Oi, son: You’re nicked!
Dick Kirby’s career with the Metropolitan Police was invariably 100-miles-a-minute, and retirement in rural Suffolk is also being lived apace. His latest book honours Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad . . . also known as The Sweeney. Steven Russell reports
ANYONE who watched TV in the mid- to late-1970s will remember The Sweeney, starring John Thaw as red-tape-loathing Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Dennis Waterman as his rough-diamond sidekick Detective Sergeant George Carter. The series was ground-breaking, offering a realistic warts-and-all portrayal of the way The Flying Squad tackled violent crime in London. The Sweeney wasn’t a modern policing phenomenon, though.
Born just after the First World War, the rapid-response squad rapidly acquired legendary status – mainly because it did a cracking job from the outset in removing some of the worst criminals from the capital’s streets, partly because a newspaperman coined the racy nickname The Flying Squad and also because media spin over the years added a dash of romance to the battle against the thugs.
The flavour of life in the branch is captured in Dick Kirby’s new book The Sweeney – The First Sixty Years of Scotland Yard’s Crimebusting Flying Squad 1919-1978.
It’s a rollercoaster ride: tales of bravery and dedication by detectives who took crime by the scruff of its neck and wouldn’t let go.
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East Ender Dick, now living in retirement near Bury St Edmunds, is a former detective who joined the Metropolitan Police in 1967 and spent more than eight years with The Flying Squad. He’s written a host of crime-related books, including Rough Justice and Villains, and last year brought out The Guv’nors: Ten of the Great Scotland Yard Detectives.
The genesis of the Flying Squad is found a long way back: with policeman Fred Wensley, who during his first year in London was among hundreds of officers drafted in to patrol Whitechapel during Jack the Ripper’s reign.
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Proving a brave, clever and successful policeman, he was promoted in 1912 to the rank of detective chief inspector and in 1916 moved to Scotland Yard and the murder squad. He turned into reality the assistant commissioner’s idea of a streamlined and flexible body of detectives to combat the tide of lawlessness that followed the First World War. Drawn from different divisions, they would range widely and fight major crime. In the autumn of 1919 Wensley’s blueprint was adopted. He called together 12 crack detectives to work anywhere in London. The beginnings were humble but effective. The team had two horse-drawn wagons with spy holes. Numerous criminals were caught in the act, unaware they were being watched. Technology moved on, albeit slowly. Dick explains how by the autumn of 1920 Det Insp Walter Hambrook had been put in charge of Tender Two – an ungainly Crossley Tender vehicle that could hold up to a dozen men and covered the south of the Thames. Tender One took the north.
Hambrook was determined to catch a gang of tearaways carrying out smash-and-grab raids, using getaway cars. Hours of surveillance resulted in the “first – but certainly not the last – pitched Flying Squad battle”. It took place in a thunderstorm. The villains were armed with knuckledusters and daggers. Hambrook felled several with his heavy and treasured ash walking stick. “One by one the gang were pounded into submission. Their van was found to contain jemmies, iron bars and wedges – a complete burglar’s kit.” After the sentencing of other smash-and-grab raiders, a newspaper reporter wrote of “Flying squads of picked detectives with motor transport at their disposal . . .” Their tactics had been highly successful: “scores of the most daring and dangerous criminals in London have been caught. They have been picked up by the flying squads at all hours of the day and night, some while actually engaged on a burglarious enterprise . . .”
Dick writes: “It was probably nothing more than an example of press hyperbole, a nickname, but it stuck.” By 1921, “the name ‘the Flying Squad’ was in common usage in official reports at the Yard. In time to come, the Flying Squad would also become known as ‘the Heavy Mob’, ‘the Sweeney’ or simply ‘The Squad’ – but, in any event, the term ‘Mobile Patrol Experiment’ had been consigned to the dustbin”. The Sweeney, of course, comes from Cockney rhyming slang – Sweeney Todd, Flying Squad – and is a reference to the legend of the murderous Fleet Street barber.
Whatever it was called, the team had a massive effect on the stop-at-nothing low-lifers infesting London.
Dick details its success in stamping out the criminals cashing in on the popularity of horse-racing: everything from dodgy bookmakers to raffle ticket scams and pickpockets working the crowds.
In the 1930s – after a disheartening period in which they sometimes lost criminals in faster vehicles – the squad got better cars: such as Ford’s new V8 saloon in the summer of 1932.
During the Second World War, black market operations and associated violence saw crime levels go through the roof. A record 128,954 indictable offences were recorded by The Flying Squad in 1945.
A landmark in Sweeney history was a gold bullion and jewellery raid at the newly-opened London Airport in 1948 by a gang of well-organised criminals. Flying Squad officers were lying in wait and the subsequent “action” was described by a judge at the Old Bailey as “The Battle of Heathrow”.
