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Malta-based officer court-martialled for homosexual acts

Sub-Lieutenant Christopher Swabey, RN, came from a distinguished ancient family with old connections with the Royal Navy.

Swabey found himself being charged with an offence similar to that of his previous court-martial six years earlier, and in the same place- Louis Cilia

His father was Vice-Admiral Sir Carlisle Swabey, holder of the French Legion d’Honneur and the American Legion of Merit.

On November 13, 1948, the young Swabey, then aged 22, said farewell to his proud parents on his first proper assignment in the Royal Navy to join HMS Rowena in the Mediterranean as part of the Navy’s minesweeping flotilla in that area.

Almost a year later, in the evening of December 12, 1949, Swabey went ashore accompanied by other friends from the ship’s crew to a dinner with some British army officers in Salonika, Greece, whom they had met some days earlier while on shore leave.

Swabey and his friends, somewhat fuddled as a result of their drinking, were in a boisterous mood when they returned to their ship a few hours later.

Unknown to them, two other ratings had separately returned to the ship some time earlier. Since these two were blind drunk, the commanding officer ordered them to sleep in the wheelhouse under the direct supervision of a guard.

Once inside the ship Swabey tried to get some sleep but, still feeling unwell, he decided to go on deck for a little air. The wheelhouse was in complete darkness and he did not notice the two ratings asleep.

One of these ratings, a known homosexual with a bad disciplinary record, subsequently accused Swabey of indecently assaulting him and of making improper remarks to him of a homosexual nature. At the time homosexuality was an extremely serious charge in the services which could lead to a court martial and dismissal.

In a very short time a court-martial was organised in Malta to hear the case against Swabey on the depot ship HMS Forth in Msida Creek. To defend him Swabey obtained the services of an experienced Maltese lawyer, Leslie Grech (who passed away recently).

The lawyer, a barrister of Gray’s Inn with substantial court-martial practice, had served from 1946 to 1948 in the Judge Advocate General’s Branch in the Army. Grech had also been defence lawyer at many courts-martial in the three services.

At the end of the proceedings, Swabey was acquitted of all charges alleging indecency, but was found guilty of the lesser charges of disturbing the ratings when they were sleeping in the wheelhouse and of vomiting in their sight while wearing pajamas. The conviction for the minor offences was still dismissal.

However, the sentence was later annulled by the Lords Commissioner of the Admiralty in February of the following year.

Swabey was immediately reinstated in the service and subsequently served in the Korean War aboard HMS Jamaica. In July 1950 he saw action as part of a joint task force between the US and British forces, known as Operation Chromite. Swabey was commended for his performance.

Later, on October 1, 1955, he was promoted Lieutenant Commander to command HMS Landing Craft (Tank) Redoubt in Malta. On March 21, 1956 Swabey flew out to Malta to take command of his ship. His proud mother, now widowed, could not contain her emotions as she waved him again goodbye. Both of them little realised what the next few days held for them.

April 16, 1956, was a beautiful day in Malta; a warm spring day with a mild wind. Around Grand Harbour the tempo of port activity was already picking up as the morning haze lifted and the sun shone its first weak rays on the ancient bastions. The several Royal Naval ships scattered around the harbour hoisted their colours to the sound of bugle calls. At 9 a.m. a saluting gun was fired from HMS Fort St Angelo. All sailors of all ranks in the harbour who heard the booming sound knew that this meant that a court-martial had just been convened in the ancient fort that had witnessed so many bloody battles.

They knew that a naval officer was about to defend his honour. As part of the ceremony the Union Jack on Fort St Angelo was also broken at its masthead.

By now it was common knowledge among the Royal Naval personnel in Malta that the person who was going to be subjected to a court-martial was none other than Lieutenant Commander Christopher Swabey, son of the distinguished vice-admiral. Despite his youth and very short service in the Navy, Swabey already had a colourful history of his own in Malta.

Swabey was again being accused of a homosexual offence against a young sub-lieutenant only 48 hours after arriving in Malta to take command of HMS Redoubt. This time Swabey was alleged of having placed his hand in a caressing manner on the knee of a subordinate officer in a taxi while they were returning from shore leave together. Additionally, the trip ashore had included several drinks and a meal.

The story was that on March 23, 1956, Swabey suggested to his subordinate Timothy Patrick Havers, the navigating officer on HMS Redoubt, to go ashore with him in the evening to have a good time.

Together they had visited two bars in Valletta and while there had several drinks with other friends, as sailors usually do on such occasions. They then went to the City Gem Restaurant in Sliema where they had a meal and some more drinks. They left at about 11 p.m. and took a taxi back to HMS Redoubt in Dockyard Creek.

