Two of the officers, Sergeant Christopher Head and Constable David Wombwell, went to investigate the occupants of a Standard Vanguard while Constable Geoffrey Fox remained at the wheel of the police car.
Three small-time criminals occupied the Vanguard: Harry Roberts sat alongside the driver, John Whitney, while John Duddy was in the back. The three were intent on stealing a car to use in a robbery. Roberts was carrying a gun and there were two other weapons in a bag next to Duddy.
Eyewitnesses described what had happened: having spoken to Whitney, Constable David Wombwell noted his and Roberts’ details in his notebook. Meanwhile, Sergeant Christopher Head moved to the back of the vehicle and asked Duddy about the contents of the bag. Given their previous criminal records, discovery of the guns would have been likely to lead to long prison sentences.
Without warning, Roberts fired his luger pistol and Constable Wombwell fell dead from a shot to the head. The next shot missed its target but a third fatally wounded Sergeant Head as he tried to run for cover behind the police car. Moments later Constable Fox fell victim to Roberts and Duddy, who both fired several shots as the officer attempted to reverse the police car at them.
Responding to calls from the public, on-duty colleagues of the dead officers discovered the tragic scene in Braybrook Street. Never before in the history of the Police Service had so many officers’ lives been lost in a single incident. In fact, losses on such a scale were not to be repeated until the atrocity of the Harrods bombing in 1983.
On 12 December 1966, following a six-day trial at the Old Bailey in which overwhelming forensic and fingerprint evidence was produced, Roberts, Duddy and Whitney were found guilty of the murders and sentenced to life imprisonment. Duddy died in prison, Whitney was released in 1991 and Roberts was released in November 2014.
So great was the public outrage that a donation of £100,000 from the late holiday camp pioneer Mr (later to become Sir) Billy Butlin soon swelled to more than £1 million. The Police Dependants’ Trust was up and running.
Regrettably, officers still lose their lives in the line of duty, while others sustain serious injuries; the effects of which can, and often do, bring disaster to the officers and their families for the rest of their lives. And it’s not just the headline-making events that take their toll on the police. Hundreds of equally harrowing, but less high profile stories are held in the Trust’s files.
The families of many former police officers, as well as some who are still serving, have credited their present quality of life to the support they have received from the Police Dependants’ Trust. So far the Trust has supported some 7000 beneficiaries and has distributed grants totalling more than £45 million.