In this blog post (the first of two) I’m going to draw on the Cabinet Papers to explore the British Government’s response to the arrival of Black GIs in Britain during the Second World War. I refer to government records and other primary sources of the time which use terminology which we now consider offensive, for example, ‘coloured troops’ and ‘negroes’.
Several years ago I recall hearing a story about villagers in the West Country during the Second World War refusing to go along with a local US Army segregation order that Black GIs (see footnote 1) were excluded from the local pub and that only white American troops could use it – the villagers protested and effectively overturned this order. I’m pretty certain that it was the singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg that related this story to me, when I had the pleasure to meet him some years back. The story made a big impression on me and I thought, one day, I must follow this thread up. Now I have, and here are the fruits of my research so far.
President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill negotiated the decision to send US troops to Britain in late 1941. The first wave of (white) American troops arrived in the British Isles on 26 January 1942, at Belfast in Northern Ireland. The Britain of 1942 was not as ethnically diverse as Britain today.
When it became clear that a proportion of Black troops were going to be sent, one can see the British Government trying to ‘put the brakes on’, attempting to restrict the numbers. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was the leading advocate of this approach, as we can see from this extract from the Cabinet Minutes of 31 August 1942.
‘The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs said that it seemed that the United States authorities were still sending over the full authorised proportion of coloured troops (about 10 per cent) with the contingents of forces reaching this country. Having regard to the various difficulties to which this policy was likely to give rise (including the fact that the health of coloured troops would be likely to suffer during the English winter), he thought that we were justified in pressing the United States authorities to reduce as far as possible the number of coloured troops included in the contingents of United States forces sent to this country.
This view was endorsed by the War Cabinet.’CAB 65/27/35, WM (42) 119
Eden’s argument that ‘the health of coloured troops would be likely to suffer during the English winter’, is, I have to say, fatuous. He clearly had no idea about Black communities routinely dealing with harsh winters in Detroit, Chicago and New York! What was really behind this strong desire to restrict the number of Black troops –what were ‘the various difficulties to which this policy was likely to give rise’?
The government was concerned about how the British people would react if white Americans tried to impose segregation (described as the ‘Jim Crow’ laws) (footnote 2) in their villages and towns. They were worried that the public would object if it saw Black troops being treated unfairly; and they were also concerned that some white American soldiers might react aggressively if they saw the Black GIs being welcomed with kindness. And, as I will show in my second blog post on this subject, they were broadly right that the British public would be supportive of the Black GIs.
Another factor was that Britain was a colonial power and the issues surrounding the ‘colour problem’ could well have implications for Britain’s relations with its colonial allies, the peoples of the territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. British politicians were conscious of this and therefore reluctant to tell America what it should be doing, and they did not want to jeopardise relations with a crucial ally.
The British Government floundered around in its attempts to address the issues raised by US segregation policies. As author and journalist Linda Hervieux has written, ‘reluctance to tackle the issue directly by Churchill’s government would lead to much dithering over how to handle the matters raised by America’s race problem. The result would be confusion’ (footnote 3).
In early August 1942 a British Army Officer, Major General Arthur Dowler, who was in charge of the administration of Southern Command, decided to issue some guidance on his own initiative entitled ‘Notes on relations with Coloured Troops’. The distribution was intended to be limited, but it was apparently widely circulated. This guidance became known as ‘Dowler’s Notes’. The key passage of this, expressing the most appalling and breathtaking prejudice, makes for a truly depressing read. It is also riddled with contradictions.
‘While there are many coloured men of high mentality and cultural distinction, the generality are of a simple mental outlook. They work hard when they have no money and when they have money prefer to do nothing until it is gone. In short they do not have the white man’s ability to think and act to a plan. Their spiritual outlook is well known and their songs give the clue to their nature. They respond to sympathetic treatment. They are natural psychologists in that they can size up a white man’s character and can take advantage of a weakness. Too much freedom, too wide associations with white men tend to make them lose their heads and have on occasions led to civil strife. This occurred after the last war due to too free treatment and associations which they had experienced in France.’CAB 66/29/21, WP (42) 44
Dowler went on to state: ‘White women should not associate with coloured men. It follows then, they should not walk out, dance or drink with them.’ Dowler’s guidance was tantamount to complicity with the segregation-style policies. By contrast, in early September 1942, F A Newsam of the Home Office issued this directive to chief constables across the country.
