Thursday, December 16, 2021

Houndsditch Police Murders and the Siege of Sydney Street

The jewellers shop at 119 Houndsditch, London, was owned by a Henry Samuel Harris and in the cold month of December 1910 he had no idea that a plan was being hatched to rob his workplace and take the contents of the safe. This was being done by a bunch of criminals from Latvia and Russia who had spent the weeks renting the premises next door to the jeweller in order for their plans to take place.

The gang took their time with the plot, bringing equipment in over several weeks to cut through the building and the safe. A good robbery takes a lot of planning, and good planning takes time. On 16th December the robbery plan was swung into action, but the amount of drilling and noise that was being made alerted people walking past and it was brought to the attention of a passing policeman.

Further suspicions were roused when a member of the gang was seen acting strangely and so further police officers were called, by now a group of them were gathering near to the shop. One of the adjoining houses was knocked on to see if there was anything going on, not realising that a previous officer had already done this and had alerted the gang to the police presence. By now the robbers were surrounded, but things took a turn for the worst very quickly.

The robbers decided to make a run for it and opened fire on the police officers, killing one and injuring two more. As they appeared in the street they shot their way out of the area, injuring a further two officers, but not before one of the robbers was wounded and had to be carried away by his associates. The injured police officers were taken to the London Hospital at Whitechapel, but two of them died the following day.

The deaths of Sergeant Charles Tucker, Sergeant Robert Bentley and Constable Walter Choate was now a huge murder hunt, a gang was on the loose that had cruelly cut down three police officers in their line of duty. Investigations showed that foreign gang members were to blame, cemented by the later discovery of the body of one of them as robber George Gardstein had succumbed to his injuries in the fire fight and his body left for the local doctor to discover after the gang had called on him for help saying he had been shot accidentally by a friend. The police were quick to find that he was the one injured in the shootout.

The publicity in this case was overwhelming, soon information came forward that brought up more evidence against the perpetrators, including that they were currently hiding out at No 100 Sydney Street. When the police went round to check on the morning of 3rd January 1911 they were fired upon and this proved that they were the guys they were hunting for. Gunfire between the gang and the police went on most of the day, the military were called in to help what was now being called the Siege of Sydney Street and all eyes were now watching every move and reported in the press.

Home Secretary Winston Churchill turned up to see for himself the situation, but things were about to escalate even further when smoke was seen coming out of the building. The building was soon an inferno, the cause of the fire never being determined, but the shooting stopped and nobody was seen to leave the house. Eventually the fire teams gained access and found two bodies, but as the building collapsed it fell on several of the rescuers, one of whom died six months later.

Several people were put on trial for the crimes, but only one was found guilty of conspiracy which was later overturned. The main figurehead in this entire drama centred around a man known as Peter the Painter, a Latvian anarchist who many believe was not only not involved but may not have even existed, almost like chasing a ghost.

The whole episode was a tragedy that left 7 dead (3 police, 1 fireman, 3 gang members) and left a mark on the City of London police that remains today to be one of the largest loss of life of police officers at any one time. Today the sites no longer exist, World War 2 bombing raids putting paid to them, but two plaques honour the three officers and one fireman at the two locations. The City of London Police Museum has a fascinating collection of items relating to the loss of their three officers in their headquarters on Wood Street, London.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

The Sinking of HMS Barham

Of all the warships in the Royal Navy that have gone down in history, the story of HMS Barham is one that has been told many times, not least because her demise was caught on camera so horrifically and a completely unrelated incident involving the supernatural led her to be in the news for what can only be described as a bizarre case of modern day witchcraft.

Barham was launched on New Years Eve 1914 on the River Clyde, one of five Queen Elizabeth class battleships that was 643 feet 9 inches long, around 33,000 tons and carried an impressive armament of four 15 inch guns on two forward turrets. With over 1000 crew on board, she was built in a time when the Dreadnoughts were the up and coming warship, more powerful and heavily armoured than anything launched before, and Barham was one of those ships. Not least because she had been launched as the world was plunged into war just a few months earlier.

After she was commissioned in October 1915 she found herself at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916 which was both a victory and a disaster for both sides. She was struck by German shells several times which left 26 of her crew dead and dozens more injured. Her war service continued and she was present at the final surrender of the High Seas Fleet in 1918.

