BOOK REVIEW : Invasion of the jitterbuggers

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The Independent Culture
About three million American soldiers, sailors and airmen passed through Britain between 1942 and 1945 on their way to fight in North Africa and Europe. Many did not return. At their peak, during the preparations for the Normandy landings, there were a million and a half in Britain, about seven per cent of the total population of the British Isles. The soldiers were concentrated in the south, especially in the south-west. The airmen flew out of bases in East Anglia. They tended to stay much longer than the soldiers, especially the crews and ground crews of the bomber squadrons, fighting their own peculiar war, which, if they were lucky, returned them each night to live among the people of Britain. The soldiers, by contrast, left to fight elsewhere. They returned to Britain only occasionally, for leave or for hospitalisation.

Among them there were black Americans and women. The first presented a particular problem both to the US Army with its segregationist, southern states culture - a culture almost as alien to the black conscripts from the northern cities or California as it was to the British. There was thus a double culture shock for the American sold-iery, most of whom found military service a strange and upsetting experience in itself. There was an equal clash of cultures on the British side, aggravated by the social freedom which the Americans took for granted and the enormous difference in pay and standards of living that the Americans in uniform enjoyed by comparison with the British civilians in their third year of warfare and submarine blockade.

There have been studies of this transatlantic encounter before, but David Reynolds's is so good, so thoroughly re-searched both in archives and in the memories of those who were there, that it needs to be announced to the sound of trumpets. There is, of course, no obvious common pattern; how could there be, given three million Americans and 42 million British? Only statisticians, Marxists and other social historians would look for archetypal encounters, or try to reduce to a common denominator the rich variety of human experience laid bare by Reynolds.

It takes a historian of exceptional reach and grasp, with a good deal of time available (Reynolds started his research 13 years ago), to make so rich a tapestry of this infinity of different experiences. This book is at turns heart-warming, upsetting, angering and stupefying in its account of well-meaning and not so well-meaning bureaucratic idiocy. It deserves to be read by anyone and everyone interested in Anglo-American relations. At times it moves one to disgust, even shame; at times, to a lump in the throat, if not to actual tears. So many were killed so young.

Reynolds satisfies, one would hope, the social theorists, with the comparisons he draws between the experience of the Canadian forces, in Britain since early 1940, and that of their American cousins. They took the soberer road of insisting on banking in Canada the difference between the pay rates of their troops and that of the British army, so that Canadian other ranks could not splash their money around in the way the GI on the town could and did. Reynolds is good too on the GI brides, on the unmarried mothers and their offspring and on the squirming of the English snobs and the open-armed welcome given by the English working classes to chewing- gum, jitterbugging, American popular music (Glen Miller and Bing Crosby) and Hollywood glitz.

In the end Reynolds sees four elements in the impression left on Britain by the American "occupation": American wealth; American mass culture; American power, once the American army had really come to grips with the war in Europe; and a sense of affinity rather different from the special relationship beloved of Pilgrim Club dinners. He might have added that the sense of American power cut both ways. When president, Eisenhower always behaved as though the American contribution to the land defence of Europe by NATO was the same overwhelming strength as he had commanded in 1944-45. It was actually at most about a quarter of that number. Only the political need for US financial and nuclear support made the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe an American. The men he had commanded in 1944-45 made America the supreme power in Europe, fighting and dying to free Europe from Hitler, just as they were to restrain Hitler's successor, Josef Stalin.