Long post alert! Americans Troops in The UK during WW2

The time that the Americans came here in WW2 has been described in two ways "Friendly Invasion" or "Overpaid, Oversexed and Over here". This really does cover the sentiment of this time. It is not a time that is spoken about a lot except for the good parts in history books but there are some very dark parts that occurred that are rarely addressed. This was the subject of my final paper for my Bachelors of Arts in History. I thought I would share the information as I find it interesting and in some cases some of the same behavior still occurs.

I have tried to think about the mindset of the Americans that came in this period. It was very much the same as today, most Americans have not been outside of the U.S. and also not well read on what life is like overseas except for the scaremongering in the news which has not changed since this time period. I was in a bit of a different boat when I arrived because I had been deployed here before and I tried to work my way back here and during that time I read up on the history of this country and its culture. I do think that it is beneficial as the more you understand the more you will enjoy yourself.

The men that were chosen to come here were not chosen because they were the best men but because they were fit enough to pass the physical tests because they were drafted. They were coming to a country who had been in the war for two years before they arrived rather than being at war like the U.S. was. The country had been attacked and the people had been rationed for the war effort. Also they did not come here by choice.

The two governments anticipated that there would be issues and they both set out to minimize them as much as they could. The War Department in the U.S. gave out pamphlets such as A Short Guide to Great Britain to men that were coming to the UK. They also put out videos such as Know Your Ally Britain. The British also tried to minimize the response that the Americans got from the locals and put out American Troops and The British Community: An Examination of the Relationship between the American Troops and the British which was written by Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist who was married to a British physicist.

The Americans did not take to the local cuisine so the NAAFI tried to supply items from home in order to please the troops. This is how Coca-Cola, gum, nylons and other items came here. Clothing was rationed at the time so many women would often tan their legs with tea bags and draw lines on the back of their legs. The American men would get nylons on base and give them to the women for their attention. In some cases, they were bringing foods that some people had never had before such as spam and canned peaches.

The experience between the British and the American rationing were quite different and many Americans were unaware of the struggles the people had been through. The British began rationing food in 1940 whereas the United States began to ration in 1942. The British were only able to get 1s. 3d. per week and 5-8 oz. per adult per week where as an adult in the US was able to get 2 ½ lbs. of meat per week. So when the Americans were invited to people's homes they would often stock up at the NAAFI and bring it with them.

One thing that the locals did not like the Americans did not know or understand what the locals had to go through because they had everything on base that they needed. Some people felt that this created a divide between the troops and their hosts as Maurice Gorham explains, “They had nothing in common with the people they met there; they had not eaten the same food, read the same news or even heard the same radio; they had no common ground.” The troops were able to get newspapers, food and entertainment onbase which while it provided the comforts of home, meant that they did not have to interact with the locals if they did not want to and therefore reduced the understanding on both sides. 

I think that this is very much the case still. Having gone from living here as an USAF member and then having no ties to the base, the experience is very much different. This is why when people say that they want to live like a local, I try to get people to be involved in the local communities, shop there, go to church there, watch the local shows on the television (that is how other people learn about our culture) and eat there. I know that the exchange rate makes it difficult but spending money on experiences are better than things and last a lot longer. Plus you are only here for a limited amount of time and as we like other people to assimilate in our country, we should do the same.

Americans were unable to obtain fresh eggs because the NAAFI and their canteen provided powdered eggs so the local children would meet American soldiers with fresh eggs in exchange for chocolates. Chocolates were provided by Hershey as part of the soldiers rationing and this had become part of the American persona. Over 3 billion bars were disturbed to American troops around the world from 1940 to 1945. I remember on time when I was taking First Term Airmen to Duxford, a man approached and told me that he used to meet the Americans at the local rail station and swap fresh eggs for chocolate. Although Hershey's chocolate is made with soured milk and did not taste like their chocolate, they loved it because it was something that was rationed at the time.

