While serving two years in Scotland in the U.S. Navy in the mid-1970s, I often watched the British TV series “The Sweeney,” which was a crime drama based on Scotland’s Yard’s famous Flying Squad. On one of my many trips to London, I met a detective who told me some interesting stories about the real Flying Squad.
So it was of great interest to me to read “Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad: 100 Years of Crime Fighting.” (Casemate Publishers).
I reached out to the author, Dick Kirby, and I asked him why he wrote the book.
“I was a member of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad for over eight years and I wrote the book to commemorate 100 years of the Squad’s existence — and believe me, it had plenty to commemorate!” he said.
“Following the end of the WWI, crime in England went through the roof and in 1919 it was decided to create a mobile force of officers who would be unrestricted as to where they went in order to smash up gangs of armed burglars, gangs who carried out smash and grabs, car thieves and pickpockets,” Mr. Kirby explained.
“Initially, just 12 detectives, taken from all over London, each with a proven record of being thief-takers were selected, and they were provided with horse-drawn covered wagons to patrol the streets, with interchangeable names of businesses slotted into the sides of the wagons. Underneath the canvas hoods, the detectives looked through spyholes to catch thieves in the act of stealing a car, about to pick a victim’s pocket or carry out a smash and grab.”
Mr. Kirby said the 12-month experiment was so successful that motorized tenders replaced the wagons and on the first night’s patrol, the Squad chased and arrested a seven-man gang of violent thieves, who had nearly killed a police constable.
“With the ensuing publicity, a crime correspondent for the London Daily Mail referred to them as ‘Flying Squads of picked detectives,’ and the name stuck.”
He said the Flying Squad was known as “The Sweeney,” which comes from the Cockney rhyming slang: Sweeney Todd = Flying Squad.
“I served two tours as a detective sergeant with the Flying Squad: 1981-1983 and 1985-1991. In those days, Flying Squad officers were totally reliant on their criminal informants. We arrested armed robbers who attacked banks or security vans. These were known as ‘pavement jobs,” Mr. Kirby explained.
“The reason being that we would wait in ambush until such time as the robbers were crossing the pavement to attack the victims, before arresting them. That would inevitably lead to some bruising encounters! We worked in groups of two or three officers; each team was provided with a fast, nondescript car driven by an expert, advanced driver and we would drive anywhere within the 790 square miles of the Metropolitan Police District and beyond to make arrests.”
Dick Kirby said the high point in his career was running the Metropolitan Police’s one and only “Double Supergrass.” To “grass” is to “rat” on his cohorts. A supergrass is a high-profile grass.
“In this particular case, the man we arrested had been a supergrass once before; having served his sentence, he went straight out and started robbing, all over again. On this occasion, he and his gang used ‘proxy bombs’ — they would strap an explosive device to a security guard and tell him to ensure that his fellow guards threw out the money, otherwise the bomb would be exploded by remote control.”
The thief became a supergrass once again.
“The most notable Flying Squad case was their investigation into the ‘Great Train Robbery.’ In August 1963, the Glasgow to London mail train was stopped by means of false signals in Buckinghamshire and approximately 15 men robbed the train of £2,631,684 ($34,823,684 in 1963 dollars and $72,534,870 in today’s dollars),” Mr. Kirby said. “The gang was rounded up with the help of informants and sheer detective ability. The criminals were sent to prison for 30 years.”
Mr. Kirby said the Flying Squad still operates, but at offices in West and East London rather than Scotland Yard.
Half of Dick Kirby’s 26-year career in London’s Metropolitan Police was spent with the Flying Squad and the Serious Crime Squad. He was commended 40 times for displaying “courage, determination and detective ability.” He was described by a judge as being “one of the best detectives at Scotland Yard,” and a senior police officer in Northern Ireland stated that he was “a good man to have in an explosive situation.”
With “Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad,” Dick Kirby, 77, has written a book that true crime aficionados will want to read.
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.