Havers claimed that Swabey attempted to corrupt him sexually while in the taxi by placing his left hand on his thigh and tried to caress his leg. Havers’ reaction was to punch Swabey in the face and insult him.

The senior officer, completely taken aback by Havers’ quick response, muttered something unintelligible and immediately removed his hand. The taxi had in the meantime arrived near the ship and Swabey paid the Maltese driver £1. On returning to the ship Havers accused Swabey of homosexual advances towards him in the taxi and reported him to the First Lieutenant.

At first Swabey did not take Havers’ accusation seriously. He told a fellow crewman: “I think Havers suffers from a persecution complex.”

Swabey soon found himself being charged with an offence similar to that of his previous court-martial six years earlier, and in the same place. The central accusation again was that he had committed homosexual acts with a fellow crewman.

To any detached person the charge, and particularly its fragile details, would have appeared absurd. The previous 1950 case, however, made the situation for Swabey completely different, and, for that matter, highly unsafe. The first charge was already public knowledge in Malta when he took up his new appointment on HMS Redoubt in March 1956.

In the naval court-martial there was to be no jury; the case would be decided by a panel of five brother officers from other ships in Malta and presided over by Captain Edward Trevor Lloyd Dunsterville of HMS St Angelo. They were all experienced officers with long distinguished careers. The Deputy Judge Advocate was Lieutenant Anthony Tippet of HMS St Angelo. The prosecutor was Commander Roger Fisher, who was on the Admiral’s staff of HMS St Angelo.

Privately Commander Fisher, the prosecutor, had told another officer that he could not see how Swabey could be found guilty. Tippet, a young officer in Fisher’s own office, was still in his trainee phase and thus had little actual court experience. He had already expressed concern about his inexperience and the fact that he had to face his own boss in court. It was obvious that Fisher would carry the last word before the panel of judges in confrontation with his inexperienced subordinate.

These were not comforting thoughts for Swabey who was fighting to save his career and his reputation as well as that of his distinguished family. Swabey had no illusion what he was up against. The jokes and the coarse references to his homosexuality were common knowledge to all those who frequented RN wardrooms and messes in Malta.

At 9.30 a.m. the president declared the court open and Swabey was marched in accompanied by two guards. Swabey unbuckled his sword and yielded it to the court. The awesome ceremonial was intended to impress and instil fear and respect. Swabey was charged with three offences: indecently assaulting Sub-Lieutenant Timothy Patrick Havers, “a male person”, on March 23, 1956; being drunk aboard HMS Redoubt; committing an act to the prejudice of good order and naval discipline by making an improper remark to a junior rating.

Leslie Grech successfully applied for separation of the three charges. Drunkenness and making an improper remark, he said, had nothing to do with the more serious charge of indecency. For that reason, the main charge of indecency and homosexuality should be heard separately.

The trial lasted two days. On the second day the court was cleared at 12.55 p.m. while the officers of the panel left the dais to decide on the verdict.

The defence had pinned most of its hopes on the evidence of Gillian Genovese, the Maltese taxi-driver who had taken Swabey and Havers from Sliema to Dockyard Creek on the night of March 23, 1956.

A RN Petty Officer acted as interpreter during Genovese’s evidence in court. Genovese stated: “I took them (Swabey and Havers) from Sliema to the Dockyard. They gave me a pound but I don’t know that anything happened in the taxi.”

Later he added: “I didn’t hear anything at all. When I was at Msida I saw one of the officer’s legs in my face and I saw nothing else… The officer lifted his foot on the cushion of the car and I turned my face and saw that he had his foot on the back of the seat… I don’t remember anything else happening.”

The prosecutor patronisingly and condescendingly completely discarded the taxi driver’s evidence.

In his concluding remarks he said; “Genovese could not speak English very well. I leave his evidence to the judgment of the court. The court has seen him and from his words and deportment one can easily deduce his level of intelligence and powers of observation. The most charitable thing that can be said of him is that he has an incredibly bad memory.”

Leslie Grech, in his summing up, tried to bolster the taxi-driver’s evidence: “He was there, and it is for the court to consider his evidence in the light of the other circumstances which have been put before you as deduced from the other two people who were present, namely the accused and the complainant.” The court re-convened at 1.30 p.m. It had taken the panel scarcely 35 minutes to reach a decision. Swabey was marched back into the court to find, to his horror and disbelief, that his sword was pointing towards him.

Its ceremonial meaning was quite evident to him – he had been found guilty.

The court reopened about an hour later to decide on the other lesser charges of drunkenness and making an improper remark to a junior officer. He was only found guilty of the second charge.

Swabey in the end won after a struggle against all odds and an intransigent and totally blinded Establishment- Louis Cilia

By now, however, all this was an anti-climax for Swabey. He knew that the punishment for the first charge was dismissal from the service.

