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Rich Relations: The American Occupation of…

Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain 1942-1945

by David Reynolds

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The average contemporary Brit probably knows only a couple of things about the presence of GIs in wartime Britain: that they were 'overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here', and maybe also to pat ourselves on the back that black GIs were treated better in the UK than at home, where segregation was still a reality. Self-serving images, obviously, but these are what you get from reading, particularly, contemporary fiction about the 'home front'.

This book adds some complexity to those perceptions. Overpaid? Well, it's more that British soldiers were chronically underpaid, although the problem was exacerbated by the fact the US army gave soldiers all their pay at the end of each month, unlike the Canadians who had a compulsory savings scheme for 50% of the salary (and still had more spending money than the Brits). Overfed? The US hadn't been through a long period of wartime rationing like the UK, and the meat ration for GIs was three times that of British civilians (and double that of the British solder). Despite this, food seems to have been a major complaint of the GIs - it's amazing the number of times wanting to have a coke, or a proper coffee, crops up in the book. (This adds extra meaning to the photo on the cover, of a GI looking amused as a local woman pours him another cup of tea).

Oversexed? Well, the GIs had more spending money, probably looked healthier (all that meat), had more flattering uniforms, and had a different dating style that the local girls weren't used to - no less an authority than Margaret Mead studied this and concluded that in the US, "a really successful date is one in which the boy asks for everything and gets nothing, except a lot of words, skilful, gay, witty words ... this game is confusing to the British". Someone with more direct experience of this, "an 8th Air Force navigator who was based in wartime Norfolk, observed that back home American adolescents were expected to make a pass on a date; the test for the girl was her adroitness in saying no. In Britain, he reckoned, girls expected the men to show restraint". In any case, the outcome seems to have been, often, that a British girl took American advances as being more serious than they actually were. And of course, the shadow of death hanging over everyone, and the boredom of wartime work, changed the way that people interacted with each other. (Incidentally, the disapproval seems to have been as great on the US side - a Gallup poll in the US in April 1946 found that 36% of respondents disapproved of GIs marrying 'English girls').

As for segregation, the US army wanted to maintain segregation in practice, and the British authorities were, by and large, happy to let them. The War Department asked for a "reasonable proportion" of black troops to be sent. And while there seem to have been many incidents where local civilians took the side of black GIs who were being abused by white GIs for, say, sitting quietly in a pub, the official UK response was to try and 'educate' the British public that this was not how things were done in the US. There was even a Whitehall proposal to discourage British women from going out with black GIs by starting a whispering campaign about the increased likelihood of VD, although fortunately that was not agreed. It seems that a lot of ordinary Brits liked the black troops because they were less prone to swagger and braggadocio than other GIs - "I don't mind the Yanks, but I don't much care for the white fellows they've brought with them", went one joke - although higher up the social scale there was more prejudice and at all levels there was a certain disapproval of cross-racial relationships.

What about the general relations between the Brits and Americans? Of course, it's a mixed picture. Some got on very well, some never had a conversation with the other nationality, and for some, even getting to know their hosts or guests did not lead to better relations. Generally, British stereotypes of Americans (extrovert, materialist, energetic, boastful, confident, brash) seem to have stayed the same from before the war to, well, now, with a break towards the end of the war when wounded GIs were being evacuated to the UK and it was evident how tough the fighting was. (It was also the case that the East Anglian villages where the fighter squadrons were stationed had a better view of the US forces because they could see their contribution to the war; while most GIs elsewhere in the UK were waiting to go and fight.)

This book is extremely wide-ranging - almost too much so. I am interested (as you can tell from my summary) in the social history, but less so in the political and military aspects of the relationship, of which there is plenty. But one of the strengths of the book was the way that it set the relationship in context, historically (reminding us for instance that most of the 'overfed' GIs had grown up during the Great Depression) but also thematically - the nature of fighting a war, of being in an army, of military-civilian relationships. French perceptions of the British Expeditionary Force during WWI were very similar to the UK's perception of GIs. All this, for me, made up for the fact that I had to skim through the military strategy parts. For anyone interested in those aspects as well, this would be a highly recommended read. ( )
2 vote wandering_star | Apr 14, 2012 |
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In memory of my father, who knew war and loved peace: and in gratitude to family and friends all over the United States who showed a Brit "their" America and taught him to like, respect, and, maybe, understand.
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They had come once before.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 184212112X, Paperback)

Readable, scholarly, and above all, enormously entertaining, this very personal approach to history details the complex relationship between American GI's--famously lampooned as "over-paid, over-sexed, over-fed, and over here"--and their British hosts (for their part, "under-sexed, under-paid, under-fed, and under Eisenhower") during World War Two's occupation of England. "...an important and original contribution to our understanding of the Second World War."--John Keegan, Daily Telegraph. An outstanding study of a most important aspect of the war, never before examined in such depth."--Alistair Horne, The Times.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:14 -0400)

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