We should be suspicious whenever someone pulls out that dusty old bottle of Blitz spirit.
This spirit refers to something that can be said to have happened, namely the grit and guts of Londoners during the air raids of the Second World War. Yet it is also the distillation of something else – a noble myth of our wonderfulness to be revived whenever life turns tough.
Anyone armed only with Google and five minutes to spare can easily discover a different version of history.
While most bombed-out Londoners stayed the right side of the law others didn’t and the Blitz saw a sharp rise in crime.
According to the War History Online website, Britain during the Blitz was marked by looting, violence and organised crime.
“During the years of the Second World War, there was a marked increase in crime,” that website records.
“This was due to a combination of different factors. Some were opportunistic crimes, in which not only criminals but also members of the public took advantage of the chaos during air raids and blackouts.”
Writing on the BBC History Extra website, author Mark Ellis records that reported crimes in England and Wales rose from 303,711 to 478,394, an increase of 57 per cent.
“What was behind this huge jump? The blackout and the bombs were the most obvious factors, and murder, rape, robbery, burglary and theft all flourished in the dark and the chaos,” Ellis writes.
The war also introduced a raft of new restrictions and regulations which people broke or circumvented, sometimes because there were few other choices.
“Rationing of various staples of life offered huge opportunities to fraudsters, forgers and thieves and created a vibrant black market, and there were a variety of other new or expanded criminal opportunities,” Ellis writes.
Murder continued too. One killer, nicknamed the “Blackout Ripper”, killed a suspected four women, before being caught and unmasked as a young airman called Gordon Cummins.
Ten years ago, as the 70th anniversary of the Blitz approached, Duncan Campbell recorded some of the era’s characters for the Observer. He noted that prisoners with less than three months left to serve were let out of prison at the start of the war.
“One of the first lucky ones to pick up a get-out-of-jail-free card was Billy Hill, the dapper gangster from Seven Dials central London, who would emerge from the war as the leading figure in the capital’s underworld,” Campbell wrote.
For Hill, the war represented a fabulous opportunity. “I don’t pretend to be a King and country man, but I must say I did put my name down to serve and until they came to get me I was making the most out of a situation,” Hill wrote in his ghosted autobiography, Boss of Britain’s Underworld, published in 1955. “So that big, wide, handsome and, oh, so profitable black market walked into our ever-open arms.”
Campbell also recorded that thieves used to dress up as air raid wardens and smash their way into shops when no one was looking. Seeing their armbands, members of the public would help load up a car with stolen goods, thinking they were being removed to a safe place.
“Some unscrupulous villains used vehicles disguised as ambulances for their getaways,” Campbell wrote.
One gruesome incident often appears in chronicles of crime during the Blitz. In 1941, when the Café de Paris, which was thought to have a secure underground ballroom, suffered a direct hit, “rescuers were shocked to find that looters were among them, yanking brooches and rings from the bodies of the revellers,” as Campbell writes.
All of this is true, with many more examples to be found. Remembering the darker side of what happened isn’t dishonourable, just realistic, and a reminder to say no thanks the next time that bottle of Blitz spirit is being passed around by Nigel Farage (other slippery opportunists are available).