In the long term, ethnic weapons can be more harmful than bombs and bullets 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


Rioting at home and abroad

Detroit in Michigan grew rapidly in the 1920s as the lure of high wages in the automobile industry attracted southern blacks and whites into the area. By the early days of the war an increasing tension in the city was obvious as blacks complained about poor housing and their limited participation in lucrative war work, and their role in the Army. On the afternoon of Sunday 20 June 1943, with the temperature in the nineties, blacks poured out of their ghetto area, the ironically named Paradise Valley, to picnic and cool off on Belle Isle in the Detroit river. Possibly 100,000 were there on that steamy day, mostly blacks but mingled with a few whites. Scuffles broke out and tempers were frayed as the exodus back to the city began. Rumours abounded, notably that a black woman and her baby had been murdered, and fighting broke out. It quickly fanned out into the city and became a full-scale riot. Disagreements among city and state officials meant that Federal troops weren’t requested until 9.25 on the Monday evening. By that time the troubles were spent, leaving 25 blacks dead (17 shot by the police) and 9 whites. In the wake of Detroit other riots broke out in Texas, Massachusetts, Ohio and Harlem. Few would have anticipated the shock waves spreading 4,000 miles or so to northern England!

Some ninety-six hours or so after the problems began in Belle Isle, black Americans commandeered weapons and trucks from their quarters in Bamber Bridge in Lancashire, smashed through the gates and drove into town determined to open fire on all military vehicles and military police. News of the Detroit riot had quickly reached Britain.

On the evening in question, Thursday 24 June 1943, several black GIs had spent their time drinking at the Olde Hob Inn, a thatched pub, unusual for this area, not far from their barracks. Bamber Bridge had been the headquarters of the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment for several months though the town itself had little to recommend it and many of the men preferred to spend their leisure time in Preston. Quite a few of these soldiers worked long, hard hours delivering weapons and ammunition by truck to American air bases all over the country. With the weather warm and sultry (though hardly matching Detroit’s highs) some had decided on this occasion to drink nearer home. Doubtless the troubles back in the USA were on their minds.

At 10.00 p.m. the English pub-closing ritual began, to the jeers of the blacks and some local soldiers and civilians who were there. This attracted the attention of two white American military policemen, normally located in Preston, who happened to be driving by in their jeep. An attempt was made to arrest one black GI for being improperly dressed and one MP drew his gun when threatened by a black brandishing a bottle. After the occupants of the jeep beat a diplomatic retreat the vehicle returned with two more MPs. Arrests were again attempted this time while the black GIs were walking back along the quiet streets of terraced houses towards their base. Another scuffle took place and blood was drawn. An MP fired his pistol, hit one of the soldiers and there was further confusion and shouts of ‘kill the goddam son of a bitch.’ After several more shots were fired both sides withdrew, the blacks attempting to help their wounded.

Back at the camp rumour fed rumour: many blacks of the several hundred stationed there were shrieking, and stories of blacks being shot in the back increased the tension. Though some men had already gone back into town with arms, at about 11.30 things seemed to be getting calmer. This peace was shattered at midnight, however, when an improvised armoured car full of MPs screeched into the area with searchlights blazing and a machine-gun aloft. Ignoring all pleas the mutinous blacks broke into storerooms. Stealing weapons and ammunition, they smashed through the camp gates and careered into Bamber Bridge, firing at any military vehicles or personnel they saw. British civilians watched the activity with a mixture of awe and horror. The MPs set up a road block at the end of one street, and it was here that one black was shot, to die several days later. Trucks continued to chase around the streets until the early hours of Friday morning when the mutiny, as it was termed, ended.

Many of the weapons and several members of the battalion did not reappear for a few days. In addition to the dead GI, two other blacks and one white officer were shot and there were other injuries caused by bottles and fists. Over twenty men from the depot were eventually found guilty at two courts martial of charges ranging from assault, resisting arrest and illegal possession of rifles, to riot. Sentences of between three months and fifteen years were handed out, though on appeal these were reduced and most of the men were back on duty in about a year.

Launceston is a pretty Cornish town on the edge of Bodmin Moor with the port of Plymouth to its south and the seaside resorts of Devon and Cornwall to the north. On Saturday night, 25 September 1943, five black GIs from an ordnance unit were told to return to camp by MPs when it was found that they did not have passes, forcing them to miss the local dance. They did not leave easily and one threateningly told an MP: ‘If you lay hands on me, you’ll get what’s in my pocket.’ The next night eighteen black soldiers entered the lounge bar of a pub in the town. White soldiers were drinking there too and the barman told the blacks that they couldn’t be served in that part of the house. These blacks had not apparently been in Britain for long and were loath to accept a practice by then common in many public houses of landlords reserving separate areas for black and white Americans. They left, reluctantly, only to sneak back into town later having armed themselves with tommy guns, rifles and bayonets. When they encountered two MPs in a jeep in the town square they ignored calls to disperse and opened fire, causing people to run in all directions. The two policemen were wounded in their legs and a few weeks later fourteen black GIs faced a court martial in Paignton in Devon, charged with mutiny and attempted murder. After a three-day hearing all were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Some, according to Walter White, were still serving their sentences two years later in prisons in America.

