By Les Hooper
Trieste is located in Italy, between Venice and the Istrian Peninsula, at the north end of the Adriatic Sea. It is a Central-European city which for several centuries had been under the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
‘The point is, sergeant, I want you to do it.’ Captain George Beach, The Welch Regiment, leant back in his chair and flashed one of his winning smiles. He bore the demeanor of a jovial headmaster.
‘I’ve got plenty of other jobs on,’ Les Hooper argued.
‘This one’s got prestige. Think about it. The general will hear of it, the brigadier will know, could even reach the ears of the cleaner at the governor’s castle. You might get mentioned in the war diary, in despatches, on the news. Not only big cases make reputations.’ The smile widened. ‘Grab your chance to be famous.’
Les sighed. Whichever way the silken-tongued captain put it, the case remained trivial.
It was 1951 and the British Forces Broadcasting Station in Trieste had a problem. Gramophone records kept vanishing. Troops of the British Element Trieste Force (BETFOR) were being deprived of their nightly music dose. In desperation, the station chief finally sought the help of 93 Special Investigation Section.
Les became distracted by an array of fishing flies displayed on the captain’s desk. George explained the annual Fit-For-Role inspection was due and, knowing the brigadier was a keen angler, he arranged a ploy to divert his concentration.
He picked up one of the flies. ‘A hackle. Nice, eh?’
‘Didn’t know you were a fisherman.’
The captain tapped his nose conspiratorially. ‘You get yourself off to the radio station. Think of the morale boost for squaddies when you find those missing Johnnie Ray records.’
Les wished George would stop grinning.
Outside the office, Les bumped into Tommy Carr, the company sergeant major. ‘What’s the latest on the Rossetti Barracks job?’
‘Nothing,’ Les replied. ‘I’ve got a more important task. Someone’s been pinching 78s from the radio station.’
Tommy’s lips twisted. ‘People round here get their priorities mixed up.’
The Rossetti Barracks job was small fry, too. The unit canteen of the Northamptonshire regiment had been broken into a week before and cash and cigarettes stolen. Les was also investigating a more important case where a local gypsy girl reckoned a British soldier raped her the previous Saturday night. Les arrested the suspect, Private Howard, who denied everything, and now awaited forensic evidence from the police laboratory.
The Forces Broadcasting Station at 8, Via Bellosguardo, was run by UK civilians, the man in charge being Jonathan Dewksbury. He explained the missing records were those left on a hall table for the evening and late-night presenters. Surprisingly, hundreds had been stolen over a long period. Why not report it earlier?‘Didn’t want to make a fuss,’ explained Dewksbury lamely.
Les chatted with some of the presenters and learnt they ordered records and the librarian left them on the table to be collected when the presenter arrived for his shift. This narrowed the likely culprit down to all who worked in the place and everyone with access. As the main door of the building remained unlocked 24 hours a day, over three million suspects, mostly Italian.
Les went through the painstaking chore of listing dates when records were stolen and tagging all the people believed to be in the building on the relevant evenings. A lot of names! Dewksbury insisted every one of his staff was completely honest. But he would say that.
The Trieste Venezia Guilia Police Force, British run, organised station security. This proved to be the keystone. Les spent a few hours at the radio station, making notes, trying to look intelligent, waving the SIB flag and banging his head against a brick wall. The musically deprived squaddies would have to be patient while Les dreamed up tactics to solve the mystery.
On the way back to the SIB offices at Montebello he visited the police laboratory on Via P. Revoltella. Morelli, a forensic scientist, confirmed mud on the rape suspect’s shoes matched a sample Les collected from the scene. Another nail in Private Howard’s coffin.At the laboratory a large pile of human bones, blackened with age and exposure lay heaped casually in one corner of the main office
A lab assistant explained they belonged to Chetniks, led by Draza Mihjalovic, who opposed the wartime Yugoslav partisan leader Tito. When Tito seized power at the end of the war he exacted terrible revenge on Chetniks and supporters. Their legs were broken and they were thrown down deep, natural shafts that abounded in the Slovenia countryside. Les noticed snapped leg bones in the pile. The bones were recovered in border territory that fluctuated in possession between Yugoslavia and Trieste and had been in the hole for over six years.Evidence that, although outwardly a wonderful place to live and serve with the SIB, evil undercurrents existed which caused continual tension between Slav and Italian who disputed the territory. Hence the reason for the UN military government, headed by Major General John Winterton, with British and American troops under his command.
