Tag Archives: World War 2

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

At 11am on 11th November we remember the ending of the First World War, and the men and women who lost their lives in other wars and other parts of the world. Much of our focus is often on Europe, and those who fought and died in other theatres of war can sometimes be forgotten or relegated to the sidelines. One such group are the men who fought and died in North Africa during the Second World War.

Men of the Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment) camouflaging a gun position at Mersa Matruh, 28 May 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193447

Mersa Matruh is an ancient fishing port dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. It was also the place where Anthony and Cleopatra would escape for seclusion – at the time it was a village of sponge fishermen where the two lovers would relax and swim naked together in the sea. Allied troops were stationed in Mersa Matruh during the First World War, and at the time of the Second World War it was at the end of a narrow-gauge railway from Alexandria and as such was an important supply post for the Allies. The Allied troops who fought in North Africa came from all around the world – from the United Kingdom to Australia, from India to New Zealand, and the British Eighth Army (including the famed Desert Rats) set out on some of their most important operations from Mersa Matruh. Mersa was also the site of a crushing Allied defeat by Rommel’s Afrika Corps in June 1942.

I would like to thank Ian from the Desert Rats website for allowing me to use the following poem as a tribute to all those who fought and died during the North African campaigns of World War 2.

Signallers at Homs

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

How often do you folks at home
Think of sandy graves without a stone,
Where sleep our comrades brave and true,
Out in the desert at Mersa Matruh.

The raging sandstorms awake them not,
They’re cool below but above is hot
The trails of the desert are over them,
They fought and died like Englishmen.

Do you not feel pride in your heart
Where you think may be a friend took part
in the struggles for the empire, Britain and you,
And lay down their lives at Mersa Matruh.

On honoured scroll their names shall shine,
And will not dim through pass of time
In years to come we will remember them
As soldiers of the empire and British men.

Then forget them not you folks at home,
Those men who lie in the desert alone,
They died for their country, Britain and you
In the western desert of Mersa Matruh.

Desert Graves

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The only thing that ever really frightened Churchill – The Battle of the Atlantic

What image do you have of Winston Churchill as he led Britain during the Second World War? Most people would say positive things like ‘steadfast’, ‘unflinching’, ‘courageous’, etc., few would mention the word ‘afraid’. Yet there was one thing which worried him more than any other, in his own words ‘…the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.’ And Churchill had every right to feel afraid. The route across the Atlantic was Britain’s lifeline, and Germany’s best hope of defeating the island nation would be by winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS BARHAM explodes as her 15 inch magazine ignites, 25 November 1941. Copyright: © IWM. object/205022049

Britain relied heavily on merchant ships carrying supplies of raw materials, food, troops, and military equipment from America. If the convoys had failed to get through Britain would most likely have been starved to the brink of surrender; her badly equipped armies, lacking tanks and weapons built in America, would have been overrun; it would have been impossible to transport land forces to North Africa, the Mediterranean, or across the English Channel on D Day; and it would have been impossible for the British to blockade the Axis powers in Europe. In short, if German U-boats had reigned supreme in the Atlantic then Hitler would, in all likelihood, have won the war.

A German U-Boat commander tracking a British merchant ship through his periscope during an attack on a convoy, 10-20 June 1942. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194304

The first phase of the Battle of the Atlantic lasted from the outbreak of war in 1939 until the British retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940. This was a time which saw the British and French with the upper hand, establishing a long-range blockade on German merchant ships. But after the German victories in northern Europe in 1940 and the entry of Italy into the war, Britain lost the support of the French navy. It was a difficult time; as well as the loss of the French ships Britain also suffered losses in the retreats from Norway and Dunkirk, losses which cut the British merchant fleet to almost half of its former size at the critical moment when Germany was acquiring naval bases on the Atlantic coast of France which made it easier for them to attack Allied shipping in the Atlantic; bases such as the one at Saint Nazaire. The attacking forces had the support of long-range Kondor aircraft which carried out reconnaissance for the U-boats and also attacked Allied shipping. Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the end of the year German U-boats sank three million tons of Allied shipping. To make matters worse, the Axis powers in the Mediterranean made the route through the Suez Canal so dangerous that British merchant ships had to take the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The situation, which was so dire for the Allies, appeared more hopeful for the Germans who believed that it would only be a matter of time before they would knock Britain out of the war by attacking her trade. (The Germans estimated that they would have to sink 150 merchant ships a month to starve Britain into submission).

