The night a fatal gun battle broke out between black GIs and racist US soldiers in Bamber Bridge
The deadly firefight lasted more than five hours and was one of the most extraordinary to take place during the Second World War, for the simple reason that it happened not just outside Potsdam or Palermo or Paris — but Preston.
By the time the shooting stopped, late on the night of June 24, 1943, a soldier lay dying, with a bullet in his back.
For their part in the violence, 32 others would be court-martialed and handed jail sentences of between three months and 15 years.
The convicted men were all American, all black, accused by the U.S. Army of starting ‘a mutiny’ against white military policemen.
But the locals didn’t regard it as a mutiny. They have always had another name for it: the Battle Of Bamber Bridge.
The good folk of that small Lancashire village, less than four miles from Preston, knew who was to blame and why. The battle was the most dramatic consequence of endemic racism in the U.S. army, which ran its wartime bases on British soil entirely according to the so-called Jim Crow laws of the segregated South. Next month, a remembrance garden is due to open outside Ye Olde Hob Inn where the terrible events of that night were ignited. But in the meantime, the Battle Of Bamber Bridge and the tensions that caused it have inspired one of the main storylines in a new feature film.
The convicted men were all American, all black, accused by the U.S. Army of starting ‘a mutiny’ against white military policemen
In The Railway Children Return, which opened across the UK last Friday and is the sequel to the 1970 classic The Railway Children, a young black soldier, stationed in rural Yorkshire during the Second World War, deserts rather than face more abuse by military policemen, who then ruthlessly hunt him down.
The film’s producer Jemma Rodgers, whose great-uncle was travelling secretary of the British civil rights group the League Of Coloured Peoples in 1943, wanted the Battle Of Bamber Bridge to inform the plot. She made contact with Alan Rice, professor of English and American Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, who was delighted to hear from her. ‘I’m hoping the film will gain the story the attention it has always deserved,’ he says. In 1943, black troops, who eventually made up about a tenth of the 1.3 million U.S. military personnel in wartime Britain, were not intended for combat duty. ‘They had their own bases and were support units,’ Professor Rice explains.
‘They dug ditches, built latrines, drove trucks, worked in the mess. It was part of America’s policies of racialisation. Their commanders didn’t believe that black people were good enough for combat. Only in 1944, when there was a gigantic shortage of troops, were they allowed to fight.’
Black GIs were used to being treated like third-class citizens; that’s how it was at home, especially in the South. But on evenings out in Britain they experienced something unfamiliar and rather startling.
‘They were made welcome everywhere,’ says Professor Rice. ‘In the pubs, civilians drank with them. In the village halls, white women danced with them. And that riled white American soldiers more than anything, what they called miscegenation [racial interbreeding, which they believed would de-purify the white majority].
‘I’ve seen their letters home and they’re tough to read. They complain that the British didn’t know what they were doing, that the country was going to be full of mongrels.’
Far from dancing to Jim Crow’s tune, the residents of Bamber Bridge made it clear that they preferred the black soldiers over their white counterparts. According to Clinton Smith, who chairs the Preston Black History Group, the African-American GIs compared extremely favourably with the more boorish military police (MPs). ‘They showed a level of civility that the locals didn’t see from the MPs, who were described as rude and ignorant,’ he says. ‘Partly, it was because they were treated so nicely and were extremely polite in return.’
In 2013, while organising a gathering to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle, Mr Smith met a survivor, Eunice Byers, who is still alive at 105. ‘She told the story so vividly she might have been looking out of the window watching it,’ he says.
‘She lived on the main street and recalled how black soldiers went up and down telling the locals to get indoors because there was going to be trouble.’
The battle erupted out of a perfect storm of circumstances. In an attempt to put an end to the social mingling that so outraged white soldiers, their commanders demanded that village publicans start segregating their pubs.
A couple responded provocatively, posting ‘Negroes Only’ signs. So tensions were already running high when they were further inflamed, in the third week of June, 1943, by news of full-scale race riots back home, in Detroit, Michigan.
There are conflicting reports as to what happened next. But we know that on the Thursday evening, as usual, black troops from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment, stationed at nearby Adams Hall, were drinking at the Hob Inn. It’s thought that when the barmaid called time, at 10pm, some of them started good-natured jeering. A few locals joined in, just for a laugh. That’s when two white military policemen, or MPs, decided to arrest one of the black soldiers, Private Eugene Nunn, for being improperly dressed.
The civilians objected strenuously, on Private Nunn’s behalf, so the MPs left to get reinforcements.
‘The next thing was that four or five black troops were walking down the main street and just behind them were three white ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) girls, fraternising and laughing,’ says Professor Rice.
‘That was like a red rag to a bull when the MPs turned up again. They started beating up unarmed men, one of whom tried to grab one of their guns from its holster, so things escalated even more.’
