Crime in Wartime Britain
Crime rates soared and rationing, mobilisation, blackouts and the effects of enemy bombing all provided new opportunities for the criminal fraternity.
The Home Front
When people think about the Home Front they tend to focus on the community singing, the camaraderie in the bomb shelters and the good old wartime spirit. However, crime rates soared and rationing, mobilisation, blackouts and the effects of enemy bombing all provided new opportunities for the criminal fraternity. Black marketers, thieves and looters all took advantage of the confusion to make their criminal fortunes.
Criminals are liberated
The first people to be liberated by Britain in WW2 were criminals, many of whom had less than three months left to serve. They were immediately released, as were many borstal boys who had already served six months of their sentence.
Perhaps the most common crimes were those committed on the black market. ( the illegal trade in restricted goods). Rationing meant food, clothes, petrol and luxury items such as sweets and make-up were highly sought after.
While it was predictable that professional criminals should seek to profit from the blitz and blackout, what was more surprising was how many others joined them. Rationing of many basic commodities led to widespread abuse by people who would never have considered themselves lawbreakers.
‘I know my uncle used to bring us foodstuffs, it was his mother that brought me up and he used to have so many fingers in so many pies. That is until he went into the RAF, then he seemed to bring stuff from whatever RAF camp he was at.’
‘Being a kid, I wouldn’t know anything or rather was not told anything. I just know every so often our food cupboard got a boost. That was always after my uncle visited us.’
During the blitz, one standard ruse for thieves was to kit themselves out with an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden’s helmet and armband and smash their way into shops when no one was looking. Such was the power of the armband that the public would dutifully help load up a car, believing that the goods were being removed for safe keeping. Some unscrupulous villains used vehicles disguised as ambulances for their getaways.
There was little the police could do to protect wrecked shops whose smashed windows were often just replaced with cardboard or plywood. Police cars were subject to the same petrol shortages as everyone else and pursuits during the blackout were almost impossible.
Goods could be bought from a number of sources that weren’t strictly legal. Shopkeepers often had access to goods that weren’t on display to regular shoppers. ‘Spivs’, in their sharp suits and trilby hats, would gather on certain streets with their suitcases of cigarettes, nylons and lighters and sell them to the general public who were well aware of their likely provenance.
Goods from the Supply Docks
At the other end of the scale, large operations dealt in huge quantities of goods taken straight from supply depots and docks. Meat, always in short supply, was a prime target at major docks like Liverpool. In 1941, 2153 beef and lamb carcasses were stolen. Ironically such thefts led to calls for stronger punishments for those who were regarded as damaging the country’s war effort.
Military supply lines were also vulnerable to criminals as soldiers stole goods to sell to civilians.
Looting Bombed Houses
One of the most shocking crimes committed during wartime was the looting from bombed houses. In the first eight weeks of the London Blitz a total of 390 cases of looting was reported to the police. On 9th November 1940, the first people tried for looting were up before the judge at the Old Bailey. Of these twenty cases, ten involved members of the Auxiliary Fire Service.
One trader in East London at the beginning of 1941 reckoned that shopkeepers lost more from crime than they ever did from German bombs. When the Café de Paris, which had a supposedly secure underground ballroom, suffered a direct hit in 1941, rescuers were shocked to find that looters were among them, yanking brooches and rings from the bodies of the dead.
Looting was often carried out by gangs of children organised by a Fagin figure; he would send them into bombed-out houses the morning after a raid, with orders to target coins from gas meters and display cases containing First World War medals. In April 1941 Lambeth juvenile court dealt with 42 children in one day, from teenage girls caught stripping clothes from dead bodies to a seven-year-old boy who had stolen five shillings from the gas meter of a damaged house.
By Gavin Mortimer
Daily Mirror November 1940.
‘Fines and imprisonment have done nothing to stop the ghouls who rob even bodies lying in the ruins of little homes. Looting is in fact on the increase,’ thundered its editorial. ‘The country demands that this crime be stamped out… hang a looter and stop this filthy crime.’
