The extraordinary case of Leroy Henry

Black Yanks 3 200x300
Black Yanks
Kate Werran 300x300
Kate Werran

About Kate Werran

Kate writes about social history in WW2 and was recently elected Associate Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Her first book, “An American Uprising in Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy”  won the Cornish Holyer an Gof award 2021 for non fiction and The US Military History Group’s Jan Jakobczac Memorial Book Award in 2020.

In April 2024, “Black Yanks: Defending Leroy Henry in D-Day Britain” will be published by The History Press.

Before this, Kate was a TV Producer/Director with a ten-year track record of making award-nominated specialist factual documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4 and Channel Four.

Kate is formally trained in journalism through Westminster Press’ three-year apprenticeship scheme followed by work on national newspapers and also spent three years speech writing for a prominent member of the House of Lords and a year producing Delia Dolor’s weekly show for Colourful Radio.

© Kate Werran 2024. The right of Kate Werran to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced, adapted, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise without the prior written permission of the author or publisher.

The extraordinary case of Leroy Henry

By Kate Werran, April 2024

In June 2024 the nation will look back 80 years to D-Day. Movies like Saving Private Ryan.

Alleged assault
Alleged assault

TV documentaries and newspapers featuring interviews from a rapidly diminishing pool of veterans will proliferate to mark the historical watershed.

Commissioning editors will be anxious to ward against D-Day-fatigue and demand revisionist spins on familiar archive material.

But perhaps the most modern and pertinent tale from the British home front in the summer of 1944 has been hiding in plain sight all along — and is rooted in Combe Down’s own history.

The extraordinary case of Leroy Henry will be familiar to those following Prior to Now Trust. The African American G I, whose unit was based at Brantwood House in Southstoke, was court martialled for a rape that he did not commit.

There was no evidence that anything other than consensual sex had taken place on Firs Field, Combe Down, in the early hours of 6 May 1944. There were no physical signs of coercion, nothing untoward was heard by those living in surrounding houses, no weapon was ever found (despite an inch-by-inch search of the area twice by British and US military police) and accounts and alibis of the victim and her husband did not tally.

All this was on top of the implausible account of a stranger appearing one night in search of directions to a road that could be seen clearly one bright, moonlit night. Leroy Henry testified in pre-trial evidence and on the stand that this had been his third consensual, paid-for encounter with Mrs Irene Lilley, a mother-of-two, from Combe Down – which contradicted a confession he had been forced to make by US Army investigators in the hours after his arrest.

In spite of all evidence to the contrary, on 26 May 1944 he was found guilty of rape and sentenced to death. This might well have been his end, had it not been for the intervention of 33,000 Bathonians who signed a petition for clemency, a national newspaper campaign and a US Army review which quickly disapproved the sentence and restored the soldier to duty.

My account of this story does not dwell on the motivation and actions of the alleged victim. A few believe the protagonists were in love and playwright David Goodland has written the brilliant The Life and Death of a Buffalo Soldier to this effect. Many more however have been quick to point the finger and cast his accuser as scarlet woman.

But eight decades later, I think this is the least significant aspect of the affair.

For starters, I honestly don’t believe the woman intended for him to end up in Shepton Mallet Prison awaiting execution.

According to Leroy Henry’s account, their previous two assignations had been at the same corner of Firs Field, prearranged during earlier evening encounters outside the King William pub. A set rate, mutually agreed at £1 (about £55 in today’s money), changed hands each time. On this occasion it was different for all sorts of reasons.

Henry had been told it had to be much later than normal — after 11pm — and was asked for the first time to come to her house, just off The Avenue, and knock at the window.

Death sentence
Death sentence

When he did so, Leroy Henry was thrown when he heard a male voice upstairs which is the point at which things started to go wrong. Thinking on his feet, he asked for directions, Mrs Lilley came downstairs supposedly to give them to him – and then the two of them left for Firs Field, without a backward glance.

Both of their subsequent accounts of what happened next involved getting to Firs Field and Leroy Henry helping her over the wall and then laying down his coat for her to lie on. She said the subsequent sex happened at knifepoint, he says it was consensual and that afterwards she asked for £2. Henry only had £1 and a little more change and offered everything he had, but she refused it saying she’d get him in trouble. They went their separate ways.

