Thursday


Massacre of Braybrook Street



Life in the quiet backwater of the busy London suburb was never the same again after August 12, 1966 as it became a place of violence and death

On that hot sunny afternoon housewives chatted in their front gardens and children, on holiday from school, played on the tree-lined pavements of the west London Street Braybrook Street, East Acton, with its white terraced houses and Victorian porches, overlooking a rare area of grassland, was a quiet backwater in a noisy, busy London suburb which contained the forbidding Wormwood Scrubs jail.

 It was as though time had passed it by ... but after August 12, 1966, nothing in Braybrook Street would be the same again. It would go down in criminal history as a place of violence and death. Today, nearly five decades later, people still put flowers on the pavement every August, and remember...

But on that Friday afternoon everything had started calm, predictable, even humdrum. A blue Standard Vanguard saloon car was parked halfway down the street, but there was nothing odd about that — drivers often pulled into the quiet of Braybrook Street for a snack or a nap.
Who could have guessed that the Massacre of Braybrook Street was about to begin?

Sitting in the Vanguard were three small-time crooks, John Duddy, 37, John Witney, a year younger, and the hard man of the team, 30-year-old Harry Roberts.

They had been cruising the streets of East Acton looking for a car to steal — the Vanguard was getting tatty and did not fit with their image of themselves as big-time criminals. What they wanted was a big powerful limo to use in a robbery they were planning for the following week. In the back of the Vanguard were the tools of their trade — false number plates, stocking masks, and a canvas bag containing three loaded revolvers.

Parked in Braybrook Street, they discussed their next move and Roberts, in the back with the guns, suggested lying in the sun on the grass of a nearby common and Witney agreed. He was not anxious to go home. His wife thought he was at work but in fact he had been out of a job for nearly two months. Harry Roberts was the boss of the team and the only one with an appetite for violence. He had learned guerrilla warfare in the army in Malaya and had recently served a four-year stretch. He vowed that he would do anything to avoid being jailed again and was seldom without a gun.

"I only feel relaxed when I'm tooled up," he would say. He had obtained the guns for the forthcoming robbery and kept them in pristine condition.

Before the crooks had made a decision about how to spend their afternoon, a green Triumph saloon drove slowly down Braybrook Street and the three men inside scrutinised the Vanguard and its occupants with some interest.

Police car Foxtrot Eleven with a plain-clothes crew, was on route to London's West End when something about the Vanguard attracted the attention of Detective Sergeant Christopher Head.

He told the driver, Police Constable Geoffrey Fox, to pull up in front of the car. Then, with Detective Constable David Wombwell, Sergeant Head approached the driver's window. He asked the driver for his car documents, but Witney could not produce them. As Detective Wombwell began to write details in his notebook, Sergeant Head walked slowly round the car checking its condition.

This seemed to unsettle the men inside. "Can't you give us a break?" Witney asked. "I was done for not having a licence a fortnight ago." As Wombwell stooped into the window to reply, Harry Roberts snatched a gun out of its canvas bag and shot the policemen in the face. As he staggered and fell into the gutter, Roberts told Duddy to "grab a gun and get the driver."

The two armed men climbed out of the car determined to gun the policemen down. Head ran back towards the police car, apparently intending to radio for help, but a fusillade of shots sent him crouching behind the car, where Roberts found him and calmly shot him in the back.

In the meantime Duddy had run up to the police car and fired three shots into the driver's window shooting Fox through the head and killing him instantly. This released the brake-pedal of the car which, horrifyingly, ran over the body of dying Sergeant Head, trapping him under the rear wheels. Amid screams of passers-by and groans of the dying policemen Roberts and Duddy, clutching their revolvers, ran to the Standard Vanguard and piled into the back. "Drive as fast as you can," Roberts shouted to Witney, "unless you want some of the same."

Shocked and terrified, Witney roared backwards down Braybrook Street, executed a screeching turn and made off towards the west. But the car's number had been noted by a motorist forced to drive onto the pavement to avoid the Vanguard and within hours police were knocking on the door of Witney's seedy basement flat in Paddington.

When told they were making inquiries about his car, Witney replied: "Oh no, not that. I've just seen on the television about coppers being shot." He told detectives that he had sold the Vanguard the previous day to a stranger.

"You told me you'd been to work" said Mrs Witney suspiciously. "You didn't tell me you'd sold the car. What's going on?"

Taken to police headquarters he changed his story and was later charged with the murder of the three policemen in Braybrook Street.

He was alleged to have burst into tears and replied: "As God is my judge, I had nothing to do with shooting the three coppers. I didn't even know there were guns in the bag. I have never been involved in violence. My record will show you that."

He then implicated Roberts and Duddy and gave police their addresses saying: "I am not going to cop it for something I didn't do. They are the ones who used the shooters."

Acting on information from Witney, police surrounded a lock-up garage in south London. Inside they found the Standard Vanguard, still containing guns and ammunition.

Meanwhile, Roberts and Duddy, knowing the net was closing on them, decided to make a run for it. Duddy made for Glasgow, his home town, where he was arrested several days later in a girlfriend's flat. He confessed to the killings while being flown back to London by Murder Squad detectives. Roberts, not knowing that police now had his two confederates in the bag, decided that his best chance was to lie low until the heat died down.

He used his army training to build a hideout in Epping Forest, Essex, where he lived rough for nearly three months while 500 police searched vainly for him, despite 16,000 posters and a £1,000 reward.  It was the biggest police operation since the Great Train Robbery but Harry Roberts had apparently vanished from the face of the earth.
 
The hunt for Harry Roberts went on and finally the police got the break they were looking for: in November, 1966, police were told of a man living on a camp site deep in Epping Forest. Over 100 armed policemen raided it at dawn the next day and the sleeping fugitive was taken without a struggle. Three months later the three men appeared before an Old Bailey jury accused of the murder of the Foxtrot Eleven crew and were sentenced to serve a minimum of 35 years. John Duddy died in prison in 1981. Witney was released in 1991 and later murdered. Roberts is expected to die in jail. Ironically, all three men spent most of their time in Wormwood Scrubs jail. From their tiny cell windows, they could see in the distance the spot where their problems all began ... the little white houses of Braybrook Street.

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