History

Serial Killer Dennis Nilsen And His Career In The Army

A fellow recruit tells BFBS he was always "weird" and "unremarkable" ...

WARNING: GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF MURDER AND ADULT THEMES

A recent ITV drama has brought the horrific crimes of Dennis Nilsen back into the spotlight 40 years on from the awful events that shocked the nation.

Des, a three-part drama starring David Tennant, provided an unhinged look at the motivations of the monster, introducing his crimes to a new audience.

Convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life imprisonment, Nilsen was known to be responsible for at least 12 murders from 1978 to 1983.

His victims were typically homeless or homosexual young men and boys. He would meet those he murdered in gay bars or on the streets of London, before taking them home and strangling them to their deaths.

Nilsen kept the bodies of his victims for weeks and engaged in sexual activity with their corpses before dismembering them and then either burying them in his garden or under the floorboards of the two properties he lived in at the time, or by burning a bonfire.

But, prior to embarking on his disgusting campaign of murder and necrophilia, Dennis Nilsen spent 11 years as a soldier in the British Army.

Here, BFBS explores the military career of one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers and hears from a former soldier who knew him well. 

Nilsen was arrested in 1983 on suspicion of murder.

Evil Dennis Nilsen joined the British Army in September 1961. The man, who was born in Aberdeenshire in the immediate months following the second world war, had enlisted after struggling to find purpose in a number jobs.

Within weeks of arriving at Aldershot to complete his long period of training to become an army chef as an apprentice, Nilsen found himself well suited to his new regimented surroundings, later describing his time in training as the happiest of his life.

While undergoing the tough environment of initial training, Nilsen began to understand his feelings of homosexuality, something that had not yet manifested fully in the dark mind of the Army Catering Corps recruit.

Those emotions, his difficulty in understanding his sexuality, were matters army life was not suited for due to it being at the time a military offence - and indeed a civilian crime up until 1967 - to be homosexual.

Nilsen settled into the army and soon after the drinking culture of the times. But often his fellow recruits referred to him as weird and strange. 

Fellow recruits described Nilsen as "weird" and of having a "strange sense of humour." Credit: Eric Talbot

Eric Talbot, now 74, joined the British Army on the same day as the young Dennis Nilsen and remembers vividly his first impressions of the man who would go on to become one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers.

Speaking in detail to BFBS about those experiences, Eric described how odd and unextraordinary Nilsen was even at such a young age. Eric said:

“I met Dennis Nilsen on that day – we were both members of the same squad.

“He was a quiet chap, bit sheepish … he kept himself to himself really. He wasn’t a great mixer. He didn’t get stuck into sports like most of us did, I never saw him playing football, hockey, or getting involved with boxing.

“He had a weird sense of humour – totally different to everyone else’s sense of humour. We couldn’t work him out. I remember a mate of mine saying to him, 'you’re bloody weird you are.'

During his time in Aldershot, Nilsen took part in a ceremonial parade that was attended by Her Majesty the Queen.

A squad photograph taken a few days into Basic Training in 1961. Nilsen is in the rear row, second from left. Eric Talbot is in the centre of the bottom row. They were both 16 and 15 respectively. Credit: Eric Talbot

Eric, who went on to have a long and successful career culminating in him becoming a WO1, described to BFBS a creepy occurrence that had troubled him while they served together in the early years of their careers. The incident happened during an official army outing to London. He said:

“As part of our training as apprentices for three years, we used to have cultural visits up to London. You would spend the morning at the Imperial War Museum or somewhere like the National Gallery, but then the afternoon was yours. We would normally meet up outside the Nuffield Centre off The Strand for a cup of tea or a pint and then catch the train back to Aldershot.

“But one day we went to Madam Tussauds instead and while we were there Nilsen wanted to go to the Chamber of Horrors. When we got there, there was a bathtub that had been used in the real crimes of the Acid Bath Murderer [John Haigh – a serial killer sentenced to death in 1949 known as the Acid Bath Murderer].

