Posts filed under 'Wartime Executions'

2007: Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, Saddam Hussein aides

Add comment January 15th, 2020 Headsman

Longtime Saddam Hussein aides Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad Hamed al-Bandar — who were co-defendants with the boss at his trial under U.S. occupation — were hanged before dawn on this date in 2007.

As top officials of the Ba’athist government both men’s hands were well-imbrued in blood: Awad Hamed al-Bandar had been a judge who issued death sentences to 143 people charged with complicity in a failed attempt on Saddam’s life during the Dujail Massacre; Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half-brother, had been his intelligence chief with all that entails. Al-Tikriti was also one of the authors of the terrifying 1979 Ba’ath Party purge in which the doomed were culled from the ranks of the party congress while video rolled and the un-culled were forced to execute them. He also achieved the dubious honor of a place in the U.S. invasion army’s playing card deck of most wanted Iraqis.*

They had initially been slated to hang on the same occasion as Saddam (December 30, 2006) but were briefly respited so that the dictator would have the spotlight to himself on his big day. It’s a good job they did that, because the al-Tikriti’s hanging was badly botched by an excessively long drop, and the noose tore his head clean off.

* We’re biased but we prefer Executed Today’s playing cards.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Iraq,Judges,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wartime Executions

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1861: Antonino Aberastain

Add comment January 12th, 2020 Headsman

Argentinian politician Antonino Aberastain was executed on this date in 1861, after the Battle of Rinconada del Pocito.

A polymath barrister from Buenos Aires, Aberastain was cursed to live his days amid the long and terrible civil wars — which pitted liberal centralizers (the Unitarian party) against conservative federalists. Aberastain belonged to the former faction.

After an interesting career that saw him by turns lawyer, judge, newsman, and national minister — and for most of the 1840s, exile abroad in Chile when a Federalist warlod chased him out — Aberastain in 1860 led a putsch that deposed and killed the Federalist governor of San Juan in November 1860.

The Federalist counterattack was settled in battle at a place called La Rinconada* on January 11, 1861, and the reader may well infer the outcome from the presence of the Unitarian commander on this site. The victorious Federal commander had him summarily executed the next day.

With the eventual settlement of hostilities, Aberastain settled in as a heroic Sanjuanino; this monument to him decorates a square that’s named for him in San Juan city.


(cc) image from EagLau.

* By coincidence, it had also been the site of a different Unitarian-Federalist battle in 1825.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Judges,Lawyers,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1915: Mewa Singh, Sikh martyr-assassin

Add comment January 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Mewa Singh Lopoke was hanged in British Columbia, Canada.

He was part of a massive influx of Punjabi migrants to Canada, and particularly its westernmost province of British Columbia, from around 1904 until Canada clamped down on immigration from the subcontinent in 1908.*

There Mewa Singh became involved in activism for the Ghadar Party — the North American expatriate movement for Indian independence. This movement was heavily infiltrated by spies and informants, some of whom ratted Mewa Singh out after he attempted to deliver some firearms to Punjabi passengers stranded on the Komagata Maru in Vancouver’s harbor and slated for return to the subcontinent.**

In an atmosphere of rising tension within the Vancouver Sikh community, a police informant named Bela Singh, driven to desperation by the pressure of his handlers and fear of exposure, opened fire on his coreligionists inside a Sikh temple. In the resulting trial, B.C. immigration inspector William C. Hopkinson — the man who ran the spies within the Sikh community — was scheduled to testify on the gunman’s behalf. Instead, Mewa Singh shot him dead in the hallway outside the courtroom, them immediately surrendered his pistol and calmly submitted to arrest. As he entered a guilty plea and took full responsibility for the murder, his trial came in under two hours.

“These people have disgraced us,” Mewa Singh said in his confession, accusing Hopkinson of exploiting vulnerable Sikhs to mine them for information and bribes.

We are poor, only coolie men, and whatever Hopkinson said was law. The Government listened to him completely.

Everyone knows that Hopkinson did these underhand things and it must be brought to light. The European public must be aware of the fact that Hopkinson draws money from us poor native men. In the Vancouver public there are a few that are Christian men who have received us with the proper spirit. The other have treated us like dogs.

