PHOTO: FELIX MAN

African American Soldiers in WWII Britain

PUBLISHED : October 20, 2022

WORDS : Archive Team

The African American soldiers of the Second World War played a vital part, yet history often overlooks them.

When World War II started, a whole new influx of people transformed the region as American soldiers came to the UK in the run-up to D-Day. Estimates of the numbers of African American soldiers, mostly GIs, range from 100,000 and 300,000, with many concentrated in port areas.

Although British authorities expressed concern about the arrival of so many black men (particularly with regards to them mixing with white women), British people generally welcomed them. It was ironic – the British didn’t like the segregation the US Army brought with it, yet Britain was still steeped in post-colonial racism.

African American GIs manning artillery in Weymouth | Weymouth Reference Library

Unfortunately, as the same time, the Americans also brought along their segregation and bigotry against their own Black citizens, referred to as Negros at the time, as well as their so-called ‘Jim Crow Laws’ implemented mainly to enforce racial segregation in the Southern United States.   And it wasn’t only casual individual prejudice ingrained over generations – it was the official policy of the United States Armed forces.

There was harsh treatment from prejudice at every level in the US armed forces:  Black officer training inequities, unequal transportation of Black troops and savage attitudes towards the Black soldier in general.  It went as far as Blacks not being allowed to donate blood for White soldiers.  Even blood was segregated.

Mistreatment of Black American servicemen by their White comrades came to a head during a serious incident that took place in June of 1943 between Black and White soldiers in a town called Bamber Bridge in Lancashire, which began because of negative reactions by some White Military Police towards Black soldiers fraternising with local White woman.  A violent riot ensued when the MPs attempted to arrest several African American soldiers from their racially segregated regiment at Ye Olde Hob Inn public house, where several soldiers were shot and seriously wounded.

African American soldiers greeted after arriving in England. 1943

The American commander at the time placed the blame for the violence on the White officers and MPs because of poor leadership and their use of racial slurs.

The English people of Bamber Bridge supported the Black troops, and when US commanders demanded a coloured bar in the town, all three pubs posted “Black Troops Only” signs.

This was not the only incident that boiled the blood of the local English hosts.  There were also stories of whole villages in Norfolk being completely segregated, Black and White, and certain establishments being White only or Black only, which incensed the English locals.

The British military authorities tried to push back against these incidents by imposing “Jim Crow segregation” in Britain to please their Americans saviours, but this further steeled the English against complying.

African American soldiers talking with a British Officer

Historian Graham Smith who wrote When Jim Crow met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II (1987), Britain stated that ‘Blacks were warmly welcomed in Britain, and the action of the white Americans in furthering a colour bar was roundly condemned.”

Roy Ottley, who was among the most famous African American correspondents in the United States during the mid-20th century, working for Negro Digest pointed out that while the British “do draw racial distinctions and are not without racial prejudice, they have it in a form less blunt than US segregationist policies.”  And while prejudice “did exist” against American Negros, the main origin was from what the Black troops faced from their Army superiors.

African American battalion briefing. Circa 1943

It has been suggested in a paper from Oxford Academic called Shocking Racial Attitudes:  Black G.I.s in Europe that the presence of African American soldiers in the UK (David Schindler,  Mark Westcott)  helped as time went on since the war to actually reduce anti-minority prejudice in the UK, a result of the positive interactions which took place between the soldiers and the local population.”  The paper suggests that this change “has been persistent and in locations in where more African American soldiers were posted, there is less implicit bias against black and fewer individuals professing racial prejudice.”

The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, credited with keeping the flow of post, intelligence and other logistics in WWII era Britain

The authors of this study believe that the transmission of these attitudes from parents to children as the most likely explanation.

So there does appear to be some hope.

And while great strides have been made in the last half-century, it is still not enough.  Great change is still needed, and among the tools certainly are education and proper upbringing directed towards fostering racially neutral attitudes.