Sunday, 16 April 2017

Book Review - Crime in the Second World War: Spives, Scoundrels, Rogues and Worse

Think of the British 'Home Front' during the Second World War and the inevitable image is that of a community spirit not equalled before or since, the British people at their absolute best with everybody striving for a common cause and bravely overcoming all of the obstacles and setbacks placed in their way, whether they be the effects of German bombs, rationing and shortages or worse. By and large, this picture is an accurate one and the majority of people did at least try to carry on as normally as possible. As always though, there was a darker side to the Home Front and although frequently overlooked by historians, there was a dramatic fifty seven percent increase in crime during the wartime years. Some of the perpetrators were seasoned criminals and low life, taking the opportunities presented to them by the blackout and the Blitz, the lack of Police resources and an influx of new overseas customers to exploit, whilst others were new at the game and had a hitherto untarnished reputation but were perhaps tempted off the straight and narrow by hardship or by the wartime conditions imposed upon them. Some of these latter 'criminals' probably didn't even think of themselves as such and once peace returned, resumed their normal law-abiding lives.

In her latest book Crime in the Second World War, historian and author Penny Legg examines crime and criminals as well as the differing types of illegal behaviour in Britain during the Second World War. The book, which is subtitled Spivs, Scoundrels, Rogues and Worse begins with a look at an aspect of wartime criminality frequently overlooked by historians of the Blitz. Looting was quite widespread, whether it was stealing property from bombed out houses, theft from gas and electricity meters or removing items from bomb damaged businesses. Some of the perpetrators were opportunist thieves, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, whilst others were people who should have known better, such as ARP Wardens or members of the Fire Services, who abused the trust placed in them by the authorities that had appointed them. As the author explains, the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1940 were amended in October of that year to take the crime of looting into account and in theory at least, permitted looters to be punished by death, although this particular sentence was never carried out. We read of a one unfortunate lady in Camberwell who was bombed out of her house during the Blitz and having stayed with friends until her house was made habitable again, then discovered that a neighbour had stolen her piano and a sewing machine. Another householder, this time in Bristol stole £3 7 shillings from her next door neighbour. On this occasion, the thief was sentenced to twenty eight days in prison. A notorious Blitz incident in Central London was the bombing of the so-called 'Bomb Proof' Cafe de Paris in Piccadilly in March 1941. This seemed to bring out the absolute worst in some people, as it was reported that looters cut off the fingers of some of the victims in order to remove rings and other jewellery. Such looters were known as 'Bomb Chasers' - people who swooped as soon as a likely target was bombed and who took advantage of the blackout and the general confusion following a major incident in order to obtain the rich pickings on offer in a wealthy part of London.

In the following chapter, we read of the Black Market and the ways and means used to get around the rationing of food, petrol and clothing in wartime Britain. When one thinks of the Black Market, initial thoughts sometimes stray to Joe Walker, the lovable 'spiv' in the television comedy Dad's Army, always able to procure and supply just about anything for a price. Penny explains that before the war, Britain imported fifty five million tonnes of foodstuffs yearly from around the world, mainly by sea. With the coming of war, much of this was curtailed, either due to the diversion of shipping into transportation of war materials or later, due to the effects of the U-Boat campaigns against British merchant shipping. Rationing was introduced in early 1940 and whilst it was a system designed to ensure that everyone got a fair share of what was available, the reality of the situation meant that almost everybody tried to ensure that they received a little extra food along the way. We learn of how Black Marketeers obtained their wares; sometimes this was achieved by looting bombed out warehouses and shops, sometimes goods were stolen from the docks - often with dishonest dock workers complicit in the operation. Sometimes, livestock was stolen from farms and we read of how Kentish farmers were reported in April 1941 as having to patrol their fields armed with shotguns in order to deter thieves stealing sheep from fields. The Home Guard were also employed to keep an eye open for the so-called 'Butcher Gangs' of livestock thieves. Petrol theft was also a problem, as was the theft of petrol coupons, which were supposed to be the legal method of obtaining fuel for the very few private cars remaining on the roads during the war. The theft of food and clothing coupons was also a problem and it was also an offence to sell ones own legally obtained coupons to others. Sometimes, shopkeepers were involved and it was during this time, that the phrase 'Under the Counter' became a part of the language. An unscrupulous shopkeeper could be discreetly given a list of required items by a known and trusted customer and would usually find a way to produce the goods. Such shopkeepers would never serve strangers in this way for fear of the stranger being an undercover Police Officer. Organised criminal gangs were invariably involved in the Black Market, whether as part of the initial theft of goods, or in the supply of them to the public or to smaller operators.

We then move on to crimes committed in the blackout. Designed to hinder enemy aircraft in identifying targets on the ground, the blackout was also a boon to criminals, as it presented a curtain of gloom in which they could continue their activities. Breaking the blackout was a serious offence in it's own right and whilst some early offenders were simply absent-minded in not covering windows or by showing lights, some people clearly couldn't be bothered and the usual penalty for showing a light was a fine of £5, no mean sum in 1940. By the end of the war, there had been 114,000 prosecutions for blackout violations. As mentioned earlier, the blackout itself presented ample opportunities for offenders, ranging from theft of luggage from blacked-out trains to more serious offences such as prostitution and murder. The darkened streets of major cities presented an ideal opportunity for street walkers and pimps and in London, the darkened parks were a favourite haunt of prostitutes and the influx of servicemen, particularly the Americans who generally had more money to spend, ensured that there was no shortage of customers. Unfortunately, whilst many prostitutes did well out of the war, there were those who were unlucky enough to encounter the 'mad or the bad' as the author describes them. Such an individual was Gordon Cummins, a Royal Air Force pilot cadet who became known as 'The Blackout Ripper' who was eventually convicted of murdering four women and attempting to murder two others in 1942. It was during one of the attempted murders, when Cummins was disturbed by a delivery boy whilst attacking his victim, that he fled the scene and left behind his gas mask, which was stamped with his RAF service number. The first victim had been murdered in an air raid shelter and apart from the incriminating evidence of the service number, the gas mask also contained grit from this shelter. Cummins was also left handed and forensic evidence from wounds on the victims had determined that the attacker was also left handed. This, aided by other solid police work by Chief Inspector Ted Greeno, ensured that a solid case against Cummins was built up and when he came to trial at the Old Bailey on 28 April 1942, it took the jury just thirty five minutes to find him guilty of murder. He was duly executed at Wandsworth Prison on 25 June 1942.

