By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
Formed in 1829, the London Metropolitan Police Service (universally known simply as The Met,) whose mantra has always been policing by consent rather than force, has known the horror of multiple police officers killed in the line of duty at the same time on four occasions in its history.
On a balmy August afternoon in 1966, the third such atrocity will take place on a quiet North London street far from the madding crowds that fill the city’s numerous boroughs.
East Acton is to the north and west of the famous Notting Hill area and just a few miles from Wembley Stadium, where on July 31, England will win its first, and so far, only Fifa World Cup football match, beating Germany 4-2.
The area is also home to Wormwood Scrubs Prison, one of Britain's most notorious penal institutions. And Braybrook Street, which fronts the southern boundary of the Scrubs, 200 acres of free common land which was then, used as it is to-day, by the children who attended the nearby Old Oak Primary School to enjoy as a play space and above all, use it to play football.
The street is about to become famous, for all the wrong reasons.
The swinging sixties in England is a period filled with not just pop groups like The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Animals and dozens more. In London, Carnaby street fashions, some outrageous and extreme, are generating their own world of excitement. Mary Quant emerges as a revolutionary clothing designers for the young, changing the way women will dress for ever. James Bond has appeared on movie screens world-wide, generating four box-office smash hits by 1966. (1)
And the criminal gangs of London are also on a roller. They were big and small, scattered across many of the boroughs. To the north of The River Thames they are dominated by the Krays. and to the south, by the Richardson brothers.
One of the smallest, will do the biggest damage. In human terms at least. Midafternoon on Friday, August 12, three unarmed police officers will confront their worst nightmare when a routine traffic stop turns into a fire-storm with them as the victims.
Since their inception, the police in Britain have gone about their job unarmed, with guns, at least. The first armoured vests were not issued until 1980, and even today, the street patrol officer does not carry lethal weapons. Although they are trained in their use and there are multiple armed-offenders squads on standby in all major cities across the United Kingdom. In 2016 The Met although 90% of its officers go unarmed, carried out 3,300 deployments using firearms but didn’t fire a single shot at a suspect. In America during the same period, 1092 people died by gunshot wounds involving the police (2)
On this August day of mayhem, Harry Roberts (right) is a month into his thirtieth year, Five-ten, medium build, his hair is thick and black and always tousled in the pictures of that time. Arching eyebrows, a smirking face displaying an arrogance of self-belief and eyes that look beyond the uncertainty of life. Born and raised in Wanstead, Essex, his parents ran a public house called The George before moving to North London and buying a cafe. Apart from two years serving in the British Army, in The Rifle Brigade, fighting in Kenya and Malaya, he has been a criminal most of his adult life. He spent time in Borstal (young offenders detention) and in prison for attacking and almost killing a seventy-eight year old man in the 1950s.
After his release in November, 1963, although he had tried to go straight, starting up a small, construction company, it all fell to pieces and he was back into robbing and thieving to pay the bills.
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He and his new partner, Lillian Perry, live in a flat in Wymering Road, in Maida Vale that belonged to one of Robert’s few friends, a man called Colin Howard (who had been a witness at Robert’s only marriage in 1958, subsequently dissolved by divorce,) who was then serving time in Wormwood Scrubs Prison. His wife, June, welcomed Perry and Roberts who could help support her until her husband was released.
Sometime in 1965, Roberts meets up with a Greek-Cypriot somewhere near Shaftesbury Avenue in London’s West End, and buys three handguns and ammunition from him for ninety pounds.
Seven years older that Roberts, he was a poor excuse for a gangster. His criminal record was for multiple counts of dishonesty. He lived in a ground-floor flat at 10 Fernhead Road in Maida Hill, just to the north of Notting Hill, with his wife, another Lillian. Ironically, he had also served, years before Roberts in the British Army, but had gone absent without leave in 1951. At the time of his arrest in 1966, he was still listed as a deserter, although it seems to have given up on him.
Roberts will later claim that Witney is the alpha in their relationship, setting up the scores, organizing the operations, the muggings, robberies, the planner to his muscle. Which seems disingenuous to say the least. Roberts was a lot smarter than Witney and a lot more dangerous in a physical sense. He had soldiered in Malaya, fighting the communist insurgency, and had risen to the rank of corporal, leading men in action, organizing ambushes, controlling fire-fights, maybe killing people.
If anyone was picking targets to rob, it was Harry Roberts.
