When almost 3 million American GIs began arriving in the UK from January 1942, the eventual perception was – as George Orwell observed – that it was “difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory”. Less well known is the remainder of Orwell’s comment. “The general consensus of opinion,” he wrote, “seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.”
What Britain thought of the 130,000 African Americans who formed part of this “occupation” is the subject of Kate Werran’s meticulously researched book. Its particular setting – the Cornish town of Launceston – may seem an unlikely one for the story of an anti-racist uprising, but throughout the war African American GIs were posted to rural towns and villages from the Yorkshire Moors to the Forest of Dean to the Somerset Levels; in the south-west they were preparing for the D-day landings.
Werran recounts the events of 26 September 1943, when there was a shootout between white and black US servicemen. The African American GIs had been excluded from Launceston’s pubs, and confronted a group of US military policemen in the town square; shots were fired around 10pm and two jeeps were left riddled with bullet holes. One local described the scene as reminiscent of the “wild west”.
An American Uprising tells the story of the trial of the 14 African American soldiers involved, who were charged with the most serious offences known to the US military, from attempted murder to mutiny. For a brief moment, the case captured the nation’s attention. Both the British and American press were in attendance for the kind of court-room theatrics that often elude spectators of British justice. The usual court furniture was rearranged to make way for a giant star-spangled banner, a military band played the US national anthem outside, and there were frequent dramatic interruptions of “objection” during the proceedings.But the glamorous facade concealed a highly sinister core. In 1942 the British government had passed the Visiting Forces Act, which made US soldiers subject to American military law. That meant they could be executed on British soil for crimes that did not carry capital punishment in Britain. It also institutionalised a system of Jim Crow segregation which prevailed not just in the American South, but the entire US military.
The racism to which black American GIs were subjected travelled with them to the UK, and was sanctioned – as Werran details – by Churchill’s cabinet. Realising that the arrival of strictly segregated American battalions would introduce formal apartheid to British soil, the government found itself in a bind. Not wanting to alienate its desperately needed new ally, but also not wanting to undermine its propaganda efforts in the empire, the war cabinet fudged the issue.
Werran describes the perspective of many British people as they witnessed American-style racism for the first time. Although similar systems of apartheid existed in much of the British empire, white Brits were largely horrified at the behaviour of white Americans towards their black brothers in arms.
It’s heartening to read a historical account in which the British tabloid press were on the side of the oppressed – the British journalists regarded the African Americans as underdogs. Werran also considers Mass Observation surveys, which reveal that while white American soldiers were considered brash and disrespectful African Americans were grateful for whatever kindness they received.
It’s a subtle story. As Werran points out, African American troops had in some ways more in common with war-deprived, rural British communities than the more entitled white American GIs, with their expectation of mod cons and their condescension towards warm beer. At the same time, one should resist the temptation to celebrate that black Americans expected so little, beaten down by the hateful and violent racism of white America.
The 14 accused were all convicted, given dishonourable discharge and sentenced to long periods of hard labour. The military trial judge made a ruling that kept the sentences secret, and many locals assumed the soldiers had been executed, significantly inflaming resentment at the way the Americans had handled the affair.
That this racism was allowed to play itself out on British soil is a stain on the record of Britain’s government, with its cowardly failure to protect not just British law, but also the many black British and colonial subjects who found themselves caught up in the hostile attitudes of white Americans. For a short while, such global race politics were concentrated in a town in wartime Cornwall, and this is what makes Werran’s book so fascinating.
• An American Uprising in Second World War England is published by Pen & Sword (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.