An Underworld at War: Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War 
by Donald Thomas.
Murray, 429 pp., £20, July 2003, 0 7195 5732 1
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It took G.K. Chesterton to discover, in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, this lethal vignette of a World War One profiteer:

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

In World War Two, the pot-bellied profiteers of the cartoonists shared a crowded roll of dishonour with a multitude of thieves, chisellers, racketeers and spivs, whose activities are mercilessly set out in An Underworld at War.

Caught up, willy-nilly, in lawlessness of a sort were also numberless worthy members of the public, who faced a stupefying barrage of emergency laws passed on sumptuary, economic and security grounds. Only the ‘unco guid’ on the Home Front saw the war through without breaking some regulation or other, consciously or otherwise, or taking advantage of an illegality by others. Donald Thomas’s book reminds a reader that had he been a retired colonel living in Brighton in 1942, and invited an actress from London down for the weekend, he could have been smartly fined and threatened with imprisonment next time. The reason? The coastal belt was a restricted area and written permission was needed to enter it. Or had he, as a hard-pressed tradesman, been allotted petrol to use on a given route, and had he deviated from it by more than 800 yards, perhaps to drop off his wife at the hairdresser’s, he would again have risked imprisonment, with additional penalties if he denounced the enforcers as worse than the Gestapo.

It is tempting, on the evidence of this book, to compile a list of disgracefully honest answers to the question: ‘What did you do in World War Two, Daddy/Mummy?’ These could run: ‘I inspected housewives’ larders to make sure that they had no more than a week’s food’; ‘I drove young women round town, sending them into shops to see if they could trick the assistants into supplying goods off ration’; ‘I was sent to jail for hiding my Canadian Army lover in a wall cupboard for a month’; ‘I blew safes in the Blitz, relying on bombs to drown out the noise’; ‘I blew safes for the Army, in North Africa and Italy’; ‘I flogged coffin lids from the crematorium to cabinet-makers and shrouds to the underwear workshops’; ‘I reported publicans for decorating their premises without a licence’; ‘I was a tart, under orders to badger my clients for petrol coupons’; ‘I was in Army Intelligence and was loaned to the police to help stamp out crown and anchor games’; ‘I was a policeman trying to stop people sending flowers from Cornwall to London by rail’; ‘I worked for the London County Council making sure that fan-dancers gave nothing away, and that comics were not corrupting servicemen with dirty jokes.’ (Not all enforcers were against dirty jokes. Was there not a censor who, having scissored a hole in a soldier’s letter, and realising that he had spoiled a salty story on the other side, carefully wrote in the pay-off along the margin?)

Outstanding among wartime shortages was common sense. Why certain acts were illegal was not always clear at the time and is now incomprehensible. The Transportation of Flowers Order, which banned sending cut flowers by rail, allowed them to be sent by petrol-wasting road transport. Under lighting restriction orders, a Naval officer at Yarmouth was fined for striking matches in a telephone box to read the dial. Ignorance of regulations was no excuse, as the Solicitor-General, Sir William Jowitt, informed many an offender, but when he was hauled up for supplying animal food without coupons to his farm in Kent he protested that he ‘had not the smallest knowledge’ that rules were being broken. As he was a person of ‘the highest respectability’ no penalty was sought. No such allowance was made for Noël Coward (fined for a currency lapse) or for Ivor Novello (jailed under petrol regulations for misuse of his Rolls-Royce).

An offence which carried the death penalty – and there were placards proclaiming this threat – was looting from blitzed property. In fact, no looters were hanged, though in Germany a number were ‘routinely executed’. What was looting, anyway? Where did it differ from ‘liberation’? How was it to be distinguished from sensible use of what was lying around? At the end of a hard day, a rescue worker picked up a near-empty gin bottle and swigged the remainder. This brought him to stand in the same dock as the villains who operated fake furniture vans to snatch armchairs and sofas from the wreckage, or to ransack the homes of the evacuated. Respectable citizens were often ready enough to collude with looters, as when offered bomb-site timber to repair their damaged homes. How wicked was that? And – to take a macabre dip into history – how did it compare with our ancestors’ proud flashing of ‘Waterloo teeth’ salvaged from the jaws of the dead by dentists’ journeymen on the Napoleonic battlefields?

