Behind the Books

World War 2 on the British Home Front: Criminal Villains

I write a crime series set in World War 2 London. It features Frank Merlin, a tough Scotland Yard detective battling domestic crime as his country struggles for survival against Germany’s might. I chose this period as the setting for my books not only because of a long-standing fascination with the war, but also because the wartime years were a boom period for crime in Britain. Between 1939 and 1945, reported crime in England and Wales grew by nearly sixty per cent. There were a number of key factors behind this rise.

Emergency workers clear out the bomb-damaged interior of the Cafe de Paris. (Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The blackout and the chaos caused by the German bombing raids made it easier for criminals to go about their business. Looting was rife and robbery, theft and crimes of violence burgeoned. The police, diminished by the loss of many good officers to the military, were overstretched. Scores of restrictive new wartime regulations such as the rationing of food, clothes and petrol, led to a thriving black market and vast opportunities for fraudsters and forgers. In this very favourable criminal environment, many notable villains emerged. Here are some of them:

Gordon Cummins
The blackout plunged cities into darkness every night. Ideal conditions for a monster like Cummins. A 28 year old RAF serviceman, he liked to murder and mutilate young women. He killed 4 in quick succession in 1942, becoming known as ‘the Blackout Ripper’, before being arrested, tried and executed.

Billy Hill
Organised crime flourished in wartime London. Billy Hill’s gang became the biggest operator in the black market, ran extensive protection and smuggling rackets and specialised in ‘smash and grab’ raids on jewellers and other high-end shops in bomb damaged London. Hill successfully carried on his criminal activities after the war and mentored the infamous Kray twins.

John Haigh
‘The Acid Bath Murderer’, was an unsuccessful wartime fraudster who realised that one of the reasons he kept on getting caught was that he left his victims alive. After practising with acid on mice, he devised what he found to be an efficient method of human body disposal. Thereafter he was more successful as he murdered those he defrauded and dissolved them in acid. Eventually he was caught and hanged.

A crowd gathers to watch the witnesses arrive for the trial of John George Haigh, the ‘acid bath murderer’, in Lewes, East Sussex, July 1949. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Eugenio Messina
One of five Maltese brothers who dominated the vice business in wartime London. Prostitution boomed in the war years as the country was flooded with servicemen. British and American military forces based in Britain totalled over 4.5 million by 1944. Many were eager customers for the services the Messinas could provide. The huge gang of girls they ran in London were nicknamed ‘The Piccadilly Commandos’. Messina’s luck ran out after the war and he served a long spell in prison before dying abroad.

Dr William Sutton
A lesser villain than the men above but a villain nevertheless and representative of the many unscrupulous professional men who exploited the war for their own profit. One of the numerous scams to which the war gave rise was false certification of military service exemption on health grounds. Plenty of men were happy to pay crooked doctors for fraudulent certificates. William Sutton was one such doctor who generated a healthy income from this activity without even bothering to examine his customers. In due course he was found out and went to jail.

These villains and many others were active in a period which criminals now look back on as a golden age for crime. A golden age which provides me with a great backdrop for Frank Merlin’s adventures!