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Americans in Britain

LAURENCE REES: How do you think we should see the significance of the Americans arriving in Britain.

JULIET GARDINER: I think the significance of the Americans coming was that it was a precursor of the geopolitical fact of the post-world war. In other words you had a superpower. Anyone in authority realised that Britain could not win the war without American support and of course the great fear was that they wouldn’t join. As we know Roosevelt wished to bring in America and end American neutrality, and he pushed American neutrality about as far as he could. But of course it wasn’t until Pearl Harbour that America obviously came into the war. And then of course there was the great fear that they would concentrate on the Pacific; why would they concentrate on Europe? And I think most people in authority are not sure that the British knew that in policy terms, but of course once the Americans came over here it was felt obviously that they were so much better equipped; their huge great planes, their greater capacity, at every level from the smartness of their pink trousers, they weren’t pink, of course, they were mushroom coloured, but they looked managerial and they looked sort of efficient. They looked like the future, they didn’t look like our poor old Tommys in their heavy khaki and their hobnailed boots -they looked sort of like artisan soldiers.

There was of course a great deal of tension. On the whole women welcomed Americans. Because the people of America were very reluctant to send their boys over here, to get into another war, never get our war debts paid back, etcetera, a great deal was made to make the Americans feel at home and have a good time over here. So they had a great deal of good living and all this sort of thing. They had wonderful dances and they had a lot of social activities and things. British civilian women tended to benefit from that. Men on the whole didn’t, they just saw them as sort of competition.

In military terms, of course, the British were very worried about the Americans, they thought they were sloppy soldiers, they thought they were armchair soldiers who wouldn’t get their trouser creases dirty and also they didn’t like their democratic attitude, they were afraid that they’d be given an order and the American would say, hang on a minute Sarge, I don’t think we should do it like that, and this would be disastrous.  And of course the other way around; the Americans tended to think that the British were complete robots. They never thought for themselves, they had no initiative, every ten minutes they’d want a tea break, you know, so there was a lot of tension and a great deal of effort was put into improving relations between the troops, but also of course also between the civilian population.

A lot of Americans who came over here were very young and they were very well paid, as we know, it was over-sexed, over paid and over here. Over-sexed we can come back to, overpaid, yes, but you could much more say that the British troops were underpaid, but a Private, and of course that’s who most people saw, those were the people who most people interacted with, they were paid something like four times that of the British, and a lot of them had no families. Unlike the Canadians they didn’t have any of their money held back, they were given their entire pay packet and of course they blew it. They spent it on girls, they spent it on drink, and they spent it on having fun. A lot of people only saw the GI’s when they were on recreation, when they were on leave on their night out, and of course often then they’d be raucous, they’d be noisy, they’d be drunk, they’d go to the pub, they’d drink the pub dry, so there had to be a pretty big public relations exercise mounted to get the British to accept them, because of course it was so important because they were going to have to fight with the Americans.

LAURENCE REES: And there was clearly a great deal of fraternisation with British women.

JULIET GARDINER: Oh, huge. I mean there were something like 60,000 GI brides, but on the whole the American commanding officers did not want their boys to marry British women, because then there would be the idea that the Americans at home would say, well, hang on, we’ve sent our flower of youth and of manhood over to Britain, okay, they don’t get killed, they don’t get injured, they get married, and what happens to our girls back home? If they took up with a British girl and they got her pregnant, the British girl would go and see the commanding officer and the commanding officer would say, no, I’ve never heard of him. You know, the man would have been posted off somewhere else. It was very hard, you had to be pretty intrepid and pretty persistent to get married. And, of course, there was a percentage of the army who could never marry because they were black and they came from the States where mixed marriages were illegal.

LAURENCE REES: And a number of these women who were fraternising were either married or in a relationship with men who were away. This must have added massively to the social tension.

JULIET GARDINER: There was the phrase: a girl that wants a yank, and of course that’s what most men were afraid of when they were away. They were afraid that their girlfriend, their wife, their fiancé would take up with a yank, and they might well. In instances they’d go to dances and have a nice time, but of course a lot of them drifted into affairs, and because the American authorities were very worried that their troops were consorting with the wrong sort of women, VD rates went up, shot up.  In fact, a lot of the men contracted VD just before they left New York on their own vacation, but, anyway, VD rates shot up. And in fact Margaret Meade, the social anthropologist, was sent over here to investigate what was going wrong in the relations between American men and British women and she came to the conclusion that British women didn’t really understand courtship. They thought that once a boy took her out and perhaps kissed her goodnight and things, that was pretty much a proposal.

British homes didn’t have a stoop, so you couldn’t sit within the family and yet sort of not be in the family and conduct your courtship, you were either off somewhere behind a bush or you’d got your feet under the table with dad grilling you. So that was one of the reasons why they used to then have dances and things in which women would be vetted. Only nice girls who the town council or the vicar or the local doctor had sort of spoken for would be allowed to go to these dances and also the GIs were then encouraged to go into British homes, and families were encouraged to invite GIs in, which was a problem because of the rationing. There was a very good film made in conjunction with the American Army and the Ministry of Information called ‘Welcome To Britain’ which was shown to GIs. There is a wonderful scene in that in which a nice English couple invite a GI into their home and give him a meal. He eats everything and he eats in one meal the entire rations for a week. So after that a GI would turn up for Sunday lunch, say, carrying a couple of tins of peaches and a box of chocolates and a bottle of Bourbon for dad, so that made things a great deal easier.

