The Story of Roy Harrison - Executioner of a German Spy

Evening Chronicle - 1984 11 07 Interview with Roy Alan Harrison former member of Josef Jakobs' firing squad.
Evening Chronicle - 1984 11 07
Interview with Roy Harrison
former member of Josef Jakobs' firing squad.

I bought a British Newspaper Archives subscription last year and did various searches for Josef Jakobs/Jacobs.

Imagine my surprise when I came across a 1987 article in which a man named Roy Harrison told the story of how he had served on the firing squad of Josef Jakobs!

I already had an eye witness account from one of the British Military Policemen who accompanied Josef to his execution.

I also had the Regimental Sergeant Major's hand-written instructions from the morning of the execution.

While I had tried to track down some of the members of the firing squad... they weren't easy to find.

Yet here was this interview with Roy Harrison! It doesn't always jive with the other two accounts and I note the discrepancies and/or inaccuracies in square brackets.

Evening Chronicle - 1984 November 7

Safety catches off...
Take aim...

And so died a Germany spy

[Roy Harrison, a quiet man from Washington [Tyne and Wear, Country Durham], once made a macabre mark on history - he was on the firing squad which carried out the last execution in the Tower of London. Eric Forster has been talking to him.]

He is a quiet, anonymous sort of chap today and even shamefacedly confesses to composing the odd poetic stanza about life, its purpose and direction.

He once made teacakes at a Team Valley factory until dismissed for asking double-time for Sunday working. That apart, he has lived the low profile image of the average workingman and now lives in retirement in a terrace house in Washington, Tyne and Wear.

Anonymous - perhaps. But Roy Harrison is a man who had made a macabre mark on history: he was on the firing squad which performed the last execution at the Tower of London.

The condemned man was Josef Jakobs, a German spy, who was arrested immediately after his parachute descent into the Home Counties of England in 1941.

The executioner: Roy Harrison, then a young Scots Guardsman, one of six marksmen who were called one day to perform "special duties" - and found themselves facing a living target. [Other information indicates seven, possibly eight, members of the firing squad.]

It happened on the morning of August 14, 1941, [August 15, 1941] and Roy often thinks about it. Only now, with the covers off the official secrets of the time, has he decided to talk about it.

Nothing he was ever called upon to perform as a wartime soldier would ever match that bizarre moment when he and his fellow guardsmen were ordered to shoot Josef Jakobs.

Rifles were loaded
His duties had led him to sentry duty at Buckingham Palace; he guarded and fed Rudolph Hess during the Deputy Führer's incarceration in the Tower; he fought in the Western Desert and was wounded at Salerno.

But it is the execution of a spy who went proudly to his death that Roy Harrison dwells upon today in moments of introspection.

"Two of our party were later killed in Italy at Casino and I was twice wounded. Were we getting paid back" he wonders...

He adds: "I have never forgotten it. I was just 21 at the time and very impressionable. I had won my special proficiency for rifle shooting and was considered a crack shot. [If, as noted below, they were not volunteers, then it would make sense that the commander would have chosen the best marksmen for this duty.]

"Without any warning I, along with the others, was marched down to the armourer's shop one morning and issued with a short Lee Enfield rifle that was already loaded. [RSM orders indicates that the rifles were already in the firing range when the squad arrived.] We were then marched down to the miniature rifle range along the wharf. [Not exactly along the wharf - was along the Eastern Casemates.]

"None of us had the slightest idea what we were going to do. [Other information has suggested that firing squad members were volunteers, so this would be new information.]

"We were taken inside to the 25 yards line and given a spaced position in line and then ordered to adopt the kneeling position. [This is new information.] Our sergeant informed us that not a sound should be made. We would be signaled to remove the safety catch and, after taking aim, wait for the signal to fire. [The RSM instructions indicated that they practiced first and were then marched out of the firing range, only to reenter once Josef had been led inside.]

"The next thing we knew, a senior officer, a medical officer and a corporal called Purvis - he worked in the medical bunk because he was nearly seven feet tall - came in at the far end of the range bringing with them a chair - and Josef Jakobs. [Was there an entrance at the "far end"? The RSM orders indicate that the chair was already prepped and tied to a beam at the target end of the range. The Military Policeman stated that he and his colleague accompanied Josef to the end.]