Many wartime offences were familiar from 1914-18. Some had been practised during the Crimean War when, to avoid pillage on the lines of communication, the custom had been introduced of sending left boots separately from right, no matter what problems might arise in their reassembly. Ports, harbours and dockyards reanimated the scams of Pepys’s day. Storehouses came under determined attack; Naafi depots in particular were seen as exciting new treasure houses to be emptied fast. The railways were under universal attack. To a private soldier whose income on call-up had been cut to a tenth or a twentieth of what it had been before, it did not seem unreasonable to try out some of the hallowed fare-dodging tricks (as set out, entertainingly, by the old sweat who took over the education lecture in Alan Hackney’s Private’s Progress); if the resulting loss fell on shareholders too old to fight, or on those in reserved occupations, then some sort of rough justice was being achieved, or so the offender might argue.

Frauds against the state were all too easy. What was apparently known as the ‘Bomb Lark’ involved making false claims for property supposedly lost by enemy action. The ‘Billeting Lark’ consisted of variations on the evacuee racket perfected by Basil Seal in Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags. Best lark of all was the phantom payroll rip-off, which reached its wildest flowering in Liverpool, where the sons of Belial had a glorious time. A ship repairer in that city salted away a fortune in bank vaults all over the Lake District, ready for use, he said, if the Germans invaded. He committed suicide; a Liverpool councillor went down for nine years and a Naval official for three. This fraud is said to have involved £20 million in present terms. The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, cleared of its treasures, was the scene of a ramp in clothing coupons, and a similar one was operated in the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. In less imposing premises, underground printers turned from pornography and bogus race tickets to producing fake rationing coupons. Reluctant conscripts who had no wish to have their names inscribed on war memorials were able to hire unfit impersonators to stand in for them at medicals; others benefited from false certificates issued by employers or doctors.

In the big league of crime was a new form of robbery which had been making headway in the 1930s, the motorised smash-and-grab raid. The penalty for this was penal servitude, a harsh form of punishment which had replaced transportation and was abolished, to the distress of many, by the Attlee Government in 1948. A steady flow of IRA men qualified for this penalty. Hard labour was not ruled out for women; an improbable ‘traitress’ from the Isle of Wight, initially sentenced to death under the Treachery Act, had her sentence reduced to 14 years’ penal servitude. From time to time the death penalty was exacted for murder, espionage and terrorism. Executions were also carried out by the Americans in their leased detention barracks at Shepton Mallet. Eight of these were for rape, something of a judicial novelty on British soil. The people of Shepton Mallet claimed that they heard the sound of firing parties at dawn, but, Thomas says, all but one of the offenders were hanged, and not at dawn but at the more relaxed hour of 1 p.m. Other armies also had their leased places of confinement; the barracks administered by the Canadians at Headley in Hampshire was the scene of a three-day riot by 1400 inmates in 1945.

In 1917 the News of the World had anguished over the increase in bigamy among British soldiers, thanks possibly to the reluctance of women in those days to say yes without the offer of a ring. Thomas describes bigamy as ‘back in fashion’ in the Second World War, commenting that the soldier with two or three wives could draw two or three allowances, but he gives no statistics. There is a minor mystery. What happened to those ‘petting cafés’ which, he says, were to be found in the City of London in the summer of 1939? He does not trace these back to the naughty tearooms of dear old Blighty which flourished in the same area; these employed underdressed waitresses called Pepi or Fifi who fondled and kissed officers on leave, charging exorbitantly for tea and exacting exorbitant tips. In the ‘petting cafés’ of 1939, it appears, tired businessmen paid half a crown for tea and left the same sum for a tip (a total of, perhaps, £10 in today’s currency). Did these modest dens of vice, with their screens for privacy, continue to trade after war broke out, and if so why have we never read about them in memoirs? Is their modern City equivalent the lap-dancing hells of the tired broker?

The big round-ups of dodgers and the dodgy by police and the military in that earlier war were repeated on an even greater scale. Whole towns could be surrounded, or a mile-wide dragnet thrown over an area which contained sporting arenas. All persons thus corralled, civil or military, had to show identity papers. Though eager to punish deserters, the Army was not keen to have the worst offenders back (in Victorian times they were tattooed with a D in the armpit to frustrate attempts to re-enlist). What this meant was that a determined wrongdoer could serve a sentence of six months or so, after which he was free to continue his criminal career with little fear of being put in uniform. Among the notorious bank robbers recruited by the Army for special tasks was Eddie Chapman, pioneer of gelignite-aided robberies, who became a double agent of great audacity and aplomb, surviving to die in his bed at the age of 83. The several pages he merits are exceeded only by those devoted to the arch-spiv Sidney Stanley, whose effronteries in the postwar years brought down a Government minister and produced much risible evidence before a judicial tribunal. Attempts to deport him to his native Poland were unsuccessful; evading bankruptcy proceedings, he at length found grudging harbour in Tel Aviv.