At the end of the last court session, Swabey, disgraced and humiliated, was ordered to pack up his personal belongings and immediately leave St Angelo, from where he was to be driven by official car straight away to the RAF airfield and from there to be flown home the next day at his own expense.

There was no charity or hope for him now in the famous George Cross Island so well known for its compassion and generosity.

Swabey later grimly commented: “I had plenty of faith and hope prior to the court-martial, but at the end I got to know little charity.” However, Swabey was now past caring.

His thoughts were all about his elderly mother as he had kept her in the dark about his predicament in Malta. For once, he also thanked God that his famous father was dead and thus spared the deep humiliation of seeing his own son dishonoured by the Royal Navy and the good name of his respected family disgraced.

Before the start of the court-martial Leslie Grech had agreed with the prosecutor to keep the 1950 case out of the proceedings so as not to negatively influence the panel of judges. Grech and Swabey now realised that the past had indeed influenced the court’s decision and that the prosecutor had not abided fully with the agreement when he made veiled but obvious hints at the previous case in court, especially in his summing up.

This had infuriated Grech but there was little he could do about it now although this unhappy episode was to serve Swabey quite well in his subsequent battles to turn round the court’s decision against him.

On the plane back to England Swabey was already thinking of fighting the court’s verdict. His steadfast tenacity and resolution in the face of great odds is a striking tribute to his courage not to bow to faceless bureaucrats.

Swabey’s relentless battle started immediately after his return home when he told his sad story to his shocked mother. She promised to stay solidly behind him and to give him moral and financial support to succeed in proving his innocence.

Her unstinted support was, however, to cost her dearly as she ended impoverished and her health, like that of her son, seriously impaired.

The long 17-year battle was to be one court-martial, two appeals, a petition to the Queen, three debates in the House of Lords, two appeals to the Courts-Martial Appeals Court.

Swabey finally found his redemption when the Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Carrington, on August 5, 1971 decided to refer the case to the Courts-Martial Appeals Court. This court met on May 1, 1972 and after three days concluded that the court-martial’s decision in Malta in 1956 was “unsafe and unsatisfactory.”

The statement was received in total silence in court as if it was not understood by those present. Swabey looked around him stunned. “What does it mean?” he hesitatingly asked his defence counsel, who was already packing his papers. “You have been proved innocent,” was the short but meaningful reply. Swabey fell back in his seat, pale, exhausted and still unbelieving. At last, justice had been done – but at what cost.

Swabey in the end won after a struggle against all odds and an intransigent and totally blinded Establishment and was finally declared innocent, awarded reinstatement in the Royal Navy in his last rank in 1956 (but retired status) and £45,000 as compensation.

Justice prevailed but not thanks to the Admiralty who behaved as shockingly to Swabey as they had previously done in the famous Archer-Shee case in 1910.

George Archer-Shee was a 13-year-old naval cadet who had been accused (and subsequently found guilty and expelled from the naval college) of stealing a five-shilling postal order from a fellow cadet. Archer-Shee’s case had only lasted three years, Swabey’s lasted 17 years.

I end this sad story on a lighthearted note by referring to one of the debates on the Swabey case in the House of Lords which took place on July 21 ,1965. The debate throws light on some of the noble Lords’ opinion on Maltese taxis and taxi-drivers.

It also shows how relaxed the proceedings of the Upper House still were in 1965 compared to what one can witness in the same august institution nowadays.

Lord Russell of Liverpool: “I do not know whether Your Lordships have ever been in a taxi in Malta in the evening, but I have, and when they are driving round corners quickly it is quite often necessary to save oneself from falling over. Had not Swabey done that on this occasion I think he might well have found himself in a much more compromising position vis-à-vis an indecent assault than if he had tried to stop himself from falling over.”

The Marquis of Salisbury: “My Lords, from the inquiries I have made it emerges that there is no division between the front and back seats in taxicabs in Malta, and the driver must therefore have been within two or three feet of the two officers. Yet he heard nothing. As a result, his evidence being of no value to them, the prosecution dropped him like a hot potato. Although he was their own witness, his evidence became of no importance.

“In the words of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, in the last debate – I will quote his exact words; I do not want to misrepresent him in any way: ‘It is conceivable here that they did not think the taxi-driver’s evidence was worthy of any credence at all.’ The noble and learned Viscount added: ‘He was a Maltese taxi-driver’ – as if that, my Lords, were one of the lowest forms of human life. But one cannot help suspecting that the prosecution’s opinion of Maltese taxi-drivers would not have been so low if this particular one had given evidence of a different character and said that he had heard something.

“Then he would have become a good witness and they would have attached enormous importance to his words. Otherwise, why call him in evidence at all?”

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