Western Morning News


The death earlier this month of a famous Metropolit­an police detective, Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read, brought back memories for JOHN POWELL of some of Nipper’s most famous criminal adversarie­s, some of whom spent time in Dartmoor prison


THE death on April 7 of former Scotland Yard detective Leonard “Nipper” Read has revived memories of an extraordin­ary series of events more than 50 years ago involving the notorious gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray and Frank Mitchell, the man dubbed the Mad Axeman by the Press – events which touched the lives of some in the Tavistock area.

The then Det Supt Read had spent years patiently tracking the Kray twins whose gang had terrorised London’s East End before finally bringing them to trial on murder charges in 1969.

But it was Ronnie and Reggie’s connection with Mitchell, and their involvemen­t in his mysterious escape from Dartmoor Prison in 1965, which caught the imaginatio­n of the public at the time and, along with the escape of Soviet spy George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966, led to the setting up of the Mountbatte­n Inquiry into prison security.

It was this report that provided much evidence of Mitchell’s amazing time inside, and outside Dartmoor Prison, and his illicit visits to local pubs and a taxi ride in Tavistock.

Mitchell was born of humble origins in London’s East End in 1929 and was said to be of sub normal intellect.

After spells in Borstal and prison it was in 1953 that he made his mark as a man of violence, attacking two prison officers in Pentonvill­e and earning a flogging as a result. In 1955 he was transferre­d to Rampton after being certified as mentally defective and escaped within two years. While on the run he carried out vicious attacks during burglaries and after recapture was certified insane and sent to Broadmoor.

Just over a year later he was on the run again, now armed with the axe which made him a household name, attacking and injuring a couple whose car he was trying to steal.

After being recaptured again he was able to convince the authoritie­s of his sanity and in 1962 ended up in Dartmoor Prison serving a life sentence for his crimes.

Mitchell was a man of great strength and was proud of his muscleboun­d body. He was once said to have shown off his power by lifting the front end of a car while two prison officers were sitting on it.

Prison officer Derek Brisco once said of Mitchell that he was a “gentle giant”, although he was the most rebellious man in the prison system, meriting frequent floggings with a cat o’ nine tails and birchings.

And in his report to the Mountbatte­n Inquiry Robert Mark, who was then chief constable of Leicester, said there was some foundation for the claims that Mitchell was the prison boss at Dartmoor, terrorisin­g prisoners and officers alike and that he had a retinue of servants.

Mitchell’s reputation led to him being considered a security risk and he was subject to close supervisio­n and yet within four years he had made such a good impression that he was allowed outside the jail working with the honour party.

Mitchell took advantage of the situation and would slip away from the party to visit the lonely Elephant’s Nest public house at Horndon near Mary Tavy and the Peter Tavy Inn.

Amazingly, just a month before his escape, Mitchell ordered a taxi to take him into Tavistock where he bought a budgerigar which he took back to the prison.

This extraordin­ary series of events came to an end when Mitchell decided to leave the honour party for good.

He made his bid for freedom on December 12, a typical wet and misty Dartmoor day.

The weather was so bad the prisoners stayed in a hut after lunchtime but at about 3.30pm Mitchell asked if he could go off and feed some ponies about half a mile away. He never returned and when the minibus arrived an hour later to pick up the prisoners the alarm was raised.

The Press, stressing the danger of the man and warning people on the moor to stay behind locked doors, soon picked up the vital piece of informatio­n that the police wanted to interview three Londoners in a grey Rover seen at Hexworthy about four miles from the prison on the day of the escape.

Checkpoint­s were set up but the police soon concluded that Mitchell had got clean away. The reason was the discovery of his prison clothing in a lay-by on the A30 near Crockernwe­ll. With the clothing was a footlong broad bladed knife in a roughly made leather sheath.

In his official biography of the Kray twins, Profession of Violence, John Pearson says that Ronnie and Reggie decided to get Mitchell out of Dartmoor. He was picked up by two men near Princetown and by the time the police were checking the road from Dartmoor he was eating steak in an East London flat.

He watched Royal Marines combing the moor on the television news and said he would kill the lot of them if they came looking for him.

Mitchell wrote two letters to national newspapers saying that he had escaped to draw attention to his plight and had left the knife behind in the A30 lay-by to show he did not intend any violence.

There was to be now fairytale ending, however. His fate was revealed when his killer, the ruthless thief Freddie Foreman, confessed in a television documentar­y – the Krays – Unfinished Business – in 1996.

Foreman revealed that he was given the job of getting rid of Mitchell within a few days of him being spirited off the Moor, because he had become too hot to hold.

Foreman says Mitchell believed he was being taken by van to spend Christmas with Ronnie Kray. Instead he was shot by Foreman and another man in the back of the van.

“It had to be done properly, mercifully and as quickly as possible,” said Foreman.”It was all over in seconds. He didn’t know what hit him.”

The body of Mitchell, who for a brief time had been Britain’s most wanted man, has never been found. The Kray twins, their elder brother Charles, and two other men, were charged with Mitchell’s murder two years later, but they were found not guilty.

At the preliminar­y hearing in Bow Street Magistrate­s Court in 1968 Mr Kenneth Jones, the QC prosecutin­g the group, gave an account of how Mitchell was killed which correspond­s closely to Foreman’s confession.

Mr Jones told the court that two men took Mitchell from the flat in London and there was the sound of muffled shots, as if coming from the inside of a vehicle.

Soon after, one of the men was alleged to have returned to the flat to make a telephone call, giving the message “The dog is dead”.

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 ?? Mirrorpix ?? > Dartmoor prison on a gloomy day and, inset, Frank Mitchell’s arrest and the Daily Mirror’s coverage of his escape. Below, Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read, National Coordinato­r of Regional Crime Squads, part of the team who caught the Kray brothers
Mirrorpix > Dartmoor prison on a gloomy day and, inset, Frank Mitchell’s arrest and the Daily Mirror’s coverage of his escape. Below, Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read, National Coordinato­r of Regional Crime Squads, part of the team who caught the Kray brothers
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