28 March 2018

Reviews of Pregnant Fish Theatre - Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? - Pregnant Fish Theatre
An intriguing production of the Bella in the Wych Elm story was performed on stage at The Space in London, March 13-13, 2018.

The production didn't have a traditional script based on dialogue, but rather was narrated by the cast using original archival and published sources.

It sounds like a really intriguing way of doing theatre, mimicking, in some ways, the true-crime shows that have proliferated on television.

I'm hoping to get a video of the production at some point, but I thought I'd list a few review links.

Most reviewers acknowledge that the piece was exquisitely well-researched but suggest that trying to cram all that information into 60 minutes, might have been a bit ambitious.

London Theatre 1 - "What is particularly impressive here is how different elements of the production come together."

Pregnant Fish Theatre - Facebook post
The Upcoming - "The movements the cast create are arresting, but not enough to completely pull the whole act together seamlessly; there are highlights as with most productions, but the biggest contributing factor that lets this down is the verbosity of the script."

A Younger Theatre - "With the cast all donning similar navy overalls, the attention is not on any flamboyant showmanship but is instead on the evidence itself."

Act Drop - "The central case is fascinating and more than worthy of dramatising - it certainly seemed to keep the audience 'hooked' throughout."

View from the Cheap Seat - "Although it doesn’t advertise itself as such, it’s an example of ‘verbatim’ theatre – every word spoken is drawn from existing texts about the case, from police files to newspaper reports, books to personal letters"

West End Wilma - "Cramming all of the evidence into the available sixty minutes is no mean feat, especially so as at least ten minutes are dedicated to telling the story of Josef Jakobs, the last man executed – by firing squad – at the Tower of London."

Theatre Weekly -  "There’s definite potential in the concept of a staged documentary, and the detailed research in Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? means that it’s compelling enough to keep the audience’s attention, although aspects of the presentation need some work to help guide the audience through this complex case."

I'm actually kind of surprised at the number of reviewers who had never heard of the Bella case. In that respect, the production has done a good job of bringing the story to the realm of theatre. And 10 minutes of the production were dedicated to Josef Jakobs, in part because his mistress, Clara Bauerle, is considered, by some, to be Victim Suspect #1. As noted elsewhere on my blog, Clara Bauerle passed away 16 December 1942 in Berlin of veronal poisoning.

23 March 2018

Article Review - Fortean Times - Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm - 2018

Fortean Times - cover image
(March 1, 2018)
Article Review - Fortean Times - Bella in the Wych Elm - 2018 03 01

An article on Bella in the Wych Elm was published a few weeks ago by the Fortean Times. Written by Cathi Unsworth, the article seems to be primarily based on interviews with HD Paranormal's Jayne Harris.

The author does manage to dodge a few of the most repeated errors (she doesn't say that Josef Jakobs was Czech) but does include a few (that Clara Bauerle had been a singer in the West Midlands music halls).

Fortean times - Bella in the Wych Elm
(Footnote 12 re: Margaret Murray)
It's a fairly well-written article and the author did attempt to track down some of the lingering anomalies about the Bella case.

For example, many Bella stories quote Margaret Murray and her "Hand of Glory" theory, but no one has ever been able to point to primary source material for that story. The author adds a footnote which sheds some light on the issue... but doesn't solve the problem.

The article used a photograph of Josef Jakobs without acknowledgement or provenance, a bit of an annoyance. For the record, other than the photographs from Josef's declassified MI5 files, all photographs of Josef Jakobs on the internet originate with either my website/blog or my contribution of a low-resolution photograph to Find-a-Grave.

I have had others request permission to use the photograph, which I have happily granted.

When I reached out to the editor of the Fortean Times, he was quite gracious and acknowledged the oversight. They are printing an addendum in the next issue:
We would like to apologise for not providing correct attribution for the photograph of Josef Jakobs, which should have been as follows: Copyright GK Jakobs / www.josefjakobs.com. Giselle Jakobs is one of Josef’s granddaughters and has been researching his life for the last 30 years; her website is an excellent resource for information about Josef’s life and times.
 Much appreciated.

4/5 - moderately well-researched

19 March 2018

Bella in the Wych Elm - The Story of Jack Mossop

Who was Jack Mossop? Did he and an accomplice murder a woman after a night of drinking at the Lyttleton Arms near Hagley? Did they stuff her still warm body into a wych elm in Hagley Wood? Did the memory of this traumatic event drive Jack mad? Did he die of an overdose in a mental hospital in 1942?

So many questions. So many suppositions and rumours. It's hard to tease apart fact and fiction. But let's give it a try. Before we get started, I am deeply indebted to Duncan Honeybourne. for sharing his information on the Mossop clan. Duncan's grandmother was a first cousin of Jack Mossop and he has conducted extensive interviews with the elders in the Mossop-Crump family.

