Revealed: Who really shot the Adelaide lions

The astonishing tale of the circus lions that escaped from their cages and were on the loose in the Adelaide suburb of Wingfield in 1964, as featured in our December issue, has proved a talking point among many readers.

Since running the story we’ve discovered the identity of ‘Jim P’, one of the police officers involved when three of the four lions were shot dead, was Jim Pengilly. The letter from Geoff Smith in last month’s Shooter gave some background information on Jim.

We’ve also been given a DVD containing footage filmed as the incident unfolded five decades ago. The recording seems to indicate a crowd of bemused plain clothes and uniformed police officers. There are graphic images of the dominant male lion with the unfortunate keeper, George Herzog, who was mauled to death. Incredibly, the stand-off lasted more than two hours. In the footage, Wingfield is a rural setting far removed from the urban locale of today.

There are conflicting versions of who actually shot the three lions after a fourth had been coaxed back into its cage. The Australian Shooter account was based on an article that appeared in an issue of the quarterly newsletter published by the SSAA Hunting & Conservation Branch (SA) in November 2008. That story firmly placed the credit for downing two of the lions with Jim Pengilly, one of the first to arrive after the alert.

But sources within the SSAA familiar with the event reckon there are different explanations on who did the shooting due to ill feeling between police and a gun dealer who arrived after being asked to assist. He was Bill Hambly-Clark, a colourful character who ran a city centre gunshop and passed away in 2013. But Mike Young, a long-term SSAA member who accompanied him that day, still lives in Adelaide and has told us exactly what he saw.

At the time Mike was serving in the Australian Army and was a mate of Hambly-Clark’s son, Bill Jr, and in his spare time would help out at the gunshop. Mike still has vivid recollections of what happened that day when he was in his early 20s. “I was on leave from the Army and for something to do was helping in the gunshop,” he said.

“About 9 o’clock that morning the phone rang and young Bill answered - it was the police wanting someone to help deal with the incident. Bill Jr had been in a motorcycle accident and was injured so I went instead as back-up.” They were picked up by a police car which sped to the scene with sirens blaring. “The police radio was on and it was clear they weren’t going to do anything until Bill arrived,” said Mike.

Hambly-Clark had sighted-in a Browning Auto and given Mike a Spanish side-by-side. “I had to work out the safety but Bill’s instruction was to ‘cover me’,” said Mike. A Superintendent Lenton surveyed the scene with Hambly-Clark - two lions near caravans and the male by a fence with the remains of the keeper. Lenton instructed Hambly-Clark to deal with the dominant male without interference, while the police shooters were told to focus on the other two.

“I followed Bill about four or five paces behind and to his right,” recalled Mike. “He closed to less than 25 yards from the lion with me following - no one else came with us. With Bill about 20 yards away and the lion still undisturbed, he stopped and raised his firearm to take aim.

“At that moment someone behind yelled ‘fire’ and the lion moved its head sharply as Bill took the shot. His intention had been to head-shoot the animal from the side but the sudden call meant the shot struck its left brow arch, fortunately with enough impact to crack major sections of the skull and kill the lion.”

At that point Mike remembers a barrage of shots ringing out from the other shooters, enough to kill one of the lions near the caravans as the lioness ran towards the fallen male. “Bill approached the downed male ready to shoot again if necessary,” said Mike. “As Bill was concentrating on him I saw the female coming across my front at speed. I yelled out to Bill who shot it in an instant.”

What followed involved a curious course of action by police, according to Mike. “An officer who’d stayed with the group we made our approach from was the first to come forward and raised his shotgun to fire. I said ‘it’s already dead’ but he told me ‘I’m going to shoot it anyway’ and fired into its ribs.”

Hambly-Clark then pulled out a skinning knife but was stopped by another officer citing quarantine issues. It later transpired Hambly-Clark did indeed become owner of the two lion skins, and skulls which he boiled down as trophies. As far as Mike’s concerned two of the lions were definitely killed by Hambly-Clark. “He shot two lions with three shots in a matter of seconds. I didn’t fire a shot,” he said. Video footage shows those two lions being shot.

What clouded the issue was the ill feeling between Hambly-Clark and Superintendent Lenton. “There was a personality clash,” said Mike. “Bill was a flamboyant character who spoke out and was critical of the police performance.”

The filmed images were the work of a freelance operator who happened to be on the scene and Mike believes they were edited to portray the police in a more favourable light than was perhaps merited. “One film only shows the police being involved but that’s definitely not the way things played out that day. I know this, I was there.”

Watch the drama ‘Wingfield Lions’ on YouTube, footage posted by Mr Hambly-Clark Jr.

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