Penny Legg tells us that the murder rate went up by twenty two percent in the period from 1941-45. Some of these crimes were premeditated, such as that described above, whilst others such as the death of Royal Navy Captain Ralph Douglas Binney CBE, were a result of crimes that went wrong. I wrote about this incident in one of the very first pieces to appear in this blog in June 2010, updated in February 2015 and so will not repeat the story in full again, suffice to say that the Captain intervened in a raid on a Jeweller's shop and would today have no doubt been described as a 'Have a go Hero' in the media. Unfortunately, he was run over and killed by the getaway vehicle and following a huge manhunt, Thomas Jenkins and Ronald Hedley were swiftly arrested. Hedley was identified as the driver of the getaway car but whilst having  been convicted of murder and sentenced to death, he was reprieved just two days before sentence was due to be carried out on 28 April 1945. He was sentenced to life imprisonment instead but only served nine years and was released in 1954. Many people were angered by this seemingly soft treatment of a murderer and claimed that it was a major factor in the rise of armed gangs after the war.

We also learn in this book of the 'Babes in the Wood' murders as well as John George Haigh, the 'Acid Bath Murderer' and also John Christie, who whilst not convicted until after the war, committed some of his murders at 10 Rillington Place during the war whilst employed as a Special Constable. Whilst some of these cases are well known, the author gives many insights into the circumstances of the crimes and explains how in the case of Christie, an innocent man also went to the gallows as a consequence of his actions.

Moving away from murders, we next take a look at some other crimes such as Fraud, Theft, Bootlegging and Treason amongst others. Examples of fraud included bogus or exaggerated claims under the War Damage Compensation Act - this was effectively simple insurance fraud and was very hard, if not impossible to check upon. People submitted multiple claims for loss or damage, or sometimes claimed for damage that had never occurred. People learnt how to play the system and a lack of enforcement staff ensured that this particular avenue of criminal behaviour was not closed until after the war when more personnel became available. Bootlegging, or illegally supplying alcohol was rife. Sometimes, this was simply stolen booze from bombed out houses, pubs or warehouses or which was intercepted by criminals whilst it was in transit but more often than not was illegally produced alcohol made from wood spirit, meths or worse, which could lead to illness and in the worst cases, permanent blindness of those unfortunate enough to drink it.

Treason or espionage was less frequent but there were instances of this occurring and we read of the bungled attempts of George Johnson Armstrong, a 39 year old marine engineer to sell shipping information to the German Consul in Boston, Massachusetts in November 1940 whilst he was visiting the USA on business. Armstrong was a known Nazi sympathiser who made little secret of his views. Unknown to him, he was already on a 'watch list' and his letter to the Consul was intercepted by the American authorities and duly reported to the British. Upon his arrival back in Britain, he was immediately arrested and charged under the Treachery Act. He was tried 'in camera' on 8 May 1941 and was executed at Wandsworth Prison on 9 July 1941, having failed in his appeal. We also learn of Charles Amery, who was one of the few people to join the British Free Corps, a unit of the Waffen SS and who actively toured POW Camps looking to recruit British and Dominion Prisoners of War into changing sides.  Amery was the son of the MP Leo Amery and was arrested in Italy in April 1945. At his subsequent trial in November 1945, Amery who was a committed Fascist, pleaded guilty to all eight counts of treason that he had been charged with and was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in December 1945. We also hear of the story of William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, another committed Fascist whose broadcasts from Nazi Germany achieved notoriety during the war but in reality, were largely treated with derision by the majority of people in this country, who listened illegally to his broadcasts. As has often been pointed out by other authors, the legality of his arrest and subsequent execution is somewhat questionable as Joyce, an Irish-American who had a British passport on account of having a British mother, was captured near the German border with Denmark by the British in May 1945. He was charged with treason against Great Britain between 3 September 1939 and 2 July 1940, which was the date his British passport had expired. He therefore had ceased to be a British citizen from that date and had already taken up German citizenship. However, neither the Americans or the Irish claimed Joyce after the war and the prevailing mood in the UK in 1945 was unsympathetic towards him and he too was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, in his case on 3 January 1946.

We also learn of Helen Duncan, the last person prosecuted in this country for witchcraft, as well as crimes committed by overseas servicemen such as rapes, riots and desertion.

This is a nicely written, well illustrated and attractively presented book which covers an important and often overlooked aspect of the Home Front during the wartime years and which should appeal to both the general reader as well as those with a more specialised interest in crime or the history of the Second World War - I highly recommend it to you.

Crime in the Second World War: Spivs, Scoundrels, Rogues and Worse by Penny Legg is published by Sabrestorm on 28 April 2017 and is priced at £19.99

ISBN 9781781220092

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