The stories of Harry Roberts & the ‘Black Panther’
By Aly Renwick
Throughout past centuries British soldiers were engaged in many conflicts overseas. After wars, the streets back home were usually filled with discharged veterans. Many were wounded, either physically or psychologically, who the authorities did very little to help. Others were feared, being quick to fly into rages and liable to use violence. All the ex-soldiers received little reward for their service, or disabilities, and Henry Mayhew, who wrote many articles about the poor, described some of these veterans from the Crimea War:
‘The first, or soldier proper, has all the evidence of drill and barrack life about him; the eye that always ‘fronts’ the person he addresses; the spare habit, high cheekbones, regulation whisker, stiff chin … He carries his papers with him, and when he has been wounded or seen service, is modest and retiring as to his share of glory …
The second sort of soldier-beggar is one of the most dangerous and violent mendicants. Untameable even by regimental discipline, insubordinate by nature, he has been thrust out from the army to prey on society … and is dangerous to meet with after dark on a lonely road …’
One hundred-and-ten years later, in the 1966/67 soccer season, gangs of youths in football grounds up and down England, used the following jingle to taunt the police who faced them on the terraces:
Harry Roberts – he’s our man,
He shoots cops – bang, bang, bang.
Roberts had always been a bit of a tearaway, having left school early after already getting a conviction for handling stolen goods. In 1956, on release from borstal, where he served a 19-month sentence, he was called up for National Service. Ten years later, on a sunny afternoon, two weeks after England had won the football World Cup, news broke that three policemen had been shot dead on a West London street, just a few miles from Wembley Stadium. Two men were quickly arrested and a search undertaken for the third man, who was known to have started the shooting and killed two of the policemen.
After a three-month manhunt, described as the biggest ever launched in Britain, Harry Roberts was caught hiding in a wood near Bishop’s Stortford. He had been living rough in a camouflaged hide made of wood and plastic bags. To evade the police he had used survival skills, which were taught to him while in the army:
‘He … joined the Rifle Brigade, becoming a marksman and a lance corporal and served in Malaya during the emergency; jungle training and guerrilla warfare taught him much and hardened him.’
[The Murders of the Black Museum 1870 – 1970, by Gordon Honeycombe, Bloomsbury Books 1992].
Malaya, at that time, was producing over a third of the world’s natural rubber and it, along with tin, accounted for three quarters of that country’s exports. The war was about keeping these in the hands of British businessmen.
Sixty-six years ago on 11th December 1948, just after the start of the ‘Malayan Emergency,’ men of the Scots Guards were ordered to round up civilians on a plantation near Batang Kali and separate the men from the women and children. That evening one of the male unarmed villagers was killed by the soldiers and the next day 23 others were murdered by them. One of the victims was found headless. [See ‘Anniversary of the massacre at Batang Kali’ on VFP posts]
In 1952, a speech by Gerald Templer, the British High Commissioner of Malaya, had been broadcast in Australia. Templer, who later was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1955, told his radio audience: ‘The hard core of communists in this country are fanatics and must be, and will be, exterminated.’ [The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy Since 1945, by Mark Curtis, Zed Books 1995]. British Army units then started to keep score boards of CTs (Communist Terrorists) killed. A National Serviceman described how units who had killed ‘CTs’ used to bring the bodies back for identification. After a bit, they brought back the heads only:
‘As Private Houchin walked past me, I noticed he was carrying a large, round object, wrapped in a poncho, on his back. He usually had a ready smile, but this time he looked a bit grim and, when I asked him what he was carrying, he just said, “A head.” I couldn’t believe it, so he explained. It seems that the bodies were proving so difficult to carry that the lieutenant had ordered the Ibans to chop the heads off, so that just the heads could be brought out of the jungle as evidence. The Ibans … had refused this grisly task, so the lieutenant had ordered some of his men to do it. Poor Private Houchin seemed full up with emotion, so I went to have a word with Lieutenant Surtees.
When I got near to Surtees, I saw that the other lieutenant was with him, and they seemed to be discussing the very issue … so I just hung around within earshot. … I heard Surtees tell him that such actions would give the men nervous breakdowns. As far as Houchin was concerned he was right, for he was the man who was to cry out in his sleep.’ [Rex Flowers, who served with the Lincolnshire Regiment, told in Six Campaigns – National Servicemen at War 1948-1960, edited by Adrian Walker, Leo Cooper 1993].
