Crime in Wartime

In 1939 there had been just over 300,000 indictable offences known to the police in England and Wales. Over the next few years this figure was to increase dramatically.

Teenage blackout gangs became a common problem during the early stages of the war. In once incident, seventeen-year-old James Harvey, was beaten to death by a rival gang near the Elephant and Castle underground station. There was a public outcry when the court accepted the defendants claim that they had not intended to murder Harvey. Convicted of manslaughter, the three convicted gang members were only sentenced to three years, eighteen months and twelve months respectively.

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 took place at the Old Bailey. Of these twenty cases, ten involved members of the Auxiliary Fire Service.

The Lord Mayor of London suggested that notices should be posted throughout the city, reminding the population that looting was punishable by hanging or shooting. However, the courts continued to treat this crime leniently. When a gang of army deserters were convicted of looting in Kent the judge handed down sentences ranging from five years' penal servitude to eight years' hard labour. Some critics pointed out that Nazi Germany suffered less from this crime as looters were routinely executed for this offence.

A woman protecting her belongings during the Blitz (June 1941)
A woman protecting her belongings during the Blitz (June 1941)

In Leeds a judge announced that "more than two whole days have been occupied in dealing with cases of looting which have occurred in one city (Sheffield)... In many cases these looters have operated on a wholesale scale. There were actually two-men who had abandoned well-paid positions, one of them earning £7 to £9 a week, and work of public importance, and who abandoned it to take up the obviously more remunerative occupation of looting."

Chief Inspector Percy Datlen, reported what happened in Dover after one heavy raid: "In cases where there are several houses bombed out in one street, the looters have systematically gone through the lot. Carpets have been stripped from the floors, stair carpets have been removed: they have even taken away heavy mangles, bedsteads and complete suites of furniture."

Widespread fraud was another consequence of the Blitz. The government agreed to pay compensation for people who had been bombed out. Those who owned their houses and lost them during an air raid had to wait until after the war to receive their full compensation, but they could claim an advance of £500 (£20,000) with £50 (£2,000) for furniture and £20 (£800) for clothes.

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. By 1941 the government realised that they were paying out more than they should and extra staff were brought in to make more detailed checks on the claims being made. One of the first to appear in court was Walter Handy, who was sent to prison for three years for falsely claiming he had been "bombed out" nineteen times in five months.

Another major fraud concerned billeting. On the outbreak of the Second World War the government attempted to evacuate of all children from Britain's large cities. Sir John Anderson, who was placed in charge of the scheme, decided that people living in rural areas would be forced to take in these evacuees. The billetor received 10s. 6d from the government for taking a child. Another 8s. 6d. per head was paid if the billetor took more than one. Some people continued to claim their allowances after the billetor had returned home. Others stole blank billeting forms and filled them in, so that allowances were drawn for non-existent people.

The trade in goods in violation of the official regulations became known as the black market. A secret staff at the Ministry of Food investigated attempts by people to deal with black marketeers. Parliament passed legislation which enabled the courts to impose fines of up to £500, with or without two years' imprisonment, plus three times the total capital involved in the transaction. Eventually around 900 inspectors were employed to make sure that the the statutory orders of the Ministry Food were obeyed by customers, retailers and wholesalers. Investigators discovered that farmers and smallholders were the main source of producing food for the black market.

The Labour Party MP Joseph Clynes described the black market as "treason of the very worse kind" and others in the House of Commons called for the government to introduce new punishments for this offence. As well as "long terms of penal servitude" one called for the use of the cat-o'-nine-tails on the offenders.

Juvenile Delinquents were blamed for the high rate of crimes in crowded tube shelters. As soon as the chosen victim had gone to sleep the thief would quietly carry off their bags. Teenage pickpockets were also kept busy in public air raid shelters. Others concentrated on burgling the houses of those who had gone to public shelters. One fifteen-year-old was told by a magistrate that it was "a crime almost as serious, if not as serious, as looting."

By February 1941 the government announced that all the country's remand homes were full. Soon afterwards two boys of 14 and 15 escaped from Wallington remand home and broke into the Home Guard store at Upper Norwood. Luckily they were arrested before they could do too much damage with their tommy-gun and 400 rounds of ammunition.

