The Americans in Britain
‘Over–sexed, over-paid and over here’?
Well over 2 million US servicemen (GIs) passed through Britain between 1941 and 1945. Most were on their way to other battlefronts but in 1944 half a million were involved in air operations from this country. The quip ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ has often made about the GIs but it is not justified.
The GIs were well paid not ‘over-paid’. In wartime Britain everything was in short supply and British servicemen received low pay. British troops resented the difference in pay, and the way in which some British women found the ‘Yanks’ attractive – over 50,000 married US servicemen – but the GIs were no more ‘over-sexed’ than any other group of young men facing a dangerous and uncertain future.
Allied victory would have been unlikely without the GIs being ‘over here’. Given the numbers involved, the small size of Britain, wartime circumstances, and cultural differences, this ‘friendly invasion’ was bound to have problems but huge efforts were made to overcome these.
‘Maintaining a firm Anglo-American partnership for the purpose of winning this war lies close to my heart. There is no single thing I believe more important to both our countries,’ said General Eisenhower in January 1944.
Most British civilians came across American servicemen during the war but there was a particular closeness between the ‘Flyboys’ - members of the United States Army Air Forces - and their hosts in Eastern England.
The US airmen’s impact was huge. They stayed for years and their airfields, or bases, were bigger than most villages. On some there were as many as 3,000 GIs. By 1944 one in seven of Suffolk’s population was American.
Everyone was involved in base life. Whole villages would count the aeroplanes out and wait anxiously for their return. Base dances became a social highlight for many young women. Children benefited from the friendliness of the Americans who treated them to sweets, chewing gum and parties. Village families provided lonely GIs with a sense of the home life they had left behind.
After 1945 the airmen were missed. Their bravery and generosity would be recalled; early complaints of bragging and brashness forgotten.
‘I can remember the Yanks almost more than the war itself’, said one Suffolk woman.
Life on base
Over 120 US airfields were spread across Eastern and Southern England. Their aircrews were frequently in combat, suffered heavy losses and were under constant strain. Ground crews were scarcely under less pressure.
To help maintain morale, everything was done to make the bases homes from home, truly ‘little Americas’. GIs might live in Nissen Huts, remembered as ‘ice boxes open at both ends’ but they were well fed, entertained and paid. Every base had a ‘doughnut dugout’ and a PX store. ‘Motion pictures are as necessary to the men as rations’, said one general. Mail from home, the Stars and Stripes newspaper, pets, pin ups and gambling all helped make life more tolerable.
‘The base would remind you of a main street downtown on a Saturday night,’ wrote one GI in a letter home.
Time off base was important to the GIs. Local towns, and cities provided facilities unavailable on their bases.
American Red Cross Social Clubs with their coffee bars, pool tables and libraries could be found in local towns – seven in Cambridge alone – and were specifically run for the GIs. But there were also pubs, dance halls and special events; there was even a rodeo in Norwich, where GIs and locals met and mixed.
London was the great recreational magnet. Here frazzled aircrews often blew half a month's pay in 48 hours. Afterwards they could sleep off their excesses at the biggest Red Cross Club in Piccadilly. Others preferred to visit the famous sights – Big Ben, Madame Tussauds or Tower Bridge.
All helped to ensure that although for many war was hell, for others it would be remembered as a ‘hell of a war’.