He hanged at 7:45 a.m. at New Westminster jail. To this day he remains a martyr to many within his community; there have been campaigns for a posthumous pardon on grounds that his assassin’s turn was strictly the result of the injustice Sikhs faced in Vancouver.


Funerary procession for Mewa Singh.

By the time of Mewa Singh’s execution, World War I was well underway and Ghadrites, sensing their chance to break free from British domination, were working on orchestrating a mutiny in India. Thanks in no small part to the many spies keeping tabs on the Ghadrites, that mutiny was strangled in its crib.

* As a longer-range effect of this migration period, Canada today has a reputation as “Little Punjab” and its substantial Sikh minority is a significant political bloc — especially in B.C.

** This incident, in which 352 Punjabis were refused entry into Canada and forced to return to India — where Raj police arrested a number of the leaders as subversives, triggering a riot that took 20 lives — is still notorious in Canada today. “Not to be confused with Kobayashi Maru,” Wikipedia observes, sagely.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Wartime Executions

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1963: Tankeu Noé, Cameroon guerrilla

Add comment January 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Cameroon guerrilla Tankeu Noé

He had been a commander of rebels in Cameroon’s Littoral Province in the 1950s — fighting what was then a nationalist war against the French, who still held the central African territory as a colony.*

Cameroon attained independence in 1960 but Noé’s outlawed Marxist Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) stayed outlawed, its leadership in exile. Cameroon’s post-colonial state looked a lot to the UPC like the colonial state: working hand in glove with the French military, both parties intent on crushing the militants. The new ruler of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo,** used the continuing fight against the insurgency to consolidate power in his own hands, eventually establishing a one-party state.

And the fight was exceptionally brutal, with mass forced resettlement and tens of thousands killed across the last years of French rule and the first years of “independence”. In one noteworthy incident in 1962, dozens of UPC fighters were asphyxiated after being packed together into a sealed train. When the Catholic archbishop publicized the incident and announced plans to say a requiem mass, Ahidjo promptly had him expelled.

Still fighting, Tankeu Noé was captured by the new boss/old boss joint military operations in 1963. Exploiting new powers arrogated that year to suppress regime opponents, the government had him shot in public in Douala, lashed to a power pole.

His movement was strangled over the ensuing years, effectively vanishing after the 1971 execution of Ernest Ouandie. It’s resurfaced as a legitimate political party in 1991 and has contested and sometimes won seats in various elections ever since.

* France had taken it from Germany after World War I.

** Ahidjo finally resigned for health reasons in 1982; within months, he would take exile refuge in France, pursued by an in absentia death sentence. He never returned to Cameroon; he was officially rehabilitated after his 1989 death in Senegal.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cameroon,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1573: Hans Boije af Gennäs

Add comment January 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Swedish commander of Weissenstein (present-day Paide, Estonia), Hans Boije af Gennäs was executed when his fortress was overrun by Russian troops, during the Livonian War.


Ruins of (cc) image from Ivo Kruusamägi.

A walled city with a Teutonic Knights-built keep, Weissenstein sat at a crossroads in interior Livonia and changed hands several times during this decades-long multilateral conflict involving Russia, Sweden, Denmark-Norway, Poland, and Lithuania — the latter two of which united into a Commonwealth during the war.

Big picture, the Livonian War ran from 1558 to 1583; the stakes were, as one might guess, control of Livonia — essentially, the present-day Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. Long ago this precinct had been the medieval remit of those same Teutonic Knights; after 1561, it was controlled in the south by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (that’s Latvia), and in the north by Sweden (that’s Estonia, containing Weissenstein).

Needless to say, this brought enormous suffering to Livonian, which Livonian chroniclers like Johann Renner, Balthasar Russow and Salomon Henning blamed mostly on the Russians. As Charles Halperin summarizes,