Raids on Home Guard armaments stores became a common problem during the war. In February 1943 seven teenage boys stole 2,000 rounds of sten-gun ammunition. The following month three seventeen-year-olds held up the cashier at the Ambassador cinema in Hayes with three loaded sten-guns that had been stolen from the local Home Guard store. After they were arrested they admitted that they had taken part in 43 other raids in London.

In 1942 Britain suffered from a shortage of alcoholic drinks. This was solved by the illegal production of what became known as "hooch". Organized gangs were busy all over the country mixing pure alcohol with juniper and almond essences. Others used industrial alcohol and methylated spirits. In May 1942 fourteen people died in Glasgow of acute alcoholic poisoning while drinking hooch. Cases like this were reported all over Britain. Many of the victims were soldiers and by October 1942, commanders of American camps, in an effort to protect their men from hooch, began to issue a free bottle of gin or whisky from camp stores to each man going on leave.

The arrival of the United States Army was also blamed for the increase in the crime-rate. In August 1942 Parliament passed the United States of America (Visiting Forces) Act. This enabled American servicemen to be arrested by their own police, interrogated by their own Criminal Investigation Division, tried in their own courts and imprisoned and sometimes executed, in their own prisons (United States Army Disciplinary Training Centres).

This caused some problems concerning the differences between the two country's legal system. For example, eight American servicemen were hanged in Britain after being found guilty of rape during the war. Opponents of capital punishment pointed out that like in the United States, the majority of the men executed for this offence were black.

The most controversial case involved Leroy Henry, a black soldier from St. Louis, who was sentenced to death for raping a white woman in the village of Combe Down. Local people were aware that Leroy Henry had been having a relationship with the woman and tended to believe his story that she accused him of rape after he refused to pay her money. Others were concerned about the way he had been beaten by the Military Police during their investigation. Over 33,000 local people signed a petition calling for Leroy Henry to be reprieved. It was sent to General Dwight Eisenhower and he eventually agreed to grant the soldier his freedom.

The murder-rate increased dramatically in the war. One interesting case involved Harry Dobkin. He soon realized that during the Blitz so many people were killed in air raids that it was impossible for the police to investigate every death. Victims were buried quickly and very few post mortems were carried out. Dobkin murdered his wife, Rachel Dobkin, in April 1941 and buried her under the ruin of Vauxhall Baptist Chapel, hoping she would be discovered as an air raid victim.

The body was not discovered until May 1942. It became clear that the person had not died recently and a pathologist was called in. After examining the body Dr. Keith Simpson argued that the broken bone in the throat suggested that Rachel Dobkin had been strangled. The body was coated in builders' lime. The police came to the conclusion that the murderer had done this to destroy the body. However, he had obviously not known the difference between quicklime and builders's lime, which actually helped to preserve the body.

The jury took only twenty minutes to find Harry Dobson guilty of murder and he was hanged at Wandsworth Prison. This case raised the issue of how many people had been murdered during the war and had been successfully buried in the rubble of bombed out buildings.

One of the most notorious murder cases took place during a week in February 1942. On 9th February, Evelyn Hamilton, was found in an air raid shelter in Marylebone. She had been strangled and her handbag had been stolen. The following day the body of Evelyn Oatley was found in her Wardour Street flat. She had been strangled and mutilated with a tin-opener. Three days later Margaret Lowe was also found strangled and mutilated. On 12th February, a fourth woman, Doris Jouannet, was also found killed in the same way. The newspapers now described the killer as the Blackout Ripper.

Soon after the body of Doris Jourannet was found, the killer attacked a fifth woman. He was disturbed by a delivery boy and the man ran off. He left behind his Gas Mask case. Inside was a service number that identified it as belonging to Gordon Cummings, a twenty-eight year cadet in the RAF. Although he did not have a criminal record or have a history of violence, the evidence against Cummings was overwhelming. His fingerprints were found in two of the flats where the killings took place. He was also found in possession of objects stolen from the women. Cummings was found guilty and executed on 24th June. Later Scotland Yard claimed Cummings had also murdered two other women during air raids in London in October 1941.

The most famous murder case of the war involved a deserter from the United States Army. On 3rd October 1944 Karl Hulten met Elizabeth Jones, a eighteen-year-old Welsh striptease dancer. On their first date they ended up using Hulten's stolen military truck to knock a young girl from her bike and stealing her handbag. The following day they gave a lift to a woman carrying two heavy suitcases. After stopping the car Hulten attacked the woman with an iron bar and then dumped her body in a river.

