Source: The Conversation

Black troops were welcome in Britain, but Jim Crow wasn’t: the race riot of one night in June 1943

June 22, 2018 9.56am BST

Author : Alan Rice Professor in English and American Studies, University of Central Lancashire

Black American GIs stationed in Britain during the war, these in Bristol, were given a warm welcome by their hosts but treated harshly by their white US Army comrades. brizzlebornandbredCC BY-NC-SA

Bullet holes found in the wood surrounds of the NatWest Bank in Bamber Bridge, in Lancashire in the north of England, in the late 1980s led to the rediscovery of an event that saw some of the few shots fired in anger in England during World War II, which had been largely forgotten. These were not shots fired by invading troops, but by American GIs against their own military police.

Intrigued by his discovery, Clinton Smith, the black British maintenance worker who discovered the holes in the woodwork, asked locals how they could have got there. He was told that they were the remnants of 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.

More a mutiny than a battle, it led to the death of Private William Crossland in nearby Mounsey Road, and four other injuries to black American soldiers in a five-hour confrontation which spread from the thatched Olde Hob Inn at one end of the town to the Adams Hall army camp, where from early 1943 the US Eighth Army Quartermaster Truck Company, a black company apart from a few white officers, had been based. The event was officially downplayed, in order not to undermine morale on the home front, but the events of that night led to the conviction of 27 black American soldiers.

The ‘battle’

The whole incident is typical of the clashes on and around bases in Britain between black and white American troops – 44 between November 1943 and February 1944 alone – where the intrinsic racism in a segregated army led to confrontations. This was especially the case in a foreign setting where the black soldiers saw around them a very different reality from that they faced at home – a non-segregated society where they were welcomed as fellow fighters against fascism, rather than tolerated hod-carriers for the war effort as they were generally treated by the US Army.

That evening in 1943, black troops and white locals were stretching out “drinking-up time” in a pub at the end of the evening. Words were exchanged, and military police arrived and tried to arrest Private Eugene Nunn for not wearing the proper uniform. But they faced new solidarities: a white British soldier challenged the military police: “Why do you want to arrest them? They’re not doing anything or bothering anybody.”

The incident escalated into a fist fight and the military police were beaten back. When they returned with reinforcements to meet the group, now returning to camp, a battle developed in the street. Shots were fired, and Crossland died with a bullet in his back.

Black GIs would drink in mixed company in British pubs, to the horror of the white US Army authorities. brizzlebornandbred

When rumours spread at the camp that black GIs had been shot, scores of men formed a crowd, some carrying rifles. The arrival at around midnight of more military police with a machine gun-equipped vehicle convinced many of the black soldiers that the police intended to kill them – and they drew rifles from the stores. Some barricaded themselves into the base, others tore off back into town, leading to running shooting battles in the streets.

Many of the black American troop standing up to the military police that febrile night were no doubt influenced by news filtering through of race riots in Detroit on June 20, where defenceless black men were attacked by racist police, responsible for the deaths of 17 of the 25 African-Americans killed.

Race relations at home and abroad

In his essays George Orwell alluded to the oft-quoted assertion that American GIs were “oversexed, overpaid and over here”. But he qualified this with the observation that: “the general consensus of opinion is that the only American soldiers with decent manners are Negroes.”

The black American servicemen were welcomed into the leisure time of their British hosts in ways that spread solidarity. A former black 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.

The town did not share the US Army’s segregationist attitudes. According to the author Anthony Burgess, who spent time in Bamber Bridge during the war, when US military authorities demanded that the town’s pubs impose a colour bar, the landlords responded with signs that read: “Black Troops Only”. The extent to which this rankled the white American troops is shown by the comments of a lieutenant:

One thing I noticed here and which I don’t like is the fact that the English don’t draw any color line. The English must be pretty ignorant. I can’t see how a white girl could associate with a negro.

