Monday, 22 December 2008

Remembering a real hero, 50 years on

In one of the buildings where I used work there's a plaque on the wall. I, and many others, would pass it every day. Many times I would stop and read it. Sometimes I would point it out to a visitor. On the plaque is written:
This tablet
is erected to perpetuate the memory of
James O'Donnell MM & Bar Detective Inspector
County Borough of Blackburn Police
To whom has been posthumously awarded
'The Queen's Police Medal for Gallantry'
who died from gunshot wounds received
in the execution of his duty
on the 13th December 1958

Mike Griffin, the editor of my quarterly pensioners newsletter writes: On this 50th anniversary of his death, it is proper to remember with gratitude and pride the service that this remarkable man gave to this country. I agree.

James O'Donnell was a native of Bolton, then a County Borough in Lancashire. During the war he served in the Irish Guards. On the 10th May 1940 the German Army invaded neutral Holland. Three days later, manning an anti-aircraft gun on the Hook of Holland jetty which was being bombed and machine-gunned, Lance Sergeant O'Donnell fired a continuous stream of tracer at enemy aircraft until he lost consciousness from machine-gun wounds. This courageous action gave Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Government the opportunity to sail to Dover. Two days later, lying in hospital in the Hague, O'Donnell was captured.
He soon found himself in prison in Poland. He managed to escape on at least a dozen occasions, including once by hiding in a box and another time by hiding in a sack, but always, being unable to get passable forged papers, he was recaptured within a few days. One Gestapo official managed to catch him twice. The longest time he was able to remain at large was for a period of 10 days. Finally, in April 1945, he escaped for good and rejoined his regiment in Bergen after an absence of 4 years and 11 months.

After the war O'Donnell rejoined Blackburn Police where he rose to the rank of Detective Inspector and head of the Criminal Investigation Department. It must be remembered that British Police Officers in uniform and their detective colleagues were in those days, as they are today for the most part, unarmed.
On 12th December 1958 at 11.35pm two constables, Jack Covill and Jack Riley, were called to a terraced house in Brewery Street, near to the police station. On arrival they found the front door barricaded and the occupant Henry King standing at the back door with a shotgun in his hands. King had been drinking heavily. He had purchased a shotgun earlier in the day. It was his intention to kill his wife and baby. The family was crowded into the back room.
Constable Covill told King to hand over the gun. King immediately shot Covill in the groin. He then turned the gun on his wife and fatally shot her. Meanwhile Constable Riley, acting swiftly, was able to pull his colleague to safety. It would take Covill a year to recover from his injuries.
Detective Inspector O'Donnell and Detective Inspector Harrison arrived at the house and King, who knew O'Donnell, allowed them entry. Shortly after they had entered King fatally shot O'Donnell in the chest at close range. Detective Inspector Harrison then threw a chair at King, who was now pointing the weapon in his direction, and in the confusion managed to get out of the house. The incident ended at 2.15am the following morning when armed police officers entered the house after using tear gas and arrested King.

In a world where the term 'hero' is much abused we would do well to reflect on what the word really means, or what it ought to mean.

Updated 6 July 2012: Please see comment box re information forwarded by M John Halliwell re another 'hero' in connection with this post. I am sorry for the inadvertent omission. GW.


Samantha Riley said...

Jack Riley was my grandad, its lovely to see the hero's still being remembered 50 years on, it makes me a very proud grandaughter, thank you!

Samantha Riley x

Poet in Residence said...

Samantha you may be justifiably proud of your grandad.
The Brewery Street Siege serves to illustrate the calibre of the constables, and yes their unquestioned pride in their uniform, as well as bravery and courage taken for granted too, commonly found in the Boroughs of Lancashire, in places like Blackburn, Wigan and Warrington. It was a time when the constable firmly identified himself with the local community, as a 'citizen locally appointed' and would spend all his 30 years at one police station getting to know his chosen town and its inhabitants inside out.
Lovely of you to contact me!
Best wishes,
Gwilym Williams

M John Halliwell said...

Dear Sirs
PC Peter Halliwell was also at the Brewery Street Seige, not mentioned in remembering a real hero. Peter was my brother and he was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal. I have cuttings from the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. I am sure that the paper will verify that fact.
Please correct your page.
Yours faithfully
M John Halliwell

Gwil W said...

Sorry for that omission Mr Halliwell. I will attach a ps.