General Articles

Smuggler's Island

Nylons in soup tins, currency in collars, jewels in jam — Britain battles its biggest smuggling boom in history

HAROLD A. ALBERT March 15 1948
General Articles

Smuggler's Island

Nylons in soup tins, currency in collars, jewels in jam — Britain battles its biggest smuggling boom in history

HAROLD A. ALBERT March 15 1948

Smuggler's Island

Nylons in soup tins, currency in collars, jewels in jam — Britain battles its biggest smuggling boom in history


WISE and cunning in the startling complexities of modern travel, Mr. Ben Elliman banded two hundred-dollar bills into his collar, flattened four 50’s into each shirt cuff and then ordered flowers for his wife from a Southampton florist’s. In the customs shed, he blandly faced a cross fire of questions. No, he had no illicit currency, jewelry of value, diamonds or bearer bonds. Kind Canadian friends, he explained, were paying his expenses in New York, Montreal and points west.

Highly suspicious, the examiners frisked him as thoroughly as they knew. They unflapped his hatband, snipped open the linings of his baggage, scrutinized such hideaways as the belt of his dressing gown, his toothpaste tube, the soles of his shoes.

Because Mr. Elliman kept his nerve, and his collar on, they found nothing. His passport, however, showed that he had visited America three times in 15 months on obviously insufficient funds . . . and Customs inspectors always have the right to look twice.

A few minutes later they raided Mrs. Elliman’s cabin just as she was opening boxes of flowers from

three separate shops. In each box was a card and greetings envelope from her husband. In each envelope was a wad of dollar bills.

A further probe produced currency from the lining of her hat and the hem of her skirt while her husband was shaken free of the cash in his collar, cuffs and the double lining at the back of his coat.

The Ellimans were professionals. Now in jail, they trafficked in black-market currency and food parcels sold for treble their value. Britain today, however, is in the grip of a smuggling fever. Statistical chances, authorities estimate, are that at least one passenger in every outward plane and 20 people aboard every liner are successfully smuggling out money or valuables and the average holds for traffic inward.

Just thumb through the contraband reports of a typical 24 hours. A girl from Switzerland was caught at Croydon airport with 24 gold watches under her slip. A Yugoslav claimed diplomatic immunity for his suitcases only to be finally relieved of 10,000 cigarettes. A certain Robert Erskine Glen, cook aboard the Queen Elizabeth, was whisked before the magistrates after being detected with 40 fountain pens tied to his arms and legs, plus 12 in his shirt and 10 in each pocket.

So much for a single day. Then, that same week, an air taxi was seized at Croydon airport because a zealous official discovered foreign currency stuffed in the seating. That same week, believe it or not, two women were hurled into court and fined $16,000 after being detected with three gold cigarette cases strapped to their tummies with sticking plaster. Contraband ingenuity knows no limits. Customs examination likewise.

Times were when it used to be part of the innocent fun of a continental holiday to fool the exciseman with a coy bottle of Eau de Cologne stuffed in your slippers. Nine times in 10, the

inspector was content to let homing travellers think they’d licked him.

Unknown to the public there were general instructions not to fuss with vacation souvenirs of small value. In any case, prewar smuggling seizures at all the seaports of Great Britain and Ireland averaged only 20 daily and ran to a gross annual value of barely $60,000. Right now, however, Treasury revenue from confiscation alone is calculated at $4,500,000 a year.

Dutch Bulbs by Moonlight

THOUGH in hand, the situation is dangerous.

Officials fear they’re not catching 10%, perhaps not one per cent, of offenders. The volume of smuggling to and from Britain is believed to have risen by about 7,000%. Inward smuggling may be buoying the black market by some $40 millions annually. Outward-bound currency losses are assessed at $60 millions. These are minimum estimates.

How the money mounts is illustrated in the recent and simple, but by no means isolated, case of Baptiste Lelaux. A Dutch bulb merchant who was unduly impatient of excise duties and import bans, he took to shipping bulbs to Britain across the North Sea by moonlight, in a fishing boat.

The profits were high, the risks small and nothing went wrong until a routine police check ashore pulled him up for entering the United Kingdom without permission.

Confronted by the police, Lelaux mistakenly thought the smuggling game was up. Promptly playing his cards for a lighter prison sentence, he unexpectedly confessed to having landed no fewer than 11 million anemone corms and six million tulips. The cash gross—all within three months— was $920,000. Continued on page 44

Smuggler's Island

Continued from page 20

This is an instance in a specialized field, and Britain’s current shortages run from gold wedding rings to wallpapers, from camera film to candies. Menee the 10,000 cans labelled pea soup, which proved on inspection at the Newcastle Customs to he nylons packed eight to a tin, a variant on the earlier "dehydrated potato” trick. Hence, also, the prosecution of Joe Sehroyens, a Belgian steamer skipper, for running 1,500 watches wrapped in a cargo of rabbit skins.

How many watches had previously entered via the skin game? How many bottles of perfume, silver brooches or other rarities? Duty officers used to eye hulked small fur from a distance and your guess is as good as that of Chief Inspector Horace Kimber, of the Customs Investigation Department.. Nor can one begin to assess return cargoes in the two-way traffic to Europe. Significantly, the British domestic consumption of unrationed coffee, though not particularly popular, has suddenly increased by 30%, or 7,000 tons yearly. Is it leaving the country by the underground route for countries where coffee is scarce?

One way and another, in fact, Johnny Bull is hitting his head against the biggest and toughest smuggling boom ever known. It didn’t take much to start—just a few thousand people unwilling to wait till tomorrow for the luxuries they might have today with a little contriving. Now, facing desperate 1948, the average Englishman finds that tighter controls and higher indirect taxation merely add fuel to the furore.

Shed Your Rings

’Tobacco is typical. With cigarettes at 68c for 20 — 54c going in tax —the contrabandist who smuggles 10,000 from Eire is in velvet. Buying at $125, he sells at $250. Similarly, the price obtainable for such trifles as millet seed and polka-dot muslins is stratospheric. And straightforward smuggling in the economic vacuum of supply and demand is infant st uff.

Money may not be taken out of the sterling area. Bless you, that doesn’t prevent the Duchess of Blank buying diamond rings in London or Cape Town tint! selling them in New York to pay expenses. A month or two ago, engagement and wedding rings were taken from the fingers of protesting outward-bound travellers. But smuggling continued.

’Thus, Max Intrator, the French currency racketeer, filtered his illicit cheques to England in diplomatic hags carried by the obliging representatives of certain minor states and there’s evidence that Polish émigrés on diplomatic leave trips to the Riviera have smuggled cash to dear old English ladies in Nice and Cannes. For a while, starvelings could airmail negotiable securities to New York to help pay for food parcels. 'Today, all outwardbound mails are subject to scrutiny. In black and white, roughly one envelope in every 80 is X-rayed or slipped under a fluoroseope and this watch has yielded as rich a crop of pound notes, dollar hills (some of them forgeries) and illicitly mailed insurance policies as could be desired.

But smuggling . . .?

"It’sall right, old boy,” said a certain movie director, the day after dollars for his illegal New York bank account failed to get through. "They’re still okay via contacts of mine in Reykjavik, Iceland.”

There’s the un recommended technique of Morris Ader, who invested

$9,400 in 144 gold ingots for concealment in two hollow-backed suitcases. Fortunately, the paraphernalia of today’s trick smuggling has come secondhand from the wartime resistance movements and Customs officers detect the 60 varieties of doublebarreled baggage in their sleep. Mr. Ader’s enterprise led merely to forfeiture of the gold, jail and a $16,000 fine. But t here’s also the adept Leonard Henson who corked a gap in the preventive wall simply by being too clever. Until recently, diamond-cutting tools were allowed to leave the country freely without a license. For a time the unscrupulous replaced the cheap cutting stone with any diamond they wished. Mr. Henson went several degrees better, stuffed $8,500 worth of fine stones into the metal holder and aroused suspicion only by his barefaced blandness when cross-examined.

'The authorities prefer to hush up such details. Contrabandists are copycats. Yet shilling-saving amateurs and enterprising big-timers alike would be sadder rather than wiser if they could visit the Albert Docks waterguard school. Its museum alone is an object lesson in misguided duty-dodging. Here are false sleeves and hollow heels, double-bottomed saucepans, denture-plate capsules, brandy bottles to fit the small of the hack. Here is the original asparagus tin in which an alert Customs man found a wad of bearer bonds, here’s a jar of cherry jam once filled with jewels, a life jacket stuffed with cigarettes instead of cork.

Sweating It Out

A length of wood with a concealed stopper proves to contain a tube to he filled with valuable essential oils worth $50 an ounce. A fake cigarette lighter is doubly tricky because the smuggler declares the lighter but not the contents. The appalling thing—to the smuggler—is that all these stratagems have been detected. Divisional Inspector S. S. Cox, the Director of Studies, places more stress on a gallery of photographs of smugglers than on such playthings. New gadgets are always up and coming. Customs recruits are coached, preferably, in a sixt h sense of crime spotting.

'They’re trained in psychology, shown how to distinguish subtle signs of guilt which even practiced hag crashers cannot camouflage. A slow-motion telescopic range film of an actual counter examination gives students a little experience even before they take their place as juniors at the harrier. Passengers are classified into whites, greys and blacks even before baggage is opened. Whites are seldom unjustly suspected. Blacks run the gamut from cocaine in bottle corks to jewels inside sausage casings. And still their studied calm, readiness to answer questions, dryness of the lips, perspiration at the nostrils, sometimes—hut not always— gives the game away.

Once suspicion is aroused, it is thoroughly followed up. At Chedburgh airport, one preventive man trusted his intuitions so implicitly that he practically took an airplane to bits. Finally a panel of the tail plane betrayed faint indications of having recently been unscrewed. Removing the tail completely, the officer found nothing but packing and a few odd inconscpicuous lengths of string. A tug on three strings and nothing happened. A separate tug on the fourth and three hundred pairs of stockings whipped from a space between the airframe and a washbasin.

Aircraft have unquestionably broadened the moonshine horizon. Atlantic fliers have trafficked in everything from bullion to umbrellas. (Not all Atlantic fliers, naturally.) Private

airports present heart-rending problems to Customs and Excise.

Few actual cases of air contraband have reached the British police courts. On the ot her hand, the $20,000-a-week conspiracy of a group of cross-Channel fliers recently came before the French Sûreté. A girl called at Le Bourget every other day for food parcels left, for her by a steward on a regular passenger run. The police opened the first parcels, found them innocent, grew accustomed to the girl and made a friend of her. As it happened, the smugglers stumbled in overlooking the routine change-round of airport police that occurs every few months. Opening a parcel, one of the newcomers found cocoa tins of smuggled sovereigns wrapped in contraband leather.

Size, weight, sound, all these are customs guides. Traditionally, however, Britain’s excise service—which costs $28,000,000 a year to operate-— is still known as the Waterguard and here the Customs men hit heavy weather. The vast bulk of systematic contraband is sea-borne. Merchant Navy seamen are always potential racketeers. Many are deliberately financed by big business combines. Three hundred per cent profits on shortage goods justify the risk of a fine. Treble wages are paid in event of a jail sentence.

In six months, 387 seamen of all nationalities in Britain have been arrested or fallen under suspicion for dabbling in contraband. Why not more? Irate Customs men will tell you, “Because the task of checking all seamen, shoes to scalp, all the time, is manifestly impossible!”

R eh ab il i ta tion Sch em e

Meanwhile, the Customs vigilantes needs must select the goats from the sheep in surprise dockyard comb-outs and reserve their frontal attack for bigger game. The newest smuggling development, the wholesale trafficking organized by ex-Navy veterans who have tired of the humdrum, is easily the most difficult to suppress and economically the most dangerous.

In Britain the coast guards have the invidious responsibility of guarding the 5,000 miles of coastline, every narrow estuary, every lonely creek and inlet, day and night, and the effective strength is barely a man to a mile.

Guard posts are linked by radio. Point-to-point patrols are taken cop fashion on motorbikes. Seaward the Customs are building up a fleet of fast Revenue cutters, chiefly ex-minesweepers, turning the penetration of radar, asdic echo-sounding and searchlights onto mysterious boats and moonless nights. But the smugglers in turn have invested profits in fastmoving ex-government launches and swift cars which wait ashore for a quick getaway, sharpening tactics in this battle of wits.

Sceptics still sneer at the moonlight stuff. Yet the current drama, duplicated across the misty beaches of the Romney Marsh, the quiet coves of Cornwall, the river inlets around Southampton is exemplified in the affair of Rollo Hunter, onetime captain of H. M. submarine Taku and 26-yearold Peter Steinman, hitherto mentioned in dispatches for bravery on Atlantic and Russian convoys. Clubbing together with other ex-service officers, they bought a speedy exgovernment air - sea - rescue launch, which they renamed the Taku and began running fine wines and liqueurs across the Channel.

In a deserted shell-blasted Dorset heathland, formerly used as a gunnery school, they found a perfect landing ground. But crime does not always pay

dividends. The Customs men were not so ignorant of the comings and goings of the launch as they seemed to be. Inspecting the shoreline, the interest of Waterguard Superintendent Tommy Jones focused on the former D-day landing craft LOM 217. The coast hereabouts is littered with such craft, used by vacationists. The 217 interested Jones because, though never seen putting to sea, its beached position constantly varied.

Scotland Yard and the French police conferred by radio. Soon the preventive men could forecast the moves of the Hunter oufit in advance.

One day, flying the naval White Ensign—to which, of course, they were not entitled—Hunter and his cronies sailed boldly into Cherbourg harbor in their air-sea-rescue launch. Announcing themselves as buyers for the Vanguard and the aircraft carrier Colossus, they called on a firm of ship's stores merchants and said they were authorized to spend $1,800 on liquor.

So far, so simple. An hour or two later, loaded deep with cases of champagne and benedictine, the Taku swept successfully out of Cherbourg, her ensign fluttering, her masquerading officers saluting.

Five miles off the Nab Light, Spithead, at 2 a.m. next day, her cargo

was transferred to the 217. On the Dorset shore, it was safely loaded onto a waiting truck, which promptly turned inland into the arms of the Customs ambush.

Surrounded by police, with Tommy Jones on the running hoard snatching the ignition key, the smugglers were too dumbfounded to offer resistance. They looked dumbfounded in court, dumbfounded when they were fined a total of $70,000, jailed and had their liquor, launch and landing craft confiscated.

And the moral? Surely there is a moral? Smuggling laws are usually out of sympathy with majority opinion. People smuggle though they wouldn’t steal, often on the principle that the country, like an elephant, is too big to be hurt. There are folk who will cheat on customs just as they will cheat on taxes.

The Customs officers smile to themselves at the unbroken procession of smart new shoes, the coat collars rubbed with soap, the new clothes crushed to look like old, the ingenious subterfuges and silly explanations. But the smiles are becoming weary. The smuggling joke was never a very good one. It’s no joke at all when the welfare of a nation depends on the economic 11th commandment, “Thou shalt not pass ...” ^