This sort of attitude exemplifies the particular resentment over the way black troops openly fraternised with white British women – and many of the confrontations during this period were sparked by the ease of interracial relationships in a British rather than American context.

The military authorities tried to push back against this by imposing Jim Crow segregation in Britain, so that when the black American world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis visited on a propaganda tour in 1944 he encountered blatant discrimination from the troops he was visiting, as he had at home.

The events in Bamber Bridge encapsulated these Jim Crow practices – and the wider paradox of the open-armed welcome from the local residents coupled with resentment of that welcome by white American troops. The pub was a place of sanctuary for black troops where they mingled with, mainly friendly, locals, and where the segregation many had to endure in the American South was thankfully absent.

Local resident Gillian Vesey recalled how, as a young barmaid at the Olde Hob Inn, she stood up for African American soldiers against attempts by white Americans to impose discriminatory practices in the pub, insisting that the American white soldiers wait their turn rather than expecting to be served before their black colleagues.

Keeping a segregated army in the context of fighting for democracy became untenable, and in 1948 the then US president Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which eventually led to an integrated army. While the convictions of the troops involved at Bamber Bridge were largely commuted or overturned, soldiers returned to Jim Crow segregation in the US, with the reality that some veterans were lynched in their uniforms.

But the new freedoms they experienced in Europe meant they were not prepared to put up with discrimination, racism and racial violence again. As veteran Wilford Strange said in the documentary film Choc’late Soldiers from the USA:

I think the impact these soldiers had by volunteering was the initiation of the Civil Rights movement, ’cos these soldiers were never going back to be discriminated against again. None of us were.

Alan Rice is the author of:

Creating Memorials, Building Identities: The Politics of Memory in the Black AtlanticLiverpool University Press provides funding as a content partner of The Conversation UK

Source: Lancs Live

The true story behind The Battle of Bamber Bridge in World War 2

The American race riot that kicked off in a Lancashire town.

ByDominic Moffitt

  • 17:00, 7 JUL 2019
African American soldiers following a court martial in which they were found guilty of crimes during the Battle of Bamber Bridge. (Image: Mirrorpix)

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Anglo-American relations have been seemingly and inextricably linked for decades.

But in 1943, the violent reality of American social division, politics and racial division was brought violently, and forcibly to Britain’s front door.

When American troops flooded into England, readying themselves for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, no one could have predicted that politics in the states would spill over into fighting and gunshots in Lancashire.

This is the story of battle fought between American troops in Bamber Bridge, Preston, where racial politics in the US caused troops on the other side of the world to take up arms. 

The War, D-day plans and Americans in Britain 

In 1942 the Second World War had entered a crucial phase. 

Germany had ultimately failed in its grandiose plans to invade Britain following the Battle of Britain and the blitz which, despite destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds of citizens, had not quelled Winston Churchill’s war effort. 

The RAF had covered itself in glory defending our island home and, with much of its own airforce out of action, Nazi Germany had to come to terms with the realisation that Churchill’s Britain would stand firm. 

It was the first time Germany had been halted during the whole war and it gave the allies the breathing space to decide upon a counter attack. 

Hitler moved to invade Russia soon after failing to cajole Britain, making one of history’s greatest mistakes: never, EVER, invade Russia. Napoleon had made the same mishap more than hundred years before and lost his Empire within months, for Hitler, it signalled the beginning of a long and terrible end to his plans for European domination. 

Whilst the Russian’s began a slow and bloody push from the eastern front to topple Germany, the allies devised a plan to open up a second front. 

The second front would see Hitler’s armies caught in a trap between two large forces bearing down on Germany, a pincer movement that would surely shove him towards surrender. 

The plans for D-day centred around landing on the beaches of occupied France with the largest possible force. Like a nail striking a hammer, the pressure of such numbers on a small area would see the allies break through the lines at Normandy and begin the push towards Berlin from the west.