To the Livonian chroniclers, the Russians were barbaric, sadistic monsters, whose atrocities they described in graphic, sensational detail. According to Renner, the Russians were cruel, bloodthirsty, and inhumane. They massacred men, women, and children among fishermen. They hanged Livonian women from trees and robbed them of their clothing, silver, and gold. They impaled babies on stakes or sharp picket fences, and hacked little children in two and left them, or hacked adults into pieces. They placed a huge stone on the stomach of a pregnant women [sic] to force her foetus from her womb. They burned alive a woman hiding in an oven. They cut off the breasts of maidens and women and hacked off the hands and feet of men. They threw fifty children into a well and filled it with stones. They flayed a man and cut open his side, poured in gunpowder, and blew him apart. They decapitated captives after flaying them and cutting off their fingers and toes. They massacred peasants young and old. They flayed captives in Moscow with whips of braided flails, marched them five miles to a cemetery and then beheaded them with axes. They drove naked peasants into great fires and nailed one peasant to a post and suffocated him with smoke. They tied a captured noble to a tree, cut open his body, and let his intestines fall out. They nailed a ferryman to a door and then killed him with arrows. They killed an old forest overseer by cutting open his body, nailing one end of his intestines to a tree, and then beating him with whips to make him run, pulling out his intestines and bringing about his death. Peasants were drawn and quartered. They murdered captives by snapping their necks in such a way that they suffered for one, two, or three days before expiring. The Tatars cut out the heart of one prisoner (killing him, of course), and ate it, saying that doing so would give them courage.

Russow adds that Russians committed terrible acts of murder, theft, and arson during their invasion. They tortured and tormented Livonians, massacred them, threw poor peasant, their wives and children to their deaths off city walls, hacked to death servitors of Magnus,* roasted captives on spits for days, stole the blanket off a dead woman, deposited children on the ice to die of overexposure or drown, put out a noble’s eyes before flaying him to death, drowned, tortured, and executed captives, sabered captives, plucked out the heart of the living body of a mayor, ripped a preacher’s tongue from his throat, sold captives into slavery, raped maidens and women, threw captives to their deaths off the walls of conquered cities, and starved captives nearly to death. They left the bodies of their victims for wild beasts to eat …

According to Henning, the Russians were bloodthirsty “ignorant barbarians”, who raged like savages, and tortured and killed their enemies in inhuman fashion, including stretching them and breaking them on the wheel. They cut down even the young and the old, women and children, who surrendered with their hands raised, or subjected them to inhuman barbarities and atrocities, and then barbaric slavery. Everywhere they went, they plundered, slew, roasted, and burned. They hacked pregnant women in two, impaled foetuses on fence stakes, slit men’s sides, inserted gunpowder and blew them up, and slit men’s throats and let them bleed to death. They smeared people with thick pine pitch, bound them, and burned them. They gang-raped women and girls, and sold the survivors into slavery to the Tatars. They tore nursing babes from their mothers’ breasts, chopped off hands, feet, and heads, and gutted the remainder of the bodies, stuck bodies on spits and roasted or baked them, and then ate them to satisfy their “diabolical, bloodthirsty hunger” … They massacred innocent Livonian townsmen, wives, and children in retribution for anti-Russian plots in which they had no part. They butchered poor little schoolchildren. Despite safe-conducts to the surrendered occupants of assaulted cities, they sabered them as they departed. Captives too old or infirm to be led into captivity, even nobles, were killed on the spot. Survivors of a castle whose occupants chose to blow themselves up rather than surrendered were sabered, hacked to bits, mutilated, and left unburied to be eaten by birds, dogs, and other wild beasts.

To skip past various twists of state- and warcraft, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was taking a breather from the fight in the early 1570s, leaving Russia and Sweden mano a mano.

The Russians invaded Swedish-defended Estonia in 1572 with Tsar Ivan the Terrible personally leading the army, and put the small garrison of Weissenstein/Paide to irresistible siege. Nevertheless, it did resist, and these defenders have the distinction of killing during this siege the sinister operative of the tsar — Malyuta Skuratov, so much the emblem of Ivan’s terrible Oprichnina that in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the titular Margarita at an infernal ball can’t help but notice one “face ringed by a fiery beard, the face of Malyuta Skuratov”.


Portrait of Skuratov by a contemporary painter, the late Pavel Ryzhenko.

Considering the flaying and intestine-ripping that mere passersby were liable to expose themselves to, the Swedes earned no quarter from Ivan for compounding their resistance with the death of the tsar’s hand. Our man Hans Boije af Gennais (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) and his chief aides were all impaled and slowly roasted over flames immediately upon Weissenstein’s New Year’s Day capture.