"It was the actual bathtub the guy had used in his killings so Madam Tussauds had put ropes around it to stop you from getting too close. Well, Nilsen stepped over the ropes and sat in the bathtub and we all got thrown out. He thought it was hysterical.

“He used to read horror stories and things like that. He would go out on a Friday or Saturday night wearing dark shirts and trousers and wearing a strange headmaster-like black cape … he was very strange.”

Nilsen felt guilt towards his repressed feelings of homosexuality. According to the writer Paul Sutherland, instead of thinking himself gay, he described his sexuality as bisexual.

Paul Sutherland’s work on Nilsen appears online at Murderpedia.com, and in it he says:

"Nilsen fought his feelings of guilt, taking comfort in the reassuring idea that he was probably bisexual. Nilsen’s chosen trade in the army was that of the catering corps, and in this he learnt the art of butchery, a skill that he would put to gruesome use in later years. Nilsen revelled in his comradeship, he was popular with other soldiers, and was introduced to a pastime that he would use throughout his life; the heavy use of alcohol."

However, when asked by BFBS if he knew or suspected Nilsen was homosexual, Eric Talbot confidently dismissed the idea. He said:

“No, not particularly. In those days and since the turn of this century it’s acceptable and normal.

"But back then, if somebody was suspected to be gay, they would be kicked out of the army or beaten up. It was frowned on in those days.

“In fact, in those days Dennis was quite religious. He was a regular church goer, he would go to the church on Sunday as we all did, but he would go to extra prayers."

Eric recalled memories of Nilsen being comfortable in the disciplined world of basic army training. Discussing the killer’s suitability, Eric said:

“He did as he was told. As far as that goes, we were told you were not allowed to wear elastics with trousers, whereas nowadays everybody wears them. So, we used to try and hide the fact that we wore them. But he would definitely not wear them.

“If the sergeant said jump, he would say how high. We were always trying to beat the system, but not him in the slightest. He was a goody-goody.”

Eric added:

“He was also a bit of a bully in some ways, when he was a junior room corporal, he used to have a cane and he would smack people around their backsides … he would do it with juniors, but would never try it with lads in his own squad, they would have hit him back.”

Nilsen was played by David Tennant in the ITV drama 'Des'. Credit: ITV

Upon completion of his training as a chef, a process that had taken three years, Nilsen was posted to the 1st Battalion, Royal Fusiliers – a regiment that amalgamated with others in 1968 to form the 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (RRF). The regiment was stationed in Osnabruck, West Germany, and it is there where Nilsen’s sexual interests became deranged.

This included Nilsen exploring new fantasies, something Katherine Ramsland discussed in her work which also features on Murderpedia.com. In the article, she says:

"He began to rely on alcohol to starve off loneliness, although he kept his distance from others. It was during these years, when he finally got a private room, that he would lay down in front of a mirror in a way as to not see his head and pretend to be unconscious. The “other body” aroused him and he would masturbate as he contemplated it."

Nilsen’s fist victim was a 14-year-old boy called Stephen Holmes.

On an evening in December 1978, he had met the boy in a nearby pub and lured his would-be victim back to his flat where the pair drank together into the early hours. The following morning, fearing Holmes would soon be leaving him, Nilsen strangled the sleeping boy into unconsciousness and then drowned him in a bucket of water.

Following the murder, Nilsen moved his naked body to the bathroom where he washed it down before taking it to his bedroom and engaging in unspeakable acts. His body was then placed under the floorboards of Nilsen’s flat for eight months and eventually disposed of by bonfire in the garden outside.

After his posting to Germany came to an end in the mid 1960s, Nilsen spent more time back in Aldershot where he continued to gain cooking qualifications before being posted to Norway.

In 1967, Nilsen was deployed to the State of Aden (today part of Yemen) where he served as a cook. However, his placement in the kitchen did not remove him from danger.

Several of his colleagues were killed violently, and Nilsen himself survived an attempt on his life by a taxi driver who beat him unconscious and placed him in the boot of his car.

Nilsen escaped after beating the man over the head with an iron bar repeatedly.  

