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The BOAC warehouse in 1948.
As he drove through the night towards Staines police station, perspiration beaded on the forehead of Donald Fish.
This was not purely due to the humid weather in July 1948; he was a worried man and justifiably so.
The former Scotland Yard detective was the head of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) security at the newly opened London (Heathrow) Airport.
Whilst the airport was operational, security was far from satisfactory; the only repository for the bullion and other valuables which were flown into the United Kingdom was nothing more than a corrugated iron converted aircraft hanger.
Heathrow was fast becoming renowned as a centre point for every petty – and often not so petty – criminal in the country, at a time of severe post-war austerity when every saleable commodity required the production of ration coupons to legitimately acquire it.
The area was patrolled by the private airport police, as opposed to the regular police and keeping it protected was causing the airport authorities considerable problems.
The second problem confronting Fish was far more pressing. Anthony Walsh, a warehouseman, had informed him that he had been approached by a notorious criminal who wanted his assistance to rob the custodians of the warehouse of a quantity of gold bullion, of which the arrival from South America was imminent.
Walsh would be paid £500 for his cooperation.
Everything that Walsh had told him checked out – and now Fish was losing no time getting to the local police station to impart the information to his friend, Divisional Detective Inspector Roberts of the Metropolitan Police’s ‘T’ Division.
Roberts listened intently to Fish’s story and quickly realized that with the calibre and number of the criminals concerned, his limited resources would be insufficient to deal with such a sophisticated gang.
He reached for his telephone and asked to be connected to Scotland Yard’s elite crime-busting unit, the Flying Squad.
Just one month previously the Squad had been detached from C1 Department, which hosted a number of different units, including the Murder Squad, and was given its own identity, C8 Department.
With its new designation came a new leader, Detective Superintendent Bill Chapman, who was nicknamed ‘The Cherub’ because his smiling red face was framed with a halo of prematurely white hair.
The CID ‘sweeney’ team.
He arrived at just the right time. The Sunday Empire News had reported on 18 July 1948, ‘The Flying Squad can’t fly’ and on behalf of the Squad men, the newspaper bemoaned the fact that vehicles were still being delivered to the Squad too slowly.
Under Chapman’s guidance, the fleet started to improve: the Squad was expanded to 80 officers, 27 cars, 3 taxis and 4 vans.
Chapman handed operational control of the plan to thwart the robbers to his second-in-command, Detective Chief Inspector Bob ‘Mr Memory’ Lee – so-called, because he possessed a phenomenal recollection for the faces, habits and associates of many of London’s top villains.
The name of the criminal who had approached Walsh was one well-known to Lee – Alfred Roome (also known as ‘Big Alfie’ and ‘The Ilford Kid’) had gathered a formidable criminal record during his forty-two years.
Lee then checked those of Roome’s associates who possessed similarly impressive criminal pedigrees; firstly Edward William Hughes, who had carried out a robbery with Billy Hill and another man in July 1942.
Convicted, Hughes had pleaded a weak heart, which precluded the flogging he so richly deserved, and was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
Hill figured with members of the gang again following his release; he, together with Sammy Ross (also known as Sammy Josephs) and Teddy Machin, carried out a £9,000 robbery in Manchester in September 1947 for which they were not caught.
insidde the warehouse ( police picture)
Hill was wanted for failing to appear at court on a charge of warehouse- breaking (he stoutly maintained he had been fitted-up) but he finally surrendered to police and was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
At the time of the intended raid at Heathrow, he was safely out of the way.
But the sallow-faced Teddy Machin was at liberty. He would play an important part in the raid to match his impressive underworld credentials; he was the ‘chiv-man’ for the organizer of the job, whose name was Jack Spot.
In fact, the black Vauxhall Walsh had seen being driven off by Roome, and of which he had memorized the registration number, turned out to belong to Spot.
At this time, two men ruled London’s underworld. One was Billy Hill, a brilliant criminal mastermind who meticulously researched his enterprises and was widely respected.
When his men were caught carrying out one of his jobs, he provided their dependents with a ‘pension’ whilst they were incarcerated.
He was charismatic but also utterly ruthless; his word was law and anybody who stepped out of line, whether they were on his or an opponent’s side would be summarily dealt with by being ‘striped’ in the face with a razor, or ‘chiv’.