Shipping losses: HMS BARHAM listing to port after being torpedoed by U 331. HMS VALIANT is in the background. Photograph taken from HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194526

The German U-boats hunted in ‘wolf packs’ which were faster than the convoys and had the advantage of being able to see without being seen. The merchant convoys were relatively safe in either British or American waters where they could receive fighter cover, but were much more vulnerable in the mid-Atlantic where German submarines reigned supreme. During the autumn and winter of 1940-41 German U-boats had great successes supported by surface ships and planes. But Britain hung on with the help of Canadian naval and air forces so that, by May 1941, a system of fully escorted convoys was in place. The position for Britain was eased further with the ‘Destroyers for Bases’ deal in which America, although not yet in the war, provided more than 50 old World War I destroyers in return for 99-year leases for bases in the Caribbean. New lightly-armoured and much faster ships called corvettes began to accompany the convoys; with their ASDIC (which helped them to hear submarines underwater) and their arsenal of depth charges they began to make a difference. Close to shore new planes like the Sunderland were able to give better air cover as a submarine had to be close to the surface to fire its torpedoes and so became a sitting target for the planes. Allied losses began to fall at last, particularly when the convoys sailed during bad weather as the U-boats could not fire their torpedoes in a heavy swell.

A seaman on watch at sea. Copyright: © IWM. object/205139887

Things changed again after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. US ships were re-deployed to the Pacific to face the Japanese threat, and the Germans found that shipping on the American east coast in early 1942 was unguarded. The situation led to a rise in Allied merchant shipping losses in the first half of 1942 with disastrous results – in those six months more tonnage was lost than in the entire preceding two and a half years. To make matters worse, the U-boat packs were ranging across the South Atlantic as well, targeting the shipping lanes from Asia and the Middle East, while Allied convoys to Russia were also suffering heavy losses.

Anti-Submarine Weapons: A Mk VII depth charge being loaded onto a Mk IV depth charge thrower on board HMS DIANTHUS. Copyright: © IWM.
object/205194536

It was Canada who once again came to the rescue, providing escorts for the North Atlantic convoys while America underwent a huge ship-building programme so that, by the autumn, they had caught up with losses and were increasing their fleet. The Allies were also intercepting German U-boat communications through the Ultra programme which made a real difference. Then, in March 1943, Ultra failed for a short time during which the Germans sighted every single Allied convoy and attacked over half of them. But, finally, the Battle of the Atlantic was turning in the favour of the Allies. Once more able to break the German codes, using more modern radar equipment, with the addition of new aircraft carriers to the escort groups, and more aggressive tactics meant that, by May 1943, the success of the German U-boat fleet in the North Atlantic was severely diminished. For the remainder of the war the Allies had more or less unchallenged control of the Atlantic sea lanes.

On board a destroyer on escort duty Copyright: © IWM. object/205139891

The men and women who served with the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are frequently remembered for their courage, and rightly so. But the men of the merchant navy who sailed the gauntlet of an ocean of hidden submarines to re-supply ‘Fortress Britain’ are often forgotten. Yet their courage and sacrifice under fire was no less heroic, and without them the war might well have been lost.