On 6th October the couple hailed a hire car on Hammersmith Broadway. When they reached a deserted stretch of road they asked the taxi driver to stop. Hulten then shot the driver in the head and stole his money and car. The following day they spent the money at White City dog track.

Jones now told Hulten she would like a fur coat. On 8th October they parked the stolen hire car outside Berkeley Hotel while they waited for a woman to emerge wearing a fur coat. Eventually Jones chose a white ermine coat worn by a woman leaving the hotel. Hulten attacked the woman but before he could get the coat a policeman arrived on the scene. Hulten managed to escape and drive off in his car. However, the following morning, Hulten was arrested as he got into the stolen hire car.

There was great public interest in the case of the GI gangster and his striptease dancer. The public was deeply shocked by the degree of violence the couple had used during their crime spree and it came as no surprise when both Karl Hulten and Elizabeth Jones were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Hulten was executed at Pentonville Prison on 8th March 1945 but Jones was reprieved at the last moment and was released in May 1954.

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 per cent for grievous wounding.

Primary Sources

(1) East Grinstead Observer (23rd November, 1940)

A shocking triple shooting occurred in East Grinstead early Tuesday morning when the bodies of Phyllis Martin, aged 40, Alice Martin, her 12 year old daughter, and John Bankhurst, aged 29, their lodger, were found in their house at 20 Sackville Gardens, East Grinstead. The tragedy was witnessed by 7 year old, David George Martin.

David Leslie Martin, the father of David George Martin, told the coroner that John Bankhurst had been lodging with him for 16 months. He was a single man and was employed locally as a nurseryman. Some months ago Bankhurst started to kiss Alice Martin. David Leslie Martin took Bankhurst on one side and told him in a friendly way that he must stop it. Bankhurst broke down and said it would never happen again.

One day, a few weeks later, the witness saw Bankhurst coming out of Alice's bedroom. On Tuesday, 14th November, Alice again complained of Bankhurst's behaviour and David Leslie Martin told him he must go.

The next witness was the boy David George Martin. He said he slept with his sister, Alice. "On Tuesday morning, John Bankhurst came into the bedroom and tried to whisper to Alice, as he always did." Alice and David were still in bed. When David's mother entered the room, Bankhurst left.

"After a few moments" continued the boy: "He came back into the room with the gun he always kept in his bedroom. My mother screamed, but he did not say anything, but lifted his gun and fired. Mummy fell down. Alice screamed and tried to hide under the bed clothes and I jumped out of bed. I saw Alice pull the bed clothes over her head. I could see her hands holding the bed clothes over her head. Bankhurst raised the gun to his shoulder and fired at Alice. He turned to me and I said 'Don't shoot me John.' He just looked at me and went out of the room, upstairs to his bedroom. I waited and listened. I heard him shut the door and then heard a shot. I put some clothes on and ran off to find daddy."

P.C. Adams stated that at eight that morning he arrived at 20 Sackville Gardens. He found the body of Bankhurst in an upstairs room. The top of his head was blown away. P.C. Adams said Bankhurst had apparently knelt in front of a chest of drawers on which was a mirror so he could see what he was doing.

Sidney Herbert Thayre of 47 Buckhurst Way, East Grinstead, told the coroner that Bankhurst was his brother-in-law and that he kept the gun for rabbit shooting. "He had a bad temper. He was the sort of man who would brood over any imaginary grievance." Thayre also told the coroner that Bankhurst was expecting to be called up for military service and the prospect did not seem to please him.

(2) Justice Charles, Leeds Assizes (5th March, 1941)

More than two whole days have been occupied in dealing with cases of looting which have occurred in one city (Sheffield). When a great city is attacked by bombs on a heavy scale, numbers of houses and their contents are left exposed and deprived of their natural defences. Necessarily these are the homes of comparatively poor people, since they are by far the most numerous.