While Americans were stationed in England, their missions usually were during the day targeting the same places that the Royal Air Force were bombing at night. This often left them out earlier in town on their off time than the locals, American troops could be seen waiting outside for the pubs to open up. Their presence in the local towns were mixed. Some bases had liberty vehicles which would bring them into town around 7 p.m. and collected them at 11 p.m. These vehicles carried fourteen men but were often packed with more than its capacity. On one hand they were keen to be overtly friendly with locals by buying rounds for those in the pubs. On the other hand, they were not popular when they drank the pub dry. Pubs at the time were rationed with the amount of ale that they were given so if they used that up before the end of the week, the pubs would be closed. Farmers were not happy when they went to their local after a long day of work only to find that they could not finish it off with a pint with their friends. The landlords tried to put drinks aside for the agricultural workers so that they would not run out but American troops would get angry if they did this and would offer to pay more for the pint, which was often a temptation that the landlords could not ignore. Margaret Mead described the reason why American soldiers may have not understood the importance of the pub to the British lifestyle, "to an American a British town is puzzling. He doesn't know what to do there. He doesn't know how to nurse a pint of beer in a pub all night. At home, he didn't go into bars except to drink, one drink after another. If he didn't want to drink, he went somewhere else.... There is nowhere to go except the pub, and when he gets there he thinks the only thing to do is drink.” This is what they did to pass the time.

I do think this is still very much the case with pubs. I constantly see people asking where to eat and dismissing pubs as a place to stop and rest up or have meal. Pubs are often cheaper than restaurants and some are children friendly with beer gardens. The pub is the center of the life in villages. It is where you meet your mates after work or have a dinner out. Bars and pubs are not the same but because many Americans don't understand this, they avoid them like the plague. You do not have to drink in a pub.

The Americans needed a way to get around in England and riding bikes for transport was very popular. This was often because gas was rationed and bikes did not require them. While some Americans did know how to ride a bike, they had only done this as children. Now they had to negotiate the windy country roads, cars and driving on the opposite side of the road. The locals were able to dig bikes out sheds and fix them up and sell them to the Americans for more than they would ever get from a local. There were quite bit of Americans that were ticketed for not riding with lights on their bikes. In England, the winters get very dark and this can be very dangerous and in fact, Private Bertie Smith, aged 22, was hit while riding his bike without any lights in November. There were also reports that bikes were stolen and later located on the local American airbases.

The interaction of the American soldiers and the local women was a complicated affair for several reasons. One reason was because venereal disease was on the increase- there were debates from both the British and American governments on what the cause was. “By December 1942, the number of cases of VD among US troops in Britain had risen by 70 per cent since the start of the war.” This meant that the men had to take time off from work until they recovered and in turn affected their contributions to the fight. One of the bone of contentions between the British and American Governments was that the Americans that came to the United Kingdom infected with VD which contributed to the situation that they were dealing with, they felt that it should have been caught and either contained or treated before they set foot on British soil.

Many Britains had never seen Americans except for in the movies. Sometimes they lived up to their expectations, other times they didn’t. They looked more clean cut than the British Troops partly because their uniforms were more fitted and coming from a country that did not experience rationing. On top of this they were paid more than the British soldiers were, “nearly five times more than their counterparts were.” This pay difference narrowed the higher the men were in the ranks were but it was still a notable difference. Even the black Americans were paid more than the locals which just caused more of an insult. To the locals  the American men appeared to “throw their money around” which was a bit insulting. American men also seemed more comfortable with speaking with women. This came down to two things, one that they went to schools which were co-ed until they graduated but the British school systems were one sex only after the age of eleven. The other reason was that dating was very different in America than it was in Britain. Margaret Mead said “a “date” is quite a different sort of thing from an evening spent with someone whom one hopes to marry.” If an effort to protect the morals of the women and the American soldiers, there were organizations that tried to limit the interaction between them unless they were deemed appropriate women. Such organizations were the American Red Cross which often served to look after the well-being of the American soldiers during their off-duty time and arrived dances and other entertainment.