More than 150,000 Troops from Norway, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, as well as dissidents from the now occupied France, Poland and Czechoslovakia all gathered in England, ready to make the crossing in June 1944. They would train along British coastlines, simulating parachute drops and landings from flat-bottomed crafts. Their soldiers would be drilled in British fields and live in British barracks. They would live and breathe British life until the eventual invasion in 1944.

In 1943, the 1511 Quartermaster Truck Regiment, a logistics unit for the Us Eight Air Force, were based in Bamber Bridge where they ran supplies to other US regiments across the county. They were decamped next to the 234th US Military Police Company who had quarters on the north side of the town. 

The military police naturally keep order within the army and could impose law and order upon fellow troops who had broken the law or were using their own prowess as soldiers to do as they pleased.  

At this point racial segregation was still thriving in America. Much like South Africa’s Apartheid, people of colour were separated from white people in the Confederate states who had lost the civil war in 1865. Despite freedom being grants to slaves across these states, the old Confederacy adopted the Jim Crows Laws which introduced segregation in America on a ‘separate but equal’ basis.

Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida and eleven other states had active segregation, with laws governing where people of colour could live, eat, shop, walk, sit on public transport, go to school and even work.  

These laws covered almost every facet of social life. Black men in the state of Georgia could not be attended to by white nurses and black barbers could not cut the hair of a white person in Alabama.  

Another four states, including New Mexico and Arizona, also had some kind of Jim Crow Law which prohibited people of colour from doing certain things like marrying a white person or even being buried in the same funeral plot as them. In 23 of the 50 states Jim Crow had some say. 

The US army was also segregated. People of colour served in their own units and it was rarely seen that white and black soldiers fought alongside on another.  

Rosa Parks was part of the civil rights movement after the end of the war when she breached segregation laws and refused to stand for a white man on the bus. (Image: AP)

It just so happened that almost all of those in the 1511 regiment were black American citizens and were being led by white officers whilst the MP’s were also all white. 

They were also largely incompetent. As mentioned, the truck regiments were for logistical purposes, requiring little military intellect to run and so these regiments became dumping grounds for incompetent officers.  Moral was low amongst the regiment and leadership lacking.  

The stage was therefore set for tensions to rise, as the racially segregated truck regiment continued to operate in the town whilst racial tensions grew across the pond.

Black power state-side: The Detroit Race Riot 

Detroit, the state of Michigan. One of the largest US cities and still considered to be one of the most dangerous. 

During the early 20th century it saw an influx of Americans from the deep south, Jim Crow strongholds, and as a result the infamous Ku Klux Klan developed a huge presence there from as early as 1915. 

Whilst the second embodiment of the Klan (there was to be a third in the 1960s) had begun to collapse following the rape and abduction of Madge Oberholtzer in 1925, the ideals of white supremacy and support for segregation would have still held sway there.  

As American prepared for war, several industries in Detroit were taken over and used for arms production with its thriving automobile industry being used to surplus the US army. 

The dramatic change in industry and the sudden, startling demand for arms, led thousands more to emigrate from the deep south of the country, and from Europe, to find work in Detroit, flooding the city with outsiders who were competing desperately for employment and a place to live.  

People of colour were treated horrifically, they received less rations during the war and were employed in the factories but given no housing to accompany their jobs. As a result black workers, some 200,000 of them, were accommodated in just 60 blocks in the city’s, ironically named,Paradise Valley.

When more African American, white and European workers streamed into the city looking for work, the government was forced to start a new black housing project in amongst a white neighbourhood to accommodate the city’s new arrivals.  

As the housing project was introduced, more than a thousand whites, some armed, picketed the arrival of African Americans into the city. They held a burning cross. Part of the ritual introduced by the KKK in their revival. 

But things would really come to ahead in June 1943. 

It became commonplace for whites to halt production to protest the promotion of their African American co-workers whilst other factories faced habitual slowdowns by bigoted whites who refused to work alongside African Americans.  

Pitched, racial-motivated street battles exploded into life all around the city and on June 20, 1943, more than 200 African Americans and whites fought each other at Belle Isle.

