|The ‘hidden hand’ – one that doesn’t venture onto the battlefield – promotes war so that, to double advantage, white men kill each other while ethnic warfare is waged from the rear|
When Jim Crow Met John Bull
Graham A. Smith
World War Two
It is difficult to say with any precision how many black people were living and working in Britain before the outbreak of World War II, but the permanent black population numbered in all probability between 10,000 and 15,000. Most of these were situated in or around dock areas such as Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea, Hull and London, and it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population had never seen a black person. (p. 32)
Captain Harry Butcher was a naval aide to General Eisenhower between 1942 and 1945 and he was present during some of Ike’s press conferences in the middle of 1942. For him the lack of a colour line in Britain was a difficulty. ‘England,’ he wrote, ‘is devoid of racial consciousness... [the English] know nothing at all about the conventions and habits of polite society that have developed in the US in order to preserve a segregation in social activity without making the matter one of official or public notice.’ (p. 35)
Far from opposing segregation in the American Army, the British Government tried (and failed) to exclude blacks from the country altogether, or limit their numbers. It was certainly not prepared to risk the wrath of its vital ally by coming out against jim crow. (p. 36)
When America entered the war General Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, called Brigadier General Dwight D. Eisenhower to Washington. The 52-year-old Eisenhower had graduated from West Point Military Academy in the remarkable class of 1915 which produced fifty-nine generals. Eisenhower was not a brilliant student himself, finishing 61st in academic standing, and 125th in conduct out of 164 classmates. When he went to Washington it was to work in the War Plans Division, a desk job not entirely to his liking. In view of his lack of combat duty it was a surprise to many when shortly afterwards he was appointed as Commanding General of the European Theatre of Operations. In late June 1942 Ike arrived in London to begin the task he had been given in preference to 366 other officers, soon to become a lieutenant general.
Not the least of Eisenhower’s preoccupations while he endured his brief stay in the nation’s capital was the issue of black troops and their deployment overseas. Officially there was of course no policy prohibiting their use outside the USA. Despite this various countries expressed their reservations about receiving black GIs, putting forward as reasons their fears of miscegenation, their higher rates of pay than local troops, and the weather. Britain did not voice any official opinion one way or the other though initially it seemed that no black troops would be sent to the United Kingdom in any case. White American soldiers had been in the country for several months when the War Department in Washington received a cable signed by Marshall in London on 17 April 1942, saying unequivocally that black units should not be sent to the British Isles. Eisenhower quickly corrected this administrative blunder a week later. He claimed that the cable had been sent without the Chief of Staff’s authority and the true picture was that black troops could be sent to Britain, including Northern Ireland, in reasonable numbers in any type of service unit.
Thus the American policy in the early stages was that black service troops were to come to England. Inevitably there were those who wanted black soldiers to be sent to Europe for other than military or political reasons. A Mrs Fry from Philadelphia wrote to Grace Tully in President Roosevelt’s office early in June 1942: ‘For some time, the negroes in Philadelphia and its suburbs have become increasingly insolent. It makes one feel that an outbreak from them is near. Would it be possible to send some troops of negroes to Europe? The sooner large numbers are gotten in training and out of the US the better it will be for American women.’ (pp. 38-39)
Few in power realized how the black presence in Britain would affect almost every government department, almost every facet of British life and almost every aspect of Anglo-American relations.... The War Office worked closely with the American Army in Britain to sort out all the difficulties that were thrown up, while other services – the hospitals and those who requisitioned accommodation for the troops for example – had to tackle the logistical and supply problems raised in providing for two American armies, one black, one white. Meanwhile countless minor officials and civil servants, from policemen, magistrates and probation officers grappled with the practical difficulties raised by the presence of segregated black troops. (p. 40)
The British Government, as it saw matters, had to be careful not to upset its vital ally by actively encouraging the breakdown of the American segregation policy which would, according to some white Americans, make the blacks more ‘uppity’ and demanding on their return home at the end of the war. On the other hand, to accept the American standpoint would be to give offence to British blacks, to the NAACP, the British colonial territories and armies, not to mention significant elements of the British electorate. All aggravation of these unfamiliar racial problems would, it was believed, impair the war effort. Little wonder then that the efforts of some ministers were, as we shall see, directed towards the apparently simple solution of preventing black American troops from coming to Britain at all. This they failed to do, and the anxieties did not go away. (p. 42)
Though black soldiers began to appear in increasing numbers in Britain in the second half of 1942 they tended to be concentrated in certain parts of the country, notably in the south and south-west of England. As they piled into Devon, Gloucestershire, Cornwall and Hampshire in increasing numbers the local inhabitants began to see the fights between them and their white compatriots; they saw how the local girls found the ‘tan Yanks’ attractive, and above all noticed that they were kept apart from the ‘other American Army.’ (p. 43)
Though he [General Sir Hugh Jamieson Elles] was anxious to know how the British should react when white soldiers operated a colour bar, many of the concerns expressed by him and by Haig were related to the liking local girls openly showed for black GIs.