Aside from this well known topic, what is not mentioned hardly ever is the amount of rapes that occurred in areas where the American troops were stationed. In the monthly police reports to the Regional Police Staff Office from the Chief Constable which were meant to gauge the conduct of the troops, there were one to three rapes or sexual assaults associated with American service members in just the town of Eye which had less than 2,000 people in it at the time. There were also incidents with children that were recorded with children as young as 10 years old being molested by American service members. These incidents were reported against both white and black Americans. Rape is a crime that is not highly reported today and had even less likely to be reported at the time because of the stigma attached to it. So the numbers that have been recorded are only a tip of the iceberg of the mark that the Americans left in this area. In some of the cases the women were noted not to be believable either because they were known to associate with the African-American troops or might have been a prostitute.

American soldiers tended to take to the children more quickly than the rest of the locals. In many cases, the local children served as mascots which were a favorable position to be in as they had free reign of the bases. They often reminded them of either their own children that they left behind or little brothers or sisters as many soldiers were so young.  The Americans also held Christmas parties on the bases for the local children. The soldiers saved up their rations in order to ensure the enjoyment of the children that attended. Pat Everson recalls the time at the local Christmas party and the difference in customs “the men were so kind. I could not understand why they were putting jam on the meat. Because in those days no one had heard of cranberry sauce and so here they were putting jam on their meat.” The children were quite amused especially in a time that they were often hungry, at these parties they were able to continue to go up until they were filled to the brim.

There are many other stories of the events that they held for children such as “Operation Reindeer” in Shipdham which was for orphans and children of men being held as prisoners of war. Because rationing was going on and things were hard to come by the men wrote letters home trying to get toys sent overseas or they made toys themselves with items that they were able to find. Another infamous Christmas party was for 1,250 children that were orphans or evacuees in 1944. The age of the children ranged from four to fourteen and it was held at Old Buckenham. These event was tied with Liberty Run, a B-24, flew over liberated Paris which dropped toys and had the nose art with Santa and autographs of the children from the part.

The American bases often held dances. These dances did not serve alcohol but the food and the company of the American soldiers were enough to draw the local women to attend. As seen later the white and African-American soldiers were segregated but the RAF and USAAF were also often kept apart once the decision was made that the bases that Americans were based at would fall under the command of American control. This created conflict when it came to the local women. The Guildhall in Cambridge had been known for holding dances and there had been instances where U.S. vehicles were outside of a RAF dance trying to persuade the women to come to their dance on the local base which ended up in a fight. These dances were looked down by some because their men were fighting on the frontline while the Americans seemed to be living it up. There were other instances where there were heated interactions over women to include the death of Gordon Johnson who was stabbed to death when an American soldier asked his partner to dance. It was noted that while the British and American soldiers were not rude to one another that the difference in pay and therefore their interaction with the local women was a cause of the reduction of interaction between the two.

Another reason why the American GIs and local girls had a complicated affair was that the American government did not want them to marry so there were process in order to prevent this from happening. They made them wait hoping that if it were on a whim, the process would put them off or the feeling would go away. The process is very much the same today, but a soldier wishing to marry a foreigner in an overseas command, must ask permission from their Commanding Officer. He had to wait a minimum time of two months for his approval. There were times that this could have been sped up in cases where the woman was pregnant. In order to gain approval they had to really plead their case on their ability to support their proposed wife including “letters from home confirming that they had jobs to return to, savings in the bank and parents prepared to support the young couple if need be.” The couples were only allowed to be married by a Church of England priest but the chaplains on base could take part in the ceremony but not able to do the law binding portion of the service.

Many of these interactions lead to the marriage of 70,000 brides to American soldiers. The first marriages between Americans and British brides started in February 1943. These women ended up having to go through strict inspections when the war concluded to join their husbands in the United States. This was a quite difficult time for the women and led them to protest outside the American Embassy. The women felt that “the American Government does not want us over there and is doing its best to break up our marriages.” It took a few months before the United States relaxed its immigration laws so that the American soldiers’ families could join them. After the war, the women went to Southampton to catch a ship to the U.S. to join their husbands. This program ran from January to June 1946 and any spouses left after the program ended, had to procure their transportation on their own.

