Triumph and disaster from a Life on the force

Ex-police officer and nonagenarian Bob Silk has enough rich memories of policing to fill a book, writes Helen Harvey.



Stuff NZ Newspapers


Bob Silk has been having the same nightmare off and on for 68 years. He is standing on a river bank looking at ‘‘a scene from hell’’, then he’s walking through mangled train carriages looking for signs of life among the dead. It is the early hours of Christmas Day, 1953. And he’s at Tangiwai. At 10.21pm on Christmas Eve, the Wellington to Auckland train had crashed off the tracks into the flooded Whangaehu River. Silk’s nightmare relives the aftermath of New Zealand’s worst train accident, where 151 of the 285 passengers and crew died. That Christmas, Silk, now 91 and living in New Plymouth, was a young constable stationed in Auckland, having joined the police a few months before. He had been on nightshift, seeing the Queen arrive back at Government House after being guest of honour at a ball. He watched her drive through the gates and then headed off to get dinner at the station. There, he was met by the night station sergeant, an ex heavyweight champion nicknamed Bruiser. Bruiser told Silk he had to drive Minister of Police Wilfred Fortune and Police Commissioner Eric Compton to Tangiwai. Silk didn’t know where Tangiwai was. It wasn’t until he stopped in Hamilton for petrol that he found out what had happened, he says. It was an unforgettable start to an interesting career that spanned 33 years and ended with Silk ranked superintendent and being the northern district commander. Not surprisingly he has lots of stories. Many about royalty. Like the one about the late Queen Mother. In 1958 Silk and some colleagues were the armed plainclothes guards in Government House in Auckland during the Queen Mother’s visit. ‘‘We were in the grounds and heard voices.’’ It was the Queen Mother and her lady-inwaiting enjoying the view. ‘‘In those days you could see right down the harbour. We identified ourselves. She started talking. She asked if I was married. I explained my wife was pregnant with our first child. She was very easy to talk to.’’ Fast-forward to 1966 and the Queen Mother was visiting Christchurch. Silk, now a chief inspector, was in charge of the royal tour, and was introduced officially. ‘‘She said, ‘Silk. Silk. Was it a boy or a girl? Your firstborn?’’’ Later he found out she had a photographic memory and was good at remembering names. ‘‘She was the loveliest of them all to look after. I was bodyguard for (Prince) Philip. He was the most awkward of all the royals to look after. He’s an ex admiral and admirals have a different attitude to dealing with lower ranks.’’ His funniest story is about the Queen and Prince Philip’s visit to Kaikohe in 1981, when their entourage had planned to go ashore on Motuarohia/Roberton Island. The royals didn’t want any police on the island, but because the Governor General’s car had been attacked at Waitangi earlier in the year ‘‘it was out of the question that there should be no police presence’’. None of the property owners were going to be home that weekend, so a plainclothes Armed Offenders Squad team and a dog handler were sent to stay overnight, hidden, at the caretaker’s barn, while observing the royal party. It sounded good in theory. The Sunday morning dawned grey, overcast with misty rain. Everyone assumed the visit would be called off, which, as Silk found out later, was what the Duke of Edinburgh had wanted. ‘‘Evidently, there was what we would usually call a domestic and the Queen pulled rank.’’ To get to the picnic house the royal party had a 30-minute walk up a steep track through heavy bush. Once they were safely inside, some of the police officers and the dog went to another house, which they had permission to use, to have lunch, he says. The remaining two police officers kept watch. ‘‘Well there must have been another tiff between the Queen and the Duke, because the next thing the door flies open. She comes out on her own buttoning up her raincoat and walks off up the hill. The cop watching from the bush tried to radio his colleagues.’’ Up the hill, one of the constables grabbed his rifle and rushed out the door. As he jumped off the verandah, the Queen rounded the corner. He removed his hat and ‘‘in a sweeping gesture, like a courtier of old, he called out ‘Beg your pardon, ma’am, beg your pardon ma’am’.’’ He then stepped backwards over a 200-metrehigh cliff, landing on a ledge. The Queen looked over, checked he was all right, asked if he was a policeman and if he could get up by himself. She then went into the house, by now accompanied by her lady-in-waiting and her equerry. After she had looked around, she went upstairs where two officers were trying to hide. When the Queen looked into the master bedroom she found the dog handler trying to hide his dog, the 1981 police dog Champion, under the bed. ‘‘Then, as he would insist on telling anybody who would listen in the weeks and years ahead, she sat down on the bed and talked to him.’’ Meanwhile, the dog put his head in her lap as the Queen rubbed his ears. As Silk tells it, the Queen continued looking around the house and opened the door to a small cubicle. Inside was a constable standing to attention with a rifle by his side, eyes straight ahead. After asking him if he always had a shower with his boots on she shut the door. The next day Silk, worried about repercussions, had a chat with the Queen’s personal protection officer. The Queen wanted to check the constable who had gone over the cliff was all right, the officer had said. Then he told Silk the whole day had been a disaster – until ‘‘that’’ had happened. Apparently the Queen is a wonderful mimic and had the royal party in hysterics as she told the story of her meeting with the police officers. After the tour, Silk received a personally signed photograph of the Queen and the Duke in a leather frame along with an appreciation letter on HM Yacht Britannia letterhead. He still has it. It hangs on the wall in his office and will be handed down to someone in his family. Silk has three children, six grandchildren and ‘‘about the same number of greatgrandchildren’’. He’s written a memoir to share with his family and friends, with some copies donated to his local library. Silk met his late wife Pamela when he ended up in hospital with a broken nose after an altercation with a burglar he came across while walking the beat. ‘‘When I came out of the anaesthetic I tried to pull the bolster off my nose, [the nurse] grabbed my wrist, but I flicked her wrists and threw her back. ‘‘Later the guy in the next bed told me what I’d done. She was a tall, very attractive blonde. That night I told my girlfriend, when she came in, not to come back because I was going to marry that nurse.’’ They were engaged for two years and married when she was 21. They were together for 57 years. Though Silk admits it took her a while to agree to go out with him – she was ‘‘nice girl from the North Shore’’ whereas, he was five years older, ‘‘a cop,’’ and ‘‘a pom’’. Silk was born in Bournemouth, England, into a family of undertakers. He wasn’t interested in going into the family business. Instead, he became a professional ice skater. ‘‘My father was not happy.’’ His parents decided to move to New Zealand and his father told Silk if he didn’t want the business he’d sell it, Silk says. If he stayed in the UK, he would’ve had to do compulsory military training and go to Germany as a squaddie. So, he came to New Zealand and got a job in an ice skating show and later became stage manager for the ‘‘first of the big stage hypnotists Francis Quinn, known as the Great Franquin’’. Silk later moved to Australia, but got sick of the theatre. ‘‘I walked away from it and decided I wanted to be a cop, don’t know why.’’ He returned to New Zealand and joined the police. And just a few months later he was driving to Tangiwai. When they set off his colleague, the commissioner, said, ‘‘take off your helmet. Bruiser tells me you’ve been in trouble for speeding. Get us to Taumarunui as fast as you can,’’ Silk recalls. Silk drove quickly. It was late at night and there was no one else on the road. Tiredness and hunger got the better of him and near Taumaranui Silk took a corner too quickly and crashed into a bank. ‘‘The commissioner said ‘you’re doing a good job boy. Keep going as fast as you can.’’ Eventually they came out of the forest to a bridge. There were cars everywhere. His two passengers wandered off. Silk just stood and stared. ‘‘It was like I was looking at a scene from hell.’’ A figure came out of the river and up the bank, covered in mud. Silk could see he was a sergeant by the stripes on his arm. ‘‘He said, ‘don’t stand there bloody looking boy. Get down there and save lives’. So, I went down and sort of made my way across. There were some cops getting a body out of a carriage.’’ Silk joined two sailors who had been passengers on the train and in one carriage they found a woman crushed among some steel. ‘‘I thought she was dead. She heard our voices and opened her eyes and looked at us.’’ They managed to get the steel off her then she looked up at them ‘‘and died in our arms. All of a sudden we realised there was a child underneath her. She’d thrown herself over this child.’’ They took the little girl to the command post where there were ambulances, soldiers and medics from Waiouru Military Camp. ‘‘We handed the child over and suddenly realised dawn was breaking. There were some local ladies there, farmers’ wives, they’d come down with tea and scones. So we had something to eat and went back and tried to find more people.’’ At the end of the day he discovered his car was gone. Eventually, a farmer stopped and offered him a bed for the night. ‘‘This was Christmas Day. I went back to his place, had some warmed up Christmas dinner and slept in the shearer’s quarters. In the morning I put my damp uniform back on and went back for a second day. I spent all day but didn’t find any more live people.’’ Silk boarded a train to Auckland where, still in his muddy, ripped uniform he walked back to the Princess St police station. ‘‘I had nightmares about Tangiwai for many, many years and I still occasionally have the nightmare. It’s always the same. The only good thing was finding that little girl.’’