A War of Politics

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By Robin Whitlock

It's easy to remember the extensive contribution made by the Americans towards the final defeat of Nazi Germany, but among the memories and the movies, a darker side to our allies efforts remains largely hidden in the mists of history. The policy of racial segregation within the US forces is something that is largely absent from the multitude of books on the war that line book shelves at Smiths and Waterstones, that is apart from a small number of published yet difficult to find works on the subject.
The US forces at the time had decided that the best way to prevent racial violence among the troops was segregation and it was believed that this would be beneficial to all parties involved. Consequently the various billets, camps and clubs that rapidly appeared throughout the city in the years leading up to the Normandy invasion were organised along racial lines with black billets usually located some distance away from the white troops billets. As Margaret Bagwell observes in her university dissertation, this was somewhat ironic, given that the Americans had been based in Britain to assist in defeating an enemy who had inflicted a racially-driven war upon Europe. This irony however appears to have either been lost upon or ignored by the US authorities.
"Arguably the most controversial problem of cultural exchange" writes Margaret Bagwell in her university dissertation, "was the differences in what constituted acceptable treatment of racial minorities, namely individuals of African descent. It was this clash of cultural mores that most often erupted in violence among the invading American troops and intensified all other cultural misunderstandings, particularly sexual interactions." The experience was new to the local British population, very few of whom had ever seen anyone African-American extraction before, despite Bristol's notorious reputation as a centre of the slave trade. According to Bagwell, the experience was transformative. "There is little doubt that many people in Great Britain, especially those who came in close contact with the Negro troops, were awakened to a wider appreciation of a problem which up to that time few of them had ever considered seriously" she writes.
John Keith of the Colonial Office felt deeply that the segregationist policy was destined to inflame racial tension among the troops rather than deter it. In some instances however, the segregation policy was not strictly observed with the result that in a number of locations white troops and black troops found themselves billeted next to each other. This was usually a recipe for trouble.
A British government memorandum of 1942 identifies the manner in which the US forces had decided black troops were to be deployed. "Coloured troops are not considered to be well fitted for combatant duties; they are used as engineer and labour battalions for work in ports and depots, for the construction and guarding of camps and aerodromes, and for truck battalions”. This was certainly the case in Bristol. The black American units stationed in the city were, in the main, Quartermaster Service Companies and Port units and Graham Smith describes many of the troops as being 'tough city blacks from Detroit and New York'. They included 959 and 962 Quartermaster Service Companies, 1512 Quartermaster Battalion and 542 to 545 Port Companies TC. They were based at various camps and billets all over the city, but the main billets for the black troops were situated at Sea Mills, the drill hall on Old Market Street, where Joe Louis the boxer was billeted, and the old Muller's Orphanages on Ashley Down.

This article was originally published in "Britain At War" magazine and can be found in full in the November 2010 edition.

I am a freelance writer, researcher and administrator with an interest in many contemporary issues across a wide variety of genre’s and business sectors. I have a particular interest in energy and the environment which is the main theme of my blog. I have been published in a wide variety of magazines since I started writing in 1997 and I also write regularly for the social media forum of a technical recruitment consultancy based in Milton Keynes. More recently I have started writing articles for the website of a business software company and also work as an online data input administrator for a London-based research company involved in gathering investment information for the food and renewable technology industries. I am a graduate of Bath Spa University with a BA (Hons) in Psychology and English (2/1).

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