British Procedure for Military Executions by Firing Squad (1950)

In researching the circumstances surrounding Josef's life and death, I have sought information from a variety of sources. One aspect of Josef's death that stymied me for the longest time was the procedure for a military execution by firing squad. It was easy enough to find an American military procedure, less easy to find a British procedure.

Last year I wrote to the curator of the Royal Military Police Museum seeking information on the squad of Military Police who guarded Josef during the last few weeks of his life. The curator of the museum kindly sent along three pages from the Military Police Manual published in 1950. He noted that while the museum did not have the equivalent manual for the War (World War 2), in essence it would have been the same procedure.

The 1950 procedure for military executions helped to clear up a couple of points of contention that have crept up repeatedly around Josef's execution.

Seated or Standing
Many articles and books state that Josef was seated in a chair for his execution because he couldn't stand due to his broken ankle. Some even go so far as to suggest that the reason Josef was shot by a firing squad was because he couldn't stand at the gallows for the hangman's noose.

The information in the manual states that "The prisoner may be shot either standing up strapped to a post fixed in the ground if available, or sitting down strapped to a chair" (Section 117.b.viii). The spies executed by firing squad during World War I were all seated. In the most recent execution by firing squad in the United States (Utah, 2010), convicted criminal Ronnie Lee Gardner was seated in a chair.

Blank Rounds?
Several sources noted that one or two members of Josef's firing squad were issued blank rounds. The information in the manual states that two rifles would contain blank rounds - specifically live ammunition from which the bullets have been removed. The reasoning behind some rounds being blank was that it afforded each member of the firing squad a bit of doubt - "did I really fire the lethal round?". This worked well in the days of muskets when the wad that was placed in the muzzle along with the ball of shot also generated recoil. It was hard to tell the difference between a musket loaded with wad and ball and one just loaded with the wad. With modern rifles and bullets, any skilled marksman would notice the difference between the recoil of a live round versus that of a blank round (recoil was less due to absence of a bullet). But apparently, over time, the mind could convince itself that the recoil was softer. Another possible explanation was that should the firing squad ever be brought before a tribunal (e.g. by the enemy), each could plausibly deny that they had fired the lethal round. While the reason behind the modern-day usage of blank rounds might be a mystery, it was clear from the Military Police Manual, that blank rounds were issued.

In the case of Josef's execution, there were naturally some variations from the procedure outlined in the manual. As the first section noted, there were no firm rules and the procedure could vary slightly, depending on circumstances. Josef's firing squad was composed of eight soldiers, not ten as recommended in the manual. Josef was also walking with a crutch at the time so it was unlikely that his arms were pinioned prior to going into the miniature rifle range at the Tower of London. An eye-witness account also noted that the hood was only placed on Josef's head once he was seated in the chair.

There is much in the news these days about botched executions by lethal injection in the United States. Some advocate a return to execution by firing squad, claiming it is more humane and more certain.

The information in the manual clearly indicates that death by shooting is not always instantaneous. In some cases, the medical officer might indicate that death has not occurred and the officer in charge will need to administer the "coup de grace" with his revolver. Death may still occur within the space of 10 seconds, but it could be a gruesome affair. But then, death, no matter how "clean" it may appear, is always a gruesome affair.

The section on Military Executions from the Military Police Manual (1950) is reproduced below.

 Military Police Manual (1950)

A.P.M. - Assistant Provost Marshal (previously known as Deputy Provost Marshal)
C.O. - Commanding Officer
M.O. - Medical Officer
O.C. - Officer Commanding Unit
R.S.M. - Regimental Sergeant Major
S.A.A. - Small Arms Ammunition

Section 117.--Military Executions
(p. 213-215)

(a) A provost officer may at any time in war or peace be made responsible for the organization and carrying out of a military execution. There are no firm rules laid down, but notes on a suggested procedure are included here, as this event is more likely to occur in an army of occupation than at any other time. The main object is to carry out the sentence as rapidly and humanely as possible.

(b) Procedure
(i) Promulgation
The responsibility for promulgation rests with the O.C. unit; usually this is deferred until about an hour or two before the time fixed for the execution.

It must be remembered that the president of the court martial will have already warned the prisoner in writing that the sentence of death has been passed. The promulgating officer should ask the prisoner whether he has any request to make and whether he wants food or drink. He should be allowed, if possible, any drink he asks for and, if desired, a sedative injection by a medical officer. During this stage the A.P.M. should be in touch with the O.C. unit.