21 years later she was part of the Mediterranean fleet when the Second World War was declared, so her mission now was to head back to British waters and join the home fleet. As she neared the UK at the top of Ireland she was met by several escort destroyers to add to the others that were already in a protective screen around her. But in the early hours of 12th December 1939, as the fleet reached the Clyde approaches off the Mull of Kintyre, one of these escorts, HMS Duchess (below), was struck by the Barham and sank. 136 of her crew were killed, there were only 24 survivors. (For more information on this my book Collision in the Night tells the story of the Duchess.)

So Barham now sailed around the Atlantic and Mediterranean assisting with operations which included a U-boat torpedo striking her causing enough damage for her to put about and head for repairs. Soon back to sea she took part in several engagements where her guns were blazing against the enemy forces and in November 1941 she was heading out of Alexandria hunting for Italian convoys.

On 25th November the submarine U-331 saw the fleet and fired four torpedoes at the Barham, three of which struck the ship in quick succession. The huge battleship rolled over slowly as crew fought to escape the sinking ship, but at this exact moment the warship Valient was doing something that would propel the death of the Barham into history. On board the Valient was a cameraman filming the ship for Pathé News. 

The Barham was rolling right over onto her side when suddenly the magazine blew up and hug
e pieces of the ship flew in every direction. The sight was shocking and the smoke enveloped everything around it. By the time the smoke had clearend, Barham had gone. 862 of her crew were killed, the nearby warships managing to rescue 487 survivors, two of whom would die later.

Meanwhile in Portsmouth a woman named Helen Duncan was conducting a séance in front of an audience and announced that a sailor had come to her and said that the warship HMS Barham had been sunk. The military immediately took an interest in this because nothing official had been released yet, therefore how she got that information was a mystery (this could have been simply hearing from a relative who had received an official death notice before it was made public). She was arrested and became the last woman in Britain to be tried for witchcraft and fraudulent spiritual activity.

The Barham wreck has never been found, but she lies somewhere in the Eastern Med. Maybe some day we will gaze upon her once again.

Memorials to the Barham are dotted around the country at various war memorials, one being at the National Memorial Arboretum which I visited in 2020.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Disaster for the Ark Royal – 2003

It was just 24 hours after war had been declared between a coalition force comprising of the USA, UK, Poland, Australia and a host of other nations against the dictatorship regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Deployed off the coast at the top of the Persian Gulf were several warships of these nations. Britain had sent their aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to lead the naval task force under Commodore Jamie Miller.

The second day of the Iraq invasion saw a US helicopter crash on 21st March 2003, all 12 people on board were killed comprising 8 Brits and 4 Americans, but the aircraft wasn’t shot down, it turned out the helicopter had a mechanical fault. Not a good start for any military operation, but things were not about to get any better.

Two Sea King helicopters from 849 Squadron A Flight based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose were carrying out operations from the Ark Royal in the early hours of 22nd March. One was returning from a sortie while the second had just refuelled on the deck and was taking off. Their job was to conduct surveillance work in the Al Faw region of Iraq.

As one was taking off the other one was inbound and both aircraft sighted each other, they were warned that they were heading close to which they both acknowledged that they had each other in sight. But nothing prepared anybody for what was about to happen. The two Sea Kings collided in mid air much to the horror of those tracking the two craft.

To this day nobody knows what happened and why they hit each other. As the wreckage dropped into the sea just a few miles away from the ship it was obvious that there were no survivors. All 7 personnel in the two helicopters died – Six from the Royal Navy, one from the USA.

Over the next few days the debris from the aircraft was recovered along with the bodies of the seven crew, an investigation shedding no more light on what caused the crash than before. Tributes were paid by Captain Alan Massey, commanding officer of the Ark Royal as well as those high up in the Royal Navy and Government.

In Basra, the main town at the centre of British military operations, a memorial was made with small brass plaques giving the names of each person who died during Op Telic (the mission name), already there were 14 names to go on just in the first 48 hours from the losses of the helicopters and many more would be added.