A small, tubby man with a drinking problem, he was born in Glasgow, the son of a policeman, in December 1928. From school he drifted into dead-end jobs and was in and out of prison until 1948, when he reformed, joined the British Army, and like Roberts, served in Malaya. A professional soldier he spent seven years in service, mostly overseas. Marries in 1949 to Teresa Ann, their have four daughters over the years, moving back and forward between London and Glasgow before settling in a council flat in Ladbroke Grove, in Kensington. When he meets up with his two new friends in crime, he is out of work, broke and desperate for money.
The three thugs who make up this disparate gang, sailing their own river of no return, had at least two thing in common: They’d all served in the British Army, and they were unquestionably a bunch of also-rans in life’s grand parade.
Considering they had only been working together over a relatively short period of time, it was interesting that they lived so close to each other, From Roberts place in Maida Vale, through Maida Hill where Witney lived to Ladbroke Grove the home of Duddy was less than two miles by the quickest route.
If it’s true that no one is as dangerous as a man who has nothing to lose, Harry Roberts was abut to confirm that as a given as the day unfolded. In a way, Duddy and Witney will be victims of circumstances, drawn into a whirlpool of violence beyond their control.
The Police Officers
Christopher Head, born in Devon in 1935, joined the police as a cadet at the age of seventeen. In 1952 he entered the Royal Air Force to serve his two years mandatory national service and in June 1958 he joined The Met and was based at Fulham Police Station, one of the three that made up F-Division. He transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 1964 and by 1966 was a sergeant assigned to Shepherd’s Bush station. He was a single man whose only interest outside the job, seemed to be supporting Chelsea Football Club.
Born in Hertfordshire in 1941, David Wombwell joined the Met in 1963, the year after he married his sweetheart, Gillian Hague. They had two young children, a boy and a girl. As a temporary Detective-Constable, he was assigned to work Q-cars to gain experience.
Geoffrey Fox grew up in Surrey, in South London, where he was born in 1924. Joining the London police in 1950, he had been based at Shepherd’s Bush for most of his career. He knew the area, literary like the back of his hand having worked it first as a foot-patrol man, then a Q-car driver. (3)
The Met rated him a Class-1 driver, the only ones allowed to drive Q-cars, He was married and had three children.
The three officers based at the 253 Uxbridge Road police station in Shepherds Bush worked as a team manning a Q-car covering F-Division. Sometimes referred to within the force as “The Murder Area,” it covers an area enclosing the boroughs of Hammersmith, Fulham and Shepherds Bush which in 1966 had a population of about 100,000. (4)
August 12, 1966
Tango One-One is the call sign for Q-car, plate number GGW876. It’s a blue Triumph 2000 based at Shepherd’s Bush. It’s crew log onto duty at 9am. They know they are taking their “governor,” Detective Inspector Kenneth Cook, to Marylebone Magistrates Court, about four miles to the east of their station, and have to drop him off there along with a small pile of evidence boxes he needs to present as evidence in a case to be tried, by 10 am. The rest of the morning is routine surveillance work, cruising their area. The three men return to the station about one for their lunch break, which they take most days at a pub a few hundred yards down the road.
This same day, the three villains are trawling the streets of North London looking to steal a car. They intended to carry out a robbery at an engineering works in Northolt, a few miles north-west of Acton, on the outskirts of London. Whitney is driving his beat-up Vauxhall Standard Estate, also a shade of blue, plate number PGT726.
Robert sits next to him, Duddy in the back. Between the front seats is a holdall containing the three guns that belong to Roberts. They are a .38 Enfield service revolver, a .38 Colt Special and a German 9mm Luger P08 semi-automatic, that had been made in 1918. They are all loaded.
Some time earlier, the gang had paid for a set of plates, JJJ285D. and intended to fit these to the car they steal in order to confuse the police if they investigate. They are looking for a Ford Cortina, one of the most popular makes in Britain at this time. They find one, late in the morning but can’t force it. They take a break for lunch also in a pub, The Clay Pigeon in Eastcote, about ten miles to the north and west of their final destination, and then continue their search for the car they need to steal.
Their journey takes them along The Harrow Road, then south on the A4000 through Willsden Junction, down Old Oak Lane, then making a left onto Oak Common Road, heading towards East Acton Underground Station, where they hope a commuter may have left what they are looking for, parked for the day by the roadside. As they drive down Erconwald Street, they overtake a vehicle parked near the station. It is Foxtrot One One.
Everyone is five minutes and less than three hundred yards from their own Armageddon.
