‘Oversexed, overpaid and over here’, is how comedian Tommy Trinder described GIs stationed in Britain during the 1940s. Which isn’t to say the general populace wasn’t grateful – or impressed by the constant use of ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. The fact is that people knew that the easiest way to escape the everyday strain was to go out. And the better paid you were, the easier it was.
But, for some, more money, more problems. Wartime has always been primetime for profits legal and illegal, thanks to a combination of scarcity, social change and a shift in moral perceptions. And from 1940-45 alcohol was as much about profit as escapism.
In 1942, London police were struggling to protect servicemen from what historian Donald Thomas calls the ‘near-beer and fruit juice racket’ (1 greatcoat check+1 ‘beer’+1 ‘cocktail=pay gone). But, as the police pointed out, overcharging for fruit juice wasn’t illegal. Besides, they had bigger problems (of which more later).
Of course, servicemen on leave weren’t the only ones looking for a dose of escapism. A whole new workforce (female, largely under 35) came into existence during the Second World War, many of whom began to socialise in man’s domain: the pub.
The Orwellian-sounding Mass Observation, which investigated Britons’ social behaviours, records some of the most revealing stories. One 1941 observer, from the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAF) in Lincolnshire, reported on why British women preferred Canadian men to the English variety.
Our nameless informant details ‘For example, “my” Canadian took me for a night out. We visited two pubs. Had four drinks in each (rum and lime, 2/4 each [roughly £4.87 in 2015]). Finished it off with a double whisky each.’
Then rushes on to explain just how little there is to do off-base except go to the pub(s). Admirably frank, she also announces that the local dance is a chance to get drunk and find a man/woman (it was stopped after too many airforce personnel were found in bed together the following morning).
In fact, beer supplies were considered good for morale during the Second World War (beer had been rationed in the First), and drinking in and of itself was not frowned on. Even Wojtek the Bear, private and mascot of the evacuated Polish Second Artillery Supply Company liked a beer. He ended his days in Edinburgh Zoo.
No, the worry, according to reports like ‘Public Opinion and the Drink Question in Scotland’, was that more women were drinking in public – especially young women, who increasingly appeared in ‘the better-class bars’. How to tell the difference between a prostitute and a munitions worker?
Whisky chasers and torpedoes
In parallel with these class and gender concerns was the common thread linking pretty much anyone who was out for a drink during the war. People weren’t simply evading the sort of boredom described by our WAAF observer. A night on the beer might let you forget for a short time the fact your neighbours had been bombed out or your brother was missing presumed dead. It helped people deal with fear.
Exhibit A: Gordon Campbell in Whisky Galore!. Terrified of his mother for years, the man ends up climbing out a bedroom window, scrambling aboard a shipwreck in Hebridean weather to rescue as many whisky barrels out of the cargo of 50,000 he and his fellow islanders can bring ashore, and saves an old seadog’s life into the bargain. It’s like a WKD ad from 1949. (The story is roughly based on a 1941 shipwreck and mass theft off Eriskay.)
The finer plot details are ridiculous, but Whisky Galore! is not just Ealing Studios whimsy.
Second World War Scotland was subject to rationing and labour scarcity, and the argument of how to use what grain stocks the country had (bread or booze) came to a head when the government allowed increased whisky production, but only for export. In other words, Scotch for dollars.
But what goes around comes around. While Scottish whisky was increasingly sent across the pond in return for food dollars, American liquor producers were forced to distill their own alcohol into torpedo fuel for the Navy. Flying mixologist and US Esquire writer David Wondrich explains one result.
Recently hit with a ban on drinking on-duty, those below decks began siphoning off the new torpedo fuel (it was just superdistillate, after all) to quench their thirst. HQ fought back by adding nausea-inducing additives to the fuel, only to be outmanoeuvred by sailors filtering said distillate through loaves of bread to get back the ‘good’ stuff.
Back in Britain, the main obstacles to getting a glass of anything stronger than beer were cost and licensing laws.
And if the Second World War proved one thing on the home front, it was that, for some, there’s always a way to get round a new law.
Travel south from Eriskay, past Clydebank’s shattered dockyards and Singer Sewing Machine factory, the acrid ruins of Manchester’s Palace Theatre and fire-hollowed Coventry, and you come to London in the dead of night. Try to make your way to Piccadilly Circus, and enter one of many clubs of the kind that don’t bear daytime scrutiny. You’ll order your drinks from the hostess, who’ll range in age from 14 to 74, but the order is not filled by the club.
It’s for the all-night shop a few blocks away. The idea being that the club remains fully compliant with the licensing laws, as it’s never in possession of the alcohol, and both club and shop profit. Licence evaded, tax evaded.
The law struggled for years to deal with this ‘bottle party’ flouting of licensing, but had better luck closing down clubs who used underage hostesses or allowed striptease (they should have been licensed as theatres).
Having closed down over 1000 London nightclubs (and arrested two peers of the realm at the El Morocco Bottle Party) by 30 April 1941, the Metropolitan Police were faced with a new, more dangerous threat in 1942: hooch.
Tax or profit?
Though less broadly lethal than its Prohibition-era ancestor, 1940s hooch still caused hallucinations, blindness, and brain damage. It also cheated the Revenue. Distilled from beets or simply made of diluted meths to get round sugar rationing, the alcohol was high strength but dirty, flavoured with ‘essences’ to imitate whisky and gin. Familiar?
The hooch trade sprang up pretty much anywhere that had a large army or airforce base nearby. Ever prepared, the Americans began issuing soldiers about to go on leave with a bottle of legitimate each to forestall poison purchases. But the growing demand for liquor in Britain, from locals as well as troops with money to burn, provided other opportunities for profit.
The trade in stolen export liquor boomed as prices rose; £4 per bottle (about £160 today’s equivalent) was not unheard of. As a result, not all of that whisky bound for North America made it out of the Scottish docks. In just one instance, seven containers of the golden nectar were opened in Canada only to reveal rubble from a Glasgow air raid shelter.
And, as we know, at least one cargo of whisky went missing off Eriskay.
Notes: Information on London clubs, hooch and dockside theft is drawn from the excellent An Underworld at War by Donald Thomas (John Murray: 2003). All quotes from Mass-Observation and reports on women’s drinking are from Claire Langhamer (2003), ‘A public house is for all classes, men and women alike’: women, leisure and drink in second world war England, Women’s History Review, 12:3, pp.423-443. David Wondrich’s Imbibe! (Tarcherperigee: rev. 2015) is packed with cocktail recipes and anecdotes.
Words: Sophie Skarbek-Borowska | Artwork: Brittany Molineux