In his book, The Malayan Emergency, Robert Jackson quoted a young British officer who had been involved in the fighting: ‘We were shooting people. We were killing them. … This was raw savage success. It was butchery. It was horror.’ Many of the soldiers were National Servicemen, and Jackson went on to state about them:
‘But, like seasoned jungle veterans, they became accustomed to it. They coped, and coped very well, and boys of 19 emerged from the jungle as men with leadership experience that would carry them through any experience they might encounter on their return to civilian life.’ [The Malayan Emergency: The Commonwealth’s War 1948 – 1966, by Robert Jackson, Routlidge 1991].
While this might have happened for some veterans, for others, like Roberts, it clearly did not. He was taught other, far worse, things.
In early 1993, after serving twenty-six years of a life sentence, the news leaked out that Roberts was being considered for parole. Police groups said Roberts should never be released and the Guardian journalist Nick Davies visited him in Dartmoor Prison – where Roberts told Davies about the police shootings:
‘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.’ [Guardian, 2nd Feb. 1993].
Harry Roberts admitted to killing at least four people in Malaya and he told another veteran prisoner in jail that he had gotten into trouble with his army superiors for refusing to shoot another defenceless civilian. When he was demobbed from the army, his wife Margaret had said about him: ‘He seemed bitter, and talked about killing and the fear of battle and the danger … He seemed to have become slightly ruthless and much more tough.’ [Guardian, 2nd Feb. 1993].
At the end of 1974, in another part of England, this time the midlands and the north, the police were chasing a robber who had carried out a series of raids on post offices. The descriptions of the mystery man were always the same: army camouflage suit, black plimsolls, white gloves and covering his face was a black hood, across which a visor-like slash had been cut for eye holes. Nicknamed the ‘Black Panther’, the man was always armed with a pistol and a sawn-off shotgun. The robberies had netted him some £20,000, but he had left 3 men dead and others badly injured. In early 1975, the ‘Black Panther’ was to commit the crime that would bring him nationwide notoriety. He kidnapped 17-year-old Lesley Whittle, intending to ransom her for £50,000. But his victim met a horrible death. Lesley Whittle’s body was found tied up and naked, in the ventilating area of a sewer system. Around her neck was a noose of wire with which her kidnapper had secured her to an iron ladder. A huge manhunt was launched, but it was not until the end of 1975 that the ‘Black Panther’ was unmasked and captured.
Donald Nappy had been born in Morley, near Bradford, in 1936. After being taunted at school as ‘Dirty Nappy’, in later life he changed his name to Neilson. A neighbour said Neilson was: ‘Rather secretive …He looked every inch a part-time paratrooper. We called him “Castro” because he always wore battledress and marched down the street.’ [More Murders of the Black Museum 1835 – 1985, by Gordon Honeycombe, Arrow Books 1994]. In early 1955, Neilson, then 19 years old, had been called up for his National Service. Afterwards he stated: ‘I enjoyed my time in the Army. But I never admitted owt about it … It’s possible to be afraid and at the same time to enjoy oneself.’ For most of his time in the army Neilson was involved in colonial conflicts. He served his term of National Service with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry:
‘His two years in the Army shaped his life, giving him interests and excitements unknown before: the peculiar pleasure of jungle warfare and survival skills, of the power of weapons, of fitness and self-reliance. He relished the hide-and-seek thrills of security patrols, dealing with Mau Mau gangs on Mount Kenya, EOKA guerrillas in Cyprus, and Arab nationalists in Aden. A fellow soldier, who had served in Kenya, said: “After Morley it was a bit like paradise. The sun was always shining … I wouldn’t look any further than Kenya to work out how Nappy [Neilson] learned the tricks of his trade … In a way it’s not surprising that one of our number used his training for illegal purposes in later life”.’ [More Murders of the Black Museum 1835 – 1985, by Gordon Honeycombe, Arrow Books 1994].
All countries who sent men to fight in foreign wars experienced difficulties with some of their returning troops. Colonial conflicts, especially, were usually dirty and brutal affairs and often morally corrupting for those caught up in them. Most National Servicemen sent to Kenya experienced killings, like these soldiers who found a hut in a ‘prohibited area’ and waited in ambush inside:
‘As the Mau Mau bent over to come in, he [one of the other soldiers] opened up with the Bren gun. The weight of the bullets pushed the Mau Mau back; but when [he] stopped firing, of course, with the momentum, the Mau Mau started to come in again. So [he] shot him again. When we saw him the next morning, oh God! he was shot to pieces; but … they could still hear him moaning out there after they’d actually shot him. The corporal said to the rifleman to go out and finish him off. This little lad, a Londoner, he … went out there and put the actual muzzle of the rifle on his forehead and pulled the trigger; but the next morning … we saw he’d actually shot him in the throat, he was shaking so much. He would have been dead, anyway; he had his kidneys hanging out – you imagine, half a magazine of Bren.
