Crime on the Homefront WWII

“So you write books about criminals in World War II London, Mr. Ellis? Thin pickings, I would have thought. With everyone valiantly pulling together against the Nazis, I shouldn't think there was much crime going on. Not much for your detective fellow to get his teeth into, eh?”

Observations like this are made to me surprisingly often and couldn't be more wrong. Criminals ran riot in wartime Britain. The violent gangster and foe of the Krays, Mad Frankie Fraser, told an interviewer that he'd never been able to forgive the Germans for surrendering, so great were the criminal opportunities created by the war.

In bald statistical terms, reported crimes in England and Wales rose by a massive 57% between 1939 and 1945. The rise reflected not only significant increases in all major crimes but also a host of new offenses created by the conditions of the time. The rates for violent crime and rape rose substantially. Thieves flourished and, shockingly, the looting of bombed houses and properties was widespread.

Why was there a crime boom? Two important factors were the blackout and the bombing. The nighttime streets were pitch-black and, when the Luftwaffe was above, chaos reigned. Criminals could do what they liked and did. Murderers like George Cummins, “the Blackout Ripper,” who took advantage of the conditions to strangle and mutilate six women in 1941-42 London. Or Harry Dobkins, who dumped the wife he'd murdered in a bomb site hoping she'd be mistaken for a Blitz victim.

Also contributing to the crime boom was the surge of restrictions imposed by the wartime government. Food, petrol, clothing, and other rationing afforded great scope to forgers, fraudsters, and thieves. There was a thriving black market in food, petrol, and other items, much of which was controlled by the successors to the pre-war criminal gangs so entertainingly portrayed in Peaky Blinders. With the influx of soldiers, prostitution also prospered, as did the backstreet abortionists.

If space allowed, I could come up with many more disturbing facts, but clearly, wartime Britain was a hotbed of crime. To a writer of crime fiction, this world provides a very broad canvas. One which should be able to provide me with fascinating material for many books to come.

Merlin at War by Mark Ellis is out now in the UK and is available October 12th in the US!

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Mark Ellis is a UK thriller writer and a former barrister and entrepreneur. He is the creator of DCI Frank Merlin, an Anglo-Spanish police detective operating in World War II London. His books treat the reader to a vivid portrait of London during the war skilfully blended with gripping plots, political intrigue, and a charismatic protagonist. He is a member of the Crime Writers Association. Visit

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