Black soldiers in WWII the Battle of Bamber Bridge

You can .read a great deal in history books about the arrival of American troops in Great Britain during World War II.  A good number of them focus on the social impact this influx had on the local population.   Yet sadly there is little on the more specific question of the treatment of black soldiers in Britain.   This is an altogether more complex issue and one American historians seem loath to examine in any detail.  As it is a tale of tolerance and mutual respect,  now more than ever it deserves a wider audience.

American GIs first arrived in Britain in early 1942.  It was a profound culture shock for both nationalities.  Initially, there was a universal delight at the influx of such a powerful ally.  However, this quickly turned into a sullen resentment.   Before long friction between soldiers and the civilian population began to surface.


The British had been at war for over two years and were well used to going without and making due. When the Americans arrived their stomachs were full (and so were their pockets).  The standard joke of the time that American GIs were “overpaid, oversexed and over here” hid within it as much irritation as it did humour.  British males, in particular, began to treat GIs with antipathy or outright hostility.  Many considered the “Yanks “ had entered the war “late again” and were jealous of their attraction to a war-weary female population.

A Short Guide to Great Britain

In contrast,  black GIs received a much warmer welcome.  When they stepped off the gangplank of their troopship onto a cold  British dockside they would have been familiar with the 38-page booklet issued to soldiers: ‘A Short Guide to Great Britain’. It warned them not to complain about warm beer or cold potatoes and that the natives might “look dowdy and badly dressed”.  What it did not tell them was how their reception would contrast sharply with the way they were treated at home.

Black soldiers in WWII
Hollywood gives advice to White GIs in Britain.

“Our most significant enemy was our own troops.”

Throughout  World War II Black troops were segregated from white colleagues.  They were regimented together, usually in so-called “service units. ”  Here they frequently suffered racial abuse at the hands of their own troops.  American MPs routinely sought to have them banned from pubs, cinemas and cafes.  The American officer corps expected that locals would share their attitudes regarding race and believed, erroneously, that strict segregation was what the English desired.  In fact, the opposite was often the case.  The author George Orwell noted.   “The general consensus of opinion is that the only American soldiers with any manners are the Negroes. ” 

The British attitude to the race issue was handled in a typically backhanded and humorous way.  American MPs who toured pubs and clubs suggesting that the owners implement a colour bar in their premises, usually returned days later to discover the landlord had indeed complied with their request.  Most put up a sign stating “Black GIs only served in this pub“!

American regiments were frequently billeted in small rural communities.   Many had never seen a black person before.  Despite this, the young men were often treated as surrogate sons.  Mrs Godfrey Prior wrote unsolicited to the mother of black GI Wilfred Monk in Atlantic City New Jersey. Mrs Monk you have a son to treasure and be proud of.  We have told him he can look upon our home as his home.  We will look upon him now as our own.”

GI Willie Howard of the segregated barrage balloon regiment summarised his time in Britain succinctly. “Our most significant enemy was our own troops.”

 

 The battle of Bamber Bridge.

Throughout 1943 and 1944 American troop numbers increased significantly in the build-up to D day.  It was inevitable that tensions would intensify in proportion. The flashpoint came in June 1943 in the Lancashire Village of Bamber Bridge.  However, when it came it was not between “Brit” and “Yank” but rather white and black GI 

Bamber, a small town heavily reliant on the cotton industry, had a long history of social radicalism.  In 1863 when the  Prime minister Lord Palmerston seemed poised to recognize the Confederate Government,  villagers organised one of the first ever petitions to oppose it.   In 1943 the segregated 1511 Quartermasters Regiment was stationed here.

Black soldiers in WWII
Ye Olde Hob Inn Bamber Bridge

One balmy summer evening when MPs attempted to remove black soldiers from the local pub “Ye olde Hob Inn” a brawl broke out.   An off-duty British soldier called out  “why do you want to arrest them?  They have done nothing wrong?”  In the melee that ensued the Brits sided with the black soldiers.   The situation quickly escalated.   Within hours a full-scale riot was on hand.  Black soldiers began firing at regular white troops brought in as reinforcements.

The brief but violent gun battle left one dead and seven severely wounded.    Twenty black GIs were arrested and at the ensuing closed court-martial were sentenced to up to 15 years each.  An outcry from the British, however, embarrassed senior American officers into reducing most of the charges.   Remarkably within a year, most were back on active service.

 Jim Crow bit by John Bull

It would be ridiculous to claim that every black GI received a generous reception in Britain.   Moreover not every white officer condoned the prevailing casual racism.    Yet this brief glimpse of a more tolerant society had a profound effect on those young black men who returned to the States.  For many, it was a “Spark of light” moment.

Ollie Stewart, a correspondent for the ‘Afro-American’  described the reaction to black soldiers during those days in Britain: “The English people show our lads every possible courtesy and some of them, accustomed to ill will, harsh words, and artificial barriers, seem slightly bewildered. They never had a chance to leave their Southern homes before, and therefore never realized there was a part of the world which was willing to forget a man’s colour and welcome him as a brother.”

By the next war, in Korea, there was integration in most army units.

Black soldiers in WWII
Black GIs marching through Bristol UK

As for the British?  Well, they handled it with their usual sense of justice and good humour.  No one would tell them who they should talk to.  No one would tell them who they should dance with.   Most importantly no one would tell them who to serve in their pubs!   As one Britain sardonically remarked.

“I Don’t mind the Yanks, but I can’t say I care for those white chaps they have brought with them!”

To read how an American broadcasting legend changed his peoples perspective of the war in the dark days Britain stood alone  read my blog on http://www.englishmanlovesamerica.com/anglo-american-heroes-edward-r-murrow/


2 Comments

  1. Nicholas Collier Reply

    This was my father in laws unit and incident That happened that resulted in the loss of their personnel weapons when they crossed into Normandy. He was Pfc.Livingstone Humes. He said he was asked by some of the guy’s to come with them but he was really more interested in checking out the castle and grounds they were billited in. He had some very unique stories of being in the segregated Army going through Europe. Quite a different perspective from his white counter parts.

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