Books: Cashing in on the War

Article excerpt


IMAGINE a time when you could be sent to prison for snoring. It may sound ridiculous but that's what happened to 53-year-old George Hall.

He was sent down for 14 days after being convicted of wilfully disturbing other people in an air-raid shelter.

This was also a time when you could face a pounds 100 fine or three months in prison for throwing away a used bus ticket!

So stringent were the laws against waste during the Second World War that J. Lyons & Co was fined when mice nibbled scraps in one of its restaurants.

But such offences were chickenfeed compared with the 1942 case of Frederick William Porter, who committed suicide before he could face a court.

He was the boss of Liverpool ship repairer F.H. Porter Ltd who carried out a massive fraud, salting away the equivalent of pounds 20 million at today's values.

The scam involved charging the Government for the wages of 2,000 men while actually employing only 800. A Liverpool city councillor and a senior naval officer were among those involved.

Crimes great and small are the stuff of An Underworld At War by Donald Thomas (John Murray, pounds 20) -a journey through a sordid past that many people would probably rather see kept secret.

Mr Thomas is anxious to say straight off that none of this should detract from our image of the heroism and self-sacrifice of a nation courageously fighting a war against tyranny.

But if the majority were brave and decent, there's no denying that there were those who cashed in on the crisis -from spivs and black marketeers to armed robbers, rapists, murderers and muggers in a wartime crimewave.

Some were plainly despicable, like shipyard crooks swindling the nation as thousands of brave merchant seamen were fighting to keep this country alive.

The thieves who took advantage of the Blitz to raid homes were no better.

This is uncomfortable stuff for those of us brought up on the image of the indomitable, honest spirit of the English at war.

But there were 390 cases of looting in the first eight weeks of the London Blitz alone. Some people returned to find their homes stripped bare by ruthless gangs or simply by light-fingered neighbours.

In Birmingham builders were prosecuted for over-charging for repairs to bomb-damaged homes.

We may think of mugging as a modern phenomenon but there were gangs preying on the innocent under cover of the blackout, often using extreme violence and sometimes even murdering their victims.

Professional villains exploited the blackout and air-raids for their safe-blowing exploits.

There was also the so-called Blackout Ripper, who killed four people in a week and attacked two others before he was caught and hanged.

As the British army was desperately and heroically fighting for its life on the beaches of Dunkirk, the so-called King of the Underworld, Billy Hill, was pulling off smash-and-grab raids on jewellers. …