‘British Reserved, Not Unfriendly’ : Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain during the Second World War
When American forces disembarked on British shores in 1942, each soldier was issued with a seven-page pamphlet by the United States War Department. These soldiers were preparing for the Allied invasion of occupied Europe, and many had never been abroad before. The purpose of this pamphlet was to prepare the young American GIs for their experience in a new country, but also to prevent any tension between them and the locals.
In Britain, the pamphlet attracted a lot of attention, because it gave the public an uncommonly direct view of how those outside of Britain saw the British. Relatively succinctly, the pamphlet gives us an interpretation of wartime Britain through the eyes of a sympathetic outsider and ally. By looking at some of the advice given to GIs in the pamphlet, over 75 years later, the reader is given a unique snapshot of Britain at war.
NO TIME TO FIGHT OLD WARS. GIs are advised not to reignite old hostilities between the British and Americans, such as the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. Irish Americans are also warned to not negatively view the British as the persecutors of their Irish ancestors, but to use common values to defeat Hitler’s tyranny.
BRITISH RESERVED, NOT UNFRIENDLY. The pamphlet tells the GIs that the British are often more reserved in conduct than themselves. For example, if a Briton does not engage you in conversation on the bus, they are not being unfriendly, but do not want to appear intrusive. The GIs are also advised not to use the word ‘bloody’, as this was one of the worst swear words in Britain at the time, nor ‘bum’ due to the different meaning of the word in Britain.
DON’T BE A SHOW OFF. The British are said to dislike bragging and showing off; the pamphlet claims that the GIs’ wages were the highest in the world, and dwarfed the pay of the average British Tommy. The British would not have thought better of the GIs for flashing their cash, but this would have ensured to rub the Tommy’s up the wrong way.
THE BRITISH ARE TOUGH. GIs are told to not be misled by the soft-spoken and polite nature of the British, as they can be tough if needed. Apparently, the English language did not spread across the oceans and mountains of the world because the British people were ‘panty-waists’. After sixty thousand British civilians had died under bombs, the people’s morale had remained unbreakable due to their plain, common guts.
AGE INSTEAD OF SIZE. The British are said to care little about size but take pride in age and tradition. London has no skyscrapers because the city is built on swampy ground, not because British architects could not design one. In London, buildings like Westminster Abbey where Kings and the land’s greatest men are buried grab the limelight, not towering skyscrapers.
REMEMBER THERE’S A WAR ON. GIs are told that although Britain may look a little worn and grimy in 1942, this is because there has been a war on since 1939. The British people are said to be conscious that the Americans are not seeing their country at its best, and that in normal time Britain looks much prettier, cleaner and neater. Currently, the factories are not produced paint for houses, but warplanes instead.
THE BRITISH LIKE SPORTS. The GIs are encouraged to go watch a cricket or football match, England’s two main sports, if they get the chance as they will ‘get a kick out of it’. Cricket would strike the GIs as slow compared to baseball but is also not easy to play. They would have to understand the finer points of the game to know what was going on.
INDOOR AMUSEMENTS. The place of recreation for the British is identified as the pub. The usual drink is beer, but this is not the Germanic lager beer Americans are used to, but ale or ‘bitter’. The British are identified as a beer-drinking people, and they can hold their drink. Despite beer now being below peacetime strength, it can still ‘make a man’s tongue wag at both ends’. The pub is the place men come to see their friends, and not strangers, so if the GIs want to join in with a game of darts, let them ask you first, as they probably will.
THE BRITISH CAME THROUGH. For months, the British are said to have been doing without things Americans have taken for granted, but this has allowed Britain to find a new cheerfulness and determination born out of hard times and tough luck. Therefore, the GIs are told that before they ‘sound off’ about a lukewarm beer or cold boiled potatoes, stop and think first.
SOME HINTS ON BRITISH WORDS. British slang is something that the GIs are told they will have to pick up for themselves. The soldiers are given some hints of common British words which are different to that at home – the top of the car is not a hood, but a bonnet, and the fenders are called wings. Also, rather cheekily, the pamphlet says: ‘gas is petrol – if there is any’.
Although these examples are just a few of many from the GIs’ pamphlet, we are still given a very clear idea of how Americans viewed the wartime British. Despite there being a hint of American arrogance in some places, such as with wages, but overall, the GIs are instructed to be respectful and thoughtful towards their hosts. This is summarised by the final line of the pamphlet, which is printed in bold: It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.
By Miles Clayton
Miles is our resident blogger here at History Indoors. He is an a Final Year student studying Modern History at the University of Essex and researches the positive experiences of British children on the Home Front during the Second World War, with oral histories sitting at the heart of the research. If there are any questions you have on this topic that you would like to see answered, please post them in the comments section below and we will be happy to answer them!