Dennis Nilsen during his trial at the Old Bailey in 1983. Credit: PA

Following his time in Aden, Nilsen undertook other deployments to places including Cyprus, Berlin and Plymouth. However, in 1972 Nilsen claimed to have political differences with the army over matters related to Northern Ireland, most notably Bloody Sunday. This brought the would-be serial killer’s career in the military to an end. He left in the October of that year and after a short time with his family in Scotland, a turbulent period following the discovery by his family of Nilsen's homosexuality, he moved to London where he became a Metropolitan Police Officer.

Eric Talbot never spoke to or saw Dennis Nilsen again.

But, 20 years on from when they were last together, Eric saw the recognisable face of his former barrack-room partner on the news just days after Nilsen’s arrest in 1983.  

Remembering that moment, Eric explained where he was when he heard the news:

“I was on duty as the Orderly Officer … Warrant Officers had to do orderly officer duties at the Army Catering Corps Training Centre where I was based.

“And there was a picture of him in his Metropolitan Police uniform on the news saying he had been arrested in London. I got on the phone to my CO straightaway and he passed it up to higher. I wanted to let the MOD know before the press started phoning them.  

“We always thought he was weird and from what was said on the news he was guilty from minute one, so I didn’t need to think about whether he was guilty or not.”

Eric added:

“When you sleep five beds away from somebody in a barrack room, it’s hard to look at them and comprehend they are capable of killing all those people.”

Eric told BFBS that in the 1990s, he considered writing to his former comrade who by then was 10 years into his life sentence after being convicted at the Old Baily for the murders of six people, and the attempted murders of a further two in 1983.

Eric said:

“I never got around to it. I wasn’t very cynical of him, I thought, well he didn’t have to worry about paying council rates, bills or anything like that.”

Although Nilsen was convicted of just six murders, it is now known that he killed many more.

His last victim was 20-year-old Stephen Sinclair who Nilsen strangled to death with a ligature made of a necktie and rope on January 26, 1983. The victim had been drugged into an unconscious state and his body was later dissected by Nilsen who disposed of some of his remains by flushing them down the toilet.

Two weeks later, Dyno-Rod employee Michael Cattran discovered what appeared to be body parts in the drains outside Nilsen’s flat at 23 Cranley Gardens, London, and raised the alarm to the police.

When confronted, the killer acknowledged his crimes immediately and led detectives to the remains of several of his other victims.

Asked how he would begin writing a letter to somebody such as Dennis Nilsen, Eric said he would have simply asked how he was keeping. He said:

“I wouldn’t know what else say. Do you mention homosexuality, do you mention murders? What could you say to him? I thought in the end, no it isn’t worth it … I didn’t want the hassle of censorship or the Home Office asking me why I was writing letters to Dennis Nilsen.”

Major (retired) Eric Talbot served in the Armed Forces from 1961 to 2003 in both the regular and territorial army. Credit: Eric Talbot

Dennis Nilsen’s minimum sentence of 25 years was changed to a whole life tariff by the Home Secretary in 1994, meaning he could never be set free. He died in York hospital on May 10, 2018 of a blood clot. At least four of his victims have never been identified.

Eric Talbot left the Army Catering Corps as a WO1 in 1985 and went on to become a chef lecturer at Walsall College, before going on to become a visiting lecturer at a university. He also continued to serve in the military as a member of the Territorial Army, commissioning into the Staffords soon after joining. Eric's considerable Armed Forces career concluded in 2003, he was by then a Major. Eric says that nowadays, he is very much enjoying his retirement. 

Reflecting on his memories alongside the notorious Dennis Nilsen as a fellow recruit at Aldershot, Eric said:

“People sometimes say, he must have been terrible …

“I say actually he was the most nondescript person you would ever meet. Nothing stood out about him as remarkable, he wouldn’t shout his mouth off, in many ways he was the mouse in the corner.

“We were boys still when I last saw him. He was just weird.”

 

'Des' and 'The Real Des: The Dennis Nilsen Story' are both now available via the ITV Hub.