British Army major sentenced for theft of tanks from Brussels Army Museum

British Army major sentenced for theft of tanks from Brussels Army Museum
The Army Museum in Brussels. © MJJR with Wikimedia

A retired major in the British Army has been sentenced to two years suspended for defrauding several army museums, including the one in Brussels, to add to his collection of military vehicles.

Michael Whatley, aged 65, pleaded guilty to three counts of misconduct in a public office. The court in Salibury heard how Whatley had since 2001 claimed he was working on behalf of the Household Cavalry Regiment, using that connection to obtain more than 20 military vehicles from museums in Germany, Sweden and Belgium, including the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History at Cinquantenaire in Brussels.

Since the collection he said he was acting for was his own, he kept the vehicles in storage for want of suitable premises.

The court also heard how he brokered the sale of three of the vehicles for a total of £270,000 (just over €316.000). In other cases, he promised an exchange of other sorts of military materiel – which never arrived.

Although he had promised the vehicles would be housed at the Household Cavalry Museum, the museum itself had no knowledge of the transactions, and no desire to add the vehicles to their own collection.

The fraud came to light thanks to an attentive British customs officer in 2011, who noticed the paperwork for some imports was extremely dubious. Two years later, an investigation by Het Nieuwsblad revealed that Belgian vehicles were also involved in the scam.

The prosecution also pointed out that he sold some vehicles to other private collectors, in breach of inter-museum agreements which state that items can only be sold with the consent of the owner, which Whatley did not have.

As a result of Major Whatley’s dishonesty, the mutual trust that previously existed within the museum community, not only in the UK but across Europe, has been damaged by his behaviour and museums have changed their donation policies as a direct result,” the prosecution said in closing.

According to other reports, Whatley acquired from Belgium a Leopard 1A1 tank, a Gepard anti-aircraft gun, an M108 Howitzer tank (photo below), an HS20 Troop transport vehicle, an M41 Walker Bulldog tank and a Saladin armoured car among other vehicles including a Bombardier motorbike.

An M108 Howitzer of the type obtained by Whatley. © Wikimedia

As well as two years suspended for two years, Whatley must also carry out 150 hours of unpaid work and pay costs of £1,500 (€1,756). 

This weekend, a spokesperson for the War Heritage Institute, which governs the Brussels museum, said they were looking into the best way to get their vehicles back. And time is pressing: the rent on the storage facility Whatley was using to store the vehicles is about to expire soon.

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