In the spring of 1942 much of the controversy surrounding the presence of the black GIs in Britain was held in check, with many of the official documents classified as ‘Confidential.’ (p. 44)
The most public pressure exerted on the Government to ‘do something’ about the black Americans came with the publication of an article in the popular newspaper the Sunday Pictorial on 6 September 1942. The American troops had reached the area of Worle near Weston-Super-Mare, and the vicar’s wife there had seen fit to address the local ladies about their behaviour towards the blacks. Mrs May’s advice to shopkeepers was to serve them but to tell them not to come again, while ladies should move if seated next to them in a cinema. They were to cross the road to avoid meeting blacks, move out of shops and ‘of course, must have no social relationship with coloured troops,’ and on ‘no account must coloured troops be invited into the homes of white women.’ The Pictorial, which reported the incident, also had some advice for Britain’s black visitors: ‘Any coloured soldier who reads this may rest assured that there is no colour bar in this country and that he is as welcome as any other Allied soldier. He will find that the vast majority of people here have nothing but repugnance for the narrow-minded, uninformed prejudices expressed by the vicar’s wife. There is – and will be – no persecution of coloured people in Britain.’ Again, these hopes were a little optimistic for as it turned out some of the instructions issued by Mrs May not only coincided with the views of some Cabinet members but were not far removed from the feelings of many churchmen.
Black soldiers came to the notice of the House of Commons in September 1942. During a debate on the pay of British soldiers on 10 September, J. J. Davison, the Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill, was upset that American forces now in Britain received much more money than their British counterparts. Though the gap narrowed at the higher end of the officer rankings, at the bottom it was quite considerable. A private in the British Army, for example, received 14s per week, while his counterpart in the American forces (be he black or white) was paid $13.85 (equivalent to £3. 8s. 9d.) a week in the middle of 1942. Many people were concerned enough about this gap but that blacks should be earning more than their British counterparts seemed galling to Mr Davison. (pp. 45-46.)
Dowler’s interest in the black American GIs is on record at least as early as July 1942 when he arranged for one of his men, a Major G. Wills, to visit black troops in the Somerset area. Wills, accompanied on the inspection by Major Wilbur M. Gaige, jun., an American liaison officer, was to gather ‘informally’ information on the relations of the black troops with the community and to note the solutions of any problems that had arisen. It is not clear whether Dowler accompanied them but it is clear that a policy document was in the process of being framed.
In Yeovil, a large country town some forty miles from Salisbury, the party saw how segregation had affected an engineering regiment. Cinemas in the locality had set aside reserved seats for the black GIs and up to a quarter of them were allowed 5.00 p.m. to midnight passes at any one time. Some seventeen miles or so further away the 92nd Engineering Regiment used Chard for their social life because Taunton, which was nearer, was out of bounds to them. In Chard there were also to be separate sections in cinemas and a suggestion of segregated dances. In addition segregation had hit the pubs, some displaying notices reading ‘Off limits to 92nd Engineering’ and refusing to serve black troops. The black regimental chaplain had become very upset about this, as had some Czech troops who fraternized with them. Major Gaige, who reported on the situation, proposed to re-educate the civilian population who, along with British troops stationed nearby, persisted in their friendliness towards the black soldiers.