It all begins in Ireland, as most great stories do. Maurice Mossop and his wife Mary, both born in County Mayo, emigrated to England with their three young sons, sometime between 1847 and 1851. The family settled in Eccleshall, Staffordshire and Maurice worked at various jobs including agricultural labourer and Licensed Lodging House Keeper. One of their sons was Edward Mossop - Jack's grandfather.

Edward Mossop, a bricklayer, married Ellen Hall in 1869. The couple moved to the United States where they had three daughters, but by 1878, the young family had moved back to Eccleshall. Edward continued to work in the building trade and was well known in Eccleshall. Unfortunately, in the 1890s, Edward declared bankruptcy and the family fell on hard times. From rural Eccleshall they moved south to the booming industrial town of Smethwick, a few miles from Birmingham. Here they reinvented themselves as steeplejacks (craftsmen who scale buildings, chimneys and church steeples to carry out repairs or maintenance). Edward's sons worked as steeplejacks and the family developed a flourishing business. Edward and Ellen eventually had 13 children, not all of whom survived childhood. One of their sons was Edward Percy (or simply Percy) Mossop - Jack's father (we're getting closer).

Percy Mossop was born in 1881 in Eccleshall, Staffordshire. He and his surviving brothers were apparently quite a crew and known locally as the "Seven Sods" on account of their drinking and wild behaviour. Percy showed signs of settling down when he married Charlotte Crump around 1911. Charlotte was the daughter of Mary Anne Smith and George Crump, a publican in the village of Claverley (Boycott Arms pub). Lolla, as Charlotte was called, was exceptionally beautiful, said to have been "the most beautiful girl in Claverley".

Four of Percy's brothers served in World War I but it would appear that Percy himself managed to avoid military service. Of the four, two came home from the war and two gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Edward Percy Mossop - later in life  (photo courtesy of Duncan H. - used with permission)
Edward Percy Mossop - later in life
(photo courtesy of
Duncan Honeybourne
- used with permission)
  • Corporal (A/Sgt) George Mossop joined the Warwickshire Regiment before the war (1902-1903?) and served as a stretcher bearer with 14th Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal with bar. 
  •  Private Vincent Mossop joined the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) in 1915 and served in France from 1916 to 1917 as a lorry driver.

As for Percy, he and Charlotte had two children before the war broke out, Jack and Louis. In 1918, Percy's wife, Charlotte, passed away during the Spanish Flu epidemic and her parents, displeased with Percy's attention (or lack thereof) to his two sons (Jack and Louis) stepped into the gap. Jack was raised by Charlotte's mother, Mary Anne (Smith) Crump while Louis was sent elsewhere.

Percy then had another five children with Violet Catherine Vant but apparently never married her, swearing there'd "never be a second Mrs. Mossop". Percy passed away on 15 March 1936 in Birmingham with effects totaling £425 1s. 6d. It would appear that Percy never had much to do with his first two sons. Louis, in particular, was heard to say that he had "no time for his father", saying that his father hadn't bothered with him. Louis later kept a pub on the Birmingham New Road in Oldbury/Dudley and passed away in 1982.

And now, finally, we reach the infamous Jack Mossop! Jack was born 29 August 1912 and, as we've seen above, lost his mother in 1918 when he was only six years old. Taken in by his maternal grandmother, Jack was said to have been a very intelligent child, always building things. We then lose Jack's trail and pick him up again 14 years later.

Marriage to Una Ella Abel
 In 1932, Jack married Una Ella Abel in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. The marriage was registered in the third quarter of the year (July/August/September) thus the birth of their son, Julian Michael Mossop, on 3 August 1932, would suggest a hasty wedding. Jack and Una lived at Bridge House, Wombourne, near Wolverhampton for several years while Jack studied to be a surveyor. It would appear, however, that Julian did not live with his parents. A workmate of Jacks' from the late 1930s/early 1940s, Bill Wilson, said that he never saw the boy and understood that Julian had been farmed out to the grandmother. Given that Julian's paternal grandmother (Charlotte Crump) had passed away in 1918, this could be a reference to his maternal grandmother, Una's own mother. Or, it could be a reference Jack's grandmother, Mary Anne (Smith) Crump who raised Jack and possibly Julian. Hard to tell.

Work Career
In 1936, Jack was working for Lockheed in Leamington, an automotive parts manufacturer (brakes, hydraulic components, clutches, etc.) who eventually manufactured aircraft parts as well. The following year, in 1937, Jack joined the A.S.T. as a Pilot Officer and was stationed at Hamble, near Southampton.

