Oversexed and over here

Fifty years on: for the anniversary of VE day comes a flood of books that re-examine every facet of World War II. Below: GIs, poetry and the Blitz RELATIONS: The American Occupation of Britain 1942-1945 by David Reynolds, HarperCollins £25
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THE one thing everyone knows about GIs during World War II is that they were "overpaid, oversexed and over here". But to judge from the results of a straw poll I've conducted over the last couple of weeks, far fewer people know what the initials GI stand for. No, not "General Infantryman" ... Okay, I'll give you a clue: the initials were stamped on all items of military uniform. "Like his clothing and provisions, a man was simply `Government Issue'."

I am old enough to remember the GI "occupation" of Britain. As a child of the Forties, growing up in deepest Devon, I dimly recall the camouflaged trucks and jeeps, the first black faces I ever saw and the inevitable chewing gum - as David Reynolds remarks, "Any gum, chum?" became a notorious catch phrase. Later, I would wonder about the obelisk erected by the US government in 1954 on Slapton Sands as a gesture of gratitude to local villagers uprooted from the area to accommodate the troops. And yet more recently, I have goggled at the Sherman tank recovered from the water, painted black and set up as a memorial to the GIs killed either by German E-boats - or by their own side during a disastrous rehearsal for the Normandy invasion.

But I'm in danger of misrepresenting this book. It is not an oral history in the Studs Terkel/Tony Parker manner, or recollections gathered in the way that Norman Longmate and Juliet Gardener have already done on this topic. It is an exhaustively researched, wide-ranging history of World War II, focusing on Anglo-American relations, a subject on which Reynolds has written before. It is a "top down" as well as "bottom up" study, with the emphasis as much on high policy as on "real life" - not always an easy read but a very rewarding book, with some lively insights and memorable quotes.

Reynolds sets the GI occupation in the context of both American and British history. "Unlike America," he writes, "the deepest fault lines in British society were not those of ethnicity, race or section, but those of class." It was these fault lines in each society that the other most resented, when the two were brought into close proximity - English snobbery and US racism. "For the [American] Army of 1941 `negro' spelled problem, not potential. Second-class citizens were regarded as second-class soldiers." Southern segregationism still ruled and the British, in those far-off, innocent days, were deeply shocked. In the fights that sometimes occurred when the pubs emptied, our people tended to side with the blacks against the white GIs.

In keeping with his double focus on events, Reynolds complements anecdote with facts and figures. So we learn that by late 1942 only 7.4 per cent of the US army was black, although Roosevelt had imposed a quota target of 10 per cent (the contemporary ratio of blacks to whites in American society as a whole) back in 1940.

Reynolds doesn't say a great deal about the "special relationship" between Churchill and Roosevelt, but he gives a very good account of the Anglo- American Attitudes of the leading military commanders on both sides. Eisenhower emerges as a genuinely imaginative and far-sighted leader whose political skills matched - perhaps more than matched - his military attributes. His prioritisation of good relations and close co-operation between the two armies made him the ideal commander of the Joint Forces.

Of course, the underlying and - to the British - unpalatable truth of this so-called "cousinly" relationship was that a vital shift in the balance of power was taking place at precisely this time. As Reynolds writes, "overall, America had been far more peripheral to Britain's self-image than Britain was to the cultural identity of the US. This pattern would be reversed in the 1940s."

In that sense the American occupation of Britain - however peaceful, even welcome, it may have been - was indeed an occupation. The GIs were a conquering army and, like all conquering armies, they ravished the native women. But, being friendly invaders, they did the decent thing. By 1946, according to an official report, the US army's "only major activity in the United Kingdom was the shipment of war brides".