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Honoured Villains?

Photo: John Schurch, who was executed for treachery.


Andy Brockman reveals for Britain at War Magazine the surprising story of murderers and spies commemorated by the CWGC.

As the first waves of the Allied Expeditionary Force landed in Normandy on 6 June 1940, twenty six year old Corporal Alfred Kemp of 7th Battalion the Parachute Regiment was killed in action. As is his right as a British serviceman, he is buried with honour under a Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC] headstone at Ranville war cemetery. At almost the same hour, 250 miles away in London, another serving British soldier named Kemp, Gunner Earnest Kemp [not a relation], also died and is commemorated by the same organisation; in this case on the monument to the missing at the CWGC cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey, as is also his right because he died a serving soldier and his precise resting place is not known.

Brookwood Military Cemetery [Image: Amanda Slater]

The difference is that, while Cpl Kemp was killed in action on D-Day, his namesake was executed by judicial hanging in the execution chamber of E-Wing of Wandsworth Prison, for the murder of twenty one year old WAAF radar operator Miriam Deeley in Eltham, south east London.

Gunner Kemp is one of at least eighteen executed murderers who are commemorated at Brookwood. Most were convicted of sex crimes or, in some cases, what were then termed, “crimes of passion” involving wives or girlfriends. The cases include French Canadian Private August Sangret of the Regina Rifles, who was also executed at Wandsworth for the murder of his girlfriend Pearl Wolfe, in what became known as “the Wigwam Murder”, and a second Canadian, Private Charles Gauthier of Le Regiment de Quebec, executed for the murder of his lover, Annette Pepper. In a fit of jealousy, Gauthier shot the unfortunate woman dead with a Bren Gun.

However, there are exceptions to this pattern. Sergeant Earnest Digby, Royal Artillery, was almost certainly a double child murderer. Convicted and sentenced to hang for battering to death his new-born baby daughter by the “wife” he had married bigamously, Olga Davy Hill, Digby admitted the earlier murder of another baby, also by Olga Davy Hill.

…is one of at least eighteen executed murderers who are commemorated at Brookwood.

Of course, while the servicemen were convicted under the law as it stood, it is possible to argue that these crimes were exceptional events in the lives of men with disordered lives, or even with what today’s courts would recognise as personality and mental health disorders. There are also questions over legal aspects of some of the cases. For example, in the case of Private Sangret the investigating officer later admitted that a key interview with the Canadian was illegal and inadmissible and as a result could have led to the case being thrown out by the court.

It is also argued there is a lack of consistency in the commemoration or not of convicted murderers. For example, while some 18 murderers do appear on the panels at Brookwood, an Irish Guards deserter, Samuel Morgan, who raped and strangled fifteen year old Mary Hagan in Liverpool on 2 November 1940, is not commemorated on the memorial because, while he was photographed arriving at his trial wearing battledress, he was dishonourably discharged before his execution.

LRDG and SAS patrols, if captured, were frequently questioned by John Schurch, masquerading as one ‘Captain Richards’.

More controversial, perhaps, is the recording of the name of a spy, RASC soldier John Theodore Schurch, on the Brookwood Memorial, amongst the honoured dead and whose name ‘liveth for evermore’ under the stewardship of the CWGC – although the latter are blameless in any criticism that might be levelled at his memorialisation. Schurch became the last person hanged for treachery in Britain.

A document detailing the founder of the SAS, David Stirling’s, experience with ‘Captain Richards’.

Half-Swiss, he already had far-right leanings pre-war, but joined the Army although he was eventually captured at Tobruk in 1942. He then began to work for his Italian and German captors, as a stool pigeon inserted into POW camps to extract information from prisoners – particularly the SAS and LRDG. His story, and how and why he came to be commemorated by the CWGC, is an extraordinary one which will be told in the December issue of Britain at War magazine, on sale: 30 November 2017.

However, the issue of commemorating convicted traitors on the Brookwood memorial alongside those who served honourably, and even genuine war heroes, is, if anything, certainly more contentious than commemorating murderers. And yet, a second convicted traitor is also commemorated by the CWGC; Old Cheltonian Captain Patrick Heenan of the British Indian Army.

…the name of a spy… amongst the honoured dead and whose name ‘liveth for evermore’ under the stewardship of the CWGC – although the latter are blameless

Heenan’s biographers, Peter Elphick and Michael Smith, record how the officer was almost certainly recruited by a branch of Japanese military intelligence in the winter of 1938/39, during a period of customary “long leave” spent in Japan. On his return to duty with the 16th Punjabi Regiment, and in an extraordinarily incompetent move, Heenan was transferred to 300 Air Intelligence Liaison Section in Malaya.  The justification given by his commanding officer was allegedly his frequent unauthorised and unexplained visits to Thailand!

When Heenan was arrested on 10 December 1941 he was found to be in possession of two clandestine radio sets which he had used allegedly to contact his Japanese handlers. Heenan also appears to have been part of a network of local agents which had assisted the Japanese air force in targeting his own base at RAF Alor Star, along with other RAF facilities in northern Malaya.

Royal Engineers prepare a bridge for demolition in Malaya, 1941. Swift and chaotic, Japanese victory in Malaya and Singapore was quickly achieved.

There is some debate about precisely how important Heenan’s information was to the Japanese and there is also no real indication of his motive for betraying his uniform; although, like Schurch, Heenan may have perceived himself as an outsider – persecuted by reason of being born illegitimate and possibly of mixed race. However, like Schurch, his guilt is less debated.

Surviving records and reports from witnesses, suggest Heenan was found guilty by court martial in Singapore and sentenced to be shot. Elphick and Smith report that as Allied resistance in Singapore City collapsed on “Black Friday”, 13 February 1942, Heenan’s Military Police guards cut cards to see who would solve the problem of what to do with a convicted traitor and whose sentence had not been confirmed by London, but whose employer was about to set him free. The winner, an unnamed RMP sergeant, is reported to have shot Heenan in the back of the head, his body falling into Singapore harbour. Again, he has no known grave and is commemorated by name on the CWGCs Kranji Memorial, Singapore.

When Heenan was arrested on 10 December 1941 he was found to be in possession of two clandestine radio sets which he had used allegedly to contact his Japanese handlers.

Trying to second guess the actions and decisions of people in the past by the standards of the present is always problematic and controversial, as has been the case over the “Shot at Dawn” campaign which called for pardons for soldiers shot during World War One for alleged cowardice.

However, while controversy over the murderers and traitors commemorated alongside those who went missing in battle, or while in the hands of a brutal enemy, seems set to continue, no-one is going to complain that murdered WAAF Miriam Deeley also lies under a CWGC headstone in the City of London Cemetery, Manor Park.

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