‘It is not the policy of His Majesty’s Government that any discrimination as regards the treatment of coloured troops should be made by the British authorities. The Secretary of State, therefore, would be glad if you would be good enough to take steps to ensure that the police do not make any approach to the proprietors of public houses, restaurants, cinemas or other places of entertainment with a view to discriminating against coloured troops.’CAB 66/29/36, WP (42) 456
There were significant differences between members of the Cabinet on this subject. The Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, produced an article in the Sunday Express headlined ‘Colour Bar must go’. By contrast the Secretary of State for War, Sir James Grigg, issued a memorandum ‘suggesting that Army personnel should be educated to adopt towards coloured troops the attitude adopted by the United States Army authorities’.
The War Cabinet debated the subject at a meeting on 13 October 1942. The Cabinet minutes record that ‘it was generally agreed that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured American troops’. However, the discussion was more nuanced than this depressing statement would suggest. The Secretary of State for the Colonies ‘expressed some uneasiness’ about this point, though he was concerned with safeguarding the relationship with the colonies, rather being driven by a broader anti-racist or humanitarian sentiment.
‘The Secretary of State for the Colonies expressed some uneasiness at the point made under (2) above, namely, that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured American troops. He thought that this involved some departure from the attitude hitherto adopted towards coloured British subjects who came to this country, and that there was a risk of creating an atmosphere which would give offence to the coloured people now in this country and lead to their becoming a focus of discontent when they returned to their homes in the Colonies.’CAB 65/28/10, WM (42) 140
Another point was expressed during the discussion – that the Americans ‘must not expect our authorities, civil or military, to assist them in enforcing a policy of segregation’. And the suggestion was made that it would be desirable to refer in future to ‘American negroes’ rather than ‘United States coloured troops’. The reason for this change in terminology was not explained.
The dominant figure in this debate was Sir Stafford Cripps, the Lord Privy Seal. He was tasked by the Cabinet with drawing up a revised memorandum (‘United States Negro Troops in the United Kingdom’) which was to be circulated as ‘Private and Confidential’, for limited basis to senior officers in the Army and Royal Air Force. Looking at this document it is disappointing to find that Cripps, in his analysis of the situation in the USA, reflects some elements which appear in Dowler’s notes. One could argue that he is describing prejudicial attitudes rather than lending support to them, but again, to read this memo makes for uncomfortable reading:
‘In the South the white population still tend to regard Negroes as children for whom they have a moral responsibility; like children Negroes commonly inspire affection and admiration; but they are not considered “equal” to white men and women any more than children are considered equal to adults, although an increasing number of them are now playing an active and influential part in the public life of communities in which they live.’CAB 66/30/3, WP (42) 473
Cripps went on to argue that ‘it is not for us to embarrass them [the Americans], even if we have different views on how race relationships should be treated in our own country and in the Empire … there is no reason why British soldiers and auxiliaries should adopt the American attitude but they should respect it and avoid making it a subject for argument and dispute’. His view on white women mixing with Black soldiers was slightly more nuanced than that advocated by Dowler: ‘for a white woman to go about in the company of a Negro American is likely to lead to controversy and ill-feeling, it may also be misunderstood by the Negro troops themselves. This does not mean that friendly hospitality in the home or in social gatherings need be ruled out, though in such cases care should be taken not to invite white and coloured American troops at the same time’.
So this memo represented the British Government’s advice on the subject. It was far from clear and open to interpretation. President Eisenhower took some enlightened measures but was not prepared to enforce racial integration in the US army. He left matters to the judgment of his local commanders. As Linda Hervieux has written, ‘the result was a series of orders by subordinates that wove a crazy quilt of Jim Crow across Britain’ (footnote 4). In my second blog post I will explore how this played out on the ground – and there were many heart-warming and refreshing aspects regarding the reaction of the British public to the presence of the Black GIs in Britain.
- ‘GIs’ – this was a nickname which is thought to have derived from the term ‘Government Issue’.
- ‘Jim Crow laws’ (in US history) – this refers to the local and state laws that enforced racial segregation in the South after the American Civil War and which were largely overturned by the mid-1960s.
- Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, Linda Hervieux (Amberley, 2019), p. 165.
- Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, Linda Hervieux (Amberley, 2019), p.178.