Affairs were prevalent on both sides, as one in seven of the American soldiers that were sent overseas were already married. Some men sought the attention or comfort of the local women. They would even show pictures of their wives but tell the women that they were their mothers or sisters. Many women did not know until the men were moved to a forward base and received a note notifying them that the man that they loved was married before they met them. One airmen was married once in the United States and twice in the England but it was only discovered after he was shotdown. One famous situation was with Nora Carpenter and Sergeant William “Red” Thomson. She fell pregnant with quadruplets and he was still married. One of the quadruplets died after birth and she had to wait until he got a divorce from his wife before they could be together but she was one of the lucky ones. There were also married women that took to the American charm. They sought comfort from the men that were there while their men were away fighting.

The interaction between the American servicemen and the local women contributed to “the pre-war average of 5.5 per 1,000 births shot up to 16.1 per 1,000 births in 1945.” Often if the man told his CO that if he was drunk when was with a woman, they would be able to relocate him as it was in their best interest because then the U.S. Government did not have to support the woman and the child.

Out of all of the impressions that Americans brought with them, the most reprehensible one would be the ideology of segregation. The United States especially in the south had segregation laws in place. This affected the way that African-American men served not only in the United State but also overseas. The British had quite a different approach to race relations as they abolished slavery in 1807. They were appalled at the treatment that the African-American soldiers and often refused to partake in the behavior; they would have preferred the US Government not to send African-American soldiers at all to Britain so they would not have to deal with the issues that would arise. In his own diary, Oliver Harvey a private secretary to a minister sums up the perception of the whole idea of the prejudices that the Americans had and them bringing over it with them was, “It is rather a scandal that the Americans should thus export their internal problem. We don’t want to see lynching begin in England. I can’t bear the typical Southern attitude towards the negroes.” In fact, they tried to get the U.S. not to send them here but the U.S. seemed to ignore their repeated requests. They would have rather them not come then to be have to deal with the troubles that came with enforcing the U.S. approach. British members of parliament requested that the Prime Minister approach the US authorities so that they could instruct “their men that the colour bar is not the custom of this country and that its non-observance by British troops or civilians should be regarded with equanimity.”  Churchill response to this request was “The question is certainly unfortunate, and I am hopeful that without any action on my part points of view of all concerned will be mutually understood and respected.” There were over 100,000 African-American soldiers sent to the UK which were 10% of the U.S. Army. This amount outnumbered the UK’s population which was more around 7,000 at the time. At the time, both governments did not understand how much work really came with allowing the African-Americans to come to Britian especially when it was going through a time of hardship. The extra work that was created with having separate facilities in hospitals, housing and other areas. In fact, their prejudices affected the people that were already living there. The Ministry of Labour had recruited people from all over the British colonies but they were mistreated by the white American soldiers. 

Since there was no such thing as segregation in England, the men instilled it themselves. Certain towns were designated stomping grounds for the white American soldiers and others for the African-American soldiers. If there were not different places for them to go, they designated nights that each could visit the villages. There were times that towns or cities, such as Ipswich, divided themselves just to minimize the violence that they experienced.  Ipswich which had over 150 pubs at the time and the white American population was larger than the African-American population so they allocated the African-Americans with eight pubs that they were able to frequent. Places like Yeovil had separate seats for the African-Americans to sit in the local cinema. George Orwell remarked in The Tribune, “It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now an occupied territory. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are Negros.” The way around segregating the troops overtly, they would advertise events directed fora particular group or squadron rather than for blacks or whites. This then worked for the locals as they would have signs that “x Regiment” was not able to be served at such a place. This worked because certain regiments, groups or squadrons were either white or black. There was violence between white and black Americans that seemed to be contributed by the fact that they were kept apart. Fights would begin because black Americans were at a dance. Then a few days later another fight would happen in retaliation of the the earlier fight. The villages and towns that these occurred in were also victims. These incidents occurred at a rate of 3 per week leading up to D-Day. It made the soldiers themselves wonder if they were fighting Hitler or each other. One huge example of these fights was later tagged as The Battle of Bamber Bridge. The original event happened in the U.S. in Detroit due to their lack of housing and work in a booming market. Word got back the England and some black Americans decided to drink closer to their base. The MPs came to arrest one of the soldiers because he was not wearing the right uniform. After several attempts of arrests, the black Americans headed back to camp. Their stories fueled others to go back into town armed and there was a gunfight on the roads of Bamber Bridge as the black Americans attacked military vehicles. In the end, one black GI died and a few white ones were injured. This was not a story that the newspaper could ignore. In this case, the causalities were only between American soldiers but there were instances that the locals were caught in the crossfire.