The other was Jack Spot – he had been born Jacob Comacho – who was no thief; he had won his reputation as a ruthless gangster by running protection rackets in the East End of London, frightening money out of shop owners and stallholders; later, he would progress to blackmailing bookies at the racetracks.
Court exhibits in the case against the gang (Image: The National Archives)
He used his fists to devastating effect and also, like Hill, the razor, ensuring that in striping an opponent the weapon never slipped far enough south to touch the ‘jagular’, as he described the four great veins at the side of the neck.
It seems likely that Spot was financing the robbery in return for a sizeable cut of the profits; in underworld jargon, he was known (though not to his face) as ‘a thieves ponce’.
Spot simply did not possess the intelligence to assist in the planning of the operation; these matters he left, with great confidence, in the hands of Messrs Hughes, Ross and Roome.
The plan was as follows.
The gang had received information that bullion, valued at something in the region of a quarter-of-a-million pounds was going to be flown into Heathrow from South America, via Madrid.
In addition, there was possibly a further prize of jewellery and other valuables in the warehouse which might well bring the total of the robbery up to half-a-million.
And then the gang had an unbelievable stroke of luck.
Whilst they were planning the job in a pub close to the airport, who should walk in but Anthony Walsh – and Alfred Roome immediately recognized him as being a former fellow POW in a German camp at Genshagen.
Walsh had originally been a security guard at Heathrow but had been demoted and transferred to the warehouse, which had caused him considerable resentment.
Roome decided to capitalize on Walsh’s dissatisfaction with his employers.
He suggested that Walsh’s part in the venture would be that he would be passed a number of phenobarbitone tablets in order to drug the coffee for the three guards in the warehouse; while they were unconscious Walsh would open the doors of the warehouse and the gang would help themselves to the contents.
This Walsh initially agreed to do, but later realizing the ramifications of the plot he decided to inform his employers.
On the evening of the raid, 28 July, Walsh came on duty, having accepted the phenobarbitone tablets from the gang; far from merely drugging the guards, their strength was quite sufficient to kill them.
An hour later at nine o’clock, the aeroplane from South America landed and the bullion was off-loaded into the strongroom at the BOAC depot at Chiswick.
Within the next hour the BOAC bullion van arrived at Heathrow, with the gang monitoring every movement, confident that all was going to plan.
But the container which was unloaded into the warehouse from the van, and which should have contained the bullion, was empty.
Behind the container and out of view of the gang fourteen Flying Squad officers clambered out of the van and secreted themselves behind the bales and packing cases inside the warehouse, where the lights had been turned down.
Outside the warehouse were other detectives disguised as BOAC personnel and yet more were hidden inside a lorry in case they were needed to contain the situation.
Flying Squad cars positioned up to two miles away waited in readiness.
The gold bullion had not arrived, but that did not mean there was nothing worth stealing inside the warehouse. Goods worth £224,000 were stocked in the building and the safe contained jewellery worth £13,900.
For their own safety (and to ensure the success of the operation) the three guards had been whisked away to secure accommodation; their place had been taken by Detective Sergeants Charlie Hewett, George Draper and John Mathews of the Flying Squad.
In a separate office, sat Donald Fish. His telephone was connected on an open line to Scotland Yard, so that when Fish whispered the code name of the operation – ‘Nora’, the name of one of the Squad officer’s wives – word could be passed from the Yard by radio to the officers on the outside that the gang had arrived.
This would put them on stand-by; when the time came to carry out the arrests, Fish would utter the words, ‘In the bag.’ The hours ticked by. The heat was stifling inside the warehouse.
Eventually just before midnight the mobile canteen arrived and Walsh went outside, obtained a jug full of coffee which he brought back in to the three Squad officers.
The coffee was duly poured into three cups, which were tipped into a corner of the warehouse, just in case the gang had a contingency plan and had indeed doped the coffee, themselves.
The Squad officers knew – because Walsh had told them – that the gang anticipated the drug would take twenty minutes to work.
The three sergeants now sprawled across the table, feigning unconsciousness; one of the cups was left lying on its side as a touch of authenticity, and now Walsh slid open the hanger’s giant double doors.