Captain Beach’s round face fell when Les declared he solved nothing. ‘Keep at it,’ he instructed. ‘I’m relying on you.’The fishing flies had vanished from the desk. ‘How did the inspection go?’ Les asked.
George perked up. ‘We passed with flying colours,’ he boasted.
Les chuckled. ‘You hooked the brigadier then.
The captain tapped the side of his nose. ‘Got to plan these things properly.’Les returned to the radio station the following afternoon and baited a trap in collusion with Dewksbury. Now all he could do was wait.Feeling he had neglected the canteen theft long enough he drove to the barracks on Via Rossetti and interviewed the two men who ran the canteen, Corporal Weller and Private Mills.
‘Right, you two,’ he began, ‘I’ve been a week investigating this nonsense and pussyfooted around long enough. I’ll put my cards on the table. I haven’t been wasting my time so don’t give me a load of bull or I’ll get angry.’
He paused to let his words sink in. The two men glanced at each other but refused to look Les in the eye. He smiled to himself.
‘I examined the broken glass from the door and know it was smashed from the inside. That’s at least one mistake you made. Another was lying to me. You’ve got one choice left – admit you pinched the stuff and save yourself a lot of grief.’
The corporal hung his head and studied his own feet for a long moment. He looked up, heaved his shoulders and said, ‘Alright, we did it. I needed money.’ Mills admitted conspiracy and Les wrote down their signed confessions.
Back at the office, Tommy Carr buttonholed him. ‘You’re not getting very far, are you?’
‘The Rossetti job’s wrapped up. I got two bods who admitted it.’
Tommy glared. ‘You said you were getting nowhere.’
Les took a leaf from the captain’s book and touched the side of his nose. ‘Never count your chickens. . . .’ He left Tommy muttering to himself and went to the mess to enjoy a glass of cold Dreher beer.
John Massie, who looked like a benevolent bank manager, stood at the bar wearing a smug expression. He had just returned from a post mortem at the military hospital. The body belonged to a young military policeman who decided to use a hammer and chisel to dismantle a 20mm cannon shell he found on Duino beach, near Trieste. The lack of complications pleased John. A straightforward case of suicidal stupidity.
The following morning Les was in the darkroom looking at case photos of the dead military policeman when he heard his name being called. The captain wanted him. George Beach wore his serious face. ‘God knows what you’ve been up to. Get along to the police station at Guistino, they want to see you – now. Must be important. Don’t ask why, I don’t know.’
Les refused to be panicked over the unknown. He climbed into his Austin PU and drove leisurely to the police station. A receptionist quickly ushered him into an office where an inspector held out hands as red as his face.
‘Look at these,’ he cried. ‘Red dye and I can’t get it off.’
Les nodded agreement, thinking to himself, Surely this inspector didn’t steal the radio station’s records! Aloud he said, ‘Looks like gentian violet.’
A nearby sergeant and two unhappy plain-clothes detectives also showed their hands, all deep red. Was every man in the station stealing records?
‘This came from gramophone records,’ the inspector unnecessarily and angrily explained.
‘Thought so,’ said Les, struggling to suppress a smile. ‘I dusted some at the British radio station with dye to catch a thief.’
‘You might have told us what you were doing. These stains won’t wash off.’
‘Afraid not,’ Les agreed, ‘but you must have handled the records. Why?’
The story emerged. Dewksbury, without telling Les, also called in the Venezia Guilia police. They listed suspects and concluded the likely thief was a policeman. They searched homes and discovered over 400 records in one of them, including the batch Les dusted with gentian violet dye.
All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare anticipated. The light-fingered policeman languished behind bars and most of the records recovered. Interestingly, not a Johnnie Ray amongst them. Dewksbury thanked the SIB and gave them a half-hour music programme to themselves. Several members of the local law remained red-handed for days, causing considerable mirth amongst colleagues.
As for the rape case, when court-martial day arrived the gypsy girl failed to turn up and could not be traced. Private Howard was released.
NOTE: Younger surfers may wonder why a captain in the Welch Regiment commanded a SIB unit. In those days the Royal Military Police did not have commissioned ranks; all officers were seconded from other regiments and corps, most being former policemen.