A bit of digging suggests that this was Airwork Services Training (later Air Services Training). There is some evidence that indicates A.S.T. was involved in training reserve pilots for the RAF.
Air Service Training Limited, part of Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft, appeared in 1931 to instruct reserve pilots; more facilities were created at the southern end of the airfield for No 3 Elementary & Reserve Flying Training School which formed in 1933. So began a long career in this aviation capacity for Hamble over several decades, the training syllabus being gradually expanded, although aircraft flight testing in the 1930s was not absent either with development of the large four-engined Armstrong Whitworth Ensign airliner. (Hamble - Airfields)
There have been many rumours that Jack was a member of the RAF or wore an RAF uniform around town, even though he was not an active member of the RAF. The truth may simply be that he did train as a reserve pilot and later wore his A.S.T. uniform around town. There is no mention whether Jack received flight training elsewhere prior to 1937. By 1938, however, Jack had moved on and was working at Armstrong Siddeley Works and then moved over to Standard Aero Works, both in Coventry.

Banner Lane Factory - Standard Aero Works  (The Ferguson Club)
Banner Lane Factory - Standard Aero Works
(From The Ferguson Club)
On 3 November 1939, Jack started work as a fitter at #1 Factory, Fletchamstead (Standard Aero Works) and the following November was transferred to #2 Factory at Banner Lane where he worked in the assembly shop.

Standard Aero Works was part of Standard Motor Works, and the factory at Banner Lane apparently manufactured Bristol Hercules aero engines. It was at the Banner Lane location, that Jack became friendly with a co-worker, Bill Wilson. Jack's co-worker understood that Jack had been invalided out of the "RAF" before he met him. Jack would "say laughingly that he crash landed a plane too often and make a joke about it. Said he had head injuries."

Bill also said that he stayed with the Mossops for a time while they lived at 39 Barrow Road, Kenilworth, just southwest of Coventry. Interestingly, there was a Jack Hainsworth who also worked at #2 Factory at Banner Lane at the same time that Jack Mossop worked there. Jack Hainsworth also resided at 39 Barrow Road at one point. The Coventry Police speculated that this person could be identical with Alfred James Hainsworth who later married Una (Abel) Mossop after her separation from Jack Mossop.

The possibility of head injuries and repeated concussions from Jack's test pilot career begins to make sense of Jack's deteriorating mental health over the next few years.

Van Raalt & the Dutch Piece
Much of the following information comes from Bill Wilson's and Una Hainsworth's statements to police in late 1953. Given the notorious fallibility of human memory, we would probably do well to take what follows with a grain of salt. Bill's recollection do, however, add a bit of a balance to Una's memories.

According to Una, Jack met a Dutchman named Van Raalt in 1940. The Dutchman didn't seem to work at any particular job and came round to their house at 39 Barrow Road on occasion. Una got the impression that Van Raalt was "engaged on some work that he did not wish to talk about". It could have been a secret wartime occupation but in Una's opinion "it might have been that he was a spy for he had plenty of money and there were times that [Jack] appeared to have plenty of money after meeting him." Apparently being taciturn and flush with money = espionage in Una's mind. It could equally well have been due to the two men being involved in the black market.

Advertisement for firm of E. Mossop & Sons  (courtesy of Duncan H. - used with permission)
Advertisement for firm of E. Mossop & Sons
(courtesy of Duncan Honeybourne
- used with permission)
On the other hand, Bill Wilson said that while Jack knew a lot of people, he had no recollection of any foreigners. Bill did say that Jack's father (presumably Percy) was "in quite a good way at business" with "steeplejacks" and that Jack was always talking about having some money left. This may have simply been Jack's way of covering an influx of cash acquired by less than legal means. Or it may have been accurate. Jack's grandfather (Edward) and father (Percy) had developed a flourishing steeplejack business. Whether Jack had received significant funds upon his father's death is another matter.

[Stephen Hartland kindly shared a link to a Google photo album showing a plaque which reads: "Repaired by MOSSOP Bros - Steeplejacks - Smethwick]

According to Bill, Jack and Una "didn't hit it off too well" and they were having "trouble". Even Una admitted that Jack did not treat her very well. The couple were "not living a normal life" and Bill got the impression that something was worrying him. Jack could be "very moody and suffered from headaches and nightmares". He was also a "very heavy drinker" and Bill said that Jack took a lot of time off work. Jack was also quite friendly with the opposite sex and liked to hang around them and buy them drinks. Bill figured that these women "felt sorry for him".

So, we have a picture of Jack Mossop, an unhappily married man who had, by his own admission, suffered repeated head injuries during his time as a pilot. Even though he had a job, he took a lot of time off of work. He could be very moody and often suffered from headaches and nightmares. On top of that, he was a heavy drinker.

