Friday, 12 April 2013

Lager and murder in wartime Exeter

One of my favourite TV programmes is Foyle's War. Its sedentary pace fits well with my Sunday sitting and dozing routine. During one of my regular trawls through the newspaper archive I tripped over this strange tale of murder while looking for Lager. I could help thionking it was rather like a plot from Foyle's War.

The A.T.S. (Auxiliary Territorial Service) was a military organisation for women. Its members performed auxiliary duties like clerical duties, cooking, cleaning and driving to free up men for active serrvice. Come to think of it, there's a real Foyle's War conenction. The Samantha Stewart character would have been in the A.T.S.

Exeter Court-Martial
A MURDER of a private in the A.T.S. was alleged at a United States Army court-martial at Exeter yesterday.

Accused was Robert Joseph Himmelmann. private in the United States Army, and he pleaded "Not guilty" to a charge of murdering Phyllis Irene Kent, 25, at Rowancroft, an Exeter A.T.S. Hostel in Heavitree-road. It was stated that her home was at Stoke-on-Trent and that her husband was serving in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

Among the earlier witnesses who testified was Pte. W Hedges, a United States soldier, who was with Himmelmann on the night of the alleged murder. He said that accused, a sailor, and himself, visited a public-house and had two pints of beer each. They went to another public-house and had three double Scotches, two single gins, and a glass of lager with each drink of spirit. Afterwards Hunmelmann and witness went to fish and chip shop, where they met two civilian girls. Coming out, they walked along in pairs for awhile, until Himmelmann dropped behind and witness lost sight of him. Accused did not seem to be intoxicated.


Dr. D. M. Longridge, of Exeter, said Pte. Kent was just alive when admitted to the casualty department of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital on the night of August 3. There was a wound on the left side of her neck and she was moribund. There was no wound of the heart as far as he could see, and in his opinion death was caused by a stab wound in the neck.

Photographs of the dead girl and the A.T.S. hostel were produced by Det. E. E. Steer, Exeter City Police photographer.

Det.-Inspr. Fred Bennett, chief of the Exeter C.I.D., produced blood-stained articles of clothing and a pocket knife, which he found in Himmelmann's watch pocket.

P.C. Frank Palmer said he went with the police ambulance to Rowancroft, where he saw Pte. Kent, who was bleeding extensively. She was in the wash-up on the ground floor, her wound was dressed, and she was taken to hospital as quickly as possible.

The hearing was adjourned until today, following motion by the Trial Judge Advocate that the president, with others members of the Court, should visit the hostel in order to obtain first-hand knowledge of the lay-out of buildings and ground."
Western Morning News - Thursday 02 November 1944, page 3.
Not intoxicated? Two pints, three double Scotches, two single gins and 5 glasses of Lager - that's a fair amount of booze.

It all sounds rather normal, getting tanked up in the pub then going for fish and chips. Except for the murdering bit. I've rarely done that on a night out. It seems that after eating his chips Himmelmann got it into his head to go to the A.T.S. hostel. Why is a bit of a mystery.
Dramatic Story At Exeter
DYING declarations A.T.S. private, Phillis Irene Kent, who was stabbed at Rowancroft, an Exeter A.T.S. hostel, last August, were repeated by witnesses who testified before an American Army court-martial, resumed at Exeter yesterday.

Pte. Kent, aged 25 and the wife of a serving soldier, died the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital from a stab wound in the root of the neck. Accused of murdering her is Robert Joseph Himmelmann, a private in the United States Army. He is pleading "Not guilty."

A dramatic story was told by the first witness called yesterday. She was A.T.S. C.S.M. Elsie M. Glass, who said that about 9.40 p.m. on August she came out of the sergeants' mess at Rowancroft and saw an American soldier standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the bedrooms. The soldier was short and fair, and she asked him what he was doing. Receiving no coherent answer — only a mutter — she said to him, "Get out of it." The soldier took no notice so she repeated in him to "clear out." Himmelmann left by the front door and the next witness saw of him was when he was crouched behind a shrubbery in the hostel grounds. She then went to 'phone for the military police. Afterwards when talking with other A.T.S. girls she heard terrifying screams coming from inside the hostel.

"I ran towards the house as fast as I could," continued C.S.M. Glass. As I got to a bend in the drive saw the same American soldier running out as hard as he could go. Some of the girls shouted 'Stop him. He has attacked Kent.'"

Witness said she tried to trip the soldier as he passed. Next a Royal Marine closed with him and knocked him over. The American got up, however, and ran quickly into the main road. Here two policemen joined in the chase, and a British soldier also came towards the American. Finally, the American soldier was caught in the grounds of a nearby house.

Asked to identify the soldier. C.S.M. Glass unhesitatingly walked towards the accused and said: "That is the man here." Another member of the A.T.S., Pte. Elsworth. said she was just inside the front door of the hostel when she heard terrible screams. An American soldier rushed out and there was something which resembled blood on his forehead. An A.T.S. girl tried to hit him with her handbag.

Witness identified Himmelmann as being the soldier concerned, and then went on to say that she saw Pte. Kent trying to get up the stairs. Kent staggered and fell on her left shoulder. She was screaming, and between her screams she said: "I am dying." When witness asked Kent what had happened, the latter said: "He came into my room and assaulted me."

