Wally Thompson was a hardworking thief who always looked to exploit a situation. During a heavy air raid in 1941, he drove a stolen lorry into a narrow street in London Bridge. An air raid precaution (ARP) member, Thompson was wearing his uniform; it allowed him to move around London freely and unsuspected. Alongside him in the lorry were the members of his gang – Batesy, Bob and ‘Spider’.
The gang’s plan was to break into a warehouse, pick up a safe from the office and drive it away. As anti-aircraft fire raged and bombers droned, Batesy jumped out and opened the warehouse gates with a cloned key. Spider – an experienced burglar – ran forward and forced a window, before jemmying the main door open from the inside. Within moments, all four men were inside, manhandling the safe out to the lorry. But as they reached the door, a bomb landed outside.
The ground pitched forwards, and Thompson was thrown through the air, landing on the stairs. The gates were destroyed, the lorry was turned upside down and fires started to burn. Everybody was shaken – but unharmed. Choking on dust, cursing his luck, Thompson urged his men to run.
Spider had other ideas. Spotting a young girl trapped in a nearby building, he began scaling a wall to reach her. Minutes later, a fire engine arrived and a ladder was sent up to the ledge where Spider was hanging with the girl in his arms. He climbed down, and handed her over to a police constable – who was deeply impressed. He asked for Spider’s name and address; such courage deserved recognition. However, Spider declined to give his details. Feigning humility, he and his colleagues slipped quietly into the night. Without the safe.
According to Thompson, the Blitz was a golden period for criminals. “Air raids,” he remembered, “were the best ally London’s crooks ever had.” Billy Hill, who came to be known as the boss of Britain’s underworld after the war, agreed: “They were roaring days. Money was easy, the villains were well loaded with dough, and we were all busy.”
The anecdotal evidence is backed up by the official figures. In 1941, the Metropolitan Police made 5,280 more arrests and recorded 4,681 more indictable offences than it had in 1939 – the primary reason being the increase in criminal opportunity. Yet as career criminals were exploiting the blackout and the absence of police, a much larger group was increasingly finding itself on the wrong side of the law: ordinary citizens.
The Blitz lasted between Saturday 7 September 1940 and May 1941. It brought danger to towns and cities and chaos to the country as a whole, causing people to behave in extreme and unaccustomed ways.
One result of this was ‘Blitz spirit’, the instinctive realisation that life – and other people – mattered. But darker outcomes were also evident – and one tragic crime reveals much about the period.
In late September 1940, Ida Rodway, a law-abiding woman in her late 60s, and her blind husband, Joseph, a retired carriage driver, were bombed out of their Hackney home. The devoted couple began sleeping on Ida’s sister’s floor. But as the days turned into weeks, Joseph’s mental state deteriorated and their money began running out. Without financial assistance or any apparent hope for the future, Ida did what she considered to be the kindest thing for Joseph. Instead of bringing him a cup of tea in the morning, she brought a knife and slit his throat before handing herself in to the police.
Ida Rodway was charged with murder and brought to trial at the Old Bailey – where the court medical officer construed her insistence that she had done nothing wrong as evidence of insanity. He might equally have viewed it as evidence of crushed pragmatism. Nevertheless, his view saved Ida from the hangman. The jury was instructed to return a verdict of guilty but insane, and she was committed to Broadmoor where she died in April 1946.
The Rodway case demonstrates that at the start of the Blitz, the authorities had little understanding of how to deal with the effects of bombing. They were surprised by the relatively small loss of life in comparison with the huge amount of damage to buildings. The result was that large numbers were left homeless with nowhere to turn. It would take some weeks before the newly appointed special commissioner for the homeless, Henry Willink, could begin to overhaul the system. He quickly made homes available, introduced a workable system of benefits, and created a network of information centres. He also removed the poor law mentality that made claimants feel more like Dickensian beggars than victims of Nazi bombing. It would be fair to say that Willink – a Conservative MP – kick-started the welfare state. It was too late, however, to save Ida Rodway from her criminal destiny.
Breaking the law
The introduction of defence regulations in 1939 created myriad new ways to break the law – from buying an un-weighed chicken, to painting a car light blue. Robert Colvin-Graham, rector of Old Bolingbroke in Lincolnshire, discovered as much in the late summer of 1940, when he appeared before local magistrates charged with ringing his church bells – an act that had recently been made illegal except as a warning of airborne invasion. Colvin-Graham’s protests were ignored by the bench who sentenced him to a month in prison.
At Oxford Police Court, meanwhile, Cecil Hughes was charged with making a statement likely to cause alarm or despondency. While reading an elderly lady’s electricity meter, he had attempted a series of jokes concerning the Nazis’ ability to invade Britain. He had chosen the wrong audience. “It was a queer way for a British subject to talk,” the lady told the magistrates, who found Hughes guilty (after a lengthy adjournment) and fined him £5.
There were many new ways for an ordinary person to turn outlaw. While some of those responsible for looting in the aftermath of air raids were known criminals, the majority were opportunists reacting in the moment. Indeed, between September 1940 and May 1941, a staggering 48 per cent of the looters arrested after air raids were children. Although looting was punishable by death under Regulation 38A, it often amounted to little more than recycling.
