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An Underworld at War: Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War by Donald Thomas

10 September 2007

I’m a very big fan of Foyle’s War, a mystery series set on the south coast of England during World War II. This book served as source and reference material for many of the stories used in the series, which makes me all the more pleased to see how the creators were aiming for a sense of authenticity that more programmes would do well to emulate.

An Underworld at War: Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War by Donald Thomas

Most any standard history of the home front during World War II will have a slew of stories and anecdotes about individual acts of heroism and dedication and hard work and self-sacrifice in the face of nightly bombings, food rationing, endless swing shifts in munitions factories, and a general atmosphere of blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

This book isn’t one of them.

Donald Thomas’s An Underworld at War focuses on the less-than-savoury side of life on the home front in Britain during the war. The chaos and confusion of wartime made it that much easier for petty criminals to do a brisk trade in stolen or counterfeited ration books, food and clothing coupons, identity cards, and other papers that could make all the difference between getting by and doing quite well for oneself. Bombing raids were an excellent cover for safebreakers and professional burglars, who could operate without fear that the noise of their work would be overheard by neighbours. Houses that had been abandoned by their owners or bombed out by the Luftwaffe were vulnerable to scavanging and outright looting — to the point where signs were posted to warn potential looters that theft from a bombed-out house was a capital offence. The black market did a brisk trade in everything from eggs to diamond rings and nylons to fur coats, as there were those who were always ready to take advantage of the common wartime situation of too much cash chasing too few goods. Theft from factories, shops, and NAAFI stores was certainly not unknown, as was the rigging of building contracts or the bribery of housing or local government officials to build shelters and prefabricated houses as cheaply as possible. Vice was rife, as soldiers on leave were ready clients for prostitutes, whether the ladies were the kind who worked out of well-kept houses in Belgravia and Mayfair or the kind who stood in darkened doorways during blackouts, shining pencil torches on their faces to attract potential customers. And in a time when people were often on edge and tempers were quick to flare, drunken arguments could easily escalate into fatal stabbings or shootings that kept the already short-staffed police departments constantly busy.

To deal with lawlessness or the threat of lawlessness, the British government instituted layer upon layer of controls and ordinances intended to curtail or stamp out crime and immorality. Undercover officers from the Board of Trade would often go into shops and try to catch shopkeepers and customers in an illegal act — selling rationed goods for cash, for instance, or taking too few coupons in trade for an individual’s potion of tea. (In many cases, the officials who carried out this practice resorted to means that might at best be considered duplicitous and at worst be regarded as little more than deliberate entrapment.) Other restrictions banned citizens from travelling without proper passes, particularly into the ‘exclusion zone’ that was set up in the coastal regions near the Channel. Even honest excuses might not be sufficient to avoid fines or imprisonment, as one man found out when he fell asleep on his southbound train, missed his stop, and ended up at the end of the line in Hastings, well within the forbidden exclusion zone. Sentences ranged from fines to prison sentences to executions (usually in the case of murder), and by the end of the war the number of citizens, soldier and civilian alike, who were now ‘known to the police’ had skyrocketed to a level that seemed to indicate that the war had had a serious undermining effect on traditional British morals and values.

An Underworld at War draws on police and court records of the time, as well as recently released documents from the Public Records Office. It’s quite an engaging read, filled with fascinating little details that really shed light on what it was like to live in the days when, for instance, it would cost half of a person’s yearly allowance of clothing coupons to purchase a not-very-well-made overcoat. The aspect of the book that I found most interesting was the involvement of normally law-abiding civilians the cases that kept coming up before the courts. Men and women with no prior criminal record and years of honest and sober conduct on their jobs and in their lives would end up in front of the magistrates, charged with the theft of a bottle of whiskey, a length of fabric, a extra two ounces of tea, or a packet of cigarettes. And though Thomas is ever ready to point out that incidents like the ones he mentions in his book are only a small part of life on the home front — the great majority of people had no truck with the black market or the shady dealings that went on in grimy flats or in the rubble of ruined buildings — An Underworld at War presents an aspect of wartime that the standard histories tend to be quick to overlook. By no means was there a complete breakdown of law and order, but the petty crimes did add up in their own way, adding to the cost of running the war and affecting the daily lives of the men and women who were doing their best to fight it.

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One comment

  1. […] 40 years ago, a young scholar named Donald Thomas wrote a book called A Long Time Burning: A History of Literary Censorship in England. Based on […]



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