In the absence of any statement from the civil powers it was the military authorities who had to work out some relationship with the American Army in Britain, and they made the running over the black troop issue. A meeting about racial matters was convened at the War Office on 5 August 1942, addressed by an American officer. The Colonial Office was represented by John Keith, who was particularly interested in the welfare of black Britons. The meeting was ‘off the record’ but there were hints of what was to come. Keith was especially worried by the chairman’s assertion at this meeting, echoing Gaige, that British civilians needed to be educated out of their hospitableness towards black Americans. (pp. 54-55)
Dowler’s summary of the ‘negro character’:
While there are many coloured men of high mentality and cultural distinction, the generality are of a simple mental outlook. They work hard when they have no money and when they have money prefer to do nothing until it is gone. In short they have not the white man’s ability to think and act to a plan. Their spiritual outlook is well known and their songs give the clue to their nature. They respond to sympathetic treatment. They are natural psychologists in that they can size up a white man’s character and can take advantage of a weakness. Too much freedom, too wide associations with white men tend to make them lose their heads and have on occasions led to civil strife. This occurred after the last war due to [too] free treatment and associations which they had experienced in France.
Dowler proceeded to argue that certain practical points necessarily followed from these ‘facts’ and he offered five pieces of advice. The first was to be ‘sympathetic in your mind towards the coloured man, basing your sympathy on a knowledge of his problem, of his good qualities and his weaker ones.’ The second point perhaps lay at the root of everything: ‘White women should not associate with coloured men. It follows then, they should not walk out, dance, or drink with them. Do not think such action hard or unsociable. They do not expect your companionship and such relations would in the end only result in strife.’ (pp. 56-57)
[Richard (Dick) Law at the Foreign Office] had other comments too:
From the point of view of Anglo-American relations I don’t see that Mrs Roosevelt can have any valid grouse if we base ourselves on the US Army. And more broadly, the really important thing is that we sh[oul]d not have considerable friction between the two armies, and that American troops sh[oul]d not go back to their homes with the view that we are a decadent and unspeakable race. (pp. 71-72.)
So the stage was set for the War Cabinet debate of 13 October 1942. Present at the meeting were regular Cabinet members Churchill, Sir John Anderson, Attlee, Cripps, Bevin and Lyttelton, but a notable absentee was Anthony Eden. In addition those ministers who had submitted papers but were not normally of Cabinet rank were also there – Cranborne, Grigg, Bracken, Morrison (soon to be a regular member) and Simon. According to Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, the debate was a disappointment: ‘Everyone spoke at once while PM read papers (a formality he had omitted). Discussion was on a low level.’ The only contribution made by Churchill appears to have been in answer to Cranborne who pointed out that one of his black Colonial Office staff was being excluded from a certain restaurant because of white Americans. The Prime Minister’s response was: ‘That’s all right: if he takes his banjo with him they’ll think he’s one of the band.’
‘Low level’ as the discussion might have been, the meeting did produce some conclusions. It was generally agreed that in determining the British attitude to black Americans some regard had to be paid to the US Army’s views on the question. This led the War Cabinet to conclude that ‘it was desirable that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured American troops.’ (p. 76)
The Daily Herald was amongst those newspapers which saw to it that the instructions on race were given continued exposure. On 17 May 1944 the paper reported that the Admiralty instructed new recruits on the colour bar and it quoted verbatim the words of an officer on board a British warship:
Although the black soldiers are a very useful addition to our war effort, their presence certainly raises a problem. So that there can be no friction in the manner of dealing with them, I want your standards to conform as near as possible to those of our American Allies. In the States they are separated from white men. The American regards a Negro as a child and not the equal of the white races. Please conform to that idea. (pp. 80-81.)
Colonel Pleas B. Rogers of the London Base Command, US Forces, admitted that in London the ‘negro British nationals are rightly incensed. They undoubtedly have been cursed, made to get off the sidewalk, leave eating places and are separated from their white wives in public by American soldiers.’ (p. 87.)
‘Britons with no colour problem, and imagining themselves free from colour prejudice, easily slip into violent denunciations of the American colour bar as a disgrace to and denial of democracy. Whenever I encounter a Briton waxing eloquent along that line I ask him, preferably in front of others: “Would you like your sister to marry a Negro?”’ – (p. 94) [From Maurice Colbourne, America and Britain (1943)]
‘In theory all men are equal whatever their race,’ wrote [James Lansdale] Hodson, ‘but if I am asked whether I should be pleased to see my daughter marrying a negro, the answer is in the negative.’ (p. 95)
Returning to Britain by ship he [Hodson] remembered sympathizing with a white American colonel who could not understand how some English girls were going out with the black Americans and even having children by them. Hodson’s opinion was that ‘every country had a certain number of women of that sort.’ (p. 95)
In their off-duty activities the black GIs were having a good time. They had ‘considerable relationships’ with local girls and those from Sheffield. Prostitutes and factory girls came from there in taxis to be paid for their favours in money or rations. All ‘actively solicited’ black soldiers, and some lived on or near the military area for up to ten days. Some, including one girl of 16, set up tents with their GIs, undiscovered because proper bed checks of the men were not made. It was while he was disturbing a black GI in the sexual act that the captain of the black quartermaster company was punched. (pp. 98-99)
Wortley inhabitants resented the influx of ‘tarts’ and the blatant sexual behaviour of blacks (‘far beyond the normal standard of the community’) but they had sung and preached in church and had been to people’s homes for tea. The only exception to the ‘very satisfactory’ relationships the blacks had with British civilians, soldiers and police was the taunting of them by ‘hoodlums’ in a local restaurant serving cheap food late at night. The local lads resented the fact that the GIs had collared many of the lower-class women and had more money, and they began to call them ‘black bastards.’(pp. 99-100)
From a description of life in one black camp near Penistone in Yorkshire it is clear that vast improvements would have been needed to divert the men there from their main goal – the ‘wine, women and song’ of Huddersfield. In camp they had little apart from gambling, ping-pong tables and draughts. Forums were abandoned because they were never well attended, and when they had the films and a projector there was no operator. Even when all the accoutrements for an evening of film-watching were at hand the spools would come unwound only to be shown in the wrong order, and the projector would break down on numerous occasions to be ‘mended’ by beefy hands carrying crowbars and blow torches. (p. 105.)
Eisenhower himself seems to have had a real understanding of the delicacy of the American position and a willingness to be bold. He showed his concern by sending Lee a copy of Newsam’s Home Office note. The various reports of disturbances now reaching him prompted Eisenhower to state the problem in blunt terms. ‘There is,’ he wrote,
practically no colored population in the British Isles. Undoubtedly a considerable association of colored troops with the British white population, both men and women, will take place on a basis mutually acceptable to the individuals concerned. Any attempt to curtail such association by official orders or restrictions is unjustified and must not be attempted.
In private Ike was not quite so sanguine about the sexual angle. He told Merle Oberon, the Hollywood movie star who came to Britain in August 1942, that he was worried about the black troops because they were running off with English girls. (pp. 105-106.)
Perhaps most fundamental and most common was the opinion held by some officers that black troops were simply inferior. No wonder, therefore, that they could not get too exercised about central directives advocating an equality for blacks which they could not support. Thus Air Force Major General Henry J. F. Miller believed that ‘one of the basic reasons for the current racial problems [in Britain] is the unrealistic manner by which these problems are handled. So long as the natural fact is ignored that all races were not endowed with the same intelligence and therefore the same standards cannot be demanded of them, troubles will multiply.’ Similarly Colonel R. S. Edwards, sometime Deputy Chief of Staff of the European Theatre, responding to a request from Operations Divisions for information about black troops, stated that problems in England were the result of the absence of a colour line. In addition there were the ‘usual problems emanating from the comparative lack of discipline, low intelligence and laziness of coloured troops.’ (p. 112)
Possibly the most extraordinary attempt from the American military to provide guidelines on the issue of commanding black troops came from Colonel Plank on 15 July 1943...
Colored soldiers are akin to well-meaning but irresponsible children... Generally they cannot be trusted to tell the truth, to execute complicated orders, or act on their own initiative except in certain individual cases... the colored race are [sic] easily led, extremely responsive, and under stress of certain influences such as excitement, fear, religion, dope, liquor... they can change form with amazing rapidity from a kind or bashful individual to one of brazen boldness or madness, or become hysterical... The colored man does not look for work. He must be assigned a specific task that will keep him busy... The colored individual likes to ‘doll up,’ strut, brag and show off. He likes to be distinctive and stand out from the others. Everything possible should be used to encourage this... In the selection of NCOs the real black bosses should be picked rather than the lighter ‘smart boy.’
Plank gave special attention to the problems which Great Britain was presenting, and in doing so made some judgements which would quite clearly have distressed the female inhabitants of the country. The particular difficulty, as he saw it, was the problem of black solder/white girl relationships. The Colonel saw the situation very simply: for him three types of girls associated with black soldiers, and all could be easily categorized. There were the recognized prostitutes, who could be dealt with by the civil police; then there was the ‘semi-respectable older woman of loose morals’ looking as much for drinks as money; finally there was the problem of the minor, and this again could be solved by collaboration with the local police.
