Tag Archives: may 15

1946: Ten at Hameln for killing Allied POWs

On this date in 1946, the British hanged 10 convicted war criminals at Hameln Prison, notably including seven for the “Dreierwalde Airfield murders” of four Allied prisoners of war.

Picture from this book about RAF POWs in wartime Germany, which also supplies the unknown names: A.W. Armstrong and R.F. Gunn of the RAF; B.F. Greenwood and J.E. Paradise of the RAAF.

In that case, two British and three Australian airmen had been captured after bailing out during a March 21 raid. Taken to the nearby aerodrome between Dreierwalde and Hopsten in Westphalia, they were marched out the next day ostensibly for transport to a POW compound. Instead, they all ended up shot by their guards — although Australian Flight-Lieutenant Berick was able to escape, wounded, and survive the war.

The nub of the case was whether the guards cold-bloodedly murdered their prisoners (prosecutors’ version), or whether there was an escape attempt by the airmen that caused the guards to start shooting (defense version).

Berick’s affidavit to the effect that no escape had been attempted weighed very heavily here — that nothing was afoot until he suddenly perceived the guards cocking their weapons. Karl Amberger would testify on behalf of himself and his men that the five had been suspiciously taking their bearings as they marched and suddenly broke off running in different directions.

The defense counsel’s attempt to reconcile these accounts in the haze of war was not fantastical — “saying that the cocking of the action of a weapon by one guard was not unnatural given the fact that five prisoners had to be guarded in a lane in the growing dusk … [while] Berick and the other prisoners probably regarded it as likely that they were to be shot, as others in their position had been, and began to run when it was not necessary.” But it did not carry the day.

Three other Germans joined this bunch on the scaffold, for similar but unrelated POW abuses.

  • Erich Hoffmanm, condemned by a joint British-Norwegian court in Oslo for the murder of Allied POWs in occupied Norway.
  • Friedrich Uhrig, for murdering a downed Royal Air Force pilot at Langlingen.
  • Franz Kircher, for killing three airmen at Essen-West.

1815: William Sawyer, guns and roses

William Sawyer hanged on this date in 1815* at London’s Newgate Gaol for a murder he committed while in Portugal.

Dispatched to Iberia during the 1814 mopping-up stages of the Peninsular War, Sawyer preferred to make time with a young Englishwoman named Harriet Gaskett who was supposed to be there as the mistress of Sawyer’s friend and fellow-officer. (Both of the men in question had wives back in Blighty.)

When this third wheel discovered their liaison,** Sawyer and Gaskett fell into that death-seeking tragic mooning that lovers do and after dinner one night in April they wandered off to the garden. Other guests soon heard three pistol shots crack the evening air. The reports proved to correlate with a dead Harriet, and a severely (but not mortally) wounded William.

After he was cleaned up — and after he once more failed to kill himself by slashing his own throat — his friends solicited a forthright confession.

Having laid violent hands upon myself, in consequence of the death of Harriet, I think it but justice to mankind and the world, being of sound mind, solemnly to attest that her death was occasioned by her having taken part of a phial of laudanum and my discharging a pistol at her head, provided for the occasion. I took the residue of the laudanum myself, and discharged two pistols at my head. They failing in their effect, I then retired to the house and endeavoured to put an end to my life, leaving myself the unfortunate object you now behold me.

William Sawyer

Besides doing the tragic lover thing, Sawyer was obviously intent on doing the officer-and-a-gentleman thing. His friends did very well believe the convenient-sounding version of events that he presented, such was his rectitude and lovesickness.

But under any construction of motive and circumstance, this narrative of “discharging a pistol at her head” amounted to confession to a hanging crime and Sawyer was convicted with ease.

Sympathetic to a fault, the Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough who personally tried the case reserved judgment as to the penalty pending a review by a panel of the king’s judges of several technical legal points. These were all defeated as entirely as was Sawyer’s wife’s attempt to see him in prison.

Despite his avoiding such an awkward interview Sawyer went to the gallows “very dejected,” in the words of the Newgate Calendar.

During the ceremony a profound silence prevailed throughout the populace. He died under evident symptoms of paroxysm, and a quantity of blood gushed from his mouth, from the cut in his throat. At nine o’clock the body was taken to Bartholomew’s Hospital in a cart, attended by the under-sheriff and officers. He was dressed in a suit of black, and [it] was not ironed.

* The Newgate Calendar, whose command of detail is often unreliable, mistakenly gives May 22 as the execution date — a week later than the true event.

** Intent on layering on the melodrama, Sawyer’s story was that the friend had actually given the two lovebirds leave to go live together. Great! Except Gaskell was convinced the permission was insincere and that he meant on killing himself once they did so and “although she had promised not to live with me, she had not promised not to die with me.” Anything for love.