In many cases these looters have operated on a wholesale scale. There were actually two-men who had abandoned well-paid positions, one of them earning £7 (£280) to £9 (£360) a week, and work of public importance, and who abandoned it to take up the obviously more remunerative occupation of looting. The task of guarding shattered houses from prowling thieves, especially during the blackout, is obviously beyond the capacity of any police force. In view of the fact and having regard to the cowardly, abominable nature of the crime the perpetrators of which are preying upon the property of poor folk rendered homeless and often killed, the Legislature has provided that those found guilty of looting from premises damaged or vacated by reason of attacks by the enemy are on conviction liable to suffer death or penal servitude for life. Thus the law puts looters into the category of murderers, and the day may well be approaching when they will be treated as such.

(3) Chief Inspector Percy Datlen, Dover CID (17th April, 1942)

In cases where there are several houses bombed out in one street, the looters have systematically gone through the lot. Carpets have been stripped from the floors, stair carpets have been removed: they have even taken away heavy mangles, bedsteads and complete suites of furniture. We believe it is the greatest organized looting that has yet taken place and many front line citizens who have returned to their homes to carry on their essential jobs there are facing severe financial difficulties as a result of the work of the gang.

(4) Archbishop William Temple, Evening Standard (10th July, 1943)

I commend the endurance, mutual helpfulness, and constancy, which during the "blitz" reached heroic proportions but people are not conscious of injuring the war effort by dishonesty or by sexual indulgence. There is a danger that we may win the war and be unfit to use the victory.

(5) East Grinstead Observer (10th July, 1943)

Marjorie Helen Brooker (20) of 7 West View Gardens, East Grinstead, was charged with the death of her newly born female child by wilfully neglect. The girl's sister, Mrs. Virginia Evans (22) and Corporal George Palmer (23), a Canadian soldier, was charged with endeavouring to conceal the birth of the child by the secret disposition of the body in some rushes at Worsted Farm, East Grinstead. Marjorie Brooker pleaded guilty to the concealment of the birth and the plea was accepted by the prosecution. At the birth of the of the child she thought she must have fainted, and when she recovered, the child was dead. She placed the body in a suitcase under the bed. The following Saturday she took the suitcase downstairs and gave it to her sister. Marjorie Brooker told Detective Constable Miller that Corporal George Palmer was asked by Mrs. Virginia Evans to get rid of the child's body which was in the suitcase. Palmer said he did not like doing so but he would do it as a favour to her. Palmer returned with the suitcase empty.

(6) Denis Kendall, MP for Grantham, House of Commons (25th May, 1944)

It is unfit for a woman to walk unescorted through the town at night or in the daytime, due to the ineffectiveness of the American military authorities to deal with the improper behaviour of the American forces and the complete failure to prevent unconcealed immorality and give proper protection to women.

(7) Edgar Lustgarten, The Murder and the Trail (1960)

The brash American, physically strapping but of stunted mental growth, consigned by army order to an unfamiliar land, sought to impress the natives with his own superiority by aping the habits of a gunman or a thug. The poverty-stricken adolescent refugee from Neath, frail alike in body and in mind, vaguely aspiring but completely talentless, sought a pitiable escape in fantasies inspired by the spurious appeal of gangster films. A world convulsion brought this pair together, at a moment when life was cheap and violence sanctified; under such conditions the union was deadly. It was like holding a lighted match to dynamite, having first ensured that the latter was exposed.

(8) Keith Simpson, Forty Years of Murder (1978)

On 17th July 1942, a workman helping to demolish a bombed Baptist church premises in Vauxhall Road, South London, drove his pick under a heavy stone slab set on the floor of a cellar under the vestry and prised it up. Underneath lay a skeleton with a few tags of flesh clinging to it, which he assumed to be the remains of another victim of the Blitz. He put his shovel under the skeleton and lifted it out. The head stayed on the ground.

Detective Inspectors Hatton and Keeling, who were called in to investigate, wrapped the bones in a brown paper parcel and took them to the public mortuary at Southwark, where I inspected them the next morning. The sight of a dried-up womb tucked down in the remains of the trunk established the sex. There was a yellowish deposit on the head and neck. Fire had blackened parts of the skull, the hip, and the knees.

Could she have been the victim of a bomb explosion? Hardly likely, considering she had been lying neatly buried under a slab of stone, neatly set in the floor of a cellar; this was no bomb crater. The detectives told me there had been an ancient cemetery on the site: could the body have been there fifty years? I shook my head. Soft tissues do not last so long. I thought the body was only about twelve to eighteen months dead. The church had been blitzed in August 1940, almost two years before.