- READ: The Untouchables: How Britain’s top gangsters got rich off armed robberies and smuggling tons of drugs
Detective Sergeant Head is making a telephone call at 3:10 pm from a police box outside the station to confirm with his boss DI Cook that they will pick him up at the courthouse in less than thirty minutes. Perhaps he notices the battered Vauxhall drive by with three men. One man okay. Two maybe. Three cause for suspicion. It’s been suggested that the Q-car driver, Fox, may have recognized Whitney, They had lived in the same neighborhood some years before. Good cops spot villains like hawks see trout swimming underwater.
“Give them a tug,” says Head getting back into the car, meaning pull them over.
The police car follows the Vauxhall as it turns left into Braybrook Street and they flag it down outside house number 61. Fox pulls his Triumph forward and stops in the middle of the road. Children playing on the field stop their games and watch, wondering. What’s going on?
In the Vauxhall, Roberts looks at his mates and says, “It’s The Old Bill.” (5)
It is all over in seconds.
Wombwell and Head get out of the Q-car and walk back to the vehicle they have stopped, the young constable moving to the driver’s side and the sergeant over to the passenger side. David has his notebook and pencil in hand ready to note anything that might be relevant. He asks Whitney about the expired tax disc on the windshield, checking insurance, stuff like that. The sergeant moving to the back of car points to the bag between the seats asking what the contents are. Nothing, he is told, just towels, overalls, stuff like that. Show me what’s under that, he orders. Both officers start shouting at the car occupants to comply with their requests.
Roberts was already holding the Luger on his lap, under his jacket. From the back seat, Duddy shouts out “Let the slag have it.” Roberts leans across Whitney, shouts “Fuck it,” and shoots Wombwell in the face, under the left eye, killing him instantly. The officer falls back onto the road, the notebook fluttering in the wind like a downed pigeon, his death grip tight on the pencil. And there he lies there in a casual repose, his ankles crossed, his eyes staring forever at the confusion of sudden and unexpected end of life.
Christopher Head shouting “No!” “No!” starts back towards the Q-car as Roberts leaps out leveling the Luger and firing at the officer. The gun jambs, and Roberts frantically slides the toggle bar back to release the blockage and then fires again towards the sergeant.
Roberts is shouting. “Come on. Come on.”
Duddy leaps from the rear of the Vauxhall pulling out a revolver, the .38 Enfield and running forward, starts shooting at the police car. His first shot dissolves the nearside rear window. The second goes into the Triumph and out the windscreen, The third, smashes into the left side of Constable Fox’s head, killing him instantly. As he slumps forward his last convulsions rams the car over the body of Sergeant Head, who had collapsed in front, already gone from the last shot from Roberts. The Q-car sits there, lodged over the body, its rear wheels spinning madly.
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The children on the Scrubs stare at the panorama of chaos, open-mouthed, disbelieving. One of them, James Newman, aged 9, will be a star witness for the police and the media. Standing on the corner of Braybrook Street, he thought he was watching a film being made
The two gunmen rush back to the Vauxhall, and the driver, in panic, reverses madly back down Braybrook Street, careering into Erconwold Street, almost smashing into a car turning left. The driver, Bryan Deacon, rushes to a nearby butcher shop and dials 999, the emergency number, informing them of what has happened and giving a full description of the killer's car and the plate number.
The law descended on Braybrook Street in their dozens. Ironically, the first police officer to arrive on the scene is Constable Sidney Seager, He was a friend of Geoffrey Fox. Had been his best-man at his wedding twenty years before. History has not recorded his reaction, and he was himself, killed two days later in a traffic accident while on duty.
A special investigation squad code-named, “Operation Shepherd,” is set up under Detective Superintendent Richard Chitty, and soon 60 detectives are scouring London for the killers.
Paradoxically, the Vauxhall Estate car at the center of the inquiry, is found in garage 103 Railway Arch, behind Tinworth Street, in of all places, the borough of Vauxhall, South London. A witness, William Keeley identified Whitney as the man who had rented the garage from him.
Whitney is arrested and taken to Holloway Road Police Station and questioned through the day and into the night. As the only one that afternoon who had not fired a gun, it dawns on him that his only salvation might be to cooperate. So he does. In the early hours of August 14 he makes a full confession of what happened. The net goes out for the other two.
Their addresses are established and police officers move in to arrest them.