* Magnus, Duke of Holstein was Ivan’s unsuccessful puppet king in Livonia in the early 1570s, but he lost favor after being repeatedly thumped by the Swedes and eventually outright turned against the Russians. Ivan captured him and (alas for Executed Today) did not put him to death, but gratuitously brutalized anyone in Magnus’s train.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Estonia,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Sweden,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1943: Four Aussie escapees, at the Hotel Tacloban

Add comment December 25th, 2019 Headsman

Christmas Day of 1943 witnessed the demoralizing beheadings of four Australian POWs in the Japanese camp near Tacloban on the Philippines island of Leyte.

This camp held Aussie and British war captives, but its definitive account titled The Hotel Tacloban* comes from the mouth of a lone American mixed in among them — witness to the cross-cutting tensions in this little world between the two nationalities, and between enlisted men and officers. Of notable import for this episode is the campwide resentment of the ranking British officer, one Major Roland Leeds Cumyns.

By the account of our American interlocutor, Cumyns “was the most arrogant, most conceited son-of-a-bitch I’d ever come across in my life; an impossible officer who was thoroughly convinced that God was an Englishman.” Worse, he embodied the class snobbishness of the privileged caste from whom British field officers were drawn and shamelessly aligned himself with the Japanese camp commandant Captain Yoshishito. The Australians in particular, for whom British class prerogatives were not imbibed with mother’s milk, abhorred him. “Pampered, primped and preened, the Major wholeheartedly believed that it was his manifest destiny to ascend to the pinnacle of his profession,” sneered our American observer, who fraternized mostly with the Aussies. “The Major took every opportunity to attend to his own creature comforts while flaunting his disdain for the plight of the Australians.”

On Christmas Eve, our four principals — names of Travis MacNaughton, Justice “Jassy” Colby, Larry Whitelam, and Tommy Philips, Aussies all — escaped from the Hotel Tacloban. Maybe they would have acted differently had they but known that the U.S. invasion of the Philippines would begin on the beaches of Leyte itself just ten months hence — but then again, ten months in this particular camp might have been worth the risk of one’s life. U.S. Army rangers who liberated the prisoners apparently wept to behold the “monstrous degradation” of their condition.

So thrilled that night by news of the breakout that the British and Australian sections competed in belting jovial renditions of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and “Waltzing Matilda”, the camp by Christmas morning was tense with nervous anticipation. And as feared, right around daybreak, all four escapees were driven up on a flatbed truck, “badly beaten, blindfolded and bound in chains.” The entire camp was called to assemble for what came next, not excepting those in the infirmary who were carried out and propped up by their unwilling comrades, for “no ones was to be spared the executions.”

When everyone was present, Captain Yoshishito advanced and stood impassively beside the Major, both of their backs turned indifferently on the open space separating them from the four condemned Aussies on the back of the truck. With Yoshishito was the Executioner, a scabbard hanging from his hip, its tip dragging along the ground, the handle on the ceremonial sword itself almost a foot long and tucked up under his arm. Expressionless, their hooded eyes darting left and right, Yoshishito’s lieutenants stood poised and alert in front of Travis, Jassy, Larry and Tommy.

Tommy was reacting the worst; he’d gone completely to pieces. He was crying hysterically and had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the guards. Jassy and Larry were sobbing to themselves, struggling hard not to collapse. Travis was the only man who had not broken down. Standing ramrod straight, no sign of fear visible on his bearded face, he calmly asked that his blindfold be removed. The Major, with Captain Yoshishito’s approval, granted Travis’s request, and one of the Japanese officers untied it and pulled it off. And even though he stared directly into the rising sun, Travis didn’t blink. His eyes were glowing fiery red.

The guards separated the men four paces apart. They motioned for Travis to kneel in the dust with his head bent forward and he did so, without hesitation. The Executioner drew his sword and moved beside him. Dawn cast long shadows across the prison yard — the moment seemed arrested by the level sun.

I wanted to look away as I watched over the shoulder of the man standing in front of me, but there was some crazy compulsion to see. Try as I might, I couldn’t move my eyes from the blade on the ceremonial sword, which was long and slightly curved, but neither heavy nor thick nor ornate. Both hands on the hilt, the Executioner raised it above his shoulder, the sunlight momentarily glinting off the steel, then he brought it down.