The light from the warehouse, shining out into the night, was the signal for the robbers to move in.
The first of the robbers stood in the opening.
Sidney Cook from Stratford had driven the lorry to be used by the gang up to the warehouse doors. He was dressed in BOAC uniform and, rather incongruously for one so attired, carried a car’s starting handle.
Now, he looked carefully round at the hanger’s silent interior. He called to another gang member who also inspected the premises and obviously satisfied the rest of the thieves, eleven in all, trooped into the warehouse.
All of them had their hands covered, either with gloves or socks. But most unusual of all was the fact that all of them (save Cook) were wearing stockings over their heads – the first time this disguise had been used – and as the men advanced into the premises, so the ends of the stockings waved from side to side, inflating and deflating.
They looked rather like miniature elephants’ trunks. It was then that Donald Fish whispered the code word ‘Nora’ into the telephone receiver.
Alfred Roome surveyed the three supposedly unconscious guards.
Detective Sergeant Charlie Hewett, who due to his slim build and short stature was much in demand for undercover work, had posed as the security officer carrying the safe keys, and Roome slapped him across the face.
Satisfied that Hewett was unconscious, Roome relieved him of the safe keys and kicked him twice in the stomach, after which Hewett and the two other officers had adhesive tape placed over their mouths and were tied up.
One of the other ‘drugged’ officers – John Matthews – failed to fully convince the gang of his unconscious state and was promptly cracked over the head with a starting handle, which produced a far more authentic effect.
As another of the gang produced a carafe of water and proceeded to wash out the coffee cups – it had been decided to remove the evidence so that this ploy could be used in the future – so Roome inserted the key into the safe.
As soon as an audible ‘click’ had been heard, satisfying the requirements of the Larceny Act, DDI Roberts announced, ‘We are police officers of the Flying Squad – stay where you are!’
Donald Fish gave the Yard the signal, ‘In the bag’, the Flying Squad personnel emerged from their hiding places and as the gang leader shouted, ‘Bring the guns out and let them have it – kill the bastards!’ a battle royal commenced.
In fact, the gang had no guns – what they did have was a variety of murderous weapons.
DCI Bob Lee had his scalp split open from a blow with an iron bar wielded by Alfred Roome, while the gang member who had been industriously washing out the cups now smashed the carafe and ground the jagged ends into Detective Sergeant Fred Allen’s thigh.
Blood poured from the wound, Allen cracked his opponent over the head with his truncheon and both men fell to the floor.
Allen was grievously injured but conscious – his opponent was out cold. Draper had been untied and he now released Charlie Hewett who tore into Roome, inflicting serious injuries.
Fifty years after the event, Hewett wrote, ‘I did not feel guilty about what I did to “Big Alfie”.’
Detective Sergeant Donald MacMillan (he was Hewett’s Flying Squad partner and they were known as ‘Chas and Mac’) had his nose badly broken as he defended Hewett from an attack by an assailant behind him.
The very popular and reliable officer, Detective Sergeant Mickey Dowse also waded into the fray: first he was hit with a giant pair of wire-cutters, then as one of the gang went to cosh him over the head and Dowse put up his arm to ward off the blow, his hand was shattered.
In a similar way, Detective Inspector Peter Sinclair suffered a broken arm. As the fight spilled out of the warehouse, so the waiting Squad men rushed forward and eight of the gang soon lay unconscious on the tarmac.
Not all of them were caught. Billy Benstead and Bertie Saphir both escaped. Teddy Machin was chased by two officers and in the darkness lost both them and his balance.
He fell into a ditch, passed out and was completely overlooked. (He was not quite so overlooked in 1970 when he received both barrels of a sawn-off shotgun through the window of his Canning Town home.)
Franny Daniels, a well-respected thief who had run with both Hill and Spot managed to crawl underneath a lorry and cling on to it as it moved off.
He had intended to drop off at the first set of traffic lights; instead the lorry conveyed him to the yard at Harlington police station from where he made his escape.
He carried the burns which he received from the underside of the vehicle for the rest of his life.
