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On 11 December 1941, the USA declared war on Germany and Italy on the same day that Hitler declared war on the USA. The first American servicemen arrived in Britain on 26 January 1942 and to prepare them for the culture shock of wartime Britain, the United States War Department published and distributed a handbook called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942.
Today this book gives some fascinating insights into the cultural position of both Britain and the US, and from a British perspective it is interesting to see how some of our quirks were viewed by the Americans and vice versa. What I find most interesting is how nice the book is about Britain and the British and how insightful the comments are regarding British life. Some of the comments are really heart-warming!
American servicemen earned nearly 5 times what British Tommies earned. In 1942 when the Americans arrived, a British Private would be paid 14s a week, while his American counterpart would earn the equivalent of £3. 8s and 9d. This of course caused some bitterness among some British soldiers, leading to the (hopefully light-hearted) accusation: ‘Oversexed, overpaid and over here’.
However when combined with the American tendancy to be a little more brash than the British, these inequalities were dangerous. The US War Office clearly recognised this and warned soldiers not to show off and be respectful. It’s fascinating how they explain why the British are reserved – due to our crowded island – and that this conceals a toughness that caused the English language to thrive around the world.
The British are often more reserved in conduct than we. On a small crowded island where forty-five million people live, each man learns to guard his privacy carefully-and is equally careful not to invade another man’s privacy.
So if Britons sit in trains or busses without striking up conversation with you, it doesn’t mean they are being haughty and unfriendly. Probably they are paying more attention to you than you think. But they don’t speak to you because they don’t want to appear intrusive or rude.
Don’t Be a Show Off. The British dislike bragging and showing off. American wages and American soldier’s pay are the highest in the world. When pay day comes it would be sound practice to learn to spend your money according to British standards. They consider you highly paid. They won’t think any better of you for throwing money around; they are more likely to feel that you haven’t learned the common-sense virtues of thrift. The British “Tommy” is apt to be specially touchy about the difference between his wages and yours. Keep this in mind. Use common sense and don’t rub him the wrong way.
The British Are Tough. Don’t be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite. If they need to be, they can be plenty tough. The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the worldbecause these people were panty-waists.
You are higher paid than the British “Tommy.” Don’t rub it in. Play fair with him. He can be a pal in need.
Britain as a war zone
What hits home right away when reading the book is the difference in war experience between Britain and the US. The book constantly reminds the American soldiers that the British have been at war already for three years and the island itself is a war zone. It shows how easy it must have been for the Americans to look down on British poverty and shabbiness compared to American wealth and how important a book like this must have been to explain the hardships the British had already suffered.
It’s quite poignant to read the summaries of how much the British suffered from an outside perspective. When we hear about the home-front in Britain, it is often easy to overstate the Blitz spirit and the positives of our ‘finest hour’ and forget how bad it really was. Coming from America to Britain, the pain must have been very clear.
Remember There’s a War On. Britain may look a little shop-worn and grimy to you. The British people are anxious to have you know that you are not seeing their country at its best. There’s been a war on since 1939- Tile houses haven’t been painted because factories are not making paint-they’re making planes.
Keep Out of Arguments. You can rub a Britisher the wrong way by telling him “we came over and won the last one.” Each nation did its share. But Britain remembers that nearly a million of.her best manhood died in the last war. America lost 60,000 in action.
Neither do the British need to be told that their armies lost the first couple of rounds in the present war. We’ve lost a couple, ourselves, so do not start off by being critical of them and saying what the Yanks are going to do. Use your head before you sound off, and remember how long the British alone held Hitler off without any help from anyone.
At Home in America you were in a country at war. Now, however, you are in a war zone. You will find that all Britain is a war zone and has been since September, 1939- All this has meant great changes in the British way of life.
But more important than this is the effect of the war itself. The British have been bombed, night after night and month after month. Thousands of them have lost their houses, their possessions, their families. Gasoline, clothes, and railroad travel are hard to come by and incomes are cut by taxes to an extent we Americans have not even approached.
You came to Britain from a country where your home is still safe, food is still plentiful, and lights are still burning. So it is doubly important for you to remember that the British soldiers and civilians are living under a tremendous strain. It is always impolite to criticize your hosts. It is militarily stupid to insult your allies.
The book highlights an attitude which probably still endures. Great Britain was viewed by some as an outdated system of titles and monarchy and the book takes the time to try to explain that the British respect their king while still living in ‘one of the great democracies’. You can see how the American’s perception of their own system as the greatest could easily come into conflict with British respect for tradition and it is interesting that the book goes as far as to suggest that the British system might even be better!
Although you read in the papers about “lords” and “sirs,” England is still one of the great democracies and the cradle of many American liberties. Personal rule by the King has been dead in England for nearly a thousand years. Today the King reigns, but does not govern. The British people have great affection for their monarch but have stripped him of practically all political power.
The important thing to remember is that within this apparently old-fashioned framework the British enjoy a practical, working twentieth century democracy which is in some ways even more flexible and sensitive to the will of the people than our own.
Historians often debate how far the position of women improved during the Second World War and the comments on this subject make very interesting reading. The fact that the book considers it worth pointing out indicates that the position of women in the USA had not reached a point where a female could give orders to a male. To be honest, I didn’t even realise that women officers would have that much power and respect.
A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.” There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.
Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic-remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.
These comments indicate that the war itself changed certain social relations in Britain far beyond those in America. As far as I know the book doesn’t mention it, but another interesting conflict that emerged when the Americans arrived in Britain was caused by American attitudes towards black people clashing with the comparative tolerance of the British.
Although of course racism was endemic in Britain in this period, the even more pronounced prejudices of the Americans encouraged some British people to stick up for their black neighbours. Colonel Pleas B. Rogers of the London Base Command, US Forces, admitted that in London the ‘negro British nationals are rightly incensed. They undoubtedly have been cursed, made to get off the sidewalk, leave eating places and are separated from their white wives in public by American soldiers.’ I recommend this article ‘When Jim Crow Met John Bull’ if you want to read more about this topic.
The book contains many more interesting observations – to read more go to this website.