I closed my eyes when he hit Travis — I couldn’t watch anymore after that — I just stood there with my eyes shut tight, hating myself and shivering inside, wanting desperately to cover my ears with my hands. But that wasn’t allowed, and three more times I heard that awful sound (the little bastards saved Tommy for last, for the devastating psychological effect), and then there was silence. Merciful silence. And in that absence of sound that followed the beheadings of Travis MacNaughton, Justice Colby, Larry Whitelam, and Tommy Philips, there wasn’t one man, Brit or Aussie, who didn’t know deep in his heart that the Major had to go. Speaking for every man there, Sgt. Major Goodhall, good soldier of the disgraced English Army, a man who’d been turned inside-out by his commanding officer’s treachery, a man who could no longer stand idly by while his honorable world crumbled around him, with utter contempt, turned and spit in the Major’s face.

Stunned speechless, his eyes blinking rapidly and his jaw muscle twitching uncontrolably, the Major quickly wiped the spittle away, then proceeded to strip Goodhall of his rank and ordered him placed under arrest. “Was there to be no end to the insults heaped upon him?” he seemed to be thinking. The man was insane.

Captain Yoshishito was astounded. It was inconceivable to him that ordinary soldiers of any army would demonstrate even the slightest hint of disrespect to their commanding officer. Such acts of defiance ate away at the very foundation upon which the chain of command is structured. Yoshishito stood there bewildered, regarding the situation with total disbelief — genuinely grieved that his brother officer, our lovely Major, had once again been publicly disgraced. Regaining his senses, Captain Yoshishito quickly signalled to his lieutenants, who selected eight Australians at random to dig graves and bury the dead. Then, speaking through a Filipino interpretor, he notified us that we were to be denied the right to conduct funeral services, that there would be no general issue of rice for the next two days, and that only the minimum water ration would be distributed, British officers excluded. The Australian officers were offered the same exemption, but flatly turned it down.

No one waited to be dismissed. Everyone just turned around and walked back to their huts.

The camp’s Aussie enlisted men drew straws the following morning for the responsibility of visiting their collective judgment on Major Cumyns. As night fell on Boxing Day, two of them garroted Cumyns in his tent, while their American adoptive comrade stood lookout.

* The Hotel Tacloban is by the American journalist Douglas Valentine, drawn from his conversations with (and primarily in the voice of) his father, the actual POW — also named Douglas Valentine. It’s a brief and compelling read, and it had an importance to the younger Valentine’s subsequent path quite surpassing the fact that it was his first book: Valentine’s empathetic portrayal of military men and the grim realities of war impressed CIA Director William Colby so much that Colby facilitated Valentine’s requested access to dozens of agents involved in the notorious Vietnam War-era assassination campaign, the Phoenix Program. The resulting interviews in turn led to Valentine’s still-essential tome The Phoenix Program and a subsequent career focus on the Agency which has produced (along with a great many articles) a book about intelligence coordination shaping the War on Drugs titled The Strength of the Pack, and the more recent volume, The CIA as Organized Crime. In Valentine’s own estimation, “Tacloban was key to unlocking the CIA’s door.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Japan,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1940: Carl Heinrich Meier and Jose Waldberg, the first hanged under the Treachery Act

Add comment December 10th, 2019 Headsman

I went into this with both my eyes open, telling myself that a man who has an ideal must be willing to sacrifice everything for it or else the ideal isn’t an ideal at all, or the man isn’t a man at all, but a humble creature who deserves only pity.

-Carl Heinrich Meier, last letter to his fiancee (Source)

On this date in 1940, Great Britain carried out the first two executions under its brand-new-for-wartime Treachery Act of 1940.

Raced into the books in May of 1940 amid Nazi Germany’s onslaught on France, the Treachery Act made it a capital crime if, “with intent to help the enemy, any person does, or attempts or conspires with any other person to do any act which is designed or likely to give assistance to the naval, military or air operations of the enemy, to impede such operations of His Majesty’s forces, or to endanger life.” Naturally the realm had centuries of treason statutes to fall back on; the intent in creating this new capital crime of treachery was to target spies and saboteurs who might not themselves be British citizens — and therefore evade “treason” charges on grounds of not owing loyalty to the British Crown. Instead, the Treachery Act explicitly governed “any person in the United Kingdom, or in any British ship or aircraft.”