After some much-needed sleep, food and hospital treatment, the Squad officers accompanied the robbers to Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court (all save Roome, who had been so badly beaten he was hospitalized) where the incredulous magistrate heard brief evidence of arrest – and seemed to differentiate with great difficulty between the bloodstained, bandaged robbers and their equally battered captors – before remanding the gang in custody.
Jack Spot was questioned about the matter, denied it and claimed that the car which had been seen and was registered in his name had been lent to a couple of pals for the evening.
There was no evidence to the contrary and Spot was not even arrested. But it was the beginning of the end for him. Although in the absence of Billy Hill he was still a very powerful gangland figure, the police paid so much attention to his gambling club in St Botolph’s Row that it eventually closed.
Then came a falling-out with Hill which led to a savage razor attack on Spot in 1956 and gradually his power receded and he died penniless, aged eighty- two, in 1995.
On 17 September, the gang appeared at the Old Bailey.
They had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to rob and given the weight of the evidence against them, this was understandable.
However, an added incentive was that this charge carried a maximum of two years’ imprisonment. They had pleaded not guilty to assaulting the police but now, in a dramatic turnaround, they pleaded guilty to robbing Detective Sergeant Charlie Hewett of four keys, whilst armed.
After listening to some fairly unconvincing mitigation, the Recorder of London, Sir Gerald Dodson told them: “One can only describe this as the battle of the BOAC, for that is what it degenerated into – a battle and nothing less.
“It is a thing honest people regard with terror and great abhorrence. All of you men set your minds and hands to this enterprise.
“You were, of course, playing for high stakes as there was nearly £14,000 worth of jewellery in the safe alone and thousands of pounds’ worth of goods.
“You went there with a van to carry it and you went armed. It is a little difficult for me under those circumstances to accept the suggestion that the plan here did not involve violence. If that were so, why carry these weapons?
Spot was never convicted on involvement in the Heathrow robbery attempt but was a key gangland figure
“If the drug had been successful no violence would be done, but if the drugging were not successful a different set of circumstances would arise.
“You made sure of your position by being ready for any situation with weapons of all kinds. This is the gravity of the offence. It does not matter that the actual property was some keys. Of course, that is what you were after first of all, the keys.
“They were the keys to the situation and to the safe. A raid on this scale profoundly shocks society. You went prepared for violence and you got it. You got the worst of it and you can hardly complain about that.”
Telling Edward Hughes (the possessor of the weak heart) “Corporal punishment is not now envisaged by the law, and so, strictly logically, the injuries you have received are no punishment at all – merely part of the risk you ran,’ the Recorder imposed the heaviest sentence; twelve years’ penal servitude.
As women collapsed and became hysterical in the corridor, Hughes replied, “Thank you for British Justice.”
Sammy Ross was sentenced to eleven years’ penal servitude and two brothers, Jimmy and George Wood (the latter was also known as John Wallis) received nine and eight years, respectively. George Smith and Sidney Cook were each sentenced to eight years’ penal servitude and William Henry Ainsworth, to five.
And what of the hard man Alfred Roome, ‘Big Alfie’ who had recruited Anthony Walsh and who had been responsible for the savage assault on DCI Bob Lee?
As the Recorder sentenced him to ten years’ penal servitude, Roome broke down, sank to his knees and sobbed piteously.
It was an act which was to have a profound, far-reaching effect. For such a display, Sammy Ross, the gang’s leader, ordered that Roome be ostracized in prison.
Upon his release, his former associates continued this exclusion and after his wife started an affair with a younger man, Roome became so unbalanced that he blamed the pair for everything.
He launched a frenzied attack on them and then took poison. They survived – Roome did not.
Anthony Walsh, who positively identified four of the gang to the Flying Squad, was dealt with at a separate hearing; he was bound over to be of good behaviour for a period of two years.
It was a time of celebration for the Flying Squad; all of them were commended by the commissioner and – leaving aside a piece of doggerel composed by one of the personnel from ‘Operation Nora’ which drags on for eight excruciating verses and which ends with the words
’Twas a marvellous fight – while it lasted; ’The hopes of the ‘geezers’ truly blasted; ’The villains are grabbed and marched away – ’And so to the end of a perfect day.’ and is best forgotten – so the case passed into Squad folklore.
The lorry for the getaway.