Lce.-Corpl. Pearce said she had just got into bed when she heard screams. She also heard shouts "I am bleeding." She ran downstairs and saw Kent, who was bleeding from a wound in the chest Kent looked directly at witness and said an American had assaulted her and that she was bleeding to death. She also said that an American had done it and that she knew she was going to die.

The hearing was adjourned until today."
Western Morning News - Friday 03 November 1944, page 3.
As Kent said "an American" rather than naming Himmelmann, it appears that he didn't know him. So why did he go into her room and stab her? It makes no sense. Unless he was crazy.

In an attempt to keep up the beer theme, I looked to see if I had details of any Exeter beers from the period. Here the ones I could find from either side of the war:

Exeter beers 1925 - 1955
Year Brewer Beer Style Price size package Acidity FG OG colour ABV App. Atten-uation
1925 Carr, Exeter Family Ale Pale Ale 4d pint bottled 1007.1 1030.5 3.03 76.72%
1949 City Brewery Co, Exeter Mild Ale Mild 1/1d pint draught 0.06 1006.8 1032.6 21 brown 3.35 79.14%
1953 Norman & Pring Imperial Strong Ale Strong Ale 1/6d nip bottled 0.05 1051.8 1081.2 16 + 40 3.74 36.21%
1953 Norman & Pring Light Ale Light Ale 6d nip bottled 0.05 1011 1031 17 2.58 64.52%
1955 Norman & Pring Nap Ale Strong Ale 1/- half bottled 0.05 1011.8 1037.7 33 3.35 68.70%
1955 Norman & Pring Pale Ale Pale Ale 11d half bottled 0.05 1009 1031.1 20 2.86 71.06%
1928 St. Anne's Well Brewery Six Ale Pale Ale 6d pint bottled 0.08 1009.6 1032.3 2.94 70.28%
1949 St. Anne's Well Brewery Mild Ale Mild 1/1d pint draught 0.06 1003 1034.9 20 Brown 4.16 91.40%
1952 St. Anne's Well Brewery Brown Ale Brown Ale 9.5d half bottled 0.06 1005.1 1034.1 15 + 40 3.77 85.04%
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/001
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/002

You may remember that the St. Anne's Well Brewery was a very early Lager brewer.


Matt said...

There are a couple of novels that capture that time particularly well: Black Out in Gretley by J.B. Priestley and The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, which also features American soldiers and pubs.

The Beer Nut said...

He was only 19, and he got life for it.

Still, he's lucky he was white. Were he not, it's much more likely he'd have been awarded a luxury short break in rustic Shepton Mallet plus complementary spa treatment by Messrs Pierrepoint and Pierrepoint.

Ron Pattinson said...

Beer Nut, as he was tried by a US military court, surely the Americans would have executed him?

I just realised that he could still be alive. If he is, is he still in jail?

The Beer Nut said...

Some of those sentenced to death by court martial were indeed shot by firing squad, others were hanged, and the US military used Home Office hangmen to do that.

Albert Pierrepoint was horrified by the American procedure where the condemned had the charges against them read out while standing in the execution chamber, rather than his preferred 10-seconds-or-your-money-back method.

All the "dishonourable dead" from the European theatre even have their own special non-memorial cemetery in France.

I'd be surprised if a sentence of life imprisonment imposed during war time really meant life.

Paddy said...

Is the Norman & Pring 'Imperial Strong Ale' a typo @ only 36% attenuation? I realise it adds up with the numbers (1081-1051) but that seems a terribly sweet finish?

Ron Pattinson said...


it definitely says 1051.8 in the Whitbread Gravity Book. It does look weird and could well be a mistake. But it isn't my mistake.

Ron Pattinson said...

Beer Nut,

thanks for the lead about Shepton Mallet. Just been reading more about it. It was indeed the Pierrepoints who executed most of the American soldiers:

The Beer Nut said...

It's understandable that getting in a scrape with a local, finishing up with someone raped or murdered, was A Thing That Happened when you had a large overseas force stationed in Britain. What really interests me is why, if Himmelmann was found guilty of murder, he wasn't sentenced to death too. That's what has me wondering if it was a race thing.

Ron Pattinson said...

Beer Nut,

but there were white soldiers executed.

I find it equally surprising that he only got a life sentence. He'd have hung if he'd been tried by a British court.

The Beer Nut said...

28% in a 90% white army? Ah here...

I'd love to know how many black soldiers convicted of murder got life rather than the drop.

Matt said...

Pierrepoint was the landlord of a pub in Hollinwood near Manchester called rather appropriately Help the Poor Struggler (cue the jokes about "Thanks for dropping in", "No hanging about" etc).

The Beer Nut said...

It was having to hang one of his regulars that finally made him retire.

Matt said...

I know that's what the film about him suggests but I'm not sure it's true. He hanged his regular in 1950 but didn't resign until 1956, ostensibly because of a dispute over fees. It's possible of course that the incident, as well as his hanging of Ruth Ellis in 1955, also influenced his decision.

The Beer Nut said...

Yeah, sorry: one sentence over-simplificiation. Even the film suggests that the turning tide of public opinion had a lot to do with it and that seems more likely to me.

The film says the pub was already called the 'Struggler when he took over the lease. I'd assumed it was just a bit of gallows humour by him, but he didn't go in for that much, I think. Do you know if he named it, Matt?

Matt said...

This article (note the obligatory pun) suggests that it was already called that when he became the landlord.