Carl/Karl Heinrich Meier and Jose Waldberg were textbook cases. They had rowed ashore at Dungeness on September 3 intending to pose as Dutch refugees while reconnoitering ahead of a potential German cross-channel invasion. With them were two other Abwehr agents with the same intent, Charles Albert van der Kieboom and Sjoerd Pons.

While his comrades were noticed by routine coastal patrols and picked up near the beach, Meier picturesquely showed up that morning at a public house in Lydd where his clumsy command of contextual slang and etiquette led the proprietress to turn him in.

They were tried in camera weeks later, by which time the Luftwaffe was systematically bombing the jurors; despite this radically prejudicial context, Sjoerd Pons was actually acquitted — successfully persuading the court that he’d been forced into the mission on pain of a concentration camp sentence for smuggling. (Pons was detained as an enemy alien despite the acquittal.)

The other three men were not so fortunate. Perhaps most to be pitied was “Waldberg” who was really a Belgian named Henri Lassudry: although he had not presented Pons’s same defense to the court it appeared that he also had been coerced into the operation, in his case by Gestapo threats against his family. But none of the three death sentences was to be abated. A week after Meier and Waldberg/Lassudry hanged at Pentonville Prison, van der Kieboom followed them to the gallows.


“Jose Waldberg” aka Henri Lassudry.

The Treachery Act would be used against German agents repeatedly through the war years and in time had the distinction of noosing the last person hanged in Britain for a crime other than murder.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Milestones,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1452: Antonio Rizzo, cannonaded

Add comment December 8th, 2019 Headsman

From Charles Stanton in Medieval Maritime Warfare:


In the months preceding the final fall of Constantinople in 1453, the great Ottoman sultan Mehmed (II), the Conqueror, caused to be constructed in less than twenty weeks on the European bank of the Bosporus just north of the city a colossal castle which he called Bas-kesen, meaning ‘Decapitator’ or ‘Throat-cutter’. Later called Rumeli Hisar (‘Castle of the Roman Lands’), it stood opposite the Anadolu Hisar (‘Castle of Anatolia’), built in 1394 by his great-grandfather Bayezit I at the narrowest part of the strait (less than 1km across). It consisted of three main towers and fourteen smaller ones connected by inner and outer curtain walls, covering an area of 31,250 sq. m (almost 7.75 acres). The fortress still stands to this day, glowering down upon passing maritime traffic much as it did when it was completed on 31 August 1452.


The view from the still-standing fortress shows its commanding view over the narrow strait. (cc) image from Olga Petrovska.

The main tower in the middle was 22m (72ft) high and 23.3m (76ft 5 in) in diameter, with 6.5m (21ft 4in) thick walls. Named the Halil Pasha after the sultan’s vizier who built it, it stood closest to the shoreline. On it, Mehmed had positioned what were described as ‘bronze tubes capable of discharging balls weighing over six hundred pounds’. He then gave the citadel’s commander, one Firuz Aga, the following explicit instructions:

Do not allow ships sailing from the Hellespont [Dardanelles] to the Black Sea or from the Black Sea to the Hellespont, no matter under whose flag they may be sailing — Genoese, Venetian, Constantinopolitan, Kaffatinian, Trapezundian, Amisinian, Sinopean, or even under my own flag, and no matter what class they are — triremes, biremes, barques, or skiffs — to sail through without first lowering their sails and paying the customs duties; only after they have done so will you permit them to proceed on their way. Use the cannon to sink the ship that does not comply and submit.

Early the following November two Venetian ships destined for the Dardanelles ignored the injunction and passed through the Bosporus without stopping as ordered. Luckily, they survived the consequent cannonade. A third, carrying grain for Constantinople a short time later, was not so fortunate. The earlier experience had evidently served to provide Firuz Aga’s gunners with the proper range. A single stone from one of the cannon ‘shattered the ship’. The crew of thirty, including the captain, a certain Antonio Rizzo, were subsequently captured and taken to the sultan in Didymoteichos (in Thrace, about 37km or 23 miles south of Adrianople — modern Edirne). ‘He gave orders to behead them all except the captain whose life was to be taken by a stake through the anus,’ recorded a fifteenth-century chronicler known only as ‘Doukas’, who claimed he himself saw Rizzo’s rotting corpse only ‘a few days later’. The impact on maritime warfare was just as dramatic. The advent of a true ship-killing weapon spelled the end of one age and the beginning of another.