28 NOVEMBER TO 10 DECEMBER 1941, ON BOARD THE DESTROYER HMS VANOC. (A 6633) The officer of the watch dressed for the weather during an Atlantic winter. Copyright: © IWM. object/205140741

Allied losses during the Battle of the Atlantic

36,200 sailors killed
36,000 merchant seamen killed
3,500 merchant vessels sunk
175 warships sunk
741 RAF Coastal Command Aircraft lost in anti-submarine sorties

1943 (AX 44A) The Dutch tug ZWARTE ZEE tows back to harbour a blazing American freighter, probably the SS FLORA MACDONALD which had been torpedoed by a U-boat in the Atlantic during a convoy from Marshall, Liberia to Freetown, Sierra Leone, 29 May 1943. Copyright: © IWM. object/205133324

Bibliography

The Battle of the Atlantic by Andrew Williams

Captain Gilbert Roberts RN and the Anti-U-boat School by Mark Williams

In Great Waters: The Epic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic by Spencer Dunmore

The Battle of the Atlantic by Macintyre, Donald.

The fruits that won the war – Mulberry Harbours

If you holiday in France you may like to visit Arromanches on the Normandy coast. This was the site of one of the Mulberry Harbours, an amazing engineering feat which helped to change the course of the Second World War. The remains of the harbour can still be seen today.

German coastal defences at Arromanches

Both the Allies and Hitler knew that an Allied invasion of Nazi held Europe was essential for the winning of the war. They also knew that any landing was unlikely to succeed without a safe harbour in Allied hands. Once the liberating forces had established a foothold on the Normandy coast enormous amounts of men and supplies would need to be landed to re-enforce the bridgehead before pushing on towards Germany. The problem for the Allies was that the Germans had occupied and heavily fortified all the ports on the northern coast of France. The disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe in 1942 showed that taking such ports would only be done with immense loss of life and would not be quick. What the Allies needed was access to a port that was not controlled by the Germans. Small fishing ports would not be suitable as the large ships needed to transport bulky supplies needed a deep port with harbourside cranes; the Allies therefore decided that if no such ports were available they would have to create their own.

The plan they came up with was simple yet would be incredibly complex to achieve – the construction of a new harbour the size of Dover at the site of the invasion. The plan was to prefabricate the elements needed in Britain before towing them across the English Channel and creating a harbour off the landing beaches. The schedule was to complete the construction within two weeks of the D Day landings in June 1944. Winston Churchill knew that there would be enormous problems with this idea but was determined that it should work if the invasion was to be successful. A trial of three competing designs for the floating harbour was set up in 1943 with prototypes built and tested on the Solway Firth. Once the design was finalised the War Office could begin the prefabrication of the concrete caissons.

D Day Copyright: © IWM.

The invasion of Europe began on 6th June 1944, D Day, with thousands of Allied troops landing along the Normandy coast. Once the beachheads were secured the work on the floating harbours began, the first stage of which was to scuttle a number of old ships off the coast at Arromanches as temporary outer breakwaters (the Gooseberries) to protect the area where the harbour (the Mulberry) was to be built. The huge prefabricated caissons (water-tight concrete structures codenamed Phoenixes) were then sunk to provide the permanent breakwaters which would shelter the floating roadways and jetties.  Once the completed Mulberry Harbour was in place the Allies could begin unloading the supplies which would be so vital for their victory.

There were actually two Mulberry Harbours towed across the English Channel to support the Normandy beachheads. Mulberry A was constructed at Omaha Beach whilst Mulberry B (nicknamed ‘Port Winston’), was constructed off Gold Beach at the town of Arromanches. Once assembled the harbours could unload 7,000 tons of supplies a day. Each incredibly complex harbour had masses of pontoons which supported around 6 miles of flexible roadways ending in huge pier heads supported by underwater ‘legs’.

An incredible feat of engineering had both harbours almost fully functional when they were hit by a storm on 19th June. The Mulberry Harbours had been designed for summer weather not the worst storm to hit the Normandy coast for 40 years, and the harbour at Omaha beach was so badly damaged that it was beyond repair. This could have been a disaster for the Allied forces, but although the second Mulberry suffered some damage it survived the storm and continued to land supplies in support of the invasion. Although it had been designed to last for just ninety days Port Winston was in continuous use for ten months following D Day and in that time landed over half a million vehicles, two and a half million men and four million tons of supplies.

