimed at once, “Your insurance has expired.” He then handed the documents to Wombwell to note the particulars.
Sergeant Head walked to the rear of the car and spoke to the man in the rear passenger seat. “What’s in the bag?” he asked, pointing to a bag on the floor between the front and rear seats. The man in the rear seat stammered, “It’s just overalls gov’nor.”
Head snapped back, “I’m not interested in them. What’s underneath the overalls?”
The policeman’s sixth sense had told him that the three men were up to no good, and Head suspected that there was something of criminal importance hidden in the bag under the overalls. His copper’s hunch was spot on, for in the bag were three handguns, which could have earned the men time in prison.
Unfortunately, the policemen could not have foreseen what would happen next. The man in the front passenger’s seat drew out one of the guns, a Lugar, leant across the driver, and fired point blank at Constable Wombwell, hitting him just below the left eye and killing him instantly. He then got out of the car and aimed at Sergeant Head, who had run to take cover at the front of his police car. He fired at Head, missing him but shouting to the other two men in the Vanguard, “Come on, come on” and indicating the police driver, Constable Fox.
The first gunman then quite deliberately shot Head in the back, dropping him, while the second gunman, who had emerged from the back seat of the Vanguard brandishing a gun, fired three shots. The first two went wild but the third was aimed directly at Constable Fox’s head and killed him instantly. Fox slumped forward in the driver’s seat, inadvertently knocking the gear lever into reverse and depressing the accelerator. The ‘Q’ car ran over the thickset body of Head, jamming it under the car, which had the effect of raising the rear of the vehicle sufficiently to prevent the madly spinning wheels gaining any traction and allowing them to spin.
The two gunmen then raced back to the Vanguard where the driver was removing Wombwell’s notebook. They then all three jumped back in the Vanguard, reversed wildly out of Braybrook Street, almost colliding with another vehicle at the intersection, and then sped away, losing themselves in the confusion of West London traffic. In Braybrook Street, amazed children, who had been at play on the grass, and passers-by were left with a truly appalling sight.
Constable Wombwell lay on his back, his ankles crossed, a pen still in his hand, gazing sightlessly at the sky. Sergeant Head lay partially concealed under the ‘Q’ car with the engine roaring and the wheels spinning inches from his face. Constable Fox appeared to have dozed off at the wheel with his head forward, hiding the bullet wound to his forehead. The whole murderous assault had taken less than two minutes.
Mr Bryan Deacon, the man whose car had almost been rammed by the fleeing gunmen’s vehicle, took the number plate of the Vanguard, PGT726, thinking at first it was a jail break. After going into a nearby butcher’s shop to ring 999 and report the incident, he handed the first arriving police officer the piece of paper with the Vanguard’s number. So almost at once the hunt was on for the owner of PGT726, and by definition three police murderers.
The three men, who for the moment had blended back into West London society, were definitely not Russian revolutionary anarchists on this murderous occasion, but who on earth were they? Who could they be? Who in England would shoot three police officers in broad daylight in the middle of London, with dozens of children and passers-by as witnesses?
The sort of lethal violence shown by two of the three men was not the sort of thing familiar to Britain. There was at that time a sort of unwritten law amongst the criminal fraternity that as the police did not carry any guns, then they would respect that and not carry weapons either.
Because of the appalling level of violence displayed, and that the crime was considered a very un-British event, there was some speculation that there was a Russian connection. This was not an idle speculation harking back to the 1910 incident, but based on the fact that a notorious Russian spy, George Blake, was at that time incarcerated in ‘The Scrubs’, and this incident could have been connected to efforts to spring him from jail.
The police had to follow this line of enquiry, amongst many others, until it could be proved to be false.
The first thing was to form a task force, and by late that Friday afternoon the nucleus of a squad, code named Operation Shepherd, was taking shape. The man picked to lead that squad was Detective Superintendent Chitty, with two senior detectives as assistants and sixty-five other detectives with their headquarters at the Shepherd’s Bush Police Station. Their first priority was to find the car, and within a short time a tip led them to a lock-up under the railway arches in Vauxhall.
Scene-of-crime officers inspected the car in great detail, taking many sets of fingerprints which were sent to the Criminal Records Office for match. They also found false number plates, a pair of overalls in a bag, and — most significantly — three .38 cartridges which had been recently fired.
While all this was going on, the British public were responding with sympathy, tempered with anger. Amongst the flowers and cash donations sent for the wives, children and parents of the dead men were also calls to bring back hanging.
Further enquires led to the man who owned the car, and armed officers went to his council flat to interview him. His name was John Witney, a petty criminal with five convictions for dishonesty and not the sort of low-life criminal to be involved in either a huge-risk jail break or gangster wars.
When questioned about his car, he told an improbable story of having sold it that very day to a man in a pub car park for fifteen quid. The police, who had heard many such stories before, were not convinced, and told Witney they wished him to accompany them to Harrow Road Police Station for further questioning.
While Witney was being questioned, the CRO identified many of the prints on the Vanguard as his, which did not really help, because as he claimed he had owned the car until around midday on the day of the murders, the fingerprints could be there quite legitimately.
However, further enquiries discovered that the lock-up in which the car had been found was rented to none other than the very same John Witney. For the car to have been sold at noon and then appear back in the seller’s garage proved Witney had been lying, but it was not enough to charge him with murder.
