Warmth and austerity on the home front
Young Americans discovered Britain, and women found they could do men's jobs. Jessica Saraga on social change wrought by the war.
Ruminating on his sources in the last chapter of Rich Relations, David Reynolds touches on the persistence of memory. Sometimes memory doesn't persist. Fifty years on one traumatised soldier couldn't remember whether or not he'd killed someone; another had forgotten the woman who'd nursed his wounds and conceived his child. Can memory then be the stuff of history? Should we trust the 34 ageing women who told Mavis Nicholson (What Did You Do in the War, Mummy?) in relived youthful excitement how the Second World War changed their lives? Perhaps we should prefer the primary testimony (Hearts Undefeated), of the women who wrote soberly and sparsely about what they saw and felt as it happened. They were all equally eyewitnesses. History must synthesise and compensate even-handedly for contemporaries' lack of perspective and memory's lack of precision.
David Reynolds more than tempers his reliance on memory with statistics and contemporary records. In an onslaught of detail, he never loses sight of the wider picture, his perspective ever shifting and balancing the official and the personal, the American and the British, the military and the civilian. His setting is ETO, the European Theater of Operations; his subject American troops in Britain between 1942 and 1945. GI stood for Government Issue, the soldiers' ironic reference to their lot, standardised and uniform, no-one individual and no-one indispensable. Three million GIs sojourned in Britain between 1942 and 1945, marking time while strategists argued about the second front against Germany, and fortunes ever worsened in the war against Japan. The 1942 invasion plan, Operation Roundup, was dropped; so was the Sledgehammer plan for continuous raids on the French coast. But, Bolero continued, an increasingly intense build-up of troops in Britain producing ever larger numbers of bored GIs with nothing to do but wait.
American and British commands decided early on that the two armies, though in the same war and the same invasion, would fight separately. The US command was determined its GIs' pay and conditions should not be dragged down to British levels. British civilians thought of Americans as distant cousins from a country whose inhabitants, speaking English, must somehow be British at heart. Conscript teenage GIs, drafted from depressed middle America into British wartime austerity where the lights were always out and there was no such thing as an egg, found Britain boring, old-fashioned and class-ridden.
Falsely identifying the frustrations of army discipline in a war with no-one to fight and nowhere to go with the British way of life, they took refuge in the clubs where the American Red Cross created little Americas with hamburgers, fried eggs and jitterbugging. White GIs tried to impose colour bars in the pubs and attacked black GIs seen out with white English women. The British for their part resented the swagger of the GIs who siphoned off women with their money and slick uniforms, but didn't seem to know how to drill, let alone, it was thought, to fight.
David Reynolds rightly insists on the military context of this uneasy relationship. GIs were soldiers not civilians. They didn't want to be there, but were forced to lead a semi-civilian life because they had nothing to do. British teenage girls brought up on Hollywood interpreted sex and attentiveness (the latter not the wartime British male's strong point) as love. But where GIs did get to know their hosts, they appreciated close relationships, female company, and the normality of a home atmosphere with family meals and visits to the cinema.
Were the GIs oversexed? Was a relaxation in sexual morality consequent on or coincident with their arrival in Britain? The first hand testimonies of the women in What Did You Do in the War, Mummy? are contradictory. Unsurprisingly, there were girls who did and girls who didn't. One contributor claims that wartime saw the acceptance of sex as the enjoyment of the expression of love. Another, married at 25, found her husband "laughed his head off because I knew nothing at all." Freya Stark in Hearts Undefeated refers to "the generous heart", which "will give itself in wartime, when men's physical hunger for women is so great".
Her sentiments are not typical in this anthology of extracts from novels,memoirs, The Listener, The New Statesman, and other journals published during or shortly after the war. But her tone is echoed throughout, to today's ears curiously other-worldly and stilted. Perhaps it reflects the concern for public formality epitomised by the clipped upper class BBC-speak which the GIs so reacted against. Now its seems class-based. It is not helped by the loss of narrative flow and sense of individual experience produced by re-arranging chopped up pieces under glib headings such as "Watching, Waiting, Praying" or "Love, Sex and Immorality".
Far more of a sense of narrative and immediacy is evident, paradoxically after 50 years, in the oral history recorded in What Did You Do in the War,Mummy? How contributors were selected or how representative they are is not clear, but their accounts have a certain consistency. War for women was revolution and revelation. It catapulted them into unimagined freedom and responsibility, turning a generation of ordinary 19 year olds into weather-watchers and air raid wardens, ack-ack gunners and barrage balloon operators, lumberjacks and truck-drivers. Clever girls could work with codes. Horsy girls could work with horses. They joined the Wrens and freed a man for the fleet. They joined the WAAF and crewed ambulance Dakotas flying the wounded out of Normandy after D-Day.
Proudly, they have supplied pictures. Here they are at work or at leisure,level eyes looking outwards and upwards under uniform caps and bright skies, young, useful and sometimes in love. But memories and photographs are selective. The sombre tone of Hearts Undefeated is needed to remind us that wartime wasn't always sunny; photographs were taken in rare moments of relaxation.
For many women, the end of the war was a blow: "They gave us a pat on the head and a little slip of paper saying we had one month's notice, thank you very much, goodbye" "When I came out of the forces I was absolutely lost. There was nothing doing. Nothing at all." Edith Summerskill MP looked forward to the dismay, after the war, "of the domestic Hitlers who revel in petty dictatorships", convinced that women's new freedom would "spell the doom of the home life as enjoyed by the male who is lord and master immediately he enters his own front door".
But she was wrong; many freedoms disappeared. Once again, as after the First World War, the boys returned wanting "their" jobs back. Suddenly it became vital that children, who as evacuees six years before were officially thought undamaged living with complete strangers, must now all have full time contact with their mothers at home.
Just as silently, the Americans faded away. Some came back to Britain wounded, but for most it had been a one-way passage, and when they finally embarked for home it was from France, Germany or Italy; 38,000 were eventually joined - if sometimes only briefly - by their British war brides. The vast majority of liaisons were left behind. But the social effects of the war were ultimately irreversible. Britain had been exposed to America; women had been exposed to freedom. Neither was ever quite forgotten.