GI’s were very attractive on the whole, the idea is that they’re all handsome. Statistically that cannot be the case, but there were a million and a half of them by May 1944. Of course they were concentrated in certain areas, some people could never see a GI, but there were enough of them spread about the country for them to be very much of a presence. They looked smart, they had a lot of money, and, again, Americans were supposed to be much better at talking to girls. A British boy would take her out, sit her on the bar stool with a drink and then go and talk about football and cards to his mates. Americans had a chat-up line, they’d talk about films, they’d know how to talk to a girl, you know, very attractive. And their music. We had boring old British dance. Swing had only just started to come in, but of course in comes Glen Miller with Moonlight Serenade, things like Chatanooga Choo Choo and Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me, the A Train and all these sort of things, and for a young girl there was no comparison.

LAURENCE REES: I was fascinated in your book about the notion of the authorities wanting the Americans to meet a 'better class of girl'. What's behind this?

JULIET GARDINER: Well, she’s not likely to give him VD and she’s not a prostitute.

LAURENCE REES: But by facilitating Americans meeting this 'better class of girl' they're more likely to get into a relationship? 

JULIET GARDINER: Perhaps it’s a better class of girl would be more grounded, and it’s also the gold digger thing. If you’ve got a nice middle class girl, if she’s got a nice circle of friends at the tennis club and all this sort of thing then it won’t be her passport to riches, but with a factory girl it might be. And, of course, this was actually a British perception because don’t forget most English girls had got their view of America from the cinema, and most didn’t actually know any Americans and Britain was a much smaller, much more static, much more insular society in those days. And of course if you went to the cinema you thought all America was Manhattan, you know, penthouses with cocktails, Martinis at six, or it was the Wild West. You forgot all the Minnesota’s and Montana’s in-between.

LAURENCE REES: And then we talked a little bit about the black GIs. Did their arrival bring problems?

: That brought huge problems. The British government comes out of this badly; they didn’t really want black troops to come. What they did for this is they came in at about the same percentage as they were in the army or in the population of the troops, about one in ten, and in fact the black troops were some of the people who arrived first and they were the ones that stayed longest. Most of those who came were not combatants. It wasn’t until part way through the Normandy campaign when the attrition rate was so high that then of course blacks could be cannon fodder, but until then on the whole they weren’t combatants. They were technicians, they were stores men, they were building the airfields, that’s what most of the early blacks came to do, they just came because the great big liberators and B17s would just sink into the mud on British airfields so they had to build these concrete runways, and that’s what the black GIs came for. It was a Jim Crow army, it was a segregated army and to the shame of the British government they went along with this. So, for example, black GIs would have different leave towns so if you were stationed somewhere that one town would be for the whites, one town would be for the blacks. If that wasn’t possible you would have different leave nights, so whites would have say Monday, Wednesdays, Fridays, something like that, and the blacks would go out the other nights. You would have different pubs, blacks would be served in one pub, whites in another and this happened even in the cinema sometimes, and of course the Americans, unlike all the other forces, had their own legal system.

There would be a trial by an American system and of course the penalty for rape in America was death, and the percentage of black GIs who were [executed]…we still don’t know what that number is. And again the British didn’t like it, but they connived with it, the British needed American help and they were prepared to buy that help fairly dear.

LAURENCE REES: What happened when a British girl wanted to have a relationship with a black GI?

JULIET GARDINER: On the whole the British population were fairly tolerant to blacks, they tended to think they were all Americans, and it wasn’t after all like post-war emigration when they was fear for jobs, they were soldiers that were coming in to fight a war, when the war was over they’d go, and people used to say things like, well, you know, black GIs bleed and die just like white ones. All that was on the whole, you know, fairly good. And people in pubs resented being told who they could serve and who they couldn’t, and they said if their money’s okay and they behave themselves, it doesn’t matter to me what colour their skin is. We mustn’t overdo this though, of course there was racial prejudice and most people had never seen a black man before and it was only places like Liverpool and Cardiff and London where there was a very small black population at that time. When it came to miscegenation and when it became men and women that was a very different matter. People did not like English women dancing with black men or consorting with black men.

A lot of women found that if they danced with a black man then they would be shunned by all the white Americans and British, as people did not like that. There are all sorts of racial myths about the blacks, you know, sexuality, genitalia, whatever, and there was a great deal of that. And a lot of women braved this out and they had this same attitude that they would dance with who they liked and whatever, but some of them did pay a price. And of course they could never marry a black GI because on the whole they came from states where such marriages were illegal and they were going home, after all, to a segregated society and the civil rights movement didn’t get going until sometime after this.

There were a number of black illegitimate babies and I think they did suffer because British society was still prejudiced against these brown babies. There were some very, very sad stories about that, girls who had babies by black GIs, and there was violence. There was the Battle of Bamber Bridge, you know.  It was usually inter-American. The 'snowdrops, the military police, would come out with their truncheons and they’d find the blacks in a place where they shouldn’t be or something like that, or sitting in a cinema seat where they shouldn’t be or something like that, and there were deaths. It is a very, very unappealing seemy side of war.

LAURENCE REES: And in a sense it’s the Americans exporting their own prejudice here and seeing it grow here.

JULIET GARDINER: They were seeing it, importing it here, and the British government wasn’t standing up to it.