The Mirror never got its wish and prison remained the preferred punishment.
Widespread fraud was another consequence of the Blitz. The government agreed to pay compensation to people who had been bombed out. However, so many people were losing their homes during 1940 that officials of the local National Assistance Office did not have enough time to check people’s claims. This was made even more difficult when the people claimed their identity card and ration book had also been destroyed during the air raid. Fraud was rife and Walter Handy was sent to prison for three years for falsely claiming he had been bombed out nineteen times in five months.
Teenage pickpockets plagued the busy public air raid shelters, whilst others robbed the houses of those who had left their property in order to seek refuge in the shelters. Home Guard armaments stores also became a target for youngsters who stole ammunition and small arms.
Prostitution flourished. The Piccadilly commando’s, as they were nicknamed, plied their trade in Soho, catering to the thousands of soldiers about to depart for the front.
Everyone was expected to register for employment. You were on the register then for either war work or transferred into the services. Prostitution was also a great way of avoiding registering for work. Once a woman was labelled a prostitute no other woman would work with her, therefore there was no point sending her to a factory or anywhere else
It soon became known in Paddington, that if you registered as a prostitute, the ministry of labour couldn’t do anything with you. It became the most desirable business to be in. Later on we had to clamp down. It was decided that unless you could produce a receipt from the police, you couldn’t be registered as a prostitute. The receipt would be for the fines for being a prostitute. They didn’t mind this and regarded it as paying their income tax.
Muriel Gardner Nee Heath
Some people even tried to use the bombings to cover up murders. In 1941, Harry Dobkin murdered his wife and buried her body under the floorboards of a wrecked chapel in Vauxhall, London. He hoped that if she was found she would be mistaken for an air raid victim. However, when she was found the next year, the authorities could tell from her remains that she had been murdered. Dobkin was found guilty and hanged in 1943.
With so many people killed in air raids it was impossible for the police to investigate every death. Often victims were buried quickly, usually without a post mortem.
Social attitudes and the nation’s psyche were deeply affected by wartime privations.
‘Apparently normal people drank more alcohol,’ wrote Dr Franklin. ‘Sexual desire, especially in women, was much intensified during the Blitz. A number of men complained to me about their wives making excessive demands, and I know of very many who were unfaithful to their husbands.’
The number of murders in England and Wales rose from 115 in 1940 to 141 in 1945. An increase of 22 per cent. During the same period there was an increase of 44 per cent for wounding and 65 percent for grievous wounding.
United States Army
The arrival of the United States Army also led to an increase in the crime rate. GIs committed 26 murders, 31 manslaughters, 22 attempted murders and more than 400 sexual offences, including 126 rapes, in the three years between their arrival and the end of the war.
Keep Calm and Carry On
There is a great deal of debate as to the cause of rising crime rates during the war especially amongst normally law abiding citizens. It’s quite clear that many people who were already poor and struggling were being further squeezed by rationing and wartime conditions which forced many of them on to the black market. Organised criminals were always looking for situations and people to exploit and everyone knew where things could be bought that had ‘come off a ship’.
Mass movement of people
The mass movement of thousands of people around the country, the disruption of communities, the evacuation of school children, who were often resented by the host communities further exacerbated the problem. Fathers away at war, the breakdown of family routine, youth boredom caused by the selling off of facilities like playing fields taken over for food production and military all contributed to the rise of juvenile crime.
The enforced blackout and the chaos of the blitz produced the perfect conditions for criminal activity along with the increased likelihood of getting away with it. And anyway, ‘everybody was at it’.
The Ordinary People
There was also a general perception and resentment that it was only the ‘ordinary people’ who were suffering the effects of the war and that the ‘toffs’ were still living it up as they had done in the 1930s. ‘Why shouldn’t I ‘ave a little bit of it?’
Uncertainty over the future, or if indeed one had one, clearly affected the mores of the time and people were far more likely to take risks and look to immediate pleasure rather than deferred gratification. Taken alongside the chaos and disruption of war it’s not surprising that attitudes towards established values became a little less rigid.