Special Collections

Sold on 12 December 2012

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The Collection of Second World War and Modern Gallantry Awards formed by the late William Oakley

William Raymond Oakley

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№ 608


13 December 2012

Hammer Price:

‘His sense of duty was of the highest order and his loyalty to his colleagues, superiors and subordinates alike was something to be experienced to be believed. He was a great man. I personally will miss Inspector O’Donnell terribly and I can pay no greater tribute than that expressed to me by a well-known criminal, who said, “Jim O’Donnell was fair in all things.” ’

Deputy Chief Constable J. M. Rodgers

The unique Q.P.M. for Gallantry, Second World War M.M. and Bar group of four awarded to Detective Inspector J. O’Donnell, County Borough of Blackburn Police, late Irish Guards: the only Irish Guardsman so honoured in the last War - for bravery in the Hook of Holland in May 1940, when wounded and captured, and his persistent escape activity thereafter - he won a posthumous Q.P.M. for Gallantry for attempting to disarm a maniac who had shot his wife dead and wounded another policeman in December 1958

Queen’s Police Medal for Gallantry, E.II.R. (Insp. James O’Donnell, Blackburn Borough Police), in its Royal Mint case of issue; Military Medal, G.VI.R., with Second Award Bar (2717019 L. Sjt. J. O’Donnell, Ir. Gds.); 1939-45 Star; War Medal 1939-45, together with a Royal Life Saving Society Medal, silver, named to ‘J. O’Donnell, 1934’, generally good very fine (5) £20000-25000

Q.P.M. London Gazette 14 August 1959:

‘The Queen has been pleased to award the Queen’s Police Medal for Gallantry to the late Inspector James O’Donnell of the Blackburn Borough Police.’

Police Gallantry, by J. Peter Farmery, states:

‘On 12 December 1958, a taxi-driver drove to police headquarters and reported that he had seen a man, soon identified as Henry King, standing in Brewery Road, Blackburn holding a shotgun. Constables Halliwell, Colvill and Riley immediately went to the scene, and entered the house. There were several persons present, including King, who was holding a shotgun. As Constable Colvill approached, King fired the shotgun without warning, hitting the Constable in the groin. Constables Riley and Halliwell immediately dragged their injured colleague out of the kitchen and into the front room.

Soon afterwards Detective Inspector O’Donnell and Inspector Harrison arrived, and went into the kitchen and started talking to the man with the gun. Inspector O’Donnell persuaded the man, whom he had arrested before, and therefore knew him as Henry King a local small time criminal, to let him into the back room. There he found King standing over his wife, whom he had already shot dead. King said that he wanted to make a statement, and Inspector O’Donnell said that he would write it down. However King became very agitated when he could not see the Inspector writing anything, and as Inspector O’Donnell turned to speak to him, King suddenly fired a shot without warning, hitting Inspector O’Donnell in the chest. Inspector Harrison and Constable Halliwell took their fatally wounded colleague out of the room, and he was removed to hospital where he later died.’

London Gazette 21 February 1946:

‘In recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the Field.’

Bar to M.M. London Gazette 6 June 1946. The original recommendation states:

‘O’Donnell was captured at The Hague on 15 May 1940, and spent the greater part of his imprisonment in Poland.

He was wounded and in hospital at the time of his capture, but unsuccessfully tried to evade the Germans through the American Legation.

After a short period in hospital he was sent to Thorn where he escaped in August 1940 by posing as a member of a working party. He was recaptured the next day.

In February 1942 he allowed himself to be caught out of bounds so that he should be sent to a working party for punishment. He was sent to a farm but his preparations were noticed and he was returned to the Stalag.

During August 1942 he slipped away from his guard when working outside the camp and started walking to Warsaw disguised as a Pole. After four days he was recaptured.

In February 1943 he climbed the wall at Fort 13 but was quickly recaptured.

By May of the same year he had again obtained a passport, clothing and money. He hid close to the main gate, and when it was dark, climbed over the wall and railings. He caught a train for Danzig but the forged passport did not satisfy an official on the train.

O’Donnell was then confined indefinitely in Fort 16 but managed to find Poles who were prepared to help him.

He escaped in November 1943 by bluffing the guard and spent the next ten days in Thorn trying to obtain a satisfactory passport. He was recognised and recaptured by a Gestapo official who had caught him on a previous attempt. At this stage O’Donnell was guaranteed his passage to England if he agreed to collaborate with the Germans for six months.

By February 1944 he was ready for another escape. He and one companion hid in a load of Red Cross boxes which were being sent to a Stalag nearby. With the help of a Pole, they were hidden in a room attached to the German Officers’ Mess but, having failed to obtain forged papers, they decided to travel by train to Gotenhafen. They were discovered near Marienburg.

When clothing was being moved from Fort 15 to Thorn in May 1944, O’Donnell hid in one of the sacks and escaped. He put up in a working camp so that he could forge papers and then set out for Danzig on foot. He was recaptured several days later.