Lyttleton Arms - 1900s  (Hagley Historical & Field Society)
Lyttleton Arms - 1900s
(From Hagley Historical & Field Society)
We now come to Una's story about Jack and Van Raalt. In March or April 1941, Jack came home at around 1:00 am, all white and agitated. He asked Una for a drink and she retorted that, in her opinion, he had had quite enough to drink as he had been out all day but, she made him a drink. Jack told Una that he had been at the Lyttleton Arms (a pub) with Van Raalt and the "Dutch piece" and that the woman had got "awkward". It would appear that the trio then decided to leave. Jack was driving Van Raalt's Rover car and the woman got into the front passenger seat while Van Raalt sat in the back. At one point, the woman passed out and slumped towards Jack. Van Raalt told Jack to drive to a wood where they stuck her in a hollow tree. Van Raalt figured that she would come to her senses the following morning. Interestingly, there is absolutely no mention in Una's police statement that Jack made a follow-up visit to the hollow tree as appears in Quaestor's 1958 newspaper account.

Between April and December, 1941, Una says that Jack was very jumpy. He drank more than usual, was nearly always away from work and seemed to have more money to spend. Jack would take his old Standard car and go off for days on end without informing her. All of this led Una to suspect that he was obtaining money somehow and that Jack may have been meeting Van Raalt.

Bill Wilson confirmed that he and Jack owned a 1934 Standard black saloon car jointly, sharing the running expenses. In Bill's opinion, however, Jack "was the type of fellow that would not harm anyone" and he "did not have much back bone". In Bill's opinion, the story about the "Dutch piece" and the hollow tree might have been something that Jack imagined he had done or that he dreamt about when "he was full of drink".

By December 1941, Una had had enough of Jack Mossop. She too noted that he was very fond of women and that women's clothes appeared in their house. On 13 December, she left Jack and moved to Henley in Arden, presumably in the company of James Hainsworth. She did visit the house at 39 Barrow Road on three occasions after December 1941, trying to retrieve her possessions, including furniture. On one of those occasions, she saw Jack and he told her "that he thought he was losing his mind as he kept seeing the woman in the tree and she was leering at him". Jack held his head in his hands and said "it is getting on my nerves, I am going crazy". That was the last time Una saw her ex-husband, Jack Mossop.

Slow Descent into Madness
Head injuries, nightmares, headaches, moodiness, heavy drinking and now an admission that he thought he was "losing his mind". Jack Mossop was not in a good way. This is confirmed by a police report from 4 February 1942. Jack Mossop reported to the Coventry Police that his car and driver were missing. Bill Wilson said that this was "a new one on me". He didn't know anything about that. Given that Bill was part owner of the car, one would think he would have known if his asset had been stolen or declared missing.

Stafford County Mental Hospital - St. George's Hospital  (County Asylums site - has a good history of the place)
Stafford County Mental Hospital - St. George's Hospital
(From County Asylums site - has a good history of the place)
By June 1942, Jack's condition had deteriorated significantly. According to Bill Wilson, Jack suffered some sort of "mental delusion" while at work and a co-worker named Terry Mitchell took Jack home to his people (family) in Claverley. From there, he was quickly admitted to the Stafford County Mental Hospital and declared insane. Bill never saw Jack again and one of Jack's Claverley relations said that only family could visit him. According to Bill, a doctor had said that if Jack had come in sooner, they could have operated on him, but that he had left it too late. This was clearly not a sudden descent into insanity, but something that had been building for a while.

Una also heard that Jack had been admitted to the Mental Hospital at Stafford. Several months later, she learned of Jack's death when James Hainsworth told her than an application had been made at Standard Aero Works claiming money that was due to Jack. This tidbit seems to confirm that the "Jack Hainsworth" noted earlier could be the same as Una's James Hainsworth. From James' information, Una learned that Jack had died in August 1942 at the Mental Hospital. In her closing words to the police, Una noted that "I, of course, have no proof, that what I have told you now is the truth, but bearing in mind my husband’s condition and what he said to me at the time, I have done my best to recall it to help in the enquiry."

There were several scribbled police notes, in addition to Una's official statement, that mention a few odds and ends.

Van Raalt apparently had a Rover car which Jack used to drive for him. When asked about a Rover car, Bill Wilson said that he and Jack had bought an old Rover from a scrap merchant but never got it working.

There is also a note that a man with the stage name of Frack appeared at the Coventry Hippodrome in 1938. Another note stated that Jack stayed at a back house in Grosvenor Road, Coventry. This was a boarding house about a mile from the theatre. Bill Wilson confirmed that he and Jack had stayed at 9 Grosvenor Road in Coventry, at the house of Mrs. Galbraith for a short while. He denied that they had ever met any theatre folk.

Finally, a note on 28 December 1953, from Inspector Morgan at Kenilworth, who stated that "Una Hainsworth alias Anna is well known and when she left Kenilworth she was in debt to all and sundry and they would like to get their hands on her."

Death Certificate
There have been several rumours around the death of Jack Mossop. One of the most recent, first mentioned in the HD Paranormal film suggests that Jack died of an overdose at the Stafford County Mental Hospital. Let's clear that up right away by taking a look at Jack's official death registration.

Death registration for Jack Mossop - part 1
Death registration for Jack Mossop - part 1
Jack passed away on 15 August, 1942 at the County Mental Hospital.