Preparations for the invasion of France in mid-1944 meant that of necessity black and white Americans were forced into closer contact, causing more vigorous competition for recreational facilities and leading to a subsequent increase in tension between the races. It is probably because it happened so close to D-Day that an incident in Leicester was not reported in the local press at all – to reveal the names of the units to which the protagonists belonged might have been helpful to the enemy.

Trouble between the races in Leicester was not new. At the beginning of February 1943 the Chief Constable there passed on complaints from the landlord of the Three Cranes pub about blacks bringing in young girls. In addition a white American from Kettering had been stabbed by a black based in Gaddesby. The Officer was concerned to point out, however, that the white troops were ‘the cause of the trouble... they began the taunting of the blacks.’ He suggested that the black and white GIs should either have separate leave time in Leicester on the alternate-day system, or, failing that, whites should be told to use Northampton, further south, and Leicester or Nottingham should be designated ‘black’ towns.

Though new troops were always coming and going in Britain during the war it was amazing how quickly the stories of black and white conflict could assume the status of folklore. Certainly black troops in Leicester had been dating local girls for some time when white paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in the area to train for the landings in France. When they saw black soldiers escorting white women to pubs and dances they made increasingly bitter taunts which eventually culminated in fights. For members of a black quartermaster aviation battalion working on aerodrome construction just outside Leicester this was the last straw. Since many of the young paratroopers were from the southern states clashes were almost inevitable. As at Bamber Bridge and Launceston the blacks commandeered weapons and a truck and the ensuing riot resulted in the death of an MP from the Airborne Division.

Troubles of some sort between black and white troops in the Bristol area had been simmering for a long time. Part of the problem there was that the organization of the leave areas was complex, and seen by many blacks as discrimination. In addition Bristol was one of those areas where racist white Americans were busiest, and blacks were driven to using the least desirable pubs. John Keith of the Colonial Office saw some of the problems for himself in the summer of 1942. He’d been to visit the black Americans in Liverpool and then in Bristol where the position was ‘far less satisfactory... giving rise to comments.’ They were said to be ‘kept in barracks and only allowed out to be marched to work on the pretext that they may interfere with women.’ Keith rightly felt that ‘this confinement of the troops was just the way to bring about undesirable incidents.’ When blacks did step out of line they were soon put right. A writer on the Bristol Evening Post saw this at first hand in October 1942 when black GIs left a pub rather worse for wear: ‘As they were marshalled out and told their carriage was waiting, each at the door received a tap on the head from a very businesslike-looking truncheon. They went quickly home probably unaware of the cause of their sudden drowsiness. And I don’t suppose there was any subsequent “inquest” on the proceeding. They have their own code of justice and who shall gainsay it?’

July in Britain is high summer when the evenings are long and light and 1944 was no exception with blackout regulations not coming in force until just after 11.00 p.m. Many of the black GIs in and around Bristol, however, had other matters on their minds apart from the British weather. The big explosion there came late on Saturday 15 July, but tension had begun to mount on the previous Monday, and doubtless at the black American Red Cross Club rumour was rife. Again, an aviation truck battalion was involved. The lesson of Leicester had not yet been learned, however, for these blacks were joined at their base, the Müller Orphanage camp, on 10 July by white paratroop replacements. The blacks claimed that two of their men were beaten up without provocation. This was followed by several incidents involving blacks and whites in Bristol over the next few days. As usual the cause of the problem was not difficult to find: the white paratroopers resented the easy relations that had developed between the white British girls in the town and the black soldiers.

On Thursday 13 July, the discontent spread. Men from the 545th Port Company, based at Sea Mills Camp, tough city blacks mainly from Detroit and New York, mutinied by staying in their billets and refusing to turn out for reveille even when the Articles of War were read to them.