Then, says Dick, the 1950s brought a wave of crime more sophisticated than anything that had gone before. The war years had seen a spate of break-ins at banks and post offices, using duplicated keys. In 200 incidents, the modern equivalent of �1.35million was stolen. Fruitful surveillance and intelligence had detectives lying in wait for a gang when it struck at a branch of Barclays Bank in Hampshire in November, 1950.
Success continued to be chalked up as the years rolled by. In 1959 the squad made more than 1,500 arrests and recovered stolen property worth �312,716. That summer it got its first women officers, “and all immoderate language from their male counterparts immediately ceased – for all of ten minutes!”
Early in the 1960s The Sweeney consisted of eight squads, each with a detective inspector in charge, along with two detective sergeants (first class), three detective sergeants (second class), two or three detective constables and three drivers. Officers worked in pairs, spending three days in a squad car, followed by one day on foot. The squad provided cover 24 hours a day, seven days a week, across London, and assisted provincial forces when required. There were sub-divisions, such as “the Dip Squad”, which targeted pickpockets and was out in force for gatherings such as the state opening of Parliament, race meetings and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. It kept watch on the Underground, too.
Dick also explores events behind The Great Train Robbery – “the robbery that will never go away” – and the apprehension of many of the culprits. The incident happened in the early hours of August 8, 1963, when a gang stopped a train in Buckinghamshire and stole �2,631,684 contained in 120 mailbags.
The 1970s got off to a cracking start with the recapture of escaped armed robber John McVicar. Crime also brought Flying Squad officers into contact with Chinese triad gangs. That year, there were 1,347 arrests and �5,750,000 of property recovered.
The decade also saw the return to the streets of London of IRA terrorism, which the squad had confronted in 1939. During 1974-5, the capital endured 40 explosions that killed 11 people and injured many more. There were also eight shootings in which two people died – including Ross McWhirter, co-founder of The Guinness Book of Records, who had offered a reward of �50,000 to anyone giving information that stopped IRA activity.
The Metropolitan Police set up Operation Combo – with a ring of armed officers circling outer-central London and, inside the circle, unarmed surveillance officers to spot IRA activity and call in armed colleagues. A number of Flying Squad officers were commended for pursuing an IRA active service unit – some of the men narrowly escaping death or injury when they were shot at. One of the bullets that hit a squad car was found to have come from the same weapon that murdered Ross McWhirter nine days earlier.
By 1972, arrests by the squad had dropped and the value of property recovered had fallen to �782,000. Dick doesn’t duck controversial issues such as police corruption. While most detectives were honest and committed, he recognises there were a few rotten apples “at the bottom of the Squad barrel who escaped the net and were allowed to fester”.
He certainly approved of moves to root out the poison, but is critical about other policing reforms that dented a proven set-up. In the mid 1970s, for instance, an officer brought back an idea from Canada and pondered what might be done at New Scotland Yard to establish a dedicated unit for collating, investigating and prosecuting all armed robbery offences.
In the summer of 1978 a plan was put into operation.
“The Flying Squad was devolved from the Yard,” explains Dick. “Four offices, at Rotherhithe, Barnes, Finchley and Walthamstow, were set up for the investigation of armed robberies, to the exclusion of any other offence, taking 100 Squad personnel with them. They were given a new name: The Central Robbery Squad, which was not to the taste of the personnel . . .”
So, 80% of the Sweeney workforce moved out and just four squads were left at the Yard – although Dick points out Robbery Squad officers did a great job, and still do. It was suggested, too, that the Dip Squad be disbanded – cutting off a key source of intelligence for detectives left at the Yard. Dick argues it was based on “imbecile logic” – the kind of thing that would be seen often in years to come, when senior uniformed officers on working parties “suggested that the Flying Squad could be dissolved and the officers sent to divisional duties. Then, they added brightly, if there was a sudden upsurge in robberies, the divisions could form their own, little – you know – sort of mini-Flying Squad”.
Such people were generally unable to understand “that to keep on top of a particular type of crime, whether it be robbery, drugs, or pick-pocketing, there must be a dedicated team tasked to address that type of crime. Nothing else will do”.
The Yard-based officers soldiered on, however, with still-impressive results. “So was there a case for keeping dedicated teams of detectives on squads at the Yard, to run their own informants, carry out their own cases and yet be ready to supplement any of the area Robbery Squads when necessary? Yes, of course there was. And the information which was acquired by these officers, unfettered from the investigation of crime, could be passed on to the requisite area office, to supplement their knowledge or to provide them with the impetus to take on a whole new, previously unknown, gang of armed robbers. But no more.
“Never again would a Flying Squad officer on the fourth floor, in receipt of some red-hot information, excitedly telephone to the drivers’ room on the ground floor, with the terse instruction to bring the Squad car up to the concourse in front of the Yard: ‘Get it up!’ No. The Squad would continue to ‘swoop’ – but now it had flown from the Yard.”
n The Sweeney is published by Pen & Sword Books at �19.99