In his watershed study Gunpowder and Galleys, early modern military historian John Francis Guilmartin concluded that the one technological innovation most responsible for ushering in a new age of warfare was ‘the use of effective heavy cannon’. It was, therefore, fitting that Mehmed II employed perhaps the largest cannon ever built up to that point to vanquish the first great naval power of the passing medieval period. In his campaign to conquer Constantinople, the Ottoman sultan engaged a Hungarian engineer named Orban to produce a sort of supergun which could smash the several-feet thick Theodosian Walls that had protected the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for a millennium. ‘In three months’ time a terrifying and extraordinary monster was forged,’ testified Doukas. Mehmed’s Greek biographer, Michael Kritovoulos, provided precise dimensions: the barrel was cast in bronze some 20cm (8in) thick; it measured about 8m (26ft 8in) long, with a bore at the muzzle of 76m (30in) in diameter. In a test, the cannon discharged a 544kg (1,200-pound) stone ball which burrowed itself almost 2m (6ft) into the ground over 1.6km (1m) away. Doukas said that thirty wagons pulled by sixty oxen and 200 men were required to haul it from Adrianople to Constantinople where it was positioned to batter the walls south of the Blachernae Palace.

Not content with this ostentatious display of military power, Mehmed then brought to bear the full force of his powerful new fleet. The Byzantines had barred the entrance to the Golden Horn with a giant iron chain suspended on wooden pontoons between two fortified towers, one on each side. (This chain currently resides in the Turkish Naval Museum of Istanbul.)


(cc) image from Henri Bergius.

A squadron of ten Greek warships was stationed outside it, while another sixteen from Genoa, Venice and other western maritime cities guarded it from inside. Previous Ottoman assaults on this defensive cordon had failed, so the sultan circumvented it by building a road of greased wooden logs across Galata Hill behind the Genoese colony of Pera on the side of the Golden Horn opposite the city. He then, on 22 April, had seventy to eighty ‘biremes on wheeled cradles’ hauled over said byway and into the harbour behind the chain. The manoeuvre demoralized the defenders and enabled Mehmed’s naval forces to attack the city’s sea walls from the Golden Horn at the same time that his army assaulted the land walls. Inevitably, Constantinople fell on 29 May 1453. Vanquished were the last vestiges of Byzantine imperial power and its maritime thalassocracy remained only as a distant memory.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Greece,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Ottoman Empire,Power,Public Executions,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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1917: Private Joseph Bateman, shot at dawn

Add comment December 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Black Country volunteer Joseph Bateman was shot for desertion.

The 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment private was among the earliest wave of young Britons to sign up, in late 1914 — but his three years of service were marked by intermittent AWOL episodes, including when the unit was on home soil, far from the front lines. It’s not clear the reason for this eventually fatal pattern.

For ninety years, Bateman was, like most “shot at dawn” soldiers, persona non grata for official war commemorations. His name was finally added to Wordsley‘s Great War cenotaph in 2007, thanks to the tireless campaigning of an interested teacher/historian named Graham Hodgson.*

Press reporting on Hodgson’s campaign subsequently turned up Bateman’s relations, including a grateful granddaughter whose only photo of Joseph Bateman was “marked by lipstick where her grandmother kissed it after learning of his death.” (BBC)

He’s buried at Rocquigny-Equancourt British Cemetery in the Somme.

* Unfortunately, Mr. Hodgson was killed in a car accident on Cyprus shortly afterwards. At the time he apparently had a historical novel about Private Bateman in progress, but I can find no indication that it’s been posthumously published; however, Bateman does figure in To War with God: The Army Chaplain who Lost his Faith by Peter Fiennes. Fiennes’s grandfather, the titular army chaplain, stayed up all night consoling Joseph Bateman in the hours ahead of his execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1892: Jozef Lippens and Henri De Bruyne, Congo Free State hostages

Add comment December 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1892,* Belgian colonial agents Jozef Lippens and Henri De Bruyne were executed by the rebelling native king who had taken them hostage.

The gentlemen were a lieutenant (Lippens) and sergeant (De Bruyne) of the Force Publique colonial deployment in Belgian Congo.