Duddy has fled London on the Sunday after the shootings, and moved back to Glasgow, holing up in a tatty apartment above a shop at 257 Stevenson Street in the district of Calton. He is dobbed in by his brother, arrested and returned to London. He had been on the run for five days. There is no sign of Harry Roberts.
Catching a Greenline Bus and equipped with survival gear, stashed in a rucksack, he disappears into London’s greater metropolitan area. He becomes the subject of the biggest manhunt ever mounted by the Met.
After a three-month chase, he is found, hiding under a straw-pile in a barn on a farm near Bishop Stortford, north of Epping Forest, (20 miles east of Braybrook Street,) where he had first vanished, living off the land, hiding like a ferret in his hole among the 6000 acres of trees and shrubs..
The three men go on trial for the multiple murders at the Old Bailey in London on December 6 and are found guilty. They are sentenced to life with a minimum non-parole period of 30 years.
John Duddy dies of natural causes in 1981 while serving his sentence at Parkhurst Prison, on The Isle of Wight. We don’t know what they are because they are never disclosed.
Jack Witney is released in 1991 after serving 29 years and in 1999 is battered to death by his flat-mate, Nigel Evans, during an argument over who washes the dirty dishes.
Roberts stays in prison, year after year. Decade after decade, living out his life in a seven by eleven cell in different prisons across England. He tries to escape over twenty times before resigning himself in 1976, to a lifetime of incarceration.
His chance of parole is scuppered in 2001 when he is involved in a scandal connected to a work release program he attends. Although the details are never officially revealed, a woman running the scheme is terrorized by Roberts, and shades of The Godfather, an animal is beheaded!
He is serving time in Littlehey Prison in Cambridgeshire when his discharge is finally approved by the British Home Office. In another great irony, this was a correction center built in 1988 on the site of the old Gaynes Hall Borstal, where Roberts served his first sentence, for criminal assault.
Going around and coming around works a charm in the circus of criminality.
“We shot them because they were going to nick us and we didn’t want to go to jail for 15 years,” Roberts told the Guardian’s Nick Davies in a prison interview in 1993. “We were professional criminals. We don’t react the same way as ordinary people. The police aren’t like real people to us. They’re strangers. They’re the enemy. And you don’t feel remorse for killing a stranger.
“I do feel sorry for what we did to their families. I do. But it’s like people I killed in Malaya when I was in the army. You don’t feel remorse.”
In an interview with a newspaper reporter in 1993, after having served twenty-seven years, he finished off by saying, “Prison.....mentally. I mean, it’s a terrible thing they do to people. You know? I want to say to them ‘Why are you still punishing me?’ I don’t know the answer.”
He only needed to look into a mirror for the answer.
The following sources were used in researching this story:
Russell-Pavier, The Shepherds Bush Murders: Random House. London. 2016
Barton, Geoffrey, Harry Roberts and Foxtrot One One: Waterside Press. London. 2017
Guardian 2 February, 1993.
Independent 9 October, 2011.
Guardian 23 October, 2014.
Daily Mail 26 October, 2014.
BBC News 12 November, 2014.
Mirror Online 1 August, 2016.
Daily Record 12 December, 2016.
Roger (Jan) Meecham.html 29 January 2017.
(1) The term Swinging Sixties may have first appeared as part of the April 15, 1966 cover of Time Magazine, published in America.
(2) NBC News. March 24, 2017.
3) Q-cars are special police vehicles used by The Met’s CID officers. Outwardly a standard, four-door saloon, they are modified with V-8 engines, special gearing, brakes and suspension and can only be driven by highly qualified drivers. Used as roving crime seekers, they work across the entire metropolitan area of London. The term, in use since the early 1930s, refers to Q-ships employed during the First World War by Britain’s Royal Navy to counteract attacks of German submarines on merchant ships. Sailing as nondescript vessels, they were heavily armed under camouflage to entice the enemy vessel up close, to then blast them out of the water. Initially, they were mainly based in Queenstown, Ireland, hence their naming.
4) Between 1959 and 1965 eight women were murdered in the Hammersmith area by a serial killer who became known as “Jack the Stripper” as all of his victims were found nude. The case was closed when the two leading suspects died, one by suicide and the other either that way or murder.
The case was closed and there were no further murders.
(5) The Bill or Old Bill is a London slang expression for police. No one knows its origin, although there are dozens of attempted definitions.
(6) Under English Law, probation after completing a prison service is a finite period. License can and often is, issued as an infinite one. The prisoner can be recalled at any time, for any reason to continue their original term.
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