He was 29 years old and a resident of 39 Barron Road, Kenilworth.

He was working as an assembler at Motor Engine Works (not sure if this is a company name or just a general description of the factory or perhaps a variation on Standard Motor Works.

Now we come to the interesting part - Cause of Death.

Death registration for Jack Mossop - part 2
Death registration for Jack Mossop - part 2
Jack died of:

(a) cerebral softening
(b) myocardial degeneration
(c) chronic nephritis
(d) acute confusional insanity

The cause of death on a death registration generally includes four items:
  1. the immediate cause of death - in this case cerebral softening
  2. the intermediate causes, which triggered the immediate cause - in this case myocardial degeneration
  3. the underlying causes, which triggered the chain of events leading to death - in this case chronic nephritis
  4. any other diseases and disorders the person had at the time of death, even though they did not directly cause the death - in this case, acute confusional insanity
The terms used on Jack's death registration are rather dated but seem to be associated with the following.

Cerebral softening is a rather broad term but generally seems to be ascribed to:
  1. Cerebral Infarction and Ischemia - different types of strokes
  2. Infection
  3. Traumatic Brain Injury - car accidents, bad falls, etc
Myocardial degeneration indicates that Jack's heart wasn't doing so well. One of the contributing factors can be alcohol abuse, which would seem to fit in Jack's case.

Chronic nephritis would indicate that he had chronic kidney disease. It can run in the family and, in young men, can be associated with vision and hearing loss.

Acute confusional insanity was a term in common use in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries. It can be described as having an early stage during which there was "confusion of thought, restlessness, sleeplessness, some disorder of the action of the heart and the stomach, and then the acute condition came on suddenly, with acute confusion, vivid hallucinations of sight and hearing, disorder of function, and great lessening of the common sensibility of the body" - Physical Sympoms of Acute Confusional Insanity - Br. Med. J. 1935, Mar 9 (3870) 487-488

Claverley churchyard cemetery  (Copyright 2018 Duncan Honeybourne  - used with permission)
Claverley churchyard cemetery
(Copyright 2018 Duncan Honeybourne
 - used with permission)
I think we can safely say that Jack Mossop was not a healthy man, either physically or mentally. It is also pretty clear that his descent into madness had several contributing factors - head injuries suffered during his career as a pilot and chronic alcohol abuse. There may also have been some genetics involved but, for a 29 year old man, Jack was in a really poor state.

There is no evidence that Jack died of an overdose (as per HD Paranormal) although I suppose conspiracy-minded theorists can always rely on the idea that someone falsified Jack's death registration. In which case, we can leave the realm of facts behind us, and just wander off into a dream world of rumours, suppositions and theories.

The one intriguing aspect that remains is this: was the story about Jack, Van Raalt and a woman being placed in a tree actually accurate? Did Jack perhaps hear a story about a woman being placed in a tree? Or was Una's account of Jack's story coloured by news reports that she had read about Bella in the Wych Elm? Or was the entire story simply a nightmare of Jack's tortured and delusional mind? It is interesting to note that, in Una's recollection, Jack never said that he and Van Raalt killed the woman. They just placed her living, breathing body into a tree to teach her a lesson.

Final Resting Place
Jack Mossop is buried in the churchyard cemetery in Claverley.

Many thanks again to Duncan Honeybourne for tracking down the final resting place of Jack Mossop and graciously sharing his photographs with me. Jack Mossop is buried in a plot with his mother, Charlotte (Crump) Mossop. She's the one who married Jack's father, Percy Mossop, and then died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu.
Gravestone for Charlotte (Crump) Mossop  and her son, Jack Mossop - Claverley churchyard.  (Copyright 2018 Duncan Honeybourne - used with permission)
Gravestone for Charlotte (Crump) Mossop
and her son, Jack Mossop - Claverley churchyard.
(Copyright 2018 Duncan Honeybourne
- used with permission)
The top plate of the gravestone reads "Lolla Mossop".

An inscription along the left edge of the gravestone reads:
"In loving memory of Charlotte Mossop who died Nov 2nd 1918 aged 27 years"

And on the other side of the plot...

"Also of her beloved son Jack who died Aug 15th 1942 aged 29 years"
Gravestone for Charlotte (Crump) Mossop and her son, Jack Mossop - Claverley churchyard.  (Copyright 2018 Duncan Honeybourne - used with permission)
Gravestone for Charlotte (Crump) Mossop and her son, Jack Mossop - Claverley churchyard.
(Copyright 2018 Duncan Honeybourne - used with permission)
There is also a gravestone for George Crump and his wife Mary Anne Smith, Jack's grandparents. The inscription reads:

Gravestone for George Crump and his wife  Mary Ann Smith - Claverley churchyard.  (Copyright 2018 Duncan Honeybourne  - used with permission)
Gravestone for George Crump and his wife
Mary Ann Smith - Claverley churchyard.
(Copyright 2018 Duncan Honeybourne
 - used with permission)
"In loving memory of
George Crump
of Claverley
who died Jan 14th 1913
aged 52 years

If love and care should death prevent
thy days would not soon be spent
life was desired but God did see
eternal life was best for thee

Gone but not forgotten
Also of his beloved wife
Mary Ann
Died Feb 29th 1948
Aged 84 years"

West Mercia Police Files on the Hagley Wood Mystery - specifically Original Documents/Folder 4 which deals with Una Hainsworth and has her statement to the police and the statement of Jack's co-worker Bill Wilson. The file also has some records from the Standard Aero Works company regarding Jack's employment history.