‘A lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war,’ was Stanley Baldwin’s comment on the House of Commons after the 1918 election. The hard-faced men of World War Two turned out to be not the greedy manufacturers who had found their way into grubby Honours Lists, but the state enforcers who bore down heavily on ‘profiteers’ of the lowest ranks; that is, on small shopkeepers who, deprived of profits through lack of goods to sell, were tempted to exceed controlled prices by farthings or halfpence in order to keep afloat. However slight the increase, there were customers ready to denounce and inspectors to prosecute. A nation of shopkeepers had never had it so tough, and thousands were driven out of business.

Thomas has a clear understanding of the peculiar social and economic stresses of those days, and he has shown great industry in exploring old court records and newspaper reports, though at times his relentless catalogue of crimes brings on a twinge of satiety. He widens his horizons by selective glances at the work of military provost forces, both at home and abroad. The British Army’s Special Investigation Branch was not founded until 1940, but was soon severely stretched in every theatre of war, not least in the suppression of gun-running and drug-smuggling in the Levant. Into its hands fell an ex-Borstal British officer whose unit was supposed to be guarding the oil pipeline from Baghdad to Haifa, and who enjoyed the distinction of being cashiered in Jerusalem. This was Captain Neville Heath, destined to be hanged in 1946 for the lurid murders of young women (the wartime careers of John George Haigh, the ‘acid bath murderer’, and John Christie, the serial killer, are also noted). The 50,000 arrests claimed by the Army’s investigative branch were not for failure to salute, or to polish a bucket, but for the sorts of knavery all too current in civilian life. As the Forces were mostly civilians in uniform this should cause no surprise.

Not once, but twice, the publishers of An Underworld at War remind us on the jacket that ‘the Second World War produced numerous acts of self-sacrifice.’ (‘Innumerable’ might have been better than ‘numerous’.) The author doesn’t doubt that ‘a great majority of the nation had been brave, obedient, conscientious throughout the war.’ The East End of London, it is fair to assume, had more heroes than villains, and while Maltese pimps pursued their trade in the capital, the people of Malta were busy earning the George Cross. If the IRA were resolute, so were the thousands of Irish volunteers in the Armed Services. There had been critical days when the righteous had demanded flogging and shooting for parasites. Some citizens were perceived as suffering lesser privations than others; it may be that Ivor Novello’s real crime was not fiddling petrol but running a Rolls in wartime. All along, the temptations of those six long years had been huge and the excuses for misdemeanour plentiful and persuasive. ‘Perhaps,’ Thomas writes, ‘there had never been such a time when it was possible to rob, cheat and racketeer in the most important areas of life with a sense that there was no victim, given that government and authority were insensitive to pain.’ But, as he shows, there were undoubtedly victims: the fighting troops who suffered from stolen equipment, or dud ammunition turned out by workers who were too idle or bloody-minded to care (which also happened in that earlier war). ‘For most people,’ Thomas insists, ‘the weakness of regulations lay in the too frequent mean-mindedness and absurdity of their enforcement rather than in the regulations, which were seen to be well-intentioned.’ There is an inescapably topical ring about this. Is it not the way innumerable citizens feel today when facing, say, the cosmic entanglement of health and safety regulations, enforced with the unblinking zeal that goes with zero tolerance? Indeed, many readers of this Malefactors’ Register will wonder whether the vicious aspects of wartime society are not eclipsed by the unruly state of the nation in the peacetime of a new millennium. Cheating the near totalitarian state of the 1940s may have been widespread, but how much more open to determined cheating on a hundred fronts is a welfare state? As for drivelling prosecutions, look no further than the recent (unsuccessful) arraignment of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police for failing to warn his constables of the dangers of chasing burglars across roofs.

Notoriously, virtue is its own reward. Those who emerged from the war untainted were called on to pay income tax at 50 per cent, or ten shillings in the pound, closely followed by supertax rising to 95 per cent. The good times seemed a long way around the corner, but novelties like bananas reappeared, and at last some of the paint which the Services had commandeered to lavish on sticks and stones (‘If it moves, salute it; if it doesn’t, paint it’) became available for sitting-room walls, even for garden gates. And in the lower reaches of the Honours Lists, the egg controllers and the inspectors who had ensured that butchers put the least possible meat into their sausages were sometimes lucky enough to reap the reward of letters after their names.

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