Later that year, the camp were under orders to move and he managed to pass into the German compound and climb over the perimeter wire. On this occasion he was free for four days.

Whilst on the march in April 1945, he escaped from the column and joined our troops in Bergen.’

James O’Donnell was born in the parish of St. Mary’s, Bolton, Lancashire, in April 1911, and enlisted in the Irish Guards in September 1929. However, in September 1932, he transferred to Army Reserve, having opted for a new career in Blackburn Police.

Double M.M.

Recalled on the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, he was advanced to Lance-Sergeant and accompanied a composite battalion of the 2nd Irish Guards to the Hook of Holland in May 1940, where, among other duties, the Battalion oversaw the evacuation of the Dutch royal family. But, as described in The History of the Irish Guards in the Second World War, by Major D. J. L. Fitzgerald, M.C., the Germans were fast approaching:

‘It was the first heavy air raid on the Battalion in the area. Flights of bombers roared over the village, bombing and machine-gunning. The Battalion had been expecting this all day, but they could offer no effective opposition. The anti-aircraft gun posts came into action at once. They were necessarily in very exposed positions, but they fired continuously throughout the raid. Lance-Sergeant J. O’Donnell’s A./A. post was particularly exposed, but he stood to his gun, pumping a steady stream of tracer, till he collapsed badly wounded by machine-gun bullets ... This air-raid killed seven Guardsmen and wounded twenty-three. Three of the casualties were wounded some distance from the R.A.P. [including O’Donnell]. A local doctor treated them and then, with the best intentions, drove them to hospital in The Hague, where, unfortunately, the Germans collected them.’

His bravery on this occasion resulted in the award of the M.M., while his remarkable tally of subsequent escape attempts - as cited above - resulted in a Second Award Bar.

Posthumous Q.P.M.. - gunned down in cold blood

Returning to the U.K. from Bergen on 23 April 1945, he was placed back on the Army Reserve and, after further medical treatment, rejoined the Blackburn Police, and, by the time of his part in “The Brewery Street Siege” in December 1958, he was serving as a Detective Inspector and Head of C.I.D.

The following extract, taken from Blackburn Police records, describes events after O’Donnell entered Henry King’s House:

‘A short time after Inspector O’Donnell entered the room mention was made by King that he would make a statement, whereupon the Detective Inspector took out his notebook and a pencil. He held the notebook in his left hand and the pencil in his right hand. In order to pacify King he agreed to write down any statement which he cared to make. King spoke in an incoherent manner, saying something about Inspector O’Donnell was not writing. O’Donnell then turned in his direction and without the slightest warning or provocation King raised the gun and shot O’Donnell in the lower chest. He then pointed the gun at Inspector Harrison, who jumped through the open doorway into the front room and took up a heavy dining chair to defend himself.

At this time Inspector O’Donnell was shuffling on his buttocks through the doorway into the front room. He was obviously badly hurt and in great pain. He was taken from the house by Inspector Harrison and rushed to the Blackpool Royal Infirmary where an emergency operation was performed on a gun shot wound in the left side of the lower part of his chest, and for severe lacerations to the large and small intestines. During the afternoon of that day Inspector O’Connell’s condition deteriorated, and despite a further emergency operation which was carried out he died at about 11.45 p.m. A post-mortem examination revealed the cause of death to be shock and haemorrhage from a gunshot wound to the lower left chest and abdomen.

Following the removal of Inspector O’Donnell from the scene, King refused to leave the house and threatened to shoot anyone who entered.

Despite repeated requests to King to leave the kitchen he refused to do so and it became necessary to take positive action to bring him out. A police dog was called to the scene and tear gas bombs were obtained from the military barracks at Fulwood, Preston. Shortly after 2.15 a.m. tear gas bombs were thrown into the kitchen through the window and immediately afterwards the report of a shotgun inside the house was heard. The police dog, accompanied by Police Officers, then entered the house and on going into the kitchen found King, who was suffering from a minor gunshot wound to the left side of his chest and his left arm. Mrs. King was lying on the floor in front of the fireplace and was apparently dead.

King was taken to Blackburn Royal Infirmary and detained for treatment to his injuries. Three days later he was discharged from hospital and appeared before the Magistrates on charges of (i) the murder of his wife, (ii) the murder of Detective Inspector James O’Donnell, and (iii) the attempted murder of Constable John Colvill. He was committed for trial at Assizes.’

As it transpired, King was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In addition to O’Donnell’s posthumous Q.P.M., which his widow received from Prince Phillip at Buckingham Palace, the following were awarded the Queens Commendation for Gallantry: Inspector Jack Harrison; Constable Peter Halliwell; Constable Jack Colvill and Constable Jack Riley (London Gazette 14 August 1959 refers).

For his own part, the gallant O’Donnell is commemorated on a special plaque at Blackburn Police Station and by the “O’Donnell Trophy”, a rarely issued but much coveted award for bravery; sold with a box file of substantial research.