By Frank Dunkley
Only his eyes could be seen above the scarf, tied – bandit fashion – over his face. Perhaps he thought he was impressing the two 17-year-old girls who were with him in his hideout near Chatham’s Sharsted Woods. Perhaps he saw himself as a 20th-century Jesse James living out his dream as an outlaw on the run.
But it was a fantasy possessed of its own terrifying reality. Because slung across his shoulder was a weapon that could kill – a Sten gun he had stolen from the arms depot of his unit on the night he had decided to go absent from the Army.
And on that sunny June evening when four boys, playing in the woods, discovered Alan Derek Poole in his hide-out they started a train of events which, within an hour, resulted in the death of a young Chatham policeman and ended in what later became known as the Siege of Symons Avenue.
Poole fired the first round from the Sten gun when the boys jeered at him after he had threatened to shoot them if they didn’t clear off. And from that moment he was no longer a kid acting out a dream. He was a potential killer.
The boys, terrified, raced to the nearest house – Sharsted Farm – where 27-year-old Norman Attwood was tidying up before going to bed. They blurted out their story and Attwood decide to see what was going on. He took his brother and two of the boys with him and, near a shed on the council’s refuse tip, they caught sight of Poole and the two girls.
Poole clearly had no intention of being disturbed. As if playing a role in a Wild West film, he pointed the gun at Attwood and warned him not to come any further.
Attwood beckoned the others back to the farm house. They dialled 999. At Chatham police station, Sgt Sydney Langford and PCs Alan Baxter and Brown were finishing a cup of tea. In less than a minute they were on their way to Sharsted Farm in a patrol van.
On their way through Luton they were stopped by one of the boys who had first spotted Poole. He went with them in the van and on the way told them what he had seen. The officers were not unduly alarmed. It was still a routine three-nines call.
At the farm they were met by Norman Attwood and his brother and together they drove to the edge of the wood. The rough track ended and it was impossible to take their van any further.
At this moment Sgt Langford made the decision which was to have tragic consequences he could not possibly have foreseen. He sent 33-year-old PC Baxter – a man with 12 years’ service in the Kent police – back to the road to inform his station of the situation.
Meanwhile, he and Norman Attwood began to comb the woods. But Poole and the girls had disappeared.
Sgt Langford then turned his attention to the old huts around Sharsted tip. At first, everything seemed in order – until he spotted a broken window in the centre of one of the sheds. He climbed on to some cardboard boxes, looked in and saw the silhouettes of Poole and the two girls moving towards the door. Sgt Langford recalled later: “I jumped down from the boxes and ran round to intercept them.
“When I got about 25 yards from them, Poole slid the Sten gun from his shoulder and fired four rounds of single shots at me. At first I thought they were just blanks and that he was trying to frighten me. I moved towards him and he continued to fire. It was then that I realised they were real bullets.”
So, for the first time that evening, it became apparent that Poole was not play-acting. Police were dealing with a man who was shooting to kill. As Sgt Langford turned to get out of the compound surrounding the shed, Poole moved in – still firing the Sten gun. The sergeant flung himself to one side, stumbled, but managed to take cover behind the wall of the shed.
As he waited for Poole to come at him, there was another burst of firing. But this time, Poole was not aiming at Sgt Langford. He had turned his attention to Constable Baxter who began running back to the police van when he heard the shots.
The sergeant crept from behind the hut and saw, in the gathering dusk, Poole running from the compound. Constable Baxter was lying on his back, already knowing his wounds were fatal.
He murmured to the sergeant: “He’s got me in the guts, Sarge. I’ve had it. I’m going to die.”
Although both men were aware that Poole could return at any moment. Sgt Langford and Attwood lifted the dying constable on to the van. They rushed him to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Rochester, where surgeons began a desperate fight to save his life.
And one of the biggest man-hunts ever known in Kent began. It went on all the next day – Tuesday, 6 June, 1951.
