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September 2, 2010 / jeni

Now Hear This: Bandits of the Blitz

UK dwellers, there’s a great radio documentary on BBC Radio 4 (and online) next week: Bandits of the Blitz.

With Britain at war and London under siege from the Luftwaffe, everyone’s pulling together. Or are they? Whilst bombs rained down and long-suffering Brits helped each other, some people were simply helping themselves – stealing, looting, and making money on the black market.

World War II created vast opportunities for crime. Warehouses were robbed, army stores rifled and forgers kept busy providing false identity documents, ration books and clothing coupons. Looters, stealing anything of value, cleaned out blitzed houses…

Complex emergency rules left normally-law-abiding citizens facing the courts. Shopkeepers who fell foul of the tangle of red tape faced heavy fines. Even as the war ended, rationing continued, and the black market flourished.

One of the dangers of focusing on crime-conflict issues today is a natural inclination to speak of the same conflicts over and over — Afghanistan, Congo, Mexico, Colombia — conflicts that are intrastate, asymmetrical, buffeted by transnational dynamics, and fought in close proximity to civilian populations. These are important conflicts, ones that affect millions of people, and thus it is only right that they claim the lion’s share of our attention.

However, this makes it easy to forget sometimes about the extent to which crime is an inherent element of war generally — including inter-state and conventional wars. War profiteering, looting, theft — these are not new, and not confined to messy conflicts around the periphery of the developed world.

The heroic narrative of the Blitz sometimes confounds attempts to reveal human frailty, perfidy and exploitation. I’m quite interested to see what Radio 4 comes up with next week.

One Comment

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  1. Cyrus / Sep 3 2010 11:28

    Channel Five did a doco on this a few years back which was alright. WW2 is remarkably understudied in terms of crime, despite being packed with it. Bar a few books on Nazi looting or Lucky Luciano it’s pretty much an open field.

    I’ve recently been reading Rick Atkinson’s history of the North African campaign 1942-43 and one of the things that comes through strongly is the sheer amount of crime. British dockers would regularly skim off some of the supplies being sent to North Africa. As soon as the Anglo-Americans landed the local Arabs began to comb the beaches (in the middle of the fighting) for things to salvage/steal. The first resistance Allied paratroopers met were Arabs who wanted to steal their parachutes to make silk underwear. Whenever logistics broke down then soldiers in the front line would send off foraging parties to ambush their own supply convoys. Sudden influxes of cash led to massive price rises and so all sorts of illegal trading. The OSS even encouraged it, setting up one of their French agents as a black market macaroni salesman.

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