The head of a heavy rescue squad, for example, was sent to prison for picking up a near-empty bottle of gin from the ruins of a pub and handing it to his exhausted men, while an old-age pensioner received six months in prison for taking a bit of rope and an old jug from a ruined house.
The Black Market was also responsible for criminalising the ordinary. “Everyone had their crafty ways,” recalled Tottenham fireman Francis Goddard, “it was the only way you could survive.” One example is Goddard’s wife who worked in a restaurant, where she had access to steak, salmon and other delicacies. At the end of a hard night, she would wrap a few choice items up in tissue paper, and carry them home hidden in her knickers. “I hope you haven’t worked too hard!” her husband remembers laughing. “I hope you haven’t sweated too much…”
The sudden availability of firearms played its part in the inadvertent crime wave. Young serviceman James Burnham came home on leave to find his lover asleep in a shelter in the arms of another man. Turning his service rifle on the pair, one bullet missed while a second broke the man’s arm. A Canadian military policeman, meanwhile, desperately in need of money to marry his English girlfriend, held up the Coach and Horses pub in Covent Garden, London. He struggled with the barman, shooting him dead. Without access to firearms, these and other similar incidents may have ended very differently.
Guilty of murder
But of all the wrongdoing that took place during the Blitz, one act seems to stand apart as the archetypal crime of the period. Starting with the discovery of a body on a bomb site, there was little initial surprise. But when it was shown that the victim had been strangled, a murder enquiry was instituted. The body was ultimately identified using two new methods: the study of dental records and the superimposing of a photograph of the victim onto a photograph of the skull. As a result, Harry Dobkin was found guilty of the murder of his wife Rachel. He had tried – and failed – to pass her off as a victim of the Blitz. One wonders how many other murder victims were more expertly disposed of as the bombs fell, and how many grudges and scores were settled as a result.
The range of offences committed during the Blitz, from breaches of regulations to cold-blooded murder, was wide. And while some were committed by inveterate wrongdoers, many were carried out by ordinary people reacting to opportunity.
But beyond opportunity was a world of uncertainty. Our grandparents and great-grandparents feared that tomorrow would never come. They were open to risks and unfamiliar behaviour of all kinds. In the flash of a bomb, Spider went from stealing a safe to saving a life. And even when danger was not immediately present, the Blitz’s steady brutality sat in the background, raising the nation’s temperature. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of George Hobbs.
Hobbs was a 43-year-old mortuary assistant found guilty of stealing items from the bodies of air raid victims. Sentencing him, the judge called his a “horrible and disgusting case”. But Hobbs’s plea in mitigation is revealing. He told the court that nobody could possibly imagine the sight of bodies recovered from bombed premises. This, he said, combined with the dread that he might himself become a victim of an air raid, had an effect on his mind. He had been doing a job for many years; but it was a job that had suddenly become more extreme and overlaid with fear.
His words should not be dismissed. They hold the key to much of the behaviour of the period. From this place of fear and confusion came both the good and the bad. Blitz spirit is often celebrated; Blitz criminality is rarely admitted. Yet they stand together as twin symptoms with a common cause.
Five Blitz criminals
In the summer of 1940, John Fulljames, a student at University College Oxford, opened fire with a rifle on fellow students. Tried for murder, Fulljames was described to the jury as having a “split-mind” in the fashion of Dr Jekyll. He was committed to Broadmoor where the authorities rejected the court’s finding of insanity.
Seventeen-year-old James Harvey was robbed and killed by a gang of youths in Elephant and Castle – a no-go area due to the blackout and the absence of police. The leader of the gang, 21-year-old Jimmy Essex, was initially charged with murder. But he was eventually sentenced to just three years in prison for manslaughter, leading to an outcry from furious local residents. Essex went on to become a notorious London gangster.
In September 1940, Percy Clark was charged with attempting to murder his wife Irene in their family air raid shelter. Claiming that the bombs had driven him mad, he admitted punching her repeatedly in the head in front of their children. While Irene was recovering, her hospital ward was struck by a bomb and she was killed. Percy received permission to be released from custody to attend her funeral.
Two brothers, Brian and Patrick Williams, were serving members of the armed forces, who walked into a police station to admit a burglary they had committed before the war. They believed that criminal convictions would secure their release from the army and navy respectively. Brian was successful: he was convicted, sent to borstal for three months and discharged. However, Patrick was merely bound over, and returned to the Royal Navy.
Impersonating a pilot
Twenty nine-year-old D’Arcy Wilson, a barman from Thornton Heath, was sentenced to two months’ hard labour for impersonating an RAF officer. Having deserted his wife and children, Wilson started wearing the officer’s uniform “to impress women”. He was apprehended after he gave a “sloppy salute” to a flight lieutenant. At the time, he was days away from bigamously marrying an 18-year-old girl who believed him to be a test pilot.
Joshua Levine is an author and historian who has written several books on the Second World War, including his latest The Secret History of the Blitz (Simon & Schuster, 2015).
This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine