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A 1940 story: Robert Liversedge, international crook

Robert Liversedge was an ‘international crook’, according to his bulky Security Service file. He was interned as a threat to national security under defence regulations in June 1940. The man was ‘a thoroughly untrustworthy character’, who said and did whatever suited his purposes, the file said. Why then had the Royal Air Force given him a commission? And even more intriguing; why had Liversedge taken it?

He was born in east London of Russian parents in June 1904 and named Jacob Perlzweig. In 1927 he came to the notice of the authorities under another name because of a swindle that his associates got arrested for but he did not. In 1937 he was in London having been in Canada and the United States for several years and with a Canadian passport in a third name, and had defrauded a woman in New York out of a huge sum of money.

On the outbreak of war in September 1939 under the fourth name in his story of Robert Liversedge he applied for a commission in the RAF, giving a false date of birth and other false particulars, such as that his parents were British. He got his commission.

A speculative answer to why Liversedge sought to join the armed forces is the one he gave to the authorities once arrested and trying to free himself; he was a patriot. Or, after a lifetime so far of crime he may have seen the war as a chance to turn over a new leaf, if only to set himself up for better things.

If that were his thinking, it did not come off because he soon came a cropper. He found that the wartime authorities were more careful to swoop on wrong-doing. By April 1940 he was under arrest for filling in ‘further false particulars on an official form’; the Security Service became interested in Liversedge when he was ‘associated with a Dutchman who had been asked by Germany to act as an agent on their behalf in this country’. That, and a diamond swindle with a German by now in an interned camp as an enemy alien.

According to Liversedge’s own account, in file KV2-3718 at the National Archives, he joined the RAF because he was ‘extremely enthusiastic’. He said he ‘gave up considerable business interests to volunteer’ in 1939. At the selection board he was asked if he would volunteer for aerial photographic work, ‘having a thorough knowledge of photography through three and a half years’ experience in the film industry’, in Hollywood. Liversedge duly got the job of intelligence officer, gleaning details for RAF use – such as what targets to bomb – from photos.

When in April 1940 police ‘suggested that I had hostile associations’, namely with the Dutchman and the German, Liversedge claimed to ignore it as ridiculous, although he claimed also to realise ‘that I had laid myself open to blackmail by not disclosing my former name’. He put his case to an appeals hearing, including claiming that ‘rival commercial interests were working against me’ and that ‘allegations’ were ‘entirely untrue’. His case was that he ‘gave up voluntarily large personal interests at the outbreak of war to join the forces’.

He got out of jail in late 1941 and much of his file over the next couple of years is given over to trying to keep track of him – he soon wound up in London – and trying to get him into the armed forces, though not the RAF which did not want him back (‘under any circumstances’). For a man so enthusiastic as to volunteer in 1939, he was now unwilling to do his bit in the Pioneer Corps, as a labourer; and was instead getting down to business, the kind that has colonels on the headed notepaper as directors, who are bought to make a company look respectable.

For example he claimed to have invented a machine for physical treatments (that someone used without permission while he was inside). Before the end of the war he was running a theatrical troupe. As the air force’s provost marshal’s branch admitted in a 1942 letter, Liversedge was ‘not really a political suspect as much as a criminal one’; as another document put it, ‘a case for the CID and not for Special Branch’.

One reason he was jailed for suspected disloyalty to Britain – rather than any number of shady deals – was because the police seemed to lack the will or ability to trace his financial dealings. New York police declined to extradite Liversedge despite (under a false name, with other swindlers) being part of a big fraud case in the city. Presumably the Americans took the view that they were glad to be rid of such a crook, and would rather do without the expense of putting him on trial in a complicated fraud case, then imprisoning him at Uncle Sam’s expense.

As his sister put it to the appeals hearing in October 1941, after denying that her brother was a swindler and an international crook, ‘a swindler or even a murderer can still be patriotic’. If that were so, the air force proved to be a place where he had to show a good character, because he was at work in the operations room of Fighter Command, and knew how it worked – highly useful to the enemy, which made the authorities so nervous when they uncovered Liversedge’s connections with suspicious foreigners, even if Liversedge was only looking to make money. As a letter of July 1941 admitted, the evidence that jailed him, of ‘hostile association’, was ‘rather thin’:

‘The real reason why the Committee recommended Liversedge’s detention was because, being a thoroughly untrustworthy character with a very suspicious record, he had succeeded in getting a commission in the RAF and had access to very secret information.’

Like others among the hundreds interned in mid-1940, it was not so much what Liversedge had done, but what he might do if the Germans invaded. By then Liversedge had got his name in the newspapers as he brought an action against the Home Secretary for false imprisonment; evidently he or someone in his family had money to hire a barrister.

Perhaps that was thanks to another of Liversedge’s shady deals, in the diamond trade. A ‘contact’ in May 1940 told the story of Liversedge and several others making a profit from tricks in the small world of diamond trading in London and Amsterdam; such as claiming to produce synthetic diamonds of high quality; put another way, passing off low grade diamonds as higher grade (which sold for far more).

In such circles, Liversedge was as liable to be swindled by an associate, or to swindle an associated, as he was liable to swindle legitimate businesses, or over-trusting people with savings. In the RAF, Robert Liversedge met his match just as the Luftwaffe did.


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