(Image: Reddit)

Things got out of hand as rumours spread across the city, causing larger mobs from both races gathered to fight one another. 

Cars were overturned and set on fire, men on both sides were beaten, businesses pillaged and property damaged. A white doctor visiting Parade Valley was beaten to death whilst men of colour exiting the Roxy Theatre in Woodward were brutally attacked by a white mob. 

The violence continued for three days and was stopped only by the arrival of 6,000 army armed with automatic weapons and accompanied by tanks.  

The streets eventually emptied around midnight on June 22, with most residents too terrified to leave their homes.  

Nine white people and 25 African Americans had lost their lives. 

It is worth noting that no white individuals were killed by police, whilst 17 African Americans died at the hands of officers. 700 people were reportedly injured, another 1,800 were arrested and the city was dealt $2m worth of damage – amounting to more than £26m in today’s money.  

Whilst the city mourned a bitter waste of life, they could not have guessed that a small town in Lancashire would feel the aftershocks of the riot.  

The Battle of Bamber Bridge 

US soldiers transferred to Britain in 1942 were given a pamphlet published by the United States War Department. 

It was entitled ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain.’ Many servicemen in the US had never left the states and the guide was supposed to help those men settle across the pond. 

The pamphlet included helpful tips and hints like ‘British are reserved, not unfriendly’ we can probably agree with that one as well as such gems as ‘British like sport’, ‘the British are tough’ and, my personal favourite: ”The British have theaters and movies (which they call “cinemas”) as we do. But the great place of recreation is the pub.’

Bang on.

(Image: Getty)

It seems that Americans loved the ideological movement of ‘the pub’ and the pubs loved them back.  

Following the race riots in Detroit,  the military police called for a ‘colour ban’ in Bamber Bridge – hoping that this would curtail any of the black soldiers from replicating the riot in Lancashire. The three Bamber Bridge pubs reacted by putting up signs that read: ‘Black Troops Only.’ It was clear who the people of Britain supported. 

On the night of June 24, several American troops of the 1511th were taking the pamphlet as gospel and drinking with the locals of Bamber Bridge at the Ye Olde Hob Inn, which still stands on Church Road. 

Two passing MPs were alerted after soldiers inside the pub attempted to buy beer after last orders had been called. 

They attempted to arrest Private Eugene Nunn for a minor uniform offence and an argument broke out with the military police on one side and the African American troops, with locals, on the other. 

(Image: Google maps)

Things began to escalate when Private Lynn M. Adams brandished a bottle at the MPs causing one of them, Roy A. Windsor, to draw his gun. A staff sergeant was able to diffuse the situation but as the MPs drove away, Adams hurled a bottle at their jeep. 

The MPs picked up two more of their number before intercepting the black soldiers, who were now at Station Road, making their way back to base. 

What happened next was a source of contention but it lead to Private Nunn punching an MP causing a violent melee to break out. An MP fired his handgun, hitting Adams in the neck. Rumours spread like wildfire there after, much like the Detroit riots, causing the soldiers to arm themselves against the MPs, for fear that they were targeting black soldiers. 

By midnight several jeep loads of MPs had arrived with an armoured car, fitted with a machine gun. British officers claimed that the MPs then ambushed the soldiers and a fire fight began in the night.

Troops warned locals to stay in doors as they exchanged gun fire but the darkness ensured that the fighting had quelled by 4am and that there were few casualties.  

One solider, Private William Crossland, was killed whilst seven others were wounded.  

Aftermath: Court martial and lessons  

No less than 32 soldiers were found guilty of several crimes including mutiny, seizing arms, firing upon officers and more at a court martial in October 1943, in the town of Paignton. 

Their sentences were, rather understandably, reduced following an appeal, with poor leadership and the obvious racism of the MPs used as mitigating factors. 

General Ira Eaker of the Eight Air Force made several decisions following the battle which would improve the morale of black troops stationed in the UK.