The Iraq war ended officially in May 2003, the continuous conflict would not be at an end for another eight years. By the time British forces left the country, 179 UK service personnel had lost their lives, for the USA that would be 4,424. Today the regime is long gone, the country is an ally and the memorial plaques were taken from the base in Basra and placed at the National Memorial Arboretum in the UK. (See images below.)

HMS Ark Royal was eventually decommissioned in 2011 to be scrapped two years later in Turkey




Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Death in the ice – The loss of the Erebus and Terror

There are few sea stories that come with a vast amount of drama of such ships as those that set sail to the Arctic as part of explorer John Franklin’s expedition to find the North West Passage, a channel said to link the Atlantic with the Pacific and could save many weeks and months sailing around America to get to the west coast. Franklin was no stranger to voyaging and in 1845 he set off aboard the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror with 133 men.

They sailed on 19 May 1845 from Kent, by the time July had come they had made it up to the ice, landed five men due to sickness and bade farewell to the two ships that had accompanied them. With 129 men on board in total, great things were expected, with the voyage expecting to take a long time, but as no word of them came back people started to get concerned.

After two years with nothing from Franklin, search parties were drafted up to be sent out to conduct a hunt for the two ships and their missing crews. Years went by with rumours of sightings of the ships, over land the Inuit tribes told of a group of explorers that starved to death and showed them items that were confirmed to be from the lost expedition.

As the years ticked by, more evidence was found including written records of the expedition, frozen corpses, items from the ships and graves of several sailors. It was in 1984 that permission was granted to exhume three graves on Beechey Island by Professor Owen Beattie who wanted to find out exactly what had killed them.

Beattie found that pneumonia with lead poisoning had been the cause of death once the corpses had been exhumed and tested. The cans of food were poorly soldered and they lead may have contaminated the food and slowly killed them.

But the most interesting discovery came only recently when search teams located both ships on the seabed. Erebus was located in just 36 feet of water, deteriorated but upright, in September 2014. Two years later the Arctic Research Foundation announced that the Terror had been found in 79 feet of water and in pristine condition.

Since the discoveries there have been several dives on the wrecks with remote cameras and incredible images of these lost ships have been broadcast to the world. There is still a lot to learn about the mysterious vanishing of this entire expedition, but now all the pieces of the puzzle are there, it will only be a matter of time before we learn as much as there is to know about this.

Franklin and his team are commemorated in London and there is a museum in Oslo, Norway, which gives plenty of details about the search for the North West Passage in the place where Roald Amundsen’s two ships Fram and Gjoa are now on display. It will only be a matter of time before items recovered from the Erebus and Terror are on display for all to see and maybe even one day the wrecks themselves raised like the Amundsens Maud was a few years back.

But incredibly, it was the mysteriousness of the Franklin expedition that has made this the most memorable of them all, the loss of two ships and 129 crew has gone down in history as one of the great sea stories, with still so many unanswered questions, but this has ensured that their tragic legacy will live forever.

The statue of Sir John Franklin in central London (right) and a monument in nearby Greenwich (below). 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

HMS Royal Oak – The Story of Joseph Cachia

Of all the missions in the Second World War, one stood out in the early months as both death defying and impressive, despite the huge loss of life it caused. It was always believed that the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow was safe from attack, the bay close to the capital Kirkwall was the perfect size and shelter to anchor a fleet of the finest warships afloat away from danger, but all this confidence came to a sudden and explosive end by the actions of U-boat skipper Gunther Prien. 

It was the night of 13th October 1939 when Prien took his submarine, U-47, to the north coast of Scotland, his mission being to sneak into Scapa Flow and attack the ships before making a run for it. This was almost a suicide mission, but one that required an enormous amount of patience, calculation and bravery if they were to navigate between the defences that protected these ships. 

On board the Royal Oak, things were silent, most of the sailors asleep in their messdecks. One of these was Leading Steward Joseph Benedetto Cachia (right), born in Malta yet serving on board this ship so far from his native Mediterranean island nation. At 36 years old, Joseph married Catherine Debattista on 19th November 1931 in Sliema and had two daughters, Lilian and Carmen. He wasn’t the only Maltese national on board, around  a dozen more at least, mostly people who lived by the sea and wanted to join the Royal Navy for adventure, never believing that one day they would be back in a World War far from home. 

