War Courts and Martial Law in Shropshire

It was with some surprise that I opened a folder in an MI box (miscellaneous small deposits) the other day to discover a series of six documents that detailed the provision for martial law in Shropshire in the 1940s.

So far I have catalogued five MI boxes. They contain small collections of manuscripts not destined to fall within Shropshire Archive’s main run, deposited over a fairly long period but with some of the material far pre-dating the deposit date. This means that their content can be very mixed. The boxes I have been looking at arrived at the archives in the 1960s, but I have so far seen material ranging from medieval deeds to 1950s election propaganda leaflets. Each small group of documents has its own story to tell, and forms a sort of ‘archive in miniature’.

The six 1940s documents that I found in this particular box are a lovely example of this.  Shropshire Archives MI997/1-6 rest in a folder of their own, but the box that contains this also holds (amongst many other items) a series of postcards from approximately 1900, aerial photographs of Ludlow from the 1950s, and some eighteenth century deeds.

The War Court mini archive, as I can’t help but think of these six manuscripts, consists of four letters, a leaflet, and a car windscreen label. The first letter was the one that really caught my eye. Above the sender’s address in the top right corner is the word ‘SECRET’, capitalised and underlined.

Typescript Letter with 'SECRET' Stamped Above the Address Panel

There is something about that word that just makes reading further irresistable! The text of the typescript letter that followed was this

Sir, If the necessity to proclaim Martial Law should arise it will be necessary to set up Military Courts at various centres and a Summary Court in each Petty Sessional Division to try offences against Martial Law.

The Summary Courts will consist of one Justice of the Peace sitting alone, who will have power to award a sentence of 2 years imprisonment and a fine of £200.

Your name has been suggested as suitable to hold the Summary Court for the Petty Sessional Division of PONTESBURY [handwritten].

It is now desired to know if you would be willing to act in that capacity. I trust that as this is a most important and responsible duty you will not refuse for other than the most pressing reasons.

Information as to offences and procedure will be given to you as it becomes available.

Please treat this communication as strictly personal and secret.

I am, Sir, Your obedient servant [illegible signature] Brigadier, Commander, North Wales Area.

The letter was sent to Capt. Sir Offley Wakeman, Bt., and is dated 20 June 1940.

Now, it could be that I am being a bit ignorant and naive, but I hadn’t heard of War Courts in England during the Second World War prior to straying across these letters. I did study history at school, and it was even a modern world history course, but for some inexplicable reason the syllabus skipped both the world wars. My studies since have taken me to earlier epochs, and I haven’t picked up a lot of Second World War knowledge in my everyday life. So, in fairness, it is perhaps no surprise that I am no expert. However, a quick trip to Google seems to suggest that I am not the only one who doesn’t know much about this aspect of home-front defence planning.

The second letter, dated 12 December 1941, informs Captain Wakeman that an order made by the Secretary of State had been issued via the Home Office appointing him to the panel of advisory members for the War Zone Courts of the Midland District. Should a War Zone be declared, not only would he be responsible for the Summary Court of Pontesbury, but he was officially signed up as an advisory member for the War Courts of the Midland District.

Typescript Letter

The letter goes on to inform him that

The Courts will not be set up until the Midland District is declared to be a War Zone by Order of the Minister for Home Security

Note the terminology. ‘Until’, not ‘if and when’. There is a sense that the provision for these courts was a pressing necessity, not a fallback plan to cover unlikely developments. Reading this letter brings home the sense of impending danger felt by the author and recipient (and, indeed, many people living in Britain at this time). It is hard for me, in 2012, to really grasp what that felt like. I know that (unless I really have missed some crucial 1940s history) Shropshire was never invaded or declared a War Zone, and that Captain Sir Offley Wakeman would never actually be called upon to carry out these duties.

He did not know this. August 1940 had seen the Battle of Britain, and the following months saw Coventry, Bristol, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and London bombed. The new year saw major London landmarks destroyed by enemy bombs, and in July 1941 Liverpool was again targeted. This was a war that took place on home soil in a way that nothing in my lifetime has. The Germans did, in fact, have plans for a full land invasion. Had they won the Battle of Britain, Operation Sea Lion would have proceeded and Captain Sir Offley Wakeman would truly have been involved in the proceedings of War Zone Courts of the Midland District.