Ancestry.co.uk - birth, marriage, death and census records for various members of Jack's family

Mossop Family records - I am deeply indebted to Duncan Honeybourne for sharing his information freely and for the photographs of Percy Mossop and the Claverley churchyard photographs.

Eccleshall Great War Project - great stories on all four Mossop brothers who served in WWI with a downloadable document that provides more information on the Mossop clan (starting in Ireland, as all great stories do). The document is primarily the work of Duncan Honeybourne, with contributions from his cousin Rod.

14 March 2018

Book Review - Double Agent Celery: MI5's Crooked Hero - Carolinda Witt (2017)

The Book
Double Agent Celery: MI5's Crooked Hero. Carolinda Witt. Pen & Sword, 2018.

First off, I have to say that getting a copy of this book took both perseverance and patience. I had ordered a copy in late December and it finally arrived in late February. It was slated for release in Canada on January 19, 2018 but even after that date, there were no actual books in stock online or in stores (Chapters bookstore). I even went so far as visiting Foyles while I was in London in early February and they had not received any copies either. I could have ordered an e-book but I prefer actual books.

As for the book itself, it is definitely interesting. Carolinda Witt is the granddaughter of Walter Dicketts, a.ka. Double Agent CELERY. In the first part of the book, we learn about Dickett's early life, his World War I career and his shady dealings in the 1920s. He was definitely a rogue and a scoundrel! Dicketts had several mistresses and wives and seems to have left many of them with broken or resentful hearts. After several stints in prison, he did manage to redeem himself in the 1930s and when World War II broke out, had high hopes of being able to serve his country again in the RAF. Unfortunately, his criminal past was a hard pill to swallow for many in the military services. One evening, he bumped into a man at the pub and after a few beer, the two were fast friends. That man was Arthur Owens, a.k.a. Double Agent SNOW. And so Dicketts was introduced to the world of espionage.

The author spends a fair bit of the book outlining the background and career of SNOW, necessary given the fact that the espionage careers of both Owens and Dicketts were so firmly intertwined. I've read several books on SNOW and his story is always complicated. Seriously complicated. That is the case in Witt's book as well. Witt does add to the story by having access to interviews with George Sessler, assistant to German spy master Nikolaus Ritter. This is a new source but does tend to add another layer to an already complicated story.

One is left with the impression that Dicketts was a loyal Brit and did his best to serve his country, despite SNOW's attempts to discredit him. The book ends with an account of how Dickett's descendants (the offspring of 4 wives and 2 mistresses), many of whom had no idea that the others existed, managed to reconnect with each other. It makes for a fascinating tale.

As mentioned above, I've read several different books on SNOW and that definitely helped me navigate through this book. The complexities of SNOW's story could easily stymie the average reader who may not be familiar with all of the different characters and situations. Witt has done an admirable job of setting the context for Dickett's story and one does feel, at the end of the book, that one has a deeper insight into the character and motivations of this complex man.

There were a few things that struck me as interesting and new:
  • reference to Masterman's diaries, now available at an archives in England
  • Witt's access to interviews with George Sessler, assistant to Nikolaus Ritter
  • re: Nikolaus Ritter - when Farago interviewed him in the 1960s, he showed Ritter some documents from the mysterious treasure trove of microfilmed Abwehr documents that Farago claimed to have discovered. Ritter was shocked that Farago had such documents as he thought they had all been destroyed. Does make one wonder if the treasure trove actually exists... even though no one else has ever been able to find it.
  • the involvement of Coroner Bentley Purchase in several questionable MI5 situations: (a) falsifying the autopsy report for William Rolph (SNOW's former partner - he committed suicide and MI5 didn't want the Germans to get wind of that, as it might make them think that SNOW had been compromised) and (b) supplying MI5 with a dead body for Operation Mincemeat. Witt notes that Purchase was the coroner for Dickett's death - he apparently committed suicide by turning on the gas in his apartment. Was it suicide or something else? Intriguing question.
Some history books simply churn through secondary sources and repeat the same errors from the past. I appreciate Carolinda's effort in referencing primary source material and actually adding something new to the story of SNOW and CELERY. She has also done an admirable job in bringing us the human element of the story, something that can be easy to miss amidst the sea of facts. These men were complicated characters, with mixed motivations and loyalties.

