TALES of RAF Helensburgh during World War Two are usually of brave men and women doing vital war work and sometimes losing their lives. But there was one dishonourable exception.
The Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, based at Rhu and in the burgh, worked on seaplanes, bombs and how to sink U-Boats, and was staffed by service personnel, scientists, and local people.
One of their number was Gordon Frederick Cummins, who became a serial murderer.
The recent ITV two-part drama ‘Murder on the Home Front’, set in the London Blitz of 1940, was fictional and darkly amusing, but it was based on real life.
It dramatised the memoirs of Molly Lefebure, secretary to Home Office pathologist Keith Simpson, and the birth of modern forensics.
In the TV drama Dr Lennox Collins (actor Patrick Kennedy) and his secretary Molly Cooper (Tamzin Merchant) try to stop a serial killer leaving a trail of dead women in the city. The killer is based on Cummins, who was a corporal at RAF Helensburgh.
While researching the MAEE history, author Robin Bird obtained first-hand accounts of MAEE personnel who served with Corporal Cummins, the notorious ‘Blackout Ripper’ who was later hanged for murder.
Robin discovered that when the war started Cummins enlisted with the RAF and was posted to RAF Helensburgh, leaving his wife behind in London.
His colleagues on Garelochside called him the ‘Count’ or ‘Duke’ behind his back because of his arrogant attitude. But he was, it seems, good at his job and reached the rank of leading aircraftman in charge of the aircraft fitters team.
There was a general shortage of RAF operational aircrew at the time and Cummins applied for an aircrew placing. He was posted from the MAEE to an aircrew training unit at Regents Park in London.
There he spent his off duty hours regularly visiting the seedy night haunts. His wife gave him the money for his first fatal night out.
Because of the Blitz, London’s streets were darkest dark at night, street lights were not lit, windows were painted over and a black out observed.
Not many people roamed the streets, but ‘ladies of the night’ still plied their trade. Over a period of six days in February 1942, Cummins murdered four women and attacked two others.
Newspapers dubbed the killer the ‘Blackout Ripper’.
On the morning of Sunday February 9, 1942, the body of teacher Evelyn Hamilton was found in an air raid shelter.
On Monday February 10, the naked body of Evelyn Oatley was found in her Soho flat. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted. Finger prints on a can opener, used as a murder weapon, indicated that the strangler was left handed.
On February 11, prostitute Maggie Lowe was strangled with a silk stocking. On February 12 Doris Jouannet was murdered. She was said to have picked up servicemen. Her naked body was sexually mutilated.
On February 14, Cummins attacked Greta Hayward, but she escaped him. He then went for a prostitute known as Kathy King, who also managed to fight off her attacker.
After being foiled, Cummins gave her an extra £5 and fled, but left his RAF gas mask behind. The number on the gas mask container, his service number 525987, led to him being identified — and he was quickly caught.
The murder trial began on April 27 1942, at the Old Bailey. After just one day, the jury adjourned and found him guilty.
The MAEE c/o's report that Cummins was sane and a capable aircraftman contributed to the judge's decision to impose the death sentence.
The ‘Blackout Ripper’ hung at London’s Wandsworth Prison, on June 25 1942, during a Blitz.
Robin said: “No doubt, his former colleagues at Helensburgh followed the trial in the newspapers.
"He had left MAEE before his crimes were committed, so his name did not tarnish the good name of the establishment and was not linked to it.
“However, WAAFs and women civilian staff at MAEE, who served with Cummins, must have thanked their lucky stars that his killing spree started in London and not in Helensburgh.”
Who were the people at Helensburgh who worked closely with Cummins?
In the best tradition of two part crime dramas, Robin is not saying, until he completes his story of the MAEE entitled ‘Secret Air Force of World War Two’, his second book about the establishment where his dad, Bob Bird, served as official photographer.