When was the last invasion by foreign troops into Great Britain? The Norman Conquest in 1066? Many people who lived during the Second World War might dispute that and say that 26th January 1942 saw the start of the last invasion by a foreign force with the arrival of the first American soldiers! We have all heard the phrase ‘overpaid, over sexed and over here’ used to refer to GI’s who arrived in England in preparation for D Day, and many people did find their arrival disconcerting – particularly the young British servicemen overseas who worried about their sweethearts, or the men who served at home in jobs essential to the war effort but who could not compete with the rich, brash new comers. The Americans had money, chocolate, stockings and other items which had not been seen in Britain for years; they were also strangely exotic, most people only having heard an American accent in the cinema. It was a difficult time for the British, but we should not forget the difficulties facing the young soldiers far away from home, in a foreign country for the first time, and facing the prospect of going into battle. It was equally difficult for them to adapt, and the American War Department published leaflets explaining the British culture and how the young GI’s should behave.
In January 1942 Britain was a tired country. The British had been holding out against the Germans for over two years, an island of defiance which welcomed the support of the Americans with a mixture of relief and curiosity, and frustration that it had taken their Allies so long to get involved. But once the American’s began their preparations for the invasion of Europe there was no stopping them, and by the end of the war over 1.5 million US servicemen were stationed all over mainland Britain. Anticipating potential problems between the Americans and their British hosts servicemen were issued with a pamphlet entitle Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain explaining British history and culture and giving advice on how to get along with their hosts. As well as giving advice to the American serviceman the publication also gives some insights into what it was like in Britain during the war. So what did the American War Office have to say? Here are just a few of the points from the long pamphlet which I hope you will find interesting and, on occasion, amusing (summarised, quotes in italics).
The British are reserved, not unfriendly. Great Britain is a small crowded island, hardly bigger than Minnesota, so people do not invade each other’s privacy. If someone on a bus or train doesn’t speak to you they aren’t being unfriendly, they just don’t want to seem rude – but you can bet they are paying more attention to you than you think!
Watch your language. We have the same language but with differences which mean you could inadvertently cause offence. Don’t laugh at their quaint turns of phrase. Don’t say ‘bloody’ in mixed company as it is one of their worst swear words. Don’t say ‘I look like a bum’ because you are saying you look like your backside. Don’t call their monetary system ‘funny money’; pounds, shillings and pence are complicated but telling the British that our decimal system is better won’t go down well. British people work hard for their money, and get paid much less than you so they won’t like you making fun of their hard-earned cash.
Don’t be a show off. The British don’t like bragging and showing off. Don’t throw your money around. Be sensitive to the British ‘Tommy’ who gets paid much less than you and will be touchy about how much you get paid.
The British are tough. The people you meet might be polite and soft-spoken but don’t be misled. 60,000 British civilians – men women and children – have been killed by German bombs yet morale is high. A country can’t come through that without guts. Also, don’t try to lecture the British on ‘taking it’; they’re not interested in taking it anymore, but getting together with us and starting to dish it out to Hitler.
Remember there’s a war on. Britain may look tired, worn and dirty but you aren’t seeing the country at its best. They’ve been at war since 1939. Houses haven’t been painted because factories are making planes not paint; cars look old because no new ones are being built; parks and gardens are unkempt because there is no one to look after them, or they have been turned over to growing vegetables. The British people will want you to know that their country in peacetime is much prettier, cleaner and neater.
The monarchy. Britain is a great democracy, the King reigns but doesn’t govern and his people have a great deal of love for him. Criticizing the King would be like someone criticizing our country or flag. The King and Queen haven’t been evacuated from London, they have stayed during the blitz and their home has been bombed just like many other people. The British are proud of them. The National Anthem is played at the end of public gatherings like the cinema or theatre and you should stand to attention for it, if you don’t want to miss the last bus then leave before that anthem, that is OK.
Sport. Take the opportunity to watch a match if you can – soccer, rugby or cricket – but remember the British reserve. If a fielder drops a catch in cricket the crowd will probably say ‘good try’ even if it was a bad fumble, back home the crowd would probably shout ‘take him out’, so be careful not to insult in the excitement of a game.
Indoor amusements. You will find theatres and movies (cinemas) in Britain, but the place most people go to relax is the pub – we would call it a tavern or bar. They drink warm ale, not like our cold German beers; you won’t get much whiskey now because war taxes have put the price up to around $4.50 a bottle. Don’t forget that the pub is a meeting place for the neighbourhood where people come to meet their friends not strangers. Don’t join groups of people or games like darts unless you are invited.
The British soldier. You will probably want to get to know the British Tommys. If you want to make friends don’t steal his girl or not appreciate what his army has faced since 1939; and don’t make a show of how much better paid you are than him.
Keep out of arguments. Don’t tell the British that ‘we came over and won the last one’. All countries played their part in the last war. We lost 60,000 men in action, don’t forget that the British lost almost a million of their youngest and best. (Note: by the time the Americans arrived in 1942 Britain had lost as many civilians to bombing in WW2 as the US did soldiers in WW1). Don’t criticise them for their losses early in this war and say how we are going to change things. Remember how long they have been holding Hitler back without help from anyone. The British welcome you as friends and allies. But remember that crossing the ocean doesn’t automatically make you a hero. There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants in Britain who have lived through more high explosives in air raids than many soldiers saw in first class barrages in the last war.
Britain at war. Back home in the US you were in a country at war, you are now in a war zone. All lights are blacked out at night; all highway signposts have been taken down. For months the British have been bombed night after night. Everything is rationed from gasoline to soap, food most of all. Incomes are down because of the high war taxes. Try to understand the British situation which is something the US has never faced. Women are non-commissioned and commissioned officers in the armed forces, and men take orders from them. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.” There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire. Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic-remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.
Important do’s and don’ts.
- Be friendly.
- Don’t be flash with your money.
- Don’t show off.
- If you are invited to eat with a family don’t eat too much even if they say there is plenty, you could eat most of the week’s ration.
- Don’t make fun of speech or accents.
- Don’t comment on politics or the British government.
Let this be your slogan: It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.
In my novel, Heronfield, Bobby is a GI who comes to the UK to prepare for the invasion of Europe. He, and his friends, embody the spirit of the GI’s – friendly, open, sharing what they have with the local children at Christmas. They were not easy times for the Americans or the British, but the conflict that brought two countries together in war also created friendships and loves to last a lifetime.