What changed everything for Leroy Henry was that when Mrs Lilley scrambled back over the wall to go home, she found her husband steaming towards her. She told him she had been attacked and they went immediately to the ARP station to call police, who picked her up.

They were en route to the police surgeon for an examination when they happened upon Leroy Henry who was making his way back to camp in Southstoke and arrested him.

Shortly afterwards, Henry was transferred to the custody of US military police and taken to Bath City Police Station, then in Orange Grove, to the single cell reserved for the use of Americans.

He spent a cold night there after being medically examined by the Dr Charles Gibson and was transferred the following afternoon to the US Military Police headquarters in Gay Street, Bath. Here, within a couple of hours, he confessed to raping Mrs Lilley and by 6pm was being transferred to the guard house of Shepton Mallet Prison. A few hours later he was charged.

I think the alleged victim must have concocted her story on the spot. Alarmed at the husband’s sudden and unexpected appearance on the scene she would have had to think fast. How could she explain her location and appearance? She would not necessarily have known that as an American, Leroy Henry would be subject to a US Army court martial rather than in a British law court. Or that rape carried the death penalty in US Army law —  it had not been a capital crime in the United Kingdom since the 19th century.

That night she identified Henry by his gait and persistent cough, rather than his face. Three weeks later at Henry’s trial at Knook Camp, her court appearance began with a curious pantomime of not being able to recognise Leroy Henry in court. She looked all around the court room for some time. The judge even asked whether it would help if he got Henry to demonstrate his walk. I believe she was trying to help the accused at this point, believing that not being able to identify him would set him free.

Her comment about getting him into trouble was said in frustration in the heat of the moment – I don’t believe that she wanted him dead. Relatives say it was the last thing the kind and caring former nurse would have wanted, even though they have been raised believing she was a genuine victim.

Nor should she be condemned for selling favours. It was a time of desperate need. People were poor, hungry and it happened that women sold sex to the wealthy US GIs who were suddenly ‘over here’.

Mrs Kathleen Hill, of Odd Down, recalled how a woman would sit in the Red Lion in Odd Down advertising her price on the sole of her shoe. Who are we to judge?

What was at stake here wasn’t rape but inter-racial sex that happened in the early hours one morning in May 1944. It was the US Army’s response to it; its determination to punish Leroy Henry whatever the rights and wrongs — and the British reaction to this — that makes it worthy of study. The real story is of segregation and of America’s ‘Jim Crow’ army that went to fight for freedom in the Second World War and it can be seen in the court martial transcript; on the lines and in between.

This was the context. Henry was an African American soldier in an army racially separated so that, largely, white servicemen took the fighting roles and Black soldiers, the dirty, dangerous, unglamourous work in the Services of Supply (which included engineering, transport and ordnance).

Black American soldiers were largely trained in the South where all aspects of society ranging from retail to education was separated upon racial lines.

Those travelling to training from the northern states were forced to change at Washington D.C. from mixed carriages into the crowded, dirty cars at the back of the train reserved for African Americans to continue their journey to this world. Inter-racial marriage was illegal in the majority of US states. Clearly, it was impossible for Leroy Henry to be found anything other than guilty when accused of the rape of a white woman.

This background was reflected in the weakness of evidence needed to secure Leroy Henry’s conviction: The tall story of ‘stranger’ assault riddled with inconsistencies; testimony from the two investigators who clearly used force to coerce an admission of guilt; the officer witnessing Henry’s statement being amazed that such a man could be guilty of rape and believing he had only done so because ‘it was the right thing to do’; no-one had ever known Henry, a good and popular member of the unit, to own a knife; there was no physical evidence of rape on him or the victim.

All this was pushed to one side. The US Army wanted a guilty verdict and that’s what it got.

35 Map of Firs Field 1024x473
35 Map of Firs Field

If the story of segregation and a ‘Jim Crow’ army is written in the procedure and detail of the court martial – the British reaction to this state of affairs lies in what happened next.

