- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2010

By Helen D.Millgate
Trafalgar Square/the History Press, $19.95
128 pages, illustrated

There is always a lot of talk about culture shock at various times, but there is no denying that one of the greatest examples of this came when large numbers of American troops were stationed in Britain during World War II. This phenomenon often crops up in social histories of the time or in studies of the global conflict’s many manifestations. It has also been taken on by Hollywood in films ranging from Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Americanization of Emily” to John Schlesinger’s “Yanks.”

Now along comes this judicious and insightful, fond but clear-eyed brief book on the subject by Helen Millgate, an Englishwoman who still “remembers the American ‘invasion’ of the war years” and whose sister actually married one of the ‘invaders’ and went to live in the United States. Ms. Millgate has produced a graceful portrait of this clash between cultures, neither minimizing nor exaggerating the problems, accentuating the positive without undue romanticizing.

The American troops who first arrived in the United Kingdom less than two months after Pearl Harbor had left a land of plenty that had enjoyed more than two years of peace and growing prosperity while Britons suffered bombing, rationing and all manner of shortages and disruption. The first 4,000 arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 26, 1942. (How much easier the Allies’ task would have been if the entire island had been available as a staging ground.

After the United States entered the war, the Irish Free State’s stubborn neutrality made even less sense (but that’s another story). Most GIs first set foot on the soil of Great Britain at the English port of Liverpool or at Greenock in Scotland after a harrowing journey in a convoy across the Atlantic, where even those not scared of torpedoes had to contend with overcrowding, terrible food and seasickness. Then it was on by what to them were strange, oddly designed trains to their camps.

Some were entranced by the beauty of the English countryside, so different from their homes on the prairie or in the desert. Ms. Millgate quotes an Air Force officer waxing lyrical: “We’ll think of England in the spring, the clean, fresh smell of the soil, the daffodils, the apple blossoms, the song birds, the rain, the long summer days and the English roses.” But as she goes on:

“All was not sunshine and flowers, however, on that first train ride. Men traveling south from Glasgow [adjacent to Greenock] through the Gorbals, then one of the worst slum areas in the British Isles, were struck by the shabbily dressed children begging along the track. Glasgow in the 1940s was an unlovely place, battered, ‘soot streaked’ and, rather like coming into London via Liverpool Street Station [through London’s heavily bombed East End], gave the very worst impression. Then, too, many boarded their first train in the blackout, into unventilated, probably unheated, barely lit carriages and passed through bomb-damaged cities like Liverpool, where fog-shrouded shells of buildings loomed out of the darkness.”

Culture shock, indeed, but the amazing thing was how well they adjusted, putting up with the cold and damp and the general dreariness all around them. Even the usually waspish Evelyn Waugh felt sorry for them: “London was full of American soldiers, tall, slouching, friendly, woefully homesick young men.” The fact that they were well-fed, American-style, not only helped keep their spirits up, but gave them a trump card to play in order to win over the locals. Not only starving slum children wanted their chewing gum and chocolate: No matter how much money Britons had, they were restricted to a very small ration of candy.

Visits to barbecues and other events on base were much prized for the bountiful menus of mountains of butter, steaks, eggs, fruit and countless other items either stringently limited or altogether unavailable. Invited home by a local family for supper, a GI was served “Bubble & Squeak” a concoction of mashed potato and cabbage, and concluded they were starving. The next day he returned with an armful of canned goods that kept them gloriously fed for the next month. American uniforms accentuated the distinction between officers and enlisted men much less than did the British, and then there were their silent rubber-soled boots that amazed the locals by not clattering on the streets like the ones they were used to.

Obviously, with such inequalities there were bound to be rough patches, particularly as the numbers swelled to an astonishing 1 million American troops on the eve of embarkation for D-Day. American headquarters in London’s Grosvenor Square became known, not always affectionately, as Eisenhowerplatz. There was inevitable jealousy and a fair amount of talk about Yanks being oversexed, overpaid and over here. The exchange rate and the lower cost of living in Britain made U.S. Army pay worth a great deal more on that side of the Atlantic, so they had more cash to spend as well as so much that mere money could not buy. There were certainly fights and smoldering resentments, but, as Ms. Millgate sensibly notes after detailing some of what went on, “All things considered, it could have been a lot worse.”

What helped most of all was that despite all the differences, when it came to flying bombing missions over Germany or storming the Normandy beaches on D-Day, Yanks and Brits were all in it together. Perhaps that is why Ms. Millgate concludes her book with a look at the American Military Cemetery at Madingley in Cambridgeshire, where nearly 4,000 U.S. servicemen lie buried. America and Britain, as George Bernard Shaw famously said, may be divided by a common language, but the culture clash between them on British soil during World War II was overall a much more unifying than divisive experience.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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