Review Score
4.5 out of 5 - a well-researched and helpful contribution to the story of the Double Cross agents.

09 March 2018

Robin William George Stephens - A few Bibs & Bobs

Every once in a while, a few more bits of information about Robin William George Stephens float my way. The latest batch come from an odd assortment of sources.

MI5 - Bad Nenndorf & Robin W.G. Stephens
The MI5 website has had a bit of a facelift and they now include a whole page dedicated to the post-WWII CSDIC (Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre) at Bad Nenndorf and its Commandant Robin Stephens. They've clearly sifted through Stephens' court martial documents (National Archives) and distilled their version of the saga. It doesn't totally jive with Ian Cobain's book, Cruel Britannia and, as with Col A.P. Scotland and the London Cage, I wonder at their protestations of innocence.
MI5 still operates under strict rules for interviewing and questioning individuals. All MI5 staff are trained in the requirements of the Human Rights Act before they are deployed to operational posts, and the Service has rigorous procedures for ensuring that the law and the government’s consolidated guidance on the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas is followed.
My question would be... what happens to detainees between interrogations, when MI5 staff are not present? It would be the same question I would direct at Col. Scotland and Col. Stephens.

Robin William George Stephens
Robin William George Stephens
(photo widely used on internet - original
source seems to be Imperial War Museum)
Interesting too that MI5 has presented a defence of Stephens even though he was not working for MI5 whilst commandant of Bad Nenndorf. I suppose that any taint of violence at Bad Nenndorf would naturally call into question interrogation tactics at MI5s wartime interrogation centre at Camp 020. Perhaps it is a matter of avoiding guilt by association.

But we are talking about Stephens tidbits. On the MI5 page, it notes that:
Stephens’ monocle, by the way, was not some theatrical affectation: it was the result of his exposure to Italian mustard gas while working as a volunteer with a British Red Cross team in Abyssinia in the mid-1930s.
This would appear to be a reference to the Second Italio-Ethiopian War (1935-1939), a rather messy conflict from what I can gather. A quick search reveals this International Red Cross page which references the use of mustard gas by the Italians (in contravention of the League of Nations agreements) and attacks on the Red Cross.

I would dearly love to get my hands on Stephens personnel file from MI5 but... that would seem to be a long shot. Maybe one day...

Court Martial of Robin W.G. Stephens

Stephens' court martial "file" - National Archives, Kew.
Stephens' court martial "file" - National Archives, Kew.
The last time I was at the National Archives in Kew (2014), Stephens' court martial file was out at a "department office". Given MI5s revamped site, I'm guessing that they may have had the file.

This past month, however, I was again at the Archives and, the court martial file was available! Excellent news, albeit daunting. The court martial file was contained within a rather thick box. Given that Josef Jakobs' court martial file was a slim 1 cm folder, I wasn't quite prepared for the thickness of Stephens' file.

I focused my attention on Stephens' testimony, hoping for some tidbits of information, and there were a few.

On the first day the court martial, Stephens asked that his name be correctly recorded. They initially had Robin William Granor Stephens, a name that has shown up in the London Gazette as well. Stephens emphasized that his third name was George, not Granor. Later, during the case for the defence, Stephens' lawyer ran him through some highlights from his career. My notes in square brackets.
Q. Colonel Robin William George Stephens OBE -- I should have said Lieutenant Colonel; you were formerly a Colonel, were you? A. Yes. [So, did he get demoted or??]

Q. Are you 47 years of age? A. Yes.
Q. And were you educated at Dulwich College? A. Yes.
Q. And in February 1918 did you pass into the regular army? A. Yes. [Interesting that reference is made to the Regular Army and not to the Indian Army]

Q. I think you were actually commissioned in April 1919? A. Yes. [Helpful tidbit]

Q. And did you remain in the regular army until 1932? A. That is correct.
Q. I think you served in six campaigns from the Afghan War of 1919 onwards? A. Yes.
Q. Were you Mentioned in Despatches in 1922 by the Commander-in-Chief? A. Yes.
Q. And I believe you received the thanks of the Government of India for services in Southern Arabia; is that correct? A. Yes. [He had spent time in Oman]

Q. And did you leave the army voluntarily with a gratuity in 1932? A. That is right.
Cover of Robin William George Stephens' court martial file (National Archives - Kew)
Cover of Robin William George
Stephens' court martial file
(National Archives - Kew)
Q. And then for a time you read for the Bar; is that correct? A. Yes. [Helpful confirmation of this]

Q. And then you, I believe, organised the British Ambulance Service in Ethiopia? A. Yes. [This is new information but confirms what MI5 says about Stephens and his monocle. Makes me wonder if the British Red Cross would have the archives for the British Ambulance Service...]

Q. We can probably skip the further details of your career until in 1937 or 1938 did you join the department known as M.I.5? A. Yes. [This is kind of a vague date.]

