The second world war is quite rightly regarded as Britain's finest hour, a time when people showed unparalleled levels of determination, heroism and self-sacrifice. But there was a darker side to the war, which produced unprecedented opportunities for graft, crime and corruption. This is the story Donald Thomas tells in this fascinating book. He has scoured contemporary newspapers and court reports for evidence, weaving it together into a vivid recreation of the texture of the times, bringing to life the world of ration books, air-raid shelters, shortages and restrictions of all kinds, the perhaps inevitable matrix of a whole new range of crimes.
Before the war, there had been three principal areas of professional crime: smash-and-grab robbery, prostitution and race track "protection" gangs. These activities continued but were joined by many new offences, stimulated by demand and opportunity and carried out by professional and amateur criminals. The blackout was a godsend for criminals of all kinds and made normal policing extremely difficult. An RAF cadet earned brief notoriety as the Blackout Ripper, killing four women, mainly prostitutes, in a week before he was caught and hanged. The professional criminal fraternity was swelled by deserters from the armed forces. There were 10,000 between D-Day and the end of the war alone. But criminal activity could be found at every level of society.
With most staple foodstuffs rationed, the theft and forgery of identity cards, ration books and coupons was big business. So was the forging and stealing of medical discharge certificates from the armed forces. Once enemy air raids began, there was looting. One enterprising gang of more than 30 Royal Engineers took to stripping lead from the roofs of bombed houses and selling it to scrap-metal merchants. Another dodge, the so-called bomb lark, saw people falsely claiming national assistance by saying that they had been bombed out of their houses.
The black market flourished. There was mass pilfering of paint, wood and components from firms engaged in government work. Someone even stole the typewriters from the War Office. The docks and railway yards were the sources of most pilferage, with cigarettes, whisky and silk stockings the most favoured items. In some cases, this was merely the continuation of the prewar tradition of "perks" compensating for poor pay. But it was now on a grander scale. The value of goods stolen from the railways reached a total of £1 million a year (£40 million in today's prices) by 1943.
Under-the-counter foodstuffs of all kinds were available for those who knew where to go. But some black-market goods could be lethal. The sales of meat unfit for human consumption soared. In Brighton, there were systematic thefts of liver kept for "pharmaceutical purposes" and sold on to unsuspecting customers. As supplies of alcohol declined, illicit "hooch" was manufactured to meet demand. Drunk in sufficient quantities, it caused blindness, madness and death.
White-collar fraud was widespread. The armed forces were regularly overcharged by civilian contractors and suppliers. Claiming money for a non-existent workforce netted a Liverpool ship repairer £300,000 (£12 million today). He shot himself when the fraud was uncovered.
When air-raid shelters built with sub-standard materials collapsed and killed some of the shelterers, a clerk of works and a building contractor were charged with fraud and manslaughter. Some wartime crimes were particularly spiteful - the so-called good-turn bandits gave servicemen returning from leave lifts in stolen cars and then robbed them at gunpoint.
The police strenuously combated wartime crime, aided by an army of undercover agents trained to sniff out offenders. At the height of the war, indignation against black marketeers led for calls for them to be shot as traitors and saboteurs. Instead, the maximum penalty was increased to 14 years' imprisonment. Examples were made of prominent figures to demonstrate the even-handedness of the law in "the people's war". Noël Coward and film star George Arliss were heavily fined for failing to declare their holdings in US securities, which they were legally obliged to do. Stage star Ivor Novello was sent to prison for a month for breaking the petrol rationing regulations. The elderly Lord Alfred Douglas was fined for contravening the blackout regulations.
But Thomas also has an eye for the absurdities of the war. He reports the introduction of a regulation in 1943 banning the transport of flowers by rail but not by road, a regulation speedily killed by ridicule and withdrawn. He tells us of a man jailed for four days for persistently snoring in an air-raid shelter and threatening a warden who tried to silence him. He records the ingenuity of a man who got round food rationing by buying the carcasses of animals that died at London Zoo and eating his way through antelope, giraffe, elephant and porpoise.
Some professional criminals carried on their activities into the war, revelling in the increased opportunities presented. But others put their talents at the services of the state. Safe-breaker Eddie Chapman became a daring double agent working for MI5 while pretending to carry out sabotage operations for the Germans. Safe-breaker "Gentle Johnny" Ramensky joined the commandos, instructing them in the techniques of safe-cracking and later parachuting behind enemy lines to blow safes containing important documents in German and Italian buildings. Both men resumed their normal criminal activities after the war. Some new and sometimes remarkable criminals appeared during the war, none more so perhaps than two Polish black marketeers, Marian Grondkowski and Henryk Malinowski. They had met in the French Foreign Legion, which Grondkowski joined after fighting for three years with the International Brigade in Spain and Malinowski joined after escaping from a concentration camp in Poland. They joined the Free Polish forces in England in 1943 but deserted after two years to embark on a criminal career that led to murder and, in due course, to the gallows.
This is not the first book on the wartime underworld. Edward Smithies' excellent Crime in Wartime (1982) tackled the same subject in a more analytical fashion than Thomas, whose approach is more anecdotal. But it complements Smithies' work well and is a richly readable and absorbing account of the less-than-heroic side of the war.
Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history, Lancaster University.
An Underworld at War: Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War
Author - Donald Thomas
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 429
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7195 5732 1