(ii) Place of Execution
Should be secluded and as near as possible to the place of confinement.

(iii) Time for Execution
The best time is shortly after dawn.

(iv) Action by the Officer of the Provost Service
The A.P.M. of the formation to which the prisoner's unit belongs is responsible for the carrying out of the sentence; he will select the place of execution, fix the time, arrange in conjunction with the C.O. for the attendance of a chaplain, medical officer, firing party (with ten rounds ball and two rounds blank S.A.A.) an ambulance and for the provision and preparation of an execution post or chair, with the necessary straps and ropes, a cap, to be placed over the prisoner's head, an aiming mark for attachment to his uniform, and a stretcher for conveyance of the body to the ambulance. At the place and time of execution the A.P.M. will carry a loaded revolver.

(v) The C.O. will arrange for the production of the prisoner to the A.P.M., if the latter has not already taken charge of him; he is responsible for the promulgation of the sentence and the delivery to the A.P.M. of the proceedings of the court martial for retention until after the execution. He will arrange for the firing party with ammunition as above, and for rifle-rests, if possible. He will arrange fro the burial of the body and for the attendance of a chaplain thereat.

(vi) The Medical Officer will accompany the A.P.M. He will examine the body immediately after the firing party have fired and before it is unbound and will inform the A.P.M. of the result.

(vii) The Chaplain will accompany the prisoner from outside the place of confinement to the place of execution.

(viii) Procedure (Note: The prisoner may be shot either standing up strapped to a post fixed in the ground if available, or sitting down strapped to a chair.

A minute or two before the hour fixed for the execution the A.P.M. accompanied by the M.O. and two military policemen will go to the place of confinement and the A.P.M. will satisfy himself as to the identity of the prisoner, whose arms will then be pinioned to his sides with a strap. The M.O. will slip a cap over the prisoners' head and fix an aiming mark over his heart. He will then be led by the two military police to the place of execution, where a strap or rope will be passed around his body to secure him to the post or chair. At the same time another strap or rope will secure his legs in the same way. The procedure should be carefully rehearsed beforehand so that only the shortest possible time will elapse between the visit of the A.P.M. to the place of confinement and the completion of the sentence.

(ix) The Firing Party will consist of one officer, the R.S.M. (if possible) one serjeant [sp] and ten rank and file from the prisoner's unit. The rank and file alone will fire.

It is very desirable to arrange rifle rests for aiming some ten or twelve yards from where the prisoner will be placed.

The procedure set out below, including the signals to be used, will be carefully rehearsed beforehand.

The party will arrive at the place of execution in sufficient time to enable the following procedure to be carried out before the time fixed for the execution.

On arrival the firing party will be ordered to load with one live round. They will then ground arms and be marched a short distance away, so that they cannot see their arms, where it will be explained to them that all commands after the appearance of the prisoner will be by signal and in silence, except the command "fire" and that the greatest service they can render the prisoner is to shoot straight at the mark. Meanwhile, the A.P.M. will change the places of the rifles, unload two and reload them with blank ammunition [marginal handwritten note: live rounds from which bullets have been removed]. The firing party will then be marked back to their rifles, and will take up arms and remain perfectly still.

(x) The Execution
At this point the A.P.M. will proceed to the place of confinement (see paragraph (viii)).

As soon as the prisoner has been secured the A.P.M. will signal to the firing part, who will come to the aiming position, using the rifle-rests, if any.

On a further signal from the the A.P.M. to the O.C. firing party, the latter will give the command "fire" which should be the only word spoken from the moment of the prisoner's arrival until his death.

If the medical officer indicates to the A.P.M. that the prisoner is not dead, it is his duty to administer the "coup de grace" with his revolver.

Immediately after the firing party has fired the men will be ordered to ground arms and turn about, they will then be marched back a short distance until the A.P.M. has again changed the position of, and unloaded the rifles, when they will return, take up arms and march away to their unit.

(xi) Burial
After the M.O. has certified that death has taken place, the body will be unstrapped, placed on a stretcher and carried by the military police to the waiting ambulance, from where it will be removed for burial under arrangements made by the C.O.


Anonymous said…
S.A.A. = Small Arms Ammunition, not standard army ammunition
Giselle Jakobs said…
Thanks! Change made - appreciate your feedback.

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