The Royal Oak was an old battleship now, commissioned in 1916 just in time to see action in the Battle of Jutland, but she still had immense firepower, not least in her eight 15 inch guns in four turrets that could pack a punch for any enemy ship that got too close for comfort. With a crew of over 1200, she spent her peacetime years conducting patrols and even managed to star in a movie. At 620 feet in length, she was dwarfed by some of the more modern warships that were now being seen on the world’s stage. 

Meanwhile as Prien was sneaking through the Scapa Flow defences, the hands of midnight ticked over into the morning of 14th October. With the silhouettes of the vessels at anchor, Prien lined up his U-boat for attack. He fired several torpedoes at the battleship, only one of which struck home, so he quickly made ready for a second attack where three more torpedoes all hit their target. Royal Oak was doomed, she rolled over and sank less than half an hour after the first explosion. 

U-47 managed to escape from Scapa Flow and returned to Germany a hero, Prien being awarded the Knights Cross. Royal Oak went down and took 835 crew with her, there were 424 survivors. One of those killed with Leading Steward Cahia. 

It is only when the relatives of those who died on board such ships start to dig into their family history that the story of the people on board ships such as Royal Oak come to light. Cahia’s name is mentioned in several places – the Book of Remembrance at Kirkwall Cathedral, the Naval Memorial situated on The Hoe in Plymouth and he is also named on a monument in his hometown of Sliema in Malta. 

Joseph Cahia became one of the first Maltese casualties of the Second World War, the island was not directly affected with the war until fighting broke out with Italy in June the following year and the island was under siege from the axis powers, a siege that was broken by the success of the convoys fighting through to deliver much needed supplies. Cahia’s daughters both emigrated to Australia after the war and his descendants talked about him with pride for many years after. The tragic part of this story was that he was only duty that day covering for a shipmate that was on a date. Would he have been one of the lucky ones if he had not done a good turn for a friend?

Today the Royal Oak is upside down still where she landed after that fateful night in 1939. She has been dived on but is officially a war grave and so only with special permission can this shipwreck be visited, usually by divers from the Royal Navy who will change the ship’s ensign and make sure that the spirit of the Mighty Oak is kept alive.  

For Leading Steward Cachia, his legacy and that of his 800+ shipmates will never be forgotten. 

National Memorial Arboretum plaque to Royal Oak

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Whitechapel Murders of 1888

The person who murdered at least five women in the Whitechapel area of London in late 1888 is without doubt the most famous serial killer in the world. This is probably because he was the first one that had such a memorable modus operandi that also came with a catchy nickname that the press loved – Jack the Ripper.

Now officially the killer has never been caught, charged or identified, but as the last 133 years have shown, there have been no shortage of suspects and evidence.

It was 31st August 1888 that the body of Polly Nichols was found murdered in Bucks Row, a gruesome sight but one that was never seen before to this extent. She had been mutilated and stabbed numerous times, yet nobody came forward to say that they had seen a thing.

On 8th September a second victim, Annie Chapman, was found outside the back doorway of 29 Hanbury Street, she too had been savagely attacked in the same way. It didn’t take a genius to link the two murders but worse was to come.

30th September 1888 went down in history as the “double event” when two bodies were found at different locations. The first one was Elizabeth Stride, but her corpse had not been as butchered as the others, within less than an hour it was found out why – the killer most likely had been disturbed and run off. The body of Catherine Eddowes was laid in Mitre Square and ripped open like the others.

By now the police were worried that there was a maniac out stalking the streets that had murdered four women in just a month. It wasn’t that there was not enough information – there was too much! A lot of it was hoax letters, even a piece of kidney sent to the police saying that it had come from one of the victims.

In the morning of 9th November 1888 a visitor to 13 Millers Court found the final victim of Jack the Ripper’s murderous rampage. This one was inside a small room, a bedsit that Mary Kelly had rented, giving the killer as much time as he needed to carry out his deed. Because of this her body was unrecognisable, laid on her bed and cut up into pieces, innards spread out and blood everywhere.

Officially this was the last victim of Jack the Ripper, although there were others before and after these five that may have been down to the same killer. With too many clues to go on the list of suspects over the years has been astronomical, it seems that every day a new expert comes along and gives their own theory on sometimes the smallest possible evidence.