Within hours of news of Leroy Henry’s death sentence hitting the Bath Chronicle on 29 May 1944 – a petition for clemency was established in a campaign spearheaded by Jack Allen, owner of a transport café in Holloway, and his great friend Alderman Sam Day, who went on to become the first Labour Mayor of Bath in 1947. Day wrote to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison on 1 June to inform his of his intent to produce ‘tangible evidence of the public opinion in the form of a signed appeal’ and was clear that people living in Combe Down were ‘highly indignant of the result of the trial.’  Villagers Mary Batt and Harry Barfoot voiced the community’s specific concerns directly in a letter including 200 Combe Down signatures to the Civil Police Liaison Officer.

“…everybody in the village is most indignant at the findings… We do not wish to discourse upon local gossip on the morals of the alleged victim…but feel that if this coloured soldier is considered man enough to come over here to fight for freedom alongside the white man, he should be afforded the same right of a white man, a full enquiry and every witness in his favour brought forward. The list is small owing to meanness of time but contain the names of everybody in the vicinity able to lift a pen, also people who live opposite to the scene of the alleged incident who heard not a sound such as a scream on the night in question.” 
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Jack Allens cafe

Combe Down was the crime scene and home to the alleged victim. But the community’s immediate and bold response articulated what was to come from the nation.

The very next day the story appeared in the Daily Mirror, then Britain’s biggest selling tabloid, read by millions. Two days after that, its editorial leader appealed for clemency for Leroy Henry. Tribune and The New Statesman joined in the campaign. Constituents from all over the United Kingdom felt compelled to write to their MPs, the Ministry of Information reported public concern on the issue and civil rights groups the NAACP and its British equivalent the League of Coloured People (LCP) implored General Eisenhower for a stay of execution.

When Sam Day and Jack Allen submitted the petition some seven days later, it ran to hundreds of pages and more than 33,000 names. Thousands in and around Bath had signed up to fight for the life of Leroy Henry and they had galvanized the nation.

Ultimately, they won. General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, ordered a second review of Leroy Henry’s court martial on 2 June which was expertly conducted by Captain Frederick Bertolet, a brilliant Harvard Law School alumnus.

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BERTOLET Harvard law book still

In just nine pages, the Assistant Judge Advocate General destroyed the prosecution case against Leroy Henry – his forced confession, ‘inhumane’ treatment and the trial president’s demand that he denounce his senior officers as liars.

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Eisenhower acts

He argued the confession was inadmissible and that it came down to his word, and that of Mrs Lilley.

There was no evidence on either of them that rape had taken place; no sign that force had been used or resistance offered. Bertolet believed there was no choice but to disapprove Leroy Henry’s sentence and his superior Judge Advocate of the ETO General Edward C. Betts concurred. General Eisenhower received the report on 17 June and signed it off the same day. Leroy Henry was restored to duty and a few days later was sent out to join his unit in France.

The extraordinary case of Leroy Henry therefore demonstrates the egregiousness of segregation in the US Army that fought in the Second World War. The grassroots campaign to save him shows precisely what the British thought of the ‘Jim Crow’ aspect of its allies.

But my further research into the case, involving interviews with those from Combe Down who remember the case – shown below – the petition and its success goes further. It shows not just the strength of support for Leroy Henry in Combe Down and Southstoke, but how the community was quietly resisting segregation all along.

One of Leroy Henry’s unit members, based in Southstoke, recalled cheery nights in the Cross Keys pub with British locals and African American soldiers taking turns at the piano to entertain the pub. Another described his ‘girl’ who lived in the village. Married women remembered happy dances in Combe Down, young boys remember being given tins of pineapple juice by kindly soldiers, local publicans welcomed them into the bar – and sent secret supplies of local ale to them when they were confined to camp.

The story is one of acceptance, of life in Combe Down for Black Yanks in the Second World War. In fact, the court martial was a blip in Leroy Henry’s life – and that of Mrs Lilley. He rejoined his unit, served till the end of the war and was promoted to sergeant. She continued to live in the house visited by Leroy Henry, long after the war.

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Frank Sumsion
Glenys Green 226x300
Glenys Green
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Ted Stride
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Phil Bishop
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Brenda Oliveira
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Brian Perkins outside Packhorse pub

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