Americans executed by the British II

Part 2: How US Servicemen convicted of capital crimes met their end

Part 1 looked at the reasons why Britain retained the right to execute those who were convicted of capital crimes on British soil. It also looked at the case of David Cobb convicted of murdering a US officer.

After an appeal and review of his sentence, it was confirmed that David Cobb was to be hanged at Shepton Mallet Prison on 12 March 1943. The execution of 21-year-old Private Cobb was to be the first test of the peculiar arrangement which had been put together, whereby American soldiers would be tried by American courts, but executed by an Englishman.

Whilst British law ensured that the actual execution was conducted by a British appointed hangman, American procedures were to significantly alter the process. This radically affected the final minutes experienced by the condemned men.

In Cobb’s case Thomas Pierrepoint and his nephew Albert Pierrepoint were appointed to conduct the hanging at Shepton Mallet prison.

The following passage comes from Fighting for the United States, Executed in Britain: US Soldiers Court-Martialled in WWII

The whole practical aim of British executions was to ensure that the condemned prisoner was hanged as soon as humanly possible after the executioners entered his cell.

In some prisons the execution chamber was adjacent to the condemned cell, but in others it was a short walk away. From entering the cell until the man or woman was hanging at the end of the rope typically took no more than 15 or 20 seconds. Albert Pierrepoint managed on occasion to whittle this time down to seven seconds, surely a world record.

Albert Pierrepoint, who went on to become the world’s most industrious and prolific hangman. He executed many of the war criminals convicted at Nuremburg after the war.

One person who acted as an assistant executioner alongside Albert Pierrepoint said that he would light a cigar before going to hang a prisoner. By the time it was all over and he returned to the room where he had been staying, the cigar would still be smouldering and Pierrepoint only needed to draw upon it in order to make the end glow. It was an impressive, if rather gruesome, party piece. There was though a very good reason for the extraordinary celerity with which both Tom and Albert Pierrepoint conducted executions.

The strain of knowing that one is about to die is tremendous and even the strongest and most self-controlled of us might be prone to fainting or even a bout of hysteria as the fatal moment draws near. The procedure was to give the victim as little chance as possible to think about what was happening.

The executioner and his assistant entered the cell, moved swiftly to strap the hands behind the back and then hurried the man or woman to the nearby scaffold. In most British prisons, the execution chamber was actually next door to the condemned cell. This meant that while the hangman entered the cell, a prison warder was moving aside a bookcase which concealed the door to the room where the noose was ready and waiting. The speed of the operation ... was really a kindness. The whole business was over and done with before he condemned prisoner had any time properly to consider what was happening.

The American way was very different.

The Pierrepoints were horrified to learn that once they had pinioned the man they were to hang and led him to the scaffold, they would be obliged to wait before putting the hood over his head, the rope round his neck and operating the trapdoor. This was so that the sentence of death could be read once more to the man standing and waiting to be executed and the whole process by which his appeals for clemency had been denied explained to him in detail. He would then be given the opportunity to make a final statement, if he wished to do so. The entire, ghastly process lasted for about five minutes.

After his retirement, Albert Pierrepoint wrote of this:

The part of the routine which I found it hardest to acclimatise myself to was the, to me, sickening interval between my introduction to the prisoner and his death. Under British custom I was working to the sort of timing where the drop fell between eight and twenty seconds after I had entered the condemned’s cell. Under the American system, after I had pinioned the prisoner, he had to stand on the drop for perhaps six minutes while his charge sheet was read out, sentence spelt out, and he was asked if he had anything to say, and after that I was instructed to get on with the job.

In accordance with American practice, David Cobb’s execution took place at 1:00 am on 12 March. The young man, who it will be recalled was just 21 years of age, marched calmly to the scaffold and stood there stoically while the various formalities were concluded. While the official statements were being made, the chaplain continued to pray out loud in the background. At last, Thomas Pierrepoint was given the signal and pulled the lever which released the trapdoor.

From Fighting for the United States, Executed in Britain: US Soldiers Court-Martialled in WWII.

This excerpt appears by kind permission of the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, copyright remains with author.

Simon Webb examines all the eighteen cases where US servicemen were executed for crimes committed in Britain during the war. He places these in the context of the prevailing attitudes and practices of execution in both the America and Britain. There is substantial detail on each crime, drawn from court records. An intriguing footnote to the war.

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