When the invasion had moved eastward and liberated ports from the Nazis the harbour was no longer useful and was abandoned. If you visit Arromanches today you can see the remains of the Mulberry Harbour from the beaches.

The scale and sheer audacity of the Mulberries took the Germans completely by surprise. At the Nurembeurg trials after the war Albert Speer, Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany, gave a German perspective on the Mulberry Harbours:

“To construct our defences we had in two years used some 13 million cubic metres of concrete and 1½ million tons of steel. A fortnight after the Normandy Landings, this costly effort was brought to nothing because of an idea of simple genius. As we now know, the invasion force brought their own harbours, and built, at Arromanches and Omaha, on unprotected coast, the necessary landing ramps.”

When we remember the troops who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy we should not forget those who designed and built the Mulberry Harbours which were so instrumental in making D Day and the invasion of Europe such a success.

Horror in the beech forest – the liberation of Buchenwald, 11th April 1945

Would you like to visit somewhere called ‘Beech Forest’? It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But our impressions change immediately we find out the German for ‘Beech Forest’ – Buchenwald. Today marks the anniversary of the liberation of that infamous place.

The concentration camp at Buchenwald was built just 5 miles north of Weimar, on the slopes of Ettersberg mountain, and was the largest complex of its kind in Germany with a main camp as well as 139 subsidiary camps and extension units. Established before the Second Wold War began, most of the original inmates of the camp were criminals or political prisoners who arrived in July 1937. The number of prisoners rapidly increased during 1938 when ‘undesirables’ who opposed the Nazi ideal or were considered to be antisocial elements were incarcerated in Buchenwald. After the outbreak of war in 1939 the numbers of inmates increased dramatically when many Polish prisoners were interred. It is believed that around 239,000 prisoners from 30 countries passed through the hell of the Buchenwald camps during the eight years from 1937 to 1945. No-one knows exactly how many people died there as some of the records were incomplete, but estimates range from 43,000 to 56,000. The conditions in the camp were horrendous, many of the inmates died of disease or because of medical experimentation, and over 8,000 Soviet prisoners of war were shot in an area of the camp designed for that specific purpose. These estimates of the numbers who died don’t include the inmates who did not survive the death march from Buchenwald in April 1945, or the camps which they were moved to.

Prisoners during a roll call at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The prisoners held in Buchenwald were an amalgam of the kinds of people whom Hitler believed had no place in his Reich – Jews, the mentally and physically disabled, Roma gypsies, Freemasons, Jehovah’s witnesses, political prisoners, prisoners of war, homosexuals, criminals – but rather than simply killing them as happened in many of the other camps, these people were used as forced labour in local factories which were a part of the German war effort (mainly armament factories), or in the Buchenwald quarry. Like Auschwitz there was a slogan above the gates at Buchenwald; in Auschwitz the sign read Arbeit macht free which translates as ‘work sets you free’, in Buchenwald the message was Jedem das Seine, the literal translation of this phrase is ‘to each his own’ but the understood meaning in German is much more sinister – ‘everyone gets what they deserve’.

As World War Two was finally drawing to a close in the spring of 1945 the prisoners in Buchenwald began to hope that they might actually survive their ordeal. On 4th April the US 89th Infantry Division liberated the subcamp at Ohrdruf as they moved eastwards towards the Russian armies which were advancing from the opposite direction. By this time the Germans knew that they could not win the war and, with the Allies getting ever closer, the 6th April saw the start of the evacuation of over 28,000 prisoners from Buchenwald and the satellite camps in an effort to hide what had been happening there. Almost 8,000 of these prisoners died during the march to other camps further east. Some of the prisoners who remained in Buchenwald had built a secret short-wave transmitter and were able to send a Morse code message on 8th April saying ‘To the Allies. To the army of General Patton. This is the Buchenwald concentration camp. SOS. We request help. They want to evacuate us. The SS wants to destroy us.’ Only three minutes later they received a reply – ‘KZ Bu. Hold out. Rushing to your aid. Staff of Third Army.’  Most of the SS had already fled and, on receiving this message, the jubilant prisoners took control of the camp, effectively freeing around 21,000 of their fellow inmates.

