The Second World War was a golden period for British crime. Between 1939 and 1945, reported crimes in England and Wales rose from 303,711 to 478,394, an increase of 57 per cent. What was behind this huge jump? The blackout and the bombs were the most obvious factors, and murder, rape, robbery, burglary and theft all flourished in the dark and the chaos. But there were other reasons. The war brought with it a vast raft of new restrictions and regulations which many people chose to break or circumvent. Rationing of various staples of life offered huge opportunities to fraudsters, forgers and thieves and created a vibrant black market, and there were a variety of other new or expanded criminal opportunities. Below are a few striking particulars of criminal life on the wartime home front…
Looting was rife
On one day in November 1940, 20 of the 56 cases listed for hearing at the Old Bailey concerned looting offences. The total number of cases for the four months of the Blitz to the end of December was 4,584. When the Café de Paris restaurant and nightclub in Piccadilly suffered a direct hit by the Luftwaffe in 1941, rescuers had to battle their way through looters that were fighting to tear rings and other jewellery from the dead revellers. There were many cases in which looters weren’t just criminals and members of the public: firemen, wardens and other members of the defence forces often joined in too.
Emergency workers clear out the bomb-damaged interior of the Cafe de Paris. (Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Killers had a field day
With cities and towns plunged into darkness every night, killers had a field day. A young airman, Gordon Cummins, was nicknamed ‘the Blackout Ripper’ and roamed the bomb-ravaged streets of London in search of young women to murder and mutilate. He killed at least four between 1941 and 1942 before he was caught and became an early victim of the infamous British hangman, Albert Pierrepoint.
Other later victims of Pierrepoint who began their murderous activities during the war were John Christie, of 10 Rillington Place fame and John Haigh, the ‘acid bath murderer’. The circumstances of the war assisted both men in their crimes. Despite a criminal record, manpower shortages helped Christie to become a part-time special police constable, and the associated veneer of respectability was very useful to him. Haigh found the war a convenient cover for explaining his first victim’s disappearance; his claim that the man had run away to avoid conscription to the army successfully diverted suspicion.
John Haigh, the ‘acid bath murderer’, in custody. (Bettmann/Getty)
Gang activity increased
In London, there were Jewish, Maltese and Italian gangs as well as cockney outfits. The Maltese Messina gang controlled the London vice scene with an iron fist. Prostitution boomed in the war in line with the massive inflow of soldiers, sailors and airmen. By 1944 there were over 1.5m GIs in Britain, while the home armed forces totalled 3m, many of whom were based on the home front. Hordes of servicemen would pour into London or other British towns and cities on nightly furloughs looking for fun. The Messina ran a huge gang of girls, nicknamed the ‘Piccadilly Commandos’ to satisfy London demand. The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases naturally soared, as did business for back-street abortionists.
The black market boomed
While there was always scope for individual entrepreneurialism, the criminal gangs soon came to dominate the black market. In London, the main player was Billy Hill, who grew up in Seven Dials which had been a major hub of London crime for centuries. He was quick to realise the potential of the war, not only the advantages conferred on the criminal classes by the blackout, rationing and the Blitz, but also the obvious benefits of police manpower being constrained due the loss of officers to the forces.
He duly took advantage and made a fortune, and was always grateful to the black market. He said of it in his memoirs: “It was the most fantastic side of civilian life in wartime. Make no mistake. It cost Britain millions of pounds. I didn’t make use of the black market, I fed it.”
Hill had many other strings to his bow. His gang pulled off a number of jewellery ‘smash and grabs’ early in the war, some staged spectacularly in London’s West End. These crimes were easier to pull off with Blitz chaos all around combined with a weakened and heavily stretched police force.
Rationing led to thefts
The most significant and lucrative black-market activities centred on the long list of staple products subject to rationing. Food, petrol and clothing rationing was administered through ration books and coupons. These provided forgers and thieves with great opportunities. In 1944, 14,000 newly issued ration books were stolen in a raid. They were sold for an estimated profit of £70,000, roughly equivalent to £3m today.
A woman purchasing canned goods in the 1940s using rationing tokens. (Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
Forgery took place both on a small and a large scale but was hard to pin down. A rare major prosecution took place in Manchester in 1943, when 19 men were accused of involvement in a wide-ranging racket of selling forged clothing coupons. A printing press in Salford supplied a host of wholesalers in the north and south of England with high quality forgeries. The going rate for a sheet of forged coupons on Oxford Street was £10 – around £400 in today’s money. Rationing naturally gave rise to a great deal of corruption amongst shopkeepers, farmers and officials and many culprits ended up in court.
