Roberto Alberto Rossi was an English gangster and former associate of the Kray twins known as the "General of Clerkenwell". He stood trial for murder in 1975 but was acquitted. A journalist linked him to 11 murders, a figure which he did not dispute.
Born in Clerkenwell as Roberto Alberto Rossi in 1922 to Italian immigrants who moved to what is known as “Little Italy” after World War I, Mr Rossi lived in Islington all his life, most recently in Colebrooke Row, Angel. Rossi, whose full first name was Roberto, got his nickname because his mother would shout “Berto!” from the window when he was playing football in the street – with her Italian accent, it sounded to the English boys like “Battles”. Since he was constantly at war – on one occasion splitting open another boy’s head because he had mimicked his mother – the name stuck. The boy was later put in hospital for ten days by Rossi, who was prevented from doing more damage by Albert Dimes.
His father worked as an ice-cream seller but the family always struggled financially. He left school at 14, later describing himself as 'a naughty boy' and began his life of crime by breaking into a butcher's shop and stealing a turkey after his mother told him they had nothing for Christmas dinner. At 18 he entered the world of organised crime after taking on a local gangster and 'cracking his head right open'.
On Thursday the 28th of June 1956, both Bert ‘Battles’ Rossi and William Patrick Blythe were arrested in Dublin, Ireland in a dramatic police swoop by Scotland Yard Detectives on a saloon bar. Blythe later received a sentence of 5 years and Rossi a sentence of 4 years for the attack on Jack ‘Spot’ Comer. He later dealt cocaine – but would never touch heroin – and ran clubs in Soho, working for gang leader Billy Hill, and with Albert Dimes, another Clerkenwell Italian mobster, running gambling and snooker halls. Mr Rossi married Rene, an Englishwoman, now dead, and the couple had two children, Peter, who has also died, and Irene.
He was jailed, along with “Mad” Frankie Fraser, in 1956 for attacking Soho gang leader Jack “Spot” Comer. In prison he met Ronnie Kray, who he scorned for “wanting the limelight” but nevertheless mentored. One day in the 1960s he met a man with links to the US Mafia, and became close to prominent American gangsters, meeting Philadelphia crime boss Angelo Bruno and Carlo Gambino, who ran the powerful Gambino crime family in New York. He did many jobs for the Mafia, including as an enforcer. He also ran illegal gambling clubs, recounting that Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon were frequent visitors.
Mr Rossi retired after he was acquitted in 1975 of the murder of Beatrice “Biddy” Gold in the basement of the clothing business she ran in Clerkenwell – he denied having anything to do with it – though would still do a bit of “consultancy work”. In his later years Mr Rossi, had a relationship with another Englishwoman, Mary. He kept up his dapper appearance, usually wearing a three-piece suit. He enjoyed playing cards, seeing old friends around Islington, shopping at Chapel Market, spending time with his family and putting a bet on the racing. He reportedly ironed his banknotes because he liked to keep everything neat.
Bert 'Battles' Rossi died at the University College Hospital in north London after falling and breaking two ribs at his home in Islington at the age of 94. The service was held at St Peter’s Italian church in Holborn, and the crematorium ceremony was bookended by theme music from the films The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America. A book Britain’s Oldest London Gangland Boss, was published about his life. He was close friends with retired crime boss Terry Adams, at one time a neighbour, who was said to be absent from the funeral due to the presence of the press but sent a wreath to mark his respects.