To underline this sense of urgent necessity, enclosed with this letter was an ‘E.L’ label for Wakeman’s car.

Beige Cardboard Label with 'E L' and the Royal Crest Printed on it

for affixing to the windscreen of your car, to enable you to get quickly to Court in your County where your attendance has been requested by one of the Presidents

The label still survives, and can be found in Shropshire Archives alongside the letters. Wakeman was admonished to take care not to let this label be lost or fall into ‘other’ hands. He was also given information on acquiring additional petrol coupons, and failing that, assured that the police or military would provide transport if necessary.

I rather get the feeling that Captain Wakeman was unhappy with his appointments. No letters written by him appear in this mini archive, as it seems that it is his possessions that have been deposited. All the surviving letters are addressed to him. However, a letter dated 18 December 1941 gives a sense of what he must have written. The Clerk of the War Zones wrote to assure him that

I would say, for your information, that quite a number of magistrates within the five Counties forming the Midland District, who have been appointed Advisory Members of the War Zone Courts, will have active duties to perform in the event of invasion.

As, However, a comparatively large number has been appointed to the Panel to serve the County of Salop, to enable a selection to be made at the appropriate time to suit the convenience of members, I do not think that you need worry unduly about the dual functions which you have to perform.

In any event I certainly agree with you that your first duty would be to the Home Guard.

Did Captain Wakeman attempt to wriggle out of this potentially onerous responsibility? Perhaps that is too harsh a reading. Nonetheless, he must have mentioned his Home Guard service – and this letter certainly seems to suggest that he had reservations about serving on the War Courts.

Having read the last document in the series, which is a leaflet entitled ‘War Zone Courts; General Exlanatory Memorandum’, I can empathise with his reticence. This small twelve page booklet gives the details for how and when War Courts could convene, what jurisdiction they had and the extent of their sentencing powers. It makes for rather chilling reading. Once an area was declared a War Zone, the War Courts effectively had jurisdiction within that area. The sentencing is the bit that caught my eye, though.

A War Zone Court may sentence any person convicted of an indictable offence to any punishment he might have been sentenced by a Court of Assize or Quarter Sessions if he had been convicted on indictment; and it may sentence any person convicted of any offence to any punishment to which he might have been sentenced by a Court of Summary Jurisdiction on Summary Conviction.

Before passing sentence the Court is required to take into consideration any representations made by an officer of His Majesty’s Forces as to the gravity of the offence having regard to the military situation.

Rather wide ranging then, given that a War Court consisted of a President, with two advisory members and no jury.

Sentence of death will, in the abscence of direction to the contrary, be carried out by shooting as in the case of a sentence of death passed by Court Martial. Where, however, the person sentenced to death can, without undue difficulty, be conveyed to a prison equipped for the carrying out of sentence of death by hanging, […]he shall be dealt with in like manner as a person convicted on indictment of murder. [The Secretary of State] may charge either a Sheriff or the Governor or other person having charge of the prison with the execution of the sentence.

In 1941 the death penalty was still a real possibility in English courts for crimes such as murder, so this is not as shocking as it might be. Nonetheless, I would be uncomfortable being tried without a jury for these stakes.

Times of war are very different to times of peace, and perhaps I shouldn’t be at all surprised that there was provision for Martial Law in Shropshire during the 1940s. It was never (to my knowledge) invoked, so it is a by-line to the ‘main’ historical narrative. There is something about having a name, having some letters, having ‘SECRET’ stamped on a document that brings it home though. I didn’t know about any of this until I catalogued these manuscripts. I think it is worth knowing. Something of Captain Wakeman’s concern survives in these documents. The extent of official plans, and their potential impact, are there to be read for anyone interested.

Please feel free to correct me on points of World War II history – or let me know if you know more about War Courts than I do – I freely admit I am no expert and would love to hear anyone more knowledgable.