Units of the Army and Navy were called in. Woods and fields were combed – but still there was no sign of the gunman. It was not until the afternoon that the two girls who had been with him were traced and police finally learned the identity of the man they were looking for.
Records revealed that already he was a hardened criminal. Neighbours knew him as a boy who tried to look like a gangster. “He walked like a gangster and he talked out of the side of his mouth like a gangster,” said Mr Robert Hammell, his next-door neighbour.
His life of crime had begun at the age of 15 when, he was sent to an approved school for a long list of office-breaking offences. He escaped and was then sent to Borstal.
Four months after his release he was sent back after breaking into other offices. He escaped, was returned to Borstal and escaped again. When an attempt was made to arrest him outside Chatham Football Ground he pulled a sheath knife and told the slowly-advancing police officer that he would “get it” if he came any nearer. But at the last moment he lost his nerve and dropped the knife.
Back he went to Borstal. On his release he joined the Royal Corps of Signals. But soon he was on the run again and remained undetected for six months before being discovered in the hide-out at Sharsted Woods. Then 27 hours after his discovery and the shooting of PC Baxter it was learned that Poole had managed to make his way to his parents’ home in Symons Avenue. At once seven police officers, all in plain clothes and armed with á303 rifles, were posted at the front and back of the house.
They had been told to return fire in self-defence if Poole attempted to shoot his way out. Otherwise he was to be detained by peaceful means – alive if possible. But under no circumstances was he to be permitted to escape armed. By this time, PC Baxter had died. He died, his wife at his bedside, the previous afternoon. She had been taken there by stretcher from the hospital bed where she was expecting a baby.
As dawn broke on the Wednesday, all was quiet in Symons Avenue. The officers, who had been there all night, improved their firing positions.
At 8.15am, neighbours, who had been asked to leave their homes, and were huddled among the growing crowd of spectators and Press men, saw Poole’s father Albert leave the house by the back door. He was followed by his son who raised the Sten gun to his elbow and fired three or four shots at the crouched policemen. The fire was returned. Poole retreated inside the house.
Among the crowd of housewives on the street corner – out of shooting distance – Albert Poole told how he had arrived home from work that morning to find his son had placed a bed across the stairs as a barricade. And his mother, Dorothy, who had had nine other children, said: “He had been hiding in the attic since the night before last. He changed into his best clothes and he had a mad look in his eyes. Just before the police arrived in the garden he made me leave the house.”
As Mrs Poole talked, another shot was fired from the back bedroom window. Just before 9am, more shots came from the front of the house. The fire was again returned.
At 10am, police decided to force Poole from the house with tear gas. Colour Sergeant Walter Iveson, ex-Scots Guardsman, ran the gauntlet of fire in front of the house and lobbed two bombs through the window and the letter box. Poole stayed put. There was no answer to “surrender” appeals. He was found in the upstairs front bedroom lying on his back, the Sten gun across his chest. His left hand gripped the sling, his right hand was near the small of the butt. The magazine still contained 17 live rounds.
The small-time gunman who regarded himself as a gangster was dead. His murder of PC Baxter had been avenged. And he had died, not like the heroes of the American comics he read, but like a rat in a trap. In his left shoulder was a small bullet hole. Another larger bullet hole was near the right side of his spine. It would have been impossible, it was later established, for Poole to have fired the shot which killed him.
But it will never be known who fired the shot that ended the Siege of Symons Avenue. At the inquest the jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.
Mrs Peggy Baxter lost the baby she was expecting.
A note on the author from Ted Connolly, who worked with him: Frank Dunkley, who died in the 1990s, was a journalist of the old school. His interview technique was always incisive and sometimes bordering on the ferocious. If he was a talented journalist then he was a gifted writer and in more ways than one. His copy was always entertaining and meticulously handwritten. Its physically perfect presentation on paper matched the content. In the latter part of his career, he was news editor of the Chatham News and also freelanced extensively for The People where he had earned great respect over many years. Among Frank’s pearls was the following piece of advice: “You can bend a story as far as you like as long as it never snaps.” His never did. He was a true pro.