"He was blindfolded and had a piece of white lint over his heart. He looked very proud and did not show the slightest sign of fear..."

Subsequent events were swift, he recalls.

"We lads were really dumbfounded but with the strict training we had received, we acted as ordered." he says.

"Jakobs, still showing no signs of fear, was offered the seat and accepted it (he had broken his leg during his abortive parachute descent)."

And then came the signal. "Release safety catch... take aim... FIRE!" [The first two instructions, as noted are generally done with gestures/signals and only the word "Fire" is spoken out loud.]

Josef Jakobs slumped forward on the chair, dead.

Even within the context of wartime censorship, the execution made front page news the following day. The Evening Chronicle reported Jakobs had been "dropped" in the Home Counties.

When arrested he had with him a radio transmitter, a "large sum of British money" and food including "an ample supply of sausage." [One half-eaten piece of sausage is likely not "ample".] He also carried a spade with which to bury his parachute.

Went to the Pub
Jakobs had been sentenced to death at a general court martial held in secret, and had revealed that he was a non-commissioned officer with the German meteorological service. Born in Luxembourg, he was 44 and the fifth to be executed since the outbreak of war. [Not accurate - Carl Meier (Dec 1940), Jose Waldberg (Dec 1940), Charles van den Kieboom (Dec 1940), Werner Walti (Aug 1941), Karl Theodore Drücke (Aug 1941). Josef was thus the sixth spy to be executed.]

Roy Harrison and his fellow soldiers of the firing squad knew none of this as they trooped away from the firing range on that morning of August 14, 1941. [August 15, 1941.]

"The body was whipped away to the medical bunk. We were ordered to apply safety catches and marched straight back to the armourer's shop. The rifles were handed in and unloaded.

"We were then informed that only one rifle had the live round, the others having been loaded with a ballistic charge, which gave the equivalent 'kick' of a life round."  he said. [This may be a interviewer error - generally only one rifle is loaded with a blank while the others are all live rounds. Josef's body had more than one gunshot wound.]

"If it was true, nobody really knows who killed Jakobs - but the uncertainty is still in my mind."

The party, he recalls, was sworn never to tell colleagues the nature of their "special duty" that day and were given the remainder of the day off. [This seems rather odd given that the execution was published in the newspapers and the entire Scots Guards complement at the Tower would have known of the execution.] They went en bloc to the Red Lion pub, Aldwich.

Even the armourer did not know which man had been given the killer rifle. I remember that Cpl. Purvis, the medic, kept the belt of Jakobs' coat, with his "signature' on it," says Roy. [This would be new information. Interesting that there is no mention of the RSM who apparently kept the target as well as the ropes used to tie Josef to the chair.]

How does he view his role in the retrospect of the years?

"I have thought about it a lot. The unfair thing was the way in which we were ordered to do the job without any warning. None of us had any idea until that moment when the man was marched before us and we were ordered to fire," he says. [This seems to have made a lasting impression on him so it may be accurate and the "volunteer" aspect in accurate.]

He is also left with that discomforting thought, posed by the subsequent fate of the firing squad.

Two killed in action, himself twice wounded... the whereabouts of the others unknown to him.

Did fate really strike back, he wonders? [It does make one wonder.]

Roy Harrison Evening Chronicle - 1984 November 7
Roy Harrison
Evening Chronicle - 1984 November 7
Who was Roy Harrison?
I haven't been able to dig up much on Mr. Harrison.

Based on the fact that Roy was living in Tyne and Wear, he is possibly the same man who died in the first three months of 2002 in North Tyneside, Tyne and Wear. This gentleman, Roy Alan Harrison, was born 9 June 1921.

Beyond that, there are a lot of Roy Harrison's in the UK! And Roy A. Harrison's for that matter.

Did he get married? Have children? Is there more information out there?

Hard to say, but this blog has a tendency to create connections and so I put this information out there, trusting that, when the time is right, it might generate a contact.

In a rather synchronistic moment, after publishing this blog, I was trying to dig up Roy's obituary on Google and came across a recent article published by the Washington Historical Society. They too had come across Roy's newspaper interview and published it online on 3 February 2020. I shall reach out to them and see if they have any more information


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