Their misfortune was proximity when in 1892, rivalry over control of the eastern Congo ivory trade brought the European power into war with its erstwhile Zanzibar “Arab”** allies. (The Arabs were slave-traders, affording a classic humanitarian intervention pretext … which obviously is pretty rich coming from Belgium.)

The Congo-Arab War — which in practice was fought on both sides mostly by black Congolese troops — saw in its opening months the defection of one of the Arabs’ best commanders, Gongo Lutete,† a manumitted former slave who had risen to leadership of the Batetela and Bakussu tribes. In revenge when he switched sides to join the Europeans, the Arab leader Sefu bin Hamid seized Lippens, Belgium’s representative Resident at Kasongo, and De Bruyne, Lippens’s aide — demanding the return of his disloyal general and a settlement of hostilities as the price for these European envoys’ lives.

In fact, it was De Bruyne himself who had the honor of delivering the demand. Escorted by his captors to the eastern bank of the Lomami River on November 15, the emaciated De Bruyne shouted across to Belgian officers on the western side the terms of his captivity. The Belgians, who had the river covered by gunners, urged their countryman to leap into the water and swim for it; De Bruyne declined to abandon his comrade. “By this act of self-abnegation he was to go down in the Belgian folklore as a national hero.” (European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath)

His flight would have meant certain death for Lippens; instead, both paid the forfeit together after the Belgian commander Francis Dhanis repelled Sefu bin Hamid’s attack and smashed across the Lomani. According to the account of the war by Sidney Langford Hinde, one of many British officers employed by the Force Publique,

News also reached us here of the murder of Lippens and Debruyne, two officers representing the Free State Government, resident at Sefu’s court in Kasongo. We found out later that, after the defeat of Sefu on the Lomami (which resulted in the death of his cousin and several other noted chiefs), an advance party of the retreating Arabs arrived at Kasongo, and, by way of individual revenge, murdered the two Residents. It is probable, since we have no actual proof to the contrary, that this was done without Sefu’s orders. Twelve of these people, armed with knives hidden in their clothing, made some trivial pretext for visiting Lippens at the Residency, who, however, refused to come out and interview them. They then said that news of a big battle had come to them from Sefu; on hearing which Lippens came out, and, while talking in the verandah, was promptly and silently stabbed. Some of the murderers entering the adjoining room, found Debruyne writing, and killed him before he had learned the fate of his chief. When Sefu returned to Kasongo, a day or two afterwards, he gave orders that the pieces of Debruyne’s body should be collected and buried with Lippens, whose body, with the exception of the hands (which had been sent to Sefu and Mohara of Nyangwe as tokens), was otherwise unmutilated. The strong innate respect for a chief had protected Lippens’ body, while that of his subordinate had been hacked to pieces.

A curious fatality followed these twelve murderers. The chief of the band, Kabwarri by name, was killed by us in the battle of the 26th of February with Lippens’ Martini express in his hand. Of the others — all of whom were the sons of chiefs, and some of them important men on their own account — four died of smallpox, one was killed at Nyangwe, one in the storming of Kasongo, and the remaining six we took prisoners at Kasongo. During the trial they one day, though in a chained gang, succeeded in overpowering the sentry, and thus escaped. One was drowned in crossing a river; three more were killed, either fighting or by accident, within a month or two of their escape; and the two remaining we retook and hanged; — which brings to me a curious point. Of the many men I have seen hanged nearly all died by strangulation, and not by having the neck broken. As compared with shooting, hanging seems to me the less painful death; the wretched being becomes insensible in a very few seconds, whereas a man shot will often require a coup de grace, no matter how carefully the firing party is placed.


Monument to De Bruyne and Lippens in Blankenberge. (cc) image from Zeisterre.

* December 1 is the commonly attributed date for the hostages’ butchery but it can’t be documented with certainty.

** As we’ve noted elsewhere, the term “Arabs” as used for eastern Congo by European sources in this period denotes Muslim bantus. We’re following the prevailing term here, whatever its imprecision.

† As a reward for his services, Gongo Lutete was spuriously accused of treason by a Belgian officer in September 1893 and speedily executed without any form of superior approval.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Congo (Kinshasa),History,Hostages,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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