Arming the BTP

by Michael ‘Dan’ Tanner

Media coverage of the recent authority to arm British Transport Police officers has indicated that this is a first for the Force; however this is not the case. Police Officers on the railway and docks have been armed previously, not only in wartime but even in comparatively recent times.

Over the years, society has been debating the issues around fully arming the police in response to violent crime where guns have been used. These have included some high profile incidents and the debate intensified after the massacre in Hungerford by Michael Ryan in 1986, the Dunblane school massacre in 1996 and more recently, the killing of twelve people in Cumbria by Derek Bird in 2010.

In fact, this issue has been debated for over a hundred years. Following the murder of two Constables in 1884, the Metropolitan Police were given permission by the Commissioner of the day to carry revolvers during uniformed night time patrols. These were called ‘Comforters’ and each officer could choose to carry them or not. The majority of Officers on single patrol on nights were armed. This was the nearest we have seen to a fully armed service and that was over a hundred years ago. This remained the case until 1936 when the revolvers were taken off the Constables and kept under lock and key at the police station.

It is interesting that firearms legislation at this time was very limited, save the prohibition of possession of firearms by persons of “weak mind”. This ensured that firearms were widely in circulation amongst the general population. This certainly occasionally proved to be useful as in the 1911 Siege of Sydney Street. An armed gang of three East European Revolutionaries were trapped and surrounded by police. Not all the officers were armed and so firearms were quickly provided by passing members of the public; a situation that seems incredible today.

Armed Officers at Hull Docks, 1941

Armed Officers at Hull Docks, 1941

 

The question is, during this era, were officers armed on BTP’s jurisdiction? Since the BTP was formed from constituent forces of dock, railway and canal police, it can be shown that they were. London and North Eastern Railway Police Dog Handlers at Hull Docks were armed with Webley pistols during the Second World War. These weapons were commercially available standard handguns issued to all police forces. They were slightly smaller and lighter than their military counterparts. The perceived threat to the docks was from fifth columnists, saboteurs and German parachutists. During the invasion of Holland and Belgium the transport infrastructure had been targeted by elite troops who would secure these points of communication ahead of the main army.

All Britain’s docks came under the control of the Railway Executive and the Minister of War Transport. With its South Wales ports, GWR was the largest dock owning company, and all dock officers were issued with handguns including special Constables. They were mostly Webley Scott revolvers with five rounds of ammunition, allowing an empty chamber under the hammer.  When first issued, many officers had little or no experience of firearms and some basic training was provided by the army.  All officers were required to certificate that the weapons were in good order and that they were regularly overhauled and oiled.

 

The London Transport Police were also armed on the London Underground where spot checks were made for spies, deserters and armed criminals. Also in World War Two, the Great Western Railway Police armed their officers with Short Magazine Lee Enfields (SMLE) .303 rifles of World War One vintage, when guarding the headquarters at Aldermarston.   Crime rose sharply in this wartime period with all police forces under-manned, along with more firearms in circulation. The railways were also being targeted by armed criminals. In the early hours of 13th October 1945 Sergeant William Huddart of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Police was on duty when he came across an armed robbery at the booking office at Leicester station. The armed suspect took Sergeant Huddart prisoner and he remained captive for over an hour. The officer noticed the man’s identity card had dropped to the floor, he bent down to pick it up for him but as he did so he sprung at the man who shot at him from just three feet. The bullet passed through his tunic near his shoulder but he still managed to grab, disarm and arrest the man. He was awarded the Kings Police and Fire Service Medal for Gallantry – the only time this medal, known as the Policeman’s VC, was awarded to an officer of a Railway Police force.

Ready for patrol, 2012

Ready for patrol, 2012

 

Post-war, some BTP officers assigned to the Royal Train were armed with Smith and Wesson .38 caliber revolvers. These officers were in addition to the Protection Officers normally assigned to the Royal Family. Armed BTP officers also provided an escort when the Bank of England moved bullion by rail. In the 1970s armed BTP officers kept observation at Barclays Bank within Euston station following information that a raid was due to take place. Armed BTP officers existed into the 1980s with training being carried out alongside Metropolitan Police officers at Lippett’s Hill. The weapons were stored at Holborn and Old St Police stations.

1983 was a watershed for armed officers of all forces. The mistaken shooting of Stephen Waldof by plain clothes Metropolitan Police resulted in a complete review of police firearms tactics. The number of Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs) was greatly reduced.

It was the then Assistant Chief Constable Ian McGregor who reviewed BTP’s firearm capability. After carefully weighing the issues, Mr. McGregor, a man who was not wary of making decisions, decided to withdraw firearms from the force. On balance it was probably the right decision at the time.

The re-introduction of armed officers in 2012 is in a very different context and is set against concerns of an enduring terrorist threat. Armed patrols have recently commenced and the officers, who have received the very best training, will be available for other duties as well as armed patrol. Local Home Office forces will still provide most armed responses with BTP armed patrols only taking place in London at first. Superintendent Phil Trendall, the officer in charge of the new firearms unit, believes that this enhancement is just part of the long tradition of BTP adapting to changes in the demand for policing the railway. He says- “If members of the history group see these officers out and about please stop and have a chat with them. Just because they are armed does not mean they can’t talk to the public, especially to retired officers who are closest to the ‘BTP family”.

 

With thanks to Phil Trendall, Superintendent, Counter Terrorism Support Unit – and BTPHG member.

This article originally appeared in the BTPHG Year Book 2012.

Video on BTP armed capability from the BTP YouTube channel.

Video description: British Transport Police deploys armed officers on patrol to increase security at stations, act as a deterrent to terrorism and is a significant step in building resilience amongst the UK police service generally.

Transcript of “Policing the Railways – Armed Police” (above video)

Narrator:
The threat from terrorism is unfortunately a fact of everyday modern-day life and looks set to remain so for the foreseeable future. But it isn’t static. The nature of the threat changes and terrorists are developing new tactics and changing the way they operate. We keep our own capabilities and resources under constant review, so we are well placed to meet the latest demands. That’s why in February 2012 we deployed our first firearms officers. This is the first time in recent years that British Transport Police has had a firearms capability. The firearms unit has been setup to boost security at stations and also to boost the number of firearms officers available to the police service generally. This is a contingency measure should the threat level increase.

Stephen Thomas, Assistant Chief Constable:
It’s just like you see at an airport. Our officers patrol in pairs. They’ve got all the latest equipment – that firearms officers have in the police service – but it’s very much to reassure the public and make them realise that we’re there to keep them safe.

Narrator:
We have chosen our firearms officers first and foremost because they are good police officers with all the knowledge, decision making and good communication skills that go with that. We then take those good police officers and train them in an additional skill – the ability to use firearms if absolutely necessary. Then we equip them to do so. For BTP Officers that means LMT CQB carbines and Glock 17 pistols, together with the usual protective equipment.

Stephen Thomas, Assistant Chief Constable:
We take all the best training and techniques the police service has to offer and being the new comers to police use of firearms we’ve been able to take the best practice from around the country.

Narrator:
Our firearms unit consists of a small core of officers who will spend most, but not all, of their time on armed patrols. Supporting them is a wider reserve group who can be mobilised in case of crisis. In terrorist terms armed officers are our last line of defence. They are backed up by a comprehensive security regime that involves the security services, police, rail staff and management working together. The other vital and just as important element in that regime is public vigilance.

© British Transport Police