The eruption finally occurred on 15 July around Park and Great George Streets. A large number of black GIs had gathered there on that Saturday evening and brawling had broken out. Extra MPs were drafted in and some calm was restored. The black troops were then marched off to the Tram Centre where trucks were to take them back to their camps. This procedure in itself must have been an awesome sight for the onlooker: Great George Street comes down from Brandon Hill and runs into Park Street, one of the city’s main arteries. Both streets slope quite steeply and the ‘march’ down to the Tram Centre about a quarter of a mile away (now simply called the Centre) may well have induced some panic in the GIs. Some of them had knives and while they were being disarmed a black soldier, who was stabbing an MP, was shot by another MP. Not surprisingly, a ‘mob spirit’ prevailed among the black GIs with MPs shooting people in the legs. Buses were drawn across some of the roads to confine the incident, while some of the wounded were dealt with by members of the St John Ambulance Brigade, who took the more seriously hurt off to Bristol Infirmary. The disturbance had involved 400 black and white troops and it had taken 120 military policemen and many arrests to bring the situation back under control. One black GI was killed and dozens may have been wounded. Bristol remained under military curfew for several days.

At ten o’clock on the morning of Thursday 9 November 1944, one of the war’s more bizarre chapters was about to unfold in a most unlikely location. A dartboard was still hanging on the wall of the mess room adjoining the barracks in Thatcham, near Newbury in Berkshire, where ten young black Americans were waiting with a mixture of apprehension and bewilderment for their court martial to begin. In the crowded, stuffy, makeshift courtroom they were about to face proceedings which could end with their executions. They listened quietly as the most serious of the charges, that of murder, was read to them. They were accused of killing three people, one of them the wife of a pub landlord, in an act of revenge which went dreadfully wrong.

The incident had begun exactly five weeks earlier to the day, and was all over in the space of about six hours. The men of the all-black 3247 Quartermaster Service Company had come from Devon on that Thursday, 5 October, to their new camp about a mile from Kingsclere, a village half-way between Newbury and Basingstoke in Britain’s leafy south. They had arrived at their destination at about 4.30 in the afternoon, cleaned up their barracks and prepared their bunks. As was normal practice when they were on the move, each man had his weapon – a rifle or a carbine – and these were not taken away until about 10.45 that evening. After attending to their chores and eating, some of the men went into Kingsclere though no leave passes had been issued. They made their way to the Bolton Arms, one of several pubs in the village, where shortly after 7.00 p.m. they were approached by three or four American auxiliary military policemen. They were told that they had to return to camp because they had no passes and were improperly dressed. One soldier later claimed that an MP had cocked a rifle at him. An hour later they were on their way back to base in a truck and an earnest conversation began to develop about returning to get the MPs: ‘We are going down there with our rifles,’ said one GI, while another argued that they should take the rifles away from the MPs and then beat them up.

At around 9.30 p.m. rural England took on the appearance of the Old West as ten black soldiers walked back into the village, loading their weapons as they went. They looked for the MPs first in the Bolton Arms, and then in another pub, the Swan Inn, before going on the Crown Inn at about ten o’clock. Inside, in various rooms of the pub finishing off their drinks, were about eight or nine black GIs, probably also out without passes, a few locals and several MPs. One or two of the ‘snowdrops’ as the MPs were commonly called, left the pub and a single shot rang out, followed quickly by a volley of gunfire. In movie style everyone hit the floor. When the smoke had literally cleared one black GI lay dead in a pool of blood, shot in the head. The landlord’s wife, Mrs Rose Napper, was lying in an inner room with a bullet wound in her jaw. She died in hospital in the early hours of the next morning. Outside, lying in a garden about 150 yards away, was the dead body of a black American MP, a bullet through his heart.

About forty people were packed into the cramped room as the court martial opened on that November morning. Apart from the defendants, the most interested spectators were the barrister representing the landlord of the Crown, and two senior officers from the Berkshire and Hampshire constabularies. As the day progressed the atmosphere grew more cloying and the air became thicker. Though smoking was not allowed while the trial was taking place everybody puffed away furiously during the short intervals. Two of the accused appeared to be asleep as 7.00 p.m. approached on the first day, one with his head in his hands.

The next morning was bright and sunny as the defence opened. That didn’t take long for only one man elected to take the witness stand, while three of the others made short, unsworn statements. Ironically one of these said he wouldn’t have been in the pub at all that evening if it hadn’t been his birthday. It was thirty minutes before the military court reached its verdict and it was during this period that the gravity of it all seemed to hit some of the men, one of whom knelt and prayed with his Bible in his hand. Nine of the men were found guilty on all three counts – murder, riotous assembly and absence without leave – and despite having no previous convictions they were given life sentences with hard labour. The tenth man was found guilty of being AWOL. The trial had left as many questions as it provided answers. How and why had this hatred of MPs been generated in such a short time? Had the fact that at least one MP was black been of significance? Had the men’s experience elsewhere in Britain led to this bitterness? Were any white officials reprimanded for sloppy weapons-storing procedures? The only known sequel to the affair was that a US colonel apologized to Harry Haig, the Regional Commissioner, for the company’s behaviour, and the remainder of the men who had not been on trial were quickly dispatched overseas. (pp. 141-150)

Graham A. Smith, When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain. Tauris, London, 1987.

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