Although the time was rapidly approaching when the police would have to either charge Witney or release him for the lack of evidence, which they definitely did not have, they were sure they had got the right man. Superintendent Chitty decided to bluff it out and keep Witney sweating in a cell and hope the pressure of being the only person in the frame for murder would make him crack.
By midnight the pressure of his situation had caught up with Witney. The police had informed him they had found his car and recovered “certain items”. As the only man who had not pulled a trigger that Friday afternoon, but was alone facing a charge of police murder, Witney decided it was time to ‘cough’ and put his side of the story and ‘shop’ the two gunmen who had caused him to be in this mess.
As Witney spilled the beans, the police became aware for the first time that the three murders had not been the work of the Russian Mafia trying to spring George Blake. Neither had it been high-powered gangsters settling old scores with the police. It had been three low-life London petty criminals who, in a moment of extreme madness, had reacted in panic to prevent the police from finding the illegal handguns they had hidden under some overalls in a bag in the back of the car.
Witney gave the names of the two men who had shot the policemen. The man in the front passenger’s seat was Harry Roberts, and he had shot constable Wombwell and Sergeant Head. The man in the rear seat who had responded to Roberts’s cry of “Come on, come on!” was John Duddy, a Scot, and a petty criminal. In the early hours of the following morning, armed officers raided both men’s addresses, but both birds had flown.
Duddy was a rather colourless petty criminal who had been frightened of Roberts, and had simply responded to his order and, in desperation after the event, fled to Glasgow where he had associates. However, the Glasgow police soon picked him up and returned him to Shepherd’s Bush and Superintendent Chitty.
Harry Roberts, on the other hand, was a much more interesting and complex personality. He had been a soldier, a trained sniper and had a good army record. He was also a skilled bricklayer, a trade he had learned while in prison. Roberts’ serious personality flaw was that he was prone to violence and had a liking for guns.
Roberts was almost as shocked and horrified as the police at what he had done, and knew he would have to get away somewhere and hide. So, on Monday morning he bought a tent and sleeping bag, a stove and other equipment and caught the bus to Epping Forest.
There he said goodbye to his common-law wife, Mrs Perry, and walked off towards the trees, where he disappeared from public view completely.
However, Mrs Perry left no time before informing the police, the newspapers, and anyone else who would listen, about what Roberts’ intentions were. Consequently, the police mounted a massive search in Epping Forest using armed officers, but to no avail. The wily Roberts had walked right through the forest and for another six miles until he entered Thorley Wood. There he had found a thick patch of undergrowth, burrowed to the centre and set up camp. Using skills taught to him by the army during jungle training in Malaya, he made a very comfortable dry home that was undetectable and undetected for three months.
While the summer continued Roberts was safe, coming out mainly at night to rob from nearby houses for food, cash and anything of use, even though the police kept up observation on Epping Forest and systematically researched it from time to time.
While Roberts remained undetected, Witney and Duddy were arraigned before the magistrate’s court, and a date was set for their trial, November the 14th. As things turned out, that date was to also be significant for Harry Roberts because events were conspiring against him.
Just prior to the day Witney and Duddy were to face trial, the Hertfordshire Police arrested a twenty-one-year-old gypsy called John Cunningham and questioned him about a string of burglaries in the area. The Cunningham family lived in a caravan in Thorley Wood close to where Roberts was camped. The gypsies knew there was someone else camping near them, but as they had no love for the police chose not to report it. However, when John was questioned, he denied he was the burglar and casually suggested “Perhaps it’s the other bloke that’s camped near our caravan.”
The cops were very interested in this other bloke. Early next morning, armed officers surrounded Thorley Wood and moved in, carefully searching every nook and cranny. Quickly they found Roberts’ camp but once again the wily Roberts had fled ahead of the search.
Roberts had foreseen such a search and had laid up some provision in a disused barn a short distance away in Nathan’s Wood. However, the police were not deterred and Sergeants Smith and Thorn decided to look in that direction and soon discovered the barn.
Inside, under a stack of hay bales, they found the weary, worn out Roberts who called out, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I won’t give you any trouble. I’m glad it’s over.” Roberts was relieved of a loaded Luger pistol, the gun he had used to kill Head and Wombwell, handcuffed, and taken to Bishop’s Stortford Police Station to be fingerprinted. Once his identity was definitely established he was driven to Shepherd’s Bush Police Station and formally charged with three counts of murder.
In December of that year, all three men stood together in the dock at the Old Bailey. Roberts pleaded guilty to the murder of Head and Wombwell, but not guilty to the murder of Constable Fox.
Duddy and Witney pleaded not guilty on all counts, but the jury decided against all three men and they were all sentenced to life, with the judge adding that in their case they could not be released on licence for at least 30 years. It was a sentence that just about everyone in Britain at the time wholeheartedly agreed with.
Footnote: Duddy died in Parkhurst Prison on the 8th February 1981 of natural causes. Witney was released from prison, somewhat controversially, before he had served his full thirty years in 1991. Then, in 1999, he was beaten to death with a hammer by his heroin-addict flatmate at his home in Horfield Bristol.
Harry Roberts was repeatedly refused parole and spent virtually the rest of his life in prison. He was eventually released on licence on the 10th of November 2014, aged 77.