...A. Could I add I served in Abyssinia in the Italian War?...[Stephens interjected this tidbit but... it would seem to be a duplication of the British Ambulance Service statement above. Unless he served in another capacity during the Italian War?]
Q. Now, until the war were you mainly engaged in a section of M.I.5 which dealt with the activities of what is known as the NSDAP, in England? A. Yes.
Q. What is that? A. It is the Partei which was formed, which has two branches; one is the NSDAP, which is Hitler's organisation, and the other was the DAF. [Hmmm... I have found nothing that would indicate the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei - i.e. the Nazi Party) or the DAF (Deutsche Arbeitsfront - German Labour Front) operated in England. There were fascist parties, many of them, in England, but none seem to be specifically linked to the German version.]

Q. And from September 1939 were you responsible for the section which dealt with the liquidation of the Nazi Party elements in this country? A. Yes. [Perhaps this is a reference to him being involved in rounding up Nazi sympathizers or suspicious Germans? The term "liquidate" is unfortunate as it brings to mind as it can mean to "eliminate, typically by violent means; kill".]

Q. And did that continue to the summer of 1940? A. That is correct, yes. [I believe Camp 020 opened in June or July 1940, so this would jive with that.]

Q. And did that involve large numbers of interrogations at various internment camps and at this special branch of Scotland Yard? A. Yes. [This would suggest that in rounding up suspicious German folk or sympathizers, he was involved in their interrogation.]

Q. Well, then as time went on after the collapse of France and the experience of the activities of the Fifth Column in Holland, were you concerned with Sir Oswald Mosely and his supporters? A. Partly with them, but still I was directing my energies to the espionage threat which then arose. We had liquidated the NSDAP and the DAF which were the cells for German penetration. The next threat was active espionage from the other side. [So, he does make a distinction between the Nazi sympathizers and the BUF. I had wondered.]

Q. Then as  a result of consultation between yourself and Lord Swinton, who was then responsible to the Cabinet for security arrangements, were you designated as Chief Intelligence Officer of a new establishment, the camp which ultimately was set up at Ham? A. Yes, under my chief at M.I.5. [It would appear from this that he was only Chief Intelligence Officer initially and not Commandant. We do know that George F. Sampson was the one tasked with setting up the camp, and was the first commandant.]

Q. And did that camp become known as Camp 020? A. Yes.
Q. Actually, it was set up on the 23rd June 1940? A. That is correct. [On Stephens' 40th birthday!]

Q. And in November of 1940 in addition to being Chief Intelligence Officer did you become Commandant of that camp? A. Yes. [Wondering why he replaced Sampson as Commandant. Sampson still remained as a interrogator...]

Q. And did you so remain until July of 1945? A. Yes.
Q. In the course of those years at some time, I suppose, you became a full colonel; is that correct? A. Yes, in 1944.
King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
collar badge (British Military Badges)
There is more information in Stephens' testimony about his time at Camp 020, but I will leave that to another blog post.

There was also a passing reference to Stephens military service in Roland A.F. Short's testimony. Short had served under Stephens as an interrogator both at Camp 020 and Bad Nenndorf. Short believed that Stephens served with the KOLYI, which would appear to be an abbreviation for King's Own Light Yorkshire Infantry. I haven't come across anything that would corroborate this. Within the London Gazette entries for Stephens, he is always simply "Territorial Army" with no regimental affiliation.

Military Service Record for Robin W.G. Stephens
A few years ago, I applied for the military service record of Lt. Col. William Edward Hinchley Cooke, a colleague of Robin Stephens. The file, while not large in size, did provide a few tidbits of information. The problem is... unless one is a direct next-of-kin (parent, child, spouse, etc.) one needs to provide a death certificate. Hinchley-Cooke's death is well documented but that of Robin Stephens still eludes me. All we know is that he retired in 1960 and by the time his wife passed away in 1990, Stephens was already deceased. However... the service record requrest form also allows the death certificate requirement to be waived if the person in question was born more than 116 years ago. Voila... Stephens was born in 1900 and is now outside the confines of that limit. Some digging in the London Gazette also provided me with his service number. I have submitted an application and will await the results with bated breath.

05 March 2018

Double Agent CELERY - update

At last! The copy of Double Agent Celery that I ordered in December has finally arrived! I am looking forward to reading it (review coming in the next few weeks).

In the meantime, there is a fascinating interview with author Carolinda Witt on the Conversations program on Australia's ABC Radio. You can listen to the interview here:

The daring and scandalous life of British double agent ‘Celery’

Walter Dicketts (CELERY) sounds like a fascinating character - a scoundrel, a rogue and a conman. Perfect training for his double agent mission. I'm interested to see how Carolinda deals with the tangle of stories between SNOW and CELERY.

There's also a three minute video clip on YouTube from the book launch.