The limited circulation of Plank’s unsigned memorandum succeeded in generating so much protest, from black and white officers alike, that Lieutenant General Devers, the Assistant Adjutant General, requested all copies of Plank’s letter to be destroyed. (pp. 113-114.)
This curiosity created a mass of evidence on the interest in, and reactions to, the black GIs in Britain. Much of it ironically was provided by the Ministry of Information whose head, Brendan Bracken, was so anxious to underplay the issue. All this evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the blacks were warmly welcomed in Britain, and the action of the white Americans in furthering a colour bar was roundly condemned. Stories about black Americans, which probably had their origins in truth, assumed the status of popular myths. Everywhere, it was reported, pubs were displaying signs reading, ‘For British people and coloured Americans only.’ Similarly bus conductresses in all parts of the country were said to be telling the blacks not to give up their seats to whites as ‘they were in England’ now. Probably the most popular story came from a West Country farmer. When asked about the visitors he replied: ‘I love the Americans but I don’t like these white ones they’ve brought with them.’
Although this kind of reaction was widespread two important qualifications must be made. In the first place the initial welcome for the blacks, for various reasons which will be examined later, began to fade somewhat in the second half of 1943. Secondly, even in areas where the reception to the black GIs was at its most cordial, there was an almost universal dislike of the blacks associating with white British women. Even those who made the most liberal and far-sighted observations about the state of race relations in Britain could almost always be relied upon to express grave misgivings about such interracial mixing. (pp. 118-119)
One British soldier may have hit the nail unerringly on the head:
One of the slight awkwardnesses is the colour question and that is entirely the fault of the English – you see we are not used to having Negroes in the country and many stupid and soft-hearted people tend to treat them as if they were a sort of ‘super-white,’ they make more fuss of them than they do of the white men, merely to show in a pompous and shortsighted way that they are not afflicted with any ‘colour-baritus.’
And what did the Americans make of the British response to their race issue as imported by the US military? Time magazine took the view that the British used the question of race as a peg on which to hang their anti-Americanism. Its argument went something like this: there was a view in the country that the United States had again come late into the war, and was leaving much of the fighting to the British. Racial discrimination was one indication that America was less than perfect and this enabled some British people to ‘cook a snook’ at their over-confident ally. The magazine commented that ‘Great Britain... had never faced the "race problem" at home. Ninety per cent of Britain’s citizens had never actually seen or talked to a black-skinned human being before. America’s polite, liquid-voiced, smartly uniformed Negro soldiers were a surprise, a pleasure, and a happy opportunity for them to thumb the nose of moral self-righteousness at the US.’ (pp. 126-127.)
This white sergeant wrote home in September 1942: ‘One thing which would make you sick at your stomach tho is the niggers over here tell the English that they are North American Indians... so the English girls go with them. Every time so far that we have seen a nigger with a white girl we have run him away. I would like to shoot the whole bunch of them. I guess I will always be a rebel.’ If the topic of interracial sex was guaranteed to provoke comment, responses from soldiers from below the Mason-Dixon line were almost as predictable. This corporal was in hospital in Britain, with a black soldier in a nearby bed: ‘Oh how I’m gonna love the South after this – where a nigger knows his place and the whites feel they are above sleeping and eating with the damned niggers.’
By 1943 these initial reactions were followed by another which was perhaps inevitable. As the British continued what some of the visitors saw as their ‘pampering’ of the blacks, white American hostility, and sometimes loathing, began to be directed towards their hosts. A corporal writing home from Cheltenham was bitter about the British and ‘the niggers – believe it or not – the English seem to actually prefer them to the white boys. Especially the girls – not that I give a hang for them anyhow, but it is disgusting, to say the least. Maybe the south is right – keep ‘em in line, one way or another. That is enough to make me inclined to look down on the English in general to start with.’ By the spring of 1944 all that Britain was to some white Americans was a ‘nigger-loving’ country. In May, George Orwell was told by a recently arrived GI that anti-British feeling was general in the US Army. The first question asked by this soldier as he came off the boat was ‘How’s England?’ In reply an American military policeman had told him: ‘The girls here walk out with niggers... They call them American Indians.’ (pp. 133-134.)
Graham A. Smith, When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain. Tauris, London, 1987.