At 3.15pm on 11th April 1945 four soldiers from the 6th Armoured Division of the US Army were the first Allies to reach Buchenwald where they were greeted as hero’s by the survivors, some of whom even found the strength to throw their liberators in the air in celebration. (The clock at the entrance gate of Buchenwald is now stopped at 3.15 as a memorial).

Although the prisoners were delighted at their liberation and able to celebrate for a short time, most of them were so ill that the Americans wondered if they would survive to enjoy their freedom. As Edward Murrow reported for CBS – ‘I asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description…As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.’

Allied soldiers liberate Buchenwald

The American soldiers were hardened men who had fought hard all the way from the beaches of Normandy but Buchenwald was almost beyond their comprehension, when Eisenhower entered the camp he said that “Nothing has ever shocked me as much as that sight.” The American liberators described finding lampshades made out of human skin and being shown where the land had been fertilised with the ashes of the dead. These horrific sights influenced their attitude when they arrived in Weimar the next day. The civilians in the town, just five miles from the camp, said that they hadn’t known what was happening there even though they had seen thousands of trains arriving laden with prisoner and none leaving. Elie Wiesel, arguably the most famous survivor of Buchenwald, later said that some of the inmates took jeeps and drove into Weimar where the American GI’s stood by and watched as the newly liberated men looted homes, killed German civilians, and even raped some of the German women. After what they had seen the soldiers felt little inclination to intervene and stop the former prisoners from taking their revenge.

Sadly, the liberation on 11th April 1945 was not the end of Buchenwald as a concentration camp. Between then and 10th February 1950 it was a ‘special camp’ run by the Russian NKVD. Finally, in October 1950, the Russian authorities decided to demolish the camp although parts were retained as a reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Today those remains contain a memorial and museum to the memory of the thousands who died in one of the most notorious of all concentration camps.

The Buchenwald Memorial

During the Second World War Buchenwald was the destination for many spies and resistance fighters who were captured in occupied France. In my novel Heronfield Tony was a member of the SOE and, as such, would have been sent to Buchenwald. I found writing that particular section of the book harrowing although the words I wrote in no way reflect the true horrors that the prisoners endured. In my own simple way I hope that my work can be seen as a tribute to all those who were sent to Buchenwald and other concentration camps simply because of their race, politics, religious beliefs or disabilities.

Sources

Official Memorial Site, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation.

Film footage from 1945 inside Buchenwald Concentration Camp, British Pathé.

Buchenwald, jewishgen.org.

Guide to the Concentration Camps Collection, Leo Baeck Institute, New York City 2013. Includes extensive reports on Buchenwald collected by the Allied forces shortly after liberating the camp in April 1945.

Holocaust Research Project

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Road Between Us by Nigel Farndale

1939: In a hotel room overlooking Piccadilly Circus, two young men are arrested. Charles is court-martialled for ‘conduct unbecoming’; Anselm is deported home to Germany for ‘re-education’ in a brutal labour camp. Separated by the outbreak of war, and a social order that rejects their love, they must each make a difficult choice, and then live with the consequences.

2012: Edward, a diplomat held hostage for eleven years in an Afghan cave, returns to London to find his wife is dead, and in her place is an unnerving double – his daughter, now grown up. Numb with grief, he attempts to re-build his life and answer the questions that are troubling him. Was his wife’s death an accident? Who paid his ransom? And how was his release linked to Charles, his father?

As dark and nuanced as it is powerful and moving, The Road Between Us is a novel about survival, redemption and forbidden love. Its moral complexities will haunt the reader for days after the final page has been turned.