The British did not take kindly to the behavior of the white American troops towards black American troops. This did depend on what state that the soldier came from because some did not live in a state that had segregation. They told them not to give up their seats on buses, that they could walk on the sidewalk or the pavement as it is known in England. they made a point to show them that they were no longer in the U.S which meant that they were no longer subject to such treatment. There were even stories that pubs would put signs up saying that only locals and black Americans were allowed to come in. There are many stories that the locals preferred the black Americans because they were less like to boast and throw their money around and the black Americans were found to be well-mannered. The black Americans had a standard of living similar to what the British were experiencing during wartime so they were less likely to complain about the lack of conveniences in Britain.

Due to the lack of racial tensions in England, the African American soldiers were very approachable to the local women. The locals in general found them to be more polite and less arrogant than their white counterparts. Women who mingled with the African-American soldiers would often find they ended up being avoided by white American soldiers afterwards. There were also fights that left a lingering impression on the locals and big enough to make national headlines in a time that the British were keen not to give any bad press to their visitors.

These women did not only have to overcome the prejudices that came with the American soldiers but the prejudices in the United States. Some of these interactions with the African-Americans lead to relationships. Although interracial marriages were allowed in Britain, they were illegal in 19 states in the United States. It has been estimated that 1,000 children were left behind  behind in the United Kingdom when the African-American father returned to the U.S. after the fighting finished. The United Kingdom did look to seek support for the children born from this “friendly invasion”.

Initially before the Americans arrived, the UK parliament passed the “USA (Visiting Forces) Bill” which granted the jurisdiction of crimes committed by American personnel to the US military through court martial. So any crime that they committed off base even including rape, reckless driving or anything else, was handled through the military courts. The Americans set up their own military police and their powers were extended offbase. They were known as snowdrops because of their white helmets. These police officers were there to keep the peace. Once they were given jurisdiction offbase with General Orders 2171 and 2172, the local police felt its effect with relief. They were only allowed to use their position and keep incidents on base if they only occurred between Americans. The U.S. personnel were seen to be better behaved following their introduction and increased authority. 

Due to the relationships built between the American service members and the locals when crashes at the local bases it was felt off base as much as onbase. The local had gotten to know the Americans and considered them as part of their community. The crashes occurred for a variety of reasons from training to combat. One example of this was a Flying Fortress which dropped its payload in a field near a farmhouse before crashing near Ridgewell, Essex on January 4, 1944. All the of the crew died and the effects of the bombs were felt for miles. The pilot that died was on his last mission, they had to complete 25 before going home. The loss of life on or off base affected them both and entwined their stories more and more. There are numerous stories of aircrew dying in order to miss colliding with houses or the high street when their aircraft went into difficulty. There were also reports that training bombs were dropped on villages and that a machine gun from an American aircraft was used in a town luckily without any casualties but caused concern and was highlighted in a report sent up the chain. The locals had to trust the works that the Americans were doing.

Despite all the ups and downs that were experienced during this “friendly invasion” in the end, the Americans had captured the hearts of the local people. Most of the Americans left as quickly as they arrived but unfortunately many did not return. “In three years, the 8th Air Force suffered 656 casualties, lost 5600 aircraft, flew 330,523 sorties and dropped 732,321 bombs.” The University of Cambridge donated the land for Madingley American Memorial Cemetery where 3,812 American service members have been laid to rest in the only World War 2 cemetery dedicated to Americans in the United Kingdom. There is also a wall for the 5,127 missing personnel from all branches of the service which are updated with rosette when they are recovered. They continue to hold services which are highly attended on Memorial and Veterans Day to remember the fallen.

As quick as the Americans arrived, they left. There were mixed feeling about this. The towns that were busy with the noises from the Americans spending their time off base or the aircraft flying by were missed by some. They also provided entertainment during a time when the British went without. The impact of the Americans while they were stationed here was something that neither government could have predicted.

All the Best!

American to Britain