Conmen took advantage
Corruption was not confined to rationing and the black market. Many other wartime activities offered scope for the unscrupulous. For example, the massive amount of civil defence work commissioned was ripe for fraudsters. In west London, a dodgy contractor conspired for gain with the Hammersmith clerk of works to falsely certify air-raid shelters as sound when they had been shoddily built, fraudulently expensed and were unfit for purpose. People died who should have been safe from the bombs and manslaughter prosecutions followed.
Elsewhere, unscrupulous doctors profited from a popular scam of providing false military exemption certificates to shirkers. In Stepney, Dr William Sutton would freely issue such exemptions for half a crown without even bothering to see the candidate. He went to jail.
Crimes went international
Unusually, the writ of the wartime British courts did not extend to all crimes committed in the country. Crimes committed by American military personnel were exempt, as the US authorities insisted on trying such cases in their own courts, which were set up in several locations. The main one in London was near the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. This arrangement caused no real difficulty until some disturbing statistics became known. The record showed that many more black GIs were prosecuted than white ones and were given much stiffer sentences if convicted.
One case in particular drew public attention to this discrimination. Leroy Henry, a black GI, was convicted of rape, a capital offence for the Americans, on apparently flimsy evidence. He was sentenced to death by the presiding American colonel. The case led to deep public unease in the British press and elsewhere. Thirty-three thousand people from Bath, where the alleged rape took place, signed a petition calling for a reprieve. The common view was that Henry’s race was the principal reason for the conviction. General Eisenhower, the commander of US forces, had to intervene; he threw out the verdict as unsafe and returned Henry to his unit.
Some workers’ rights became illegal
The wartime criminalisation of previously legitimate activities was another factor boosting crime figures. Striking, for example, became illegal under defence regulations in order to ensure that wartime industrial output was maintained at the maximum. Inevitably, this proved problematic. A 1942 miners’ strike at a Kent colliery led to the imprisonment of the miners’ leaders, and the threatened imprisonment of the 1,000-man workforce if they didn’t pay their fines. When nearly all of them didn’t pay, the government baulked at jailing such a huge number of working men and prevented the court from applying its sanction. No other strikers were imprisoned thereafter during the war, although fines continued to be levied.
People abused the system
The government set up various wartime compensation schemes for the population and people were quick to spot the opportunity for abuse. One scheme provided generously for people who had been bombed out. An enterprising man in Wandsworth in London claimed to have lost his home 19 times in three months and received a substantial sum each time. He was jailed for three years.
A group of evacuee children during the Second World War. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Other government initiatives, such as evacuation, were open to fraudulent manipulation. Some country families were happy to have children billeted with them, but others weren’t – and some resorted to bribery to evade the responsibility. Basil Seal, one of Evelyn Waugh’s protagonists in his wartime novel Put Out The Flags, takes advantage of his sister’s position as a billeting officer and makes a nice sum from this type of corrupt activity, illustrative of activity at the time.
Criminals became heroes
Not all criminals concentrated exclusively on feathering their own nests; there were some criminal heroes. Some allowed their patriotic instincts to surface and supported the war effort. Perhaps the best known of these was the ace burglar and robber, Eddie Chapman, who was recruited by MI5 and became a British double agent. Known as ‘Agent Zigzag’, he was spectacularly successful at duping the Germans, who famously valued him so highly that they awarded him the Iron Cross. Returning from overseas service in 1944 he was pardoned for his previous crimes and awarded a substantial payment. He was quick to return to his criminal ways but avoided jail and eventually retired in some comfort.
The famous British double agent, Eddie Chapman, with his daughter in circa 1966. (Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images)
With the German capitulation in 1945 came the end of the blackout and the bombs. The American and other foreign allied forces departed and British servicemen were demobilised. Life began to return to normal but some criminal-friendly wartime conditions lingered. Rationing did not end until 1954, so the black market thrived for a few more years yet. Some old gangs went away and some new ones took their place. Crime, as always, carried on but clearly the halcyon years of the war were over.
Just a few years ago, ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, a gangster who became something of a TV star in his final years, told a talk show host regretfully and seriously that he’d never been able to forgive the Germans for surrendering. Many old crooks echoed his sentiments; they had never had it so good!
Merlin at War by Mark Ellis is out now (London Wall Publishing, 2017)