… in the Aberdare Forest you were allowed to shoot any black man – if he’s black, you shoot him because he’s Mau Mau – it was a prohibited area.’ [Ron Hawkes, who served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, told in Six Campaigns – National Servicemen at War 1948-1960, edited by Adrian Walker, Leo Cooper 1993].
Some young soldiers, like Neilson, called up for National Service, trained and indoctrinated for combat against ‘terrorists’ and then thrust into the middle of a colonial conflict, would find their later life dominated by their brutalising experiences:
‘He spent six months in Kenya altogether. Those six months probably had a greater influence on what was to become of him than any other period of his life. They began with an intensive period of jungle warfare training, when he was taught how to fight with the rubber-stocked, short-barrelled .303 jungle rifle British troops in Kenya were issued with, and which bear a striking resemblance to sawn-off shotguns, and how to operate as a completely independent unit.
The tactics of the British were to cut off the terrorist supplies of food by preventing them from reaching the lowland farms of the white settlers which had been their main source of supply hitherto, and to harass and harry them in the forests … Nappy [Neilson] learned racialism and there were apparently other lessons to be learned too.
… Few national servicemen can have served in so many trouble spots as Nappy [Neilson] did in his two years with the Queen, or seen so much action. It was perhaps an experience he never really recovered from …’ [The Black Panther Story, by Steven Valentine, New English Library 1976].
The ‘Black Panther,’ ex-soldier and colonial war veteran Donald Neilson, received life sentences for each of four murders, plus 61 years for kidnapping. Thirty-five years after being jailed Neilson died in prison in 2011. Three years later the media reacted with shock and horror at the news that Harry Roberts was to be released after serving 47 years – and suggested that the 78 year-old prisoner should stay locked up and the key thrown away. If the politicians who had started those wars and sent Roberts and Neilson into those colonial conflicts were to be locked up too, perhaps one might agree. In 1966, after the three policemen had been shot dead at Shepherd’s Bush, the Daily Mail had expressed its outrage at the shootings in an editorial:
‘In Britain the policeman is still the walking sign which says that a society has reached and takes for granted a certain stable normality of public order and decency … That is why the death of a policeman by violence is felt so deeply by us all. The deaths of the three men at Shepherd’s Bush, senselessly and deliberately gunned down on the job of maintaining that order and decency, come as a frightful shock that seems to rock the very earth. A dazed incredulity is followed by the realisation that order is not to be taken for granted. The jungle is still there. There are still wild beasts in it to be controlled.’
[Daily Mail, 13th Aug. 1966].
The actual connection with the jungle was that it was there, in Malaya and Kenya, that Roberts and Nielson had learned to kill for Queen and Country. On that fateful day in 1966 in Shepherd’s Bush the relatively civilised face of law and order at home, in the form of the unarmed London bobby, had met the uncivilised face of British colonial law and order, in the form of ex-soldier Harry Roberts. Brutalised by his experiences in Malaya, Roberts had brought that war home. The result was three dead policemen.
In 1942, George Orwell wrote an essay about Rudyard Kipling at a time when our maps were still full of the red of empire. Describing Kipling as ‘the prophet of British imperialism in its expansionist phase’, Orwell then attacked Kipling’s jingoistic pro-imperialism. Later, however, Orwell made the following observation:
‘We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are “enlightened” all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our “enlightenment,” demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, “making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep.” It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspects of the relationship between the highbrow and the Blimp. He does not see that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilised while other men, inevitably less civilised, are there to guard and feed them.’ [Horizon, Feb. 1942].
The wars from 1945, that Roberts and Neilson fought in to guard and feed us, occurred during the run-down of Empire. They were about preserving – or at least keeping safe – British economic and strategic interests in the remnants of Empire. Places like Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, where British troops killed and were killed – and whose brutal events constitute a hidden history to most British people. After service in Britain’s colonial wars, few veterans were debriefed or received any preparation for re-entry back into civilian life. Back home, the result for Roberts’s and Neilson’s victims was death and mayhem, while the convicted veterans ended up serving long prison sentences. In all of this, one fact has been proved time after time after time, that when our government sends our young soldiers into brutal wars in far off lands, some of them, returning as veterans, will bring the ruthlessness and violence of those conflicts home.
Aly Renwick served with the British Army in Thailand during the Vietnam War.