Bertie Smalls: Armed robber turned supergrass

Bertie Smalls was one of Britain's most prolific armed robbers who, through an act of self-preservation, succeeded in changing the way in which the British police dealt with serious crime. After many years as a professional criminal, he helped create a legal precedent by giving up the cream of London's armed robbers in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Brought up in north London, Derek Creighton Smalls (known as "Bertie") was the eldest of five children. At the age of 15 he was arrested for breaking into a railway restaurant car, and served his sentence in an approved school. From then on, apart from just a few weeks as a labourer, Smalls dedicated his life to armed robbery. He was at the forefront of the switch from coshes and pickaxe handles to firearms, and from the mid-Sixties was a key figure, usually the "frightener", on numerous robberies in London and the South East.

This was a golden age for armed robbers, who were the élite of the British criminal community. Bank security was almost non-existent, and with little planning a small team of determined robbers armed with a sawn-off shotgun, a handgun, a sledgehammer and a fast car would have little trouble in cleaning up.

By the summer of 1972 armed robberies in London were being committed at the rate of one every five days, and since 1969 more than £3m had been stolen. Convictions were rare, only a tiny fraction of the loot was recovered, and there can be little doubt that the robbers were assisted, in more ways than one, by both the culture and organisation of the Metropolitan Police.

In this era, CID officers were entrepreneurs of local knowledge, which was usually acquired from drinking, wheeling and dealing with local villains. As a consequence the gap between corruption and practical policing became extremely narrow. This was compounded by the tendency of the CID and its various specialist squads to guard jealously the intelligence that they had acquired.

Thriving on the insularity of these CID fiefdoms, Smalls and his ilk were able to work across police boundaries plundering banks all over London. Smalls was a highly respected figure in the high-spending, hedonistic robber fraternity, and he eventually came to the attention of the police after a raid on the National Westminster Bank in Palmers Green. Although he had been questioned a number of times in relation to armed robbery, Smalls always had a decent alibi, and his only adult convictions were relatively minor, such as living off immoral earnings, and a fine for possession of a loaded gun.

Days after the Palmers Green robbery, Smalls's house in Selsdon, south London, was raided, and although he was absent at the time, he did later telephone the local CID office to make an appointment. But he failed to turn up for it, proceeding instead to put together another robbery team.

The Palmers Green raid had netted just £10,000, which was then split four ways, and Smalls, a father of two, needed money. He put together a seven-handed team who, in 90 seconds inside the Wembley branch of Barclays bank, stole £138,000 before decamping to Torremolinos with their families.

Back in London, an informant had named the Wembley robbers, and Bruce Brown, a golfing partner of the head of Wembley CID was arrested. This success inspired the formation of a specialist Robbery Squad that combined officers from previously competing units such as the Regional Crime Squad and the Flying Squad. Despite interviewing some of the robbers and visiting Spain, the 25-strong team had no further success.

However, Smalls's name was being increasingly linked with a portfolio of robberies across London, and eventually, in November 1972, his house was raided, and the family's au pair gave the police an address in Northamptonshire owned by Smalls's brother. Bertie was arrested, and in the car back to London offered to "do a deal", which the police refused. Within a month he offered to give up "every robber in London" in exchange for immunity, and again the police showed no interest. At the committal hearings in March 1973 Smalls was served with papers indicating some very strong evidence against him in relation to the robberies at Palmers Green and Wembley, as well as a Hatton Garden robbery that netted £296,000 in cash and jewels.

Faced with the probability of a 20-year sentence Smalls again offered to "do the royals", or offer Queen's Evidence in exchange for immunity. This time the proposal was put before the Director of Public Prosecutions, a deal was struck, and the term "supergrass" entered the public lexicon.

Smalls confessed to 15 robberies, and named 32 bank robbers and a number of associates. The Wembley robbers were sentenced to a total of 106 years, and over the next 14 months a further 21 men received sentences totalling 308 years. Smalls also secured the release from prison of Jimmy Saunders, who had been falsely imprisoned for his part in the 1970 raid on Barclays Bank in Ilford that had netted £237,000.

Chief Superintendent Cecil Saxby, Bruce Brown's golfing partner, was accused of stealing £25,000 from Brown's safety deposit box, and the subsequent police investigation cleared Saxby, who then retired from the force. Another police inquiry highlighted a common practice of the day. Detective Constable Joan Angell, a member of the Flying Squad, alleged that an informant of hers, "Mary Fraser", had named Bruce Brown and Bryan Turner as two of the Wembley robbers, who were then arrested. Angell claimed a reward for "Fraser".

The paperwork for this claim then disappeared, and the police inquiry found that the reward had been paid to a "William Wise". The officers who had claimed the money on his behalf were Saxby and Detective Chief Inspector Vic Wilding, who were both eventually cleared by a police investigation. Angell resigned in disgust and in 1976 "Mary Fraser" received £1,000 reward. Vic Wilding left the Met to become a security officer for Barclays Bank.

By 1973 two officers a week were voluntarily leaving the Met as a result of a general anti-corruption purge led by Commissioner Robert Mark. The number of bank robberies in London fell from 65 in 1972 to 26 in 1973.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Smalls's life was the way in which he broke for ever the myth of an underworld code of silence. Although the law lord Lord Justice Lawton subsequently said that the arrangement between Smalls and the Director of Public Prosecutions should not be repeated, other "supergrasses" followed in his wake. Armed robbery in London increased during the following decade, before gradually giving way to drug dealing as the felony of choice for career-minded villains.

Smalls spent the rest of his days with an assumed name living under police protection, and although he was beaten up at least once, nobody attempted to claim the £1m bounty that members of the underworld were alleged to have been willing to pay for his murder.

Dick Hobbs

Derek Creighton "Bertie" Smalls, robber and police informer: born 1935; died Croydon, Surrey 31 January 2008.

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