I write a series about a Scotland Yard detective, DCI Frank Merlin operating in World War Two London. To date there are five books in the series with the fifth, Dead In The Water, coming out this month from Headline. My aim has always been to set the series against a historically accurate depiction of life in wartime London and of the progress of the war from a Home Front viewpoint. This has naturally involved a good deal of historical research. I have spent many hours reading in particular about crime in WW2 London and in the country at large. The facts of wartime crime are surprising.
If they consider it at all, people have a vaguely optimistic idea that criminals did their bit for the war effort by attempting to rein in their activities. Far from it. World War Two was a boom time for British crime. Between 1939 and 1945, reported crime on the Home Front in England and Wales grew by nearly 60%. There were a number of factors specific to the war which contributed to this rise:
- the existence of the blackout throughout the war obviously made life easier for criminals. In order to make things difficult for the German night-time bombers, all street lighting was extinguished at night and houses had to stop light escaping by drawing thick blackout curtains. Towns and cities were thus pitch-dark at night.
- The introduction of rationing and other wartime restrictions created a host of new opportunities for criminals. A vibrant black market came into existence and fraudsters, thieves and forgers were able to make hay.
- German bombing caused chaos in towns and cities which criminals could expoit.
- the police were under great pressure. They lost many experienced officers to the armed forces and were often overstretched.
Here are some examples of wartime crime:
Looting, Robbery And Theft
People today often have a rose-tinted view of wartime life. The idea that looting took place is usually met with incredulity. However looting was widespread during the Blitz and after. In the four months to the end of 1940, 4,584 cases of looting were prosecuted in the Old Bailey. Bombed-out Londoners often returned to the ruins of their houses to find them stripped of all surviving furniture and valuables. The culprits might come from all walks of life including even air wardens, firemen and other members of the home defence forces. Looters could become manic in their pursuit of spoils. When a well-known London nightclub took a direct bomb hit and many customers were killed, the rescuers had to struggle through hordes of looters fighting to get to the bodies first and strip them of rings, necklaces and other booty.
The blackout widened opportunities for killers. One such was a young airman called Gordon Cummins, whose activities brought him the soubriquet of the ‘Blackout Ripper’. Cummins liked mutilating and murdering young women. The dark unlit streets of London afforded him good cover. Between 1941 and 1942 he killed at least four victims before being caught and hanged. Another London murderer, Harry Dobkins, tried to take advantage of the wreckage of the Blitz to cover up his crime. Having strangled his wife Rachel, he buried her in the rubble of a bombed-out baptist chapel in Vauxhall, hoping that if discovered she would be passed off as just another victim of the Blitz. Unfortunately for him, a pathologist took a close interest in Rachel’s body when it was found and was able to identify the true cause of death. Dobkins went to the gallows. One is bound to wonder how many wartime murderers disposed of bodies in a similar way but got away with it.
Organised gangs played a major role in wartime crime. The most successful and powerful in London was that led by Cockney mobster Billy Hill. His gang established a dominant position in the black market as well as carrying out a host of large robberies and burglaries. These included a string of spectacular smash and grab raids on some of the London’s best-known jewellery shops. Gangs too controlled the thriving vice business, although Hill left that to others. The kingpins of wartime vice were five Maltese brothers, the Messinas. By 1944 there were over 3 million men in the home armed forces and over 1.5 million American troops. Sailors, soldiers and airmen would surge into town on their leaves looking for a good time. The Messinas were happy to provide it. They owned nightclubs, brothels and ran a huge team of prostitutes known as the ‘Piccadilly Commandos’.
Many items were rationed during the war, the major ones being food, petrol and clothing. Rations were administered via a system of ration books and coupons. This system offered opportunity to forgers and thieves. Huge amounts of money could be made. In one case in 1944, a gang stole 14,000 newly issued ration books and sold them on the black market for a total estimated profit of £70,000, approximately £3m in today’s money. Another case featured the forgery of clothing coupons. The going black market rate for a forged coupon was £10, or £400 today. Large numbers of these were sold on the streets of London.
Other scams were operated by crooked officials and professionals. For a substantial sum, bent doctors would provide military exemption health certificates to men wishing to avoid the call-up. The government set up a fund to compensate people who‘d been bombed out of their houses. Many people made false claims against the fund. One London man made nineteen such claims in a five month period before he was found out and imprisoned. Corrupt council officials were involved in a dreadful case in Hammersmith, when some jerry-built air shelters collapsed in raids and many died. Investigations disclosed a record of bribery and use of sub-standard materials by contractors.
The arrival of thousands of American troops in 1942 had significant implications for the British criminal justice system. From August 1942, legal jurisdiction over all American military personnel was awarded by Act of Parliament to the American military authorities and British police powers were thereby diminished. Problems too were caused by the importation into the country of the fraught race relations prevalent back in the US. White and black American soldiers were often found violently at odds with each other in pubs, clubs or on the street. Generally, black soldiers were treated very much as second-class citizens by their white fellows, and this attitude fed through to their military legal system, where it became apparent that black personnel were severely discriminated against. During the war, there were more many prosecutions and convictions of black soldiers and their sentences were notably harsher. The evident injustices of the American system eventually led to a public outcry when a black soldier, Leroy Henry, was convicted of rape on flimsy evidence and sentenced to hang. The British press took up the case and over 30,000 people in Bath, where the offence had allegedly taken place, signed a petition seeking Henry’s reprieve. General Eisenhower, US military commander in Britain, investigated and felt bound to overturn the verdict as unsafe. Henry was returned to his unit.
I have attempted to exploit the history of wartime crime to the full in my Frank Merlin series. In the new book, Dead In The Water, the story features, amongst other things, a racist American military policeman, a badly-treated black GI, Billy Hill and his gang along with, as you would expect, a murder or two. Previous stories have involved the vice trade, wartime scams, and broader subjects of the period such as appeasement, the Blitz, the wartime British film industry and espionage.
Mark Ellis is the bestselling author of the DCI Merlin series, the latest of which is Dead in the Water.