Black American GIs in Devon

By early 1942, World War Two was at its peak and the UK was already filling with American soldiers in anticipation of an invasion of mainland Europe. The first of what would ultimately be 1.5m GIs stepped foot on British soil on January 26 of that year, to a mixture of delight and curiosity of the locals. D-Day was still 18 months away, but Devon was no exception as thousands of Americans used the sandy beaches, rolling hills and military airfields to hone their training before taking on the Germans.

American troops training in North Devon during World War Two

Among them were African American soldiers, many of whom lived in tents at the County Ground in St Thomas from September 30, 1943, to June 30, 1944.

The American army at the time was segregated along racial lines. White GIs and the ‘coloured troops’ as they were known inhabited different parts of the city, drank in different pubs and even ate in different places. The below article contains references to historic racism which may cause distress

Black and white military police would patrol the river by Exe Bridges to ensure the two groups would not mingle. Many of the black GIs lived in western parts of the city such as St Thomas, while many of the white soldiers slept in quarters at Topsham Barracks.

Black American GIs in DevonBlack American troops slept in tents at the County Ground in St Thomas

The army operated an ‘off-limits’ rule to ensure the two groups did not mix. If they were in close proximity to one another – say, in a particularly rural town – then white soldiers would use pubs and cinemas on ‘odd’ nights and black soldiers on ‘even’ nights.

Moretonhampstead was one such example. Any black soldier walking down Fore Street was expected to cross the road if he came across a white soldier. Another time, a white GI demanded to be served his meal downstairs in the Toc H building because black soldiers were eating in the dining room upstairs.

The woman in charge told him he could eat with them or get out. He left. This appears to have been largely respected in Exeter, but in other parts of the country it led to fatal confrontations.

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In Bamber Bridge in Lancashire, bullet holes were found in the walls of what is now a bank.

Research revealed they were remnants of what became known as the Battle of Bamber Bridge, when black American troops stationed in the town faced off against white US Army military police on the night of June 24-25, 1943. That night, black soldiers and white locals were seen drinking together in a pub. Around the time of last orders, the white military police arrived and – despite protests from a white British soldier drinking with them – tried to turf out the GIs inside.

It led to a fight, with the military police being driven out and calling up reinforcements. A second clash occurred as the drinkers were returning to base, leading to a pitched battle in the street. More soldiers joined the fracas from the base, leading to shots being exchanged in the streets.

It led to Private William Crossland being fatally shot in the back, while a further 27 black soldiers were convicted on a variety of charges. It came just days after rioting in Detroit saw 25 people killed.

Black American GIs in DevonFlamethrower pratice on Saunton Golf Course

Racial segregation did not exist in the British military, and both white and black American soldiers alike were frequently shocked at the equality levelled towards soldiers of either colour. “One thing I noticed here and which I don’t like is the fact that the English don’t draw any color line,” said on American lieutenant in comments which seem barely believable today.

“The English must be pretty ignorant. I can’t see how a white girl could associate with a negro.” But associate they did, as one black former GI, Cleother Hathcock, remembers: “At that time the Jitterbug was in and the blacks would get a buggin’ and the English just loved that.

“We would go into a dance hall and just take over the place because everybody wanted to learn how to do that American dance, the Jitterbug. They went wild over that.”

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When American troops arrived in the UK, Britain had already been at war with Germany for almost a year and a half. The arrival of thousands of young American men inevitably caused some friction with a nation which was already feeling the effects of rationing, bombing and the threat of invasion.

‘Oversexed, overpaid and over here’ was a frequently how the GIs were referred to, yet they were largely made welcome by their hosts.

Black American GIs in DevonMore than 10,000 troops took part in training courses on the sand dunes of Saunton, Croyde and Woolacombe in Devon, between September 1943 and April 1944

Prior to their arrival, the War Department issued a pamphlet called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. It included instructions on everything from manners to slang words in an attempt to smooth over any bumps in the road caused by their arrival. It included advice like ‘Don’t be a show off’, ‘NEVER criticize the King or Queen’ and ‘The British don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee.

You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea. It’s an even swap’. It concluded by saying: It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.”

Black American GIs in DevonLocals welcome American troops into Padstow in May 1944

Whether the pamphlet made a difference or not is hard to tell, but the specific presence of black troops only appears to have caused occasional friction.

George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, said: “The general consensus of opinion is that the only American soldiers with decent manners are negroes.” Not all people in Devon saw it that way. It was said that the 392nd Engineer General Regiment, consisting of black Americans based at Mardon Down, chose to drink in Dunsford rather than the one in town closer to them due to issues with the locals.

Their presence did lead to some awkward yet harmless cultural clashes though. In an interview for the BBC’s WW2 People’s War, Hilda May Eastley of Exmouth said: “Yanks also took over the Cattle Market in Exeter. “Father was very shocked at these huge dark men, the first he had ever seen, and he touched his cap very respectfully, much to the amusement of the young GIs.

Never had they such respect!”

Black American GIs in DevonThe Sherman tank recovered by Ken Small from the sea off Slapton Sands in South Devon. February 25 2004. Over 1000 American sailors and soldiers died here and off neighbouring beaches in early 1944 during practice for D-Day.

Photograph by Fran Stothard / WDP

The nature of the units based in Exeter told its own story about the nature of black soldiers in the American army. Units such as 36 Station Hospital Detachment of Patients, 519 Quartermaster Truck Regiment HQ & HQ Detachment, 595 Quartermaster Laundry Company, 519 Quartermaster Group, HQ & HQ Detachment, 595 Quartermaster Laundry Company, 2 & 3 Platoons and 963 Quartermaster Service Company were all units comprising black soldiers based in the city. Despite the promise of combat, promotion and glory, around 40 per cent of black American soldiers in World War Two were involved in logistical roles to support the fighting men.

Their presence was no less essential though, and they played a prominent role in ensuring Allied victory in 1945.

Shockingly, the American army remained segregated for another eight years.

Thankfully, their contribution to the Allied war effort will remained permanently ingrained in the history books.

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