Army's safecracker 'stole Nazi loot'

HE WAS the Gorbals safe-blower recruited by the Commandos in the Second World War to sneak behind enemy lines and use his nefarious skills to steal Nazi secrets. Decorated for his bravery, Johnny Ramensky became one of Scotland's most celebrated gentleman criminals.

• Ramensky outside Edinburgh Sheriff Court in December 1971 Picture: Jack Wallace

But now new claims have emerged that it was not only secret documents liberated by "Gentleman Johnny" during his daring wartime missions.

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A new biography of the master safecracker reveals that Ramensky may have also stolen a hoard of valuable Nazi loot which later ended up in Scotland.

The book alludes to rumours that still persist today that a Nazi hoard, including gold jewellery, was present in the Carfin area of Lanarkshire - famous for its religious grotto - after the end of the Second World War. And it contains an account from Sonny Leitch, also a Scottish underworld legend, that his criminal colleagues saw the loot during a break-in to a naval depot many years later.

Robert Jeffrey, the author of Gentle Johnny Ramensky, said Leitch's account gives credence to the local legend of Carfin's Nazi treasure. He said: "It is still rumoured in those parts that statues and other valuable objects had been taken from Rome near the end of the war, as the British advanced and the Germans retreated, in order to prevent them being looted and taken to Germany by the retreating Nazis."

"Is it too much of a leap of the imagination to suggest these might well have been some of the art objects and jewellery taken from the safes of high-ranking Nazis by Ramensky when Rome fell to the Allies. Gold is said to have disappeared from Rome, so who knows? It is one of the many unsolved mysteries that still surround Johnny Ramensky's extraordinary life."

• Johnny Ramensky: Cracking criminal

Leitch, known as the "Saughton Harrier" for his repeated escapes from the Edinburgh jail, was also a criminal-turned-soldier, and he and Ramensky became firm friends - spending time in jail and fishing together on the outside before Johnny's death in 1972.

But before the pair met, and while serving as a soldier, Leitch made a remarkable discovery while on cleaning duty in the Shepton Mallet military prison in Somerset.

Tasked to clear out the "death cell" where military executions took place, a converted baronial hall, Leitch uncovered a stash of boxes which roused his criminal curiosity.

Breaking open the boxes, he discovered what appeared to be artworks - including portraits of Hitler, Eva Braun and fellow Nazi figures such as Gestapo founder Hermann Goering, Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust.There was also a hoard of locked ammunition boxes, which he did not manage to prise open.

Years later and living back in his native Lanarkshire, Sonny was friends with a gang of villains who broke into the Royal Navy supply depot in Carfin.

They told Leitch that in a locked garage they discovered the same ammunition boxes he had seen earlier and this time, he claimed, they were opened to reveal a treasure trove of jewellery and gold.

Thinking they had struck the jackpot but unable to carry the loot, the gang retreated to steal a van in which to make off with the treasure.

But on their return to the Carfin depot, they found the area swarming with security staff, their earlier break-in having been discovered. They were soon apprehended by police.

Leitch later met Ramensky for the first time during one of the pair's many jail terms at Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison, and they formed a lifelong friendship.

Leitch claims that it was during one of their jail-cell conversations that Ramensky revealed that the portraits and treasure discovered at Shepton Mallet and Carfin had been stolen by him during the Allied march on Rome in 1944.

Ramensky famously blew 14 safes of leading Nazis in one day during a mission behind enemy lines, a feat for which he received a secret Military Medal.

Leitch, now reformed and living a quiet life in West Lothian, told Scotland on Sunday: "Johnny just gave me a look and said: 'So that's where it all ended up.'

"He said he had seen the very same valuables as he went about his business breaking into houses in Italy during the Allied push on Rome.

"It was clear that Johnny hadn't only had his eye on documents during his raids behind enemy lines, but helped himself to a few treasures along the way."

He added: "I had taken the time to note down the numbers on the ammunition boxes at Shepton Mallet, and Johnny confirmed these very same numbers to me, so he knew exactly what I was talking about."

It is not known how the loot came to be stored in Carfin or where it is now. Leitch is in no doubt, however, that Ramensky - dubbed the world's best safe-blower - used his skills to help himself to Nazi loot during his raids on the homes of high-ranking Nazis, only for it to be then seized by his superiors and returned to the UK.

He said: "He may even have sneaked a few treasures back home under the noses of his superior officers. I certainly hope so."