‘The Road Between Us’ is a thought provoking novel which touches on subject matter which can make it uncomfortable reading at times. Following the stories of a father and son (one during the Second World War and the other set in the present day) Mr Farndale weaves a picture of love and loss, of discrimination and cruelty, yet also of loyalty and hope. During the war Charles loses his commission for ‘conduct unbecoming’ and spends the rest of the conflict searching for and attempting to rescue his lover, Anselm, who had been deported to Germany for ‘re-education.’ In the present Charles’s son, Edward, is released after eleven years in captivity and is also searching for love and hope, both of which he has buried deeply in order to survive his long period of isolation and deprivation.

Mr Farndale has approached the difficult subjects in his novel with respect and sensitivity. His descriptions of place and character are vivid, making the reader feel as though they are there and drawing them into the story. Even though some of the subject matter is difficult I found myself wanting to read more, to discover what made these characters tick and how they came to terms with aspects of their lives which were so troubling at times. It is the mark of a great novel to keep you reading under such circumstances, the key here being the believable characters who are drawn so sympathetically.

The historical context of ‘The Road Between Us’ has been well researched which gives a depth of plausibility to the story – the ‘re-education’ workcamps, the treatment of homosexuals etc. The dialogue has an authentic ring which brings the characters to life, dialogue which reflects the authors understanding of human psychology and encourages the reader to look deeper into themselves. All in all, this is a very moving story and compelling reading; it has a great narrative, the feel of both thriller and love story, intelligent and literary writing.

If you like historical novels which explore the human condition with depth and sensitivity then I heartily recommend ‘The Road Between Us’ to you.

(I have deliberately avoided going into details of this story as it would be difficult to do so without spoiling it for you!)

‘The Road Between Us’ can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Nigel Farndale on his website 

You can read more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended read – ‘A Town Like Alice’ by Nevil Shute

a-town-like-alice

Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result.

‘A Town Like Alice’ is a classic which loses none of its appeal with the passage of time. The description of life for the English women and children who are unwanted prisoners of the Japanese, forced to march for months on end by Japanese officers who refuse to take responsibility for them, is harrowing. You would be forgiven for saying that something as inhumane as that could never have happened – but it did, though in Sumatra not Malaya. Mr Shute met with one of those women after the war, and this novel is a tribute to her strength and endurance and that of those who were held with her, and those who died during their long captivity.

You may also be forgiven for thinking that the story must be depressing, it is not. This is a novel of hope not despair. Mr Shute uses his characters to show us the good in humanity, the willingness to help others despite personal cost – Joe, the Australian soldier, who stole to feed the women, with tragic consequences; Jean’s struggles as she tries to cope with the ‘normality’ of England after the war, unable to begin life again because of a burden of guilt she carries from her time as a prisoner; the kindness and support show to Jean by her solicitor, Noel. Mr Shute skilfully weaves a believable plotline which takes Jean back to Malaya and on to Australia, searching for answers and for a purpose in life. Can she re-build her life in a new country in ‘a town like Alice (Springs)’ which Joe told her so much about?

This is a well-researched and well written novel in which Mr Shute immerses the reader in life in three very different locations – war-torn Malaya, bombed out London and the developing outback – with the effortlessness of a master wordsmith. This is a story of ordinary people with an extraordinary tale to tell; a timeless tale of love and loss, of romance and redemption. ‘A Town Like Alice’ is one of the books I’ve read more than once and always enjoy coming back to. If you have never read this modern classic you really must give it a go.

‘A Town Like Alice’ can be purchased from Amazon

You can find out about more about the life and work of Nevil Shute at the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

The last invavsion of Great Britain – ‘overpaid, over sexed and over here’.

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.

GI's in London
GI’s in London

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.

London during the blitz
London during the blitz

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.

gi-3

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.

London children
London children

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.

Female gun crew
Female gun crew

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.