At the top of this suspect list though is Aaron Kosminski, who was caught by the police just after the fifth murder and was named by police in official memo’s as the killer, but it was the startling DNA evidence that showed up on a shawl found at the scene of the murder of Catherine Eddowes that had both the victim and the descendent of Kosminski on. Although this has been criticised due to the possibility of cross-contamination, passage of time and other arguments, the truth of the matter is this Polish Jew lived very close to the murders and was sent to a workhouse due to his deteriorating mental state. Later he was forced to be locked up in a mental asylum until his death in 1919.

Today there is very little left of the London that once was, so many streets have changed since 1888 but there is still the pub The Ten Bells where the victims were said to drink, the streets are there but the houses are long gone, Mary Kelly’s home is now a car park. Jack the Ripper tours are a common sight at Tower Hill tube station where visitors can pay a fee to be taken around the areas where the victims were found. A historian friend of mine did it for free up until recently, plus he was more in depth and asked you to remember that these women were not just celebrity victims, they were human beings who had families and now thanks to a killer we still can’t officially name, their names will be remembered forever.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Latvian Supermarket Collapse

It was November 2018 when I visited the Latvian capital Riga, it was the 100th anniversary of their Independence and celebrations were in the air for the next few days, but while I was here I had one place on my mind to visit and research, the site of a disaster that shook the city just a few years before.

It was the early evening of 21st November 2013 and over 100 shoppers were in the Maxima supermarket in Riga’s Zolitude district when a fire alarm went off. It was quickly established that it was a false alarm caused by maintenance work going on, but soon after a huge part of the building collapsed in on itself over the checkouts and buried dozens of people under rubble.

Emergency services were called and a huge rescue operation was launched, fire teams dug away at the rubble to reach survivors but more was to come when a further part of the roof fell onto the rescue teams, crushing more and leaving further people trapped. By now it was realised that this was a huge emergency that could change at any time and so firefighters were allowed only half an hour on site per person before being relieved.

Out in the car park soldiers started setting up tents for the rescue workers and for dealing with survivors. But as time went on and survivors were getting less and less, periods of absolute silence were called for in order to listen for signs of life. Mobile phones were ringing within the collapsed building, most likely from worried relatives and people who had not been heard from for several hours.

The digging went on into the night and well into the next few days, during this time a third collapse happened but this time everyone was out of the way in time. In the end it was found that a total of 54 people had been killed, three of them firefighters during the second collapse. The shock of the disaster was felt throughout Riga and the mayor ordered immediate inspections of all buildings that were worked on by the same company as this supermarket.

In the end the collapse was blamed on structural errors in the building and one civil engineer was jailed for six year. The building itself was demolished within days and the site cleared.

It was just a few days away from the 5th anniversary of the disaster that I took a taxi over to the site, not sure what to expect or if it would be an area that would be dangerous. Thankfully it was actually a nice place to walk around, just normal people going about their business. In th
e middle of the shopping district was a car park with what looked like a flat roof but at ground level, surrounded by fencing. In front of this was a memorial that resembled the Twin Towers of the old World Trade Centre in New York, tributes already adorning it.

Like with any disaster site, it is always hard to imagine what it must have been like here to have this all happen in front of you. I have been to many sites like this and each time I am astounded by how normal everything is around it, almost like it hadn’t happened. I think over time they are making the memorial more permanent but as it stood this was just a temporary monument. With the site visited and photographs taken of the memorial and site, it was a visit to a nearby supermarket and then catching a bus back to the city centre.

Now a disaster of this magnitude would not be forgotten, but it was the Firefighters Museum that would remember it more than anyone for they lost three of their guys in the collapse and had several more injured. This museum was quite a walk away and very cheap to get in, but it was worth the effort. This has a complete history of Latvian fire fighting and the Maxima collapse featured heavily in one particular room. Photos of the rescue adorned the wall, an actual chunk of the concrete on display, fire helmets and other parts of the story, each one with its own history. It was good to see that this was documented, but incredible to find that a disaster like this should never have happened in the first place.

But then again, can’t you say that about all of them?