Shots were fired and a Private Lynn Adams was hit in the neck. The MPs then went to fetch further reinforcements, while some of the black soldiers returned to their base and raided the armoury.
In The Railway Children Return, which opened across the UK last Friday and is the sequel to the 1970 classic The Railway Children, a young black soldier, stationed in rural Yorkshire during the Second World War, deserts rather than face more abuse by military policemen, who then ruthlessly hunt him dow.
However, tempers were cooling until more MPs turned up in an improvised armoured car, mounted with searchlights and a machine gun. There followed a firefight, which ended in the death of black soldier Private William Crossland. ‘Shot down in cold blood on a British street,’ as Professor Rice says.
He was recently able to scrutinise the court-martial records, which, in detailing the causes of the incident, refer only to the ‘hysteria’ and ‘insubordination’ of the black troops. As for the men who received jail sentences of up to 15 years, all were released within 12 months so they could be packed off to fight the Nazis — although the corporals and sergeants among them were stripped of their stripes.
The irony, that U.S. forces had come to Europe to fight fascism yet were guilty of unspeakable racism themselves, seemingly went unnoticed by the top brass. Perhaps more likely, it wasn’t even considered ironic. All the same, they recognised that events at Bamber Bridge had the potential to embarrass the army. The following day, MPs went from house to house looking for stray bullets, in a clear attempt to remove the evidence of their own part in the battle.
And the army took full advantage of wartime censorship laws to hush it all up. The only Press coverage was a brief report in the Lancashire Evening Post, which may also help to explain why it is so little-known to this day.
In many ways, Britain’s wartime government was complicit in all this. James Grigg, the Secretary of State for War, acknowledged in 1942 that U.S. commanders had every right to be worried, on the basis that ‘coloured troops probably expect to be treated in this country as in the United States, and a markedly different treatment might well cause political difficulties at the end of the war’.
In other words, they might have the effrontery to go home and refuse to put up with segregation.
To help deal with that quandary, the 1942 Visiting Forces Act was rushed through inside a day, giving American military personnel immunity in British courts and allowing U.S. forces to operate, on British soil, under their own laws.
Winston Churchill’s government must have been aware that some of those laws were inherently racist — or would be applied in racist ways. Yet while our politicians looked the other way, the public — and the Press — did not.
That was evident in the case of Leroy Henry, a black U.S. Army truck driver arrested in May 1944 for raping a white English woman on the outskirts of Bath. The sex was entirely consensual and she was almost certainly a prostitute. Nevertheless, she accused Henry of rape and less than a month later a court-martial sentenced him to death by hanging.
Of the 18 American soldiers hanged for rape in wartime Britain, 12 were black. But Henry was not one of them. Outraged civilians organised a petition to save him, which more than 33,000 people signed, and his cause was taken up energetically by the national Press, including the Daily Mail.
Far from dancing to Jim Crow’s tune, the residents of Bamber Bridge made it clear that they preferred the black soldiers over their white counterparts. Pictured: Ye Olde Hob Inn, Bamber Bridge, Lancashire
Unlike the Battle of Bamber Bridge, the plight of Leroy Henry received considerable attention. Historian Graham Smith, who has written the definitive book on the subject, When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain, describes it as ‘arguably the most widely-publicised and discussed single incident during the whole American presence in Britain’.
U.S. Commander-in-Chief Dwight D Eisenhower even had to deal with it in the run-up to the D-Day landings, when, to say the least, he had other matters on his mind. But the furore in the British Press had caught the attention of civil rights campaigners in the U.S. and bowing to pressure there as well as here, Eisenhower decreed that Henry should be acquitted.
In his book, Smith chronicles many examples of tension between blacks and whites stationed in Britain with U.S. forces.
In Leicester, white paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, arriving to prepare for D-Day, were enraged to find that black soldiers already there to construct an aerodrome had ‘friendships’ with local white girls. Taunts led to fights and in one of the fights a military policeman was killed.
In Bristol, an observer from the Colonial Office noted disapprovingly that black GIs were being confined to barracks on the basis that if they were allowed out, ‘they may interfere with women’.
Resentment on both sides of the racial divide grew until eventually, in July 1944, it erupted in an alarming riot involving 400 soldiers and 120 military police, the black soldiers mostly armed with knives, the whites with guns.
Remarkably, there was only one death — a black GI — and Bristol remained under military curfew for days afterwards.
Of course, racism from white English people towards black American GIs was by no means unknown. But it was not at all typical. In fact, more typical was the feeling that prevailed in Bamber Bridge.
‘The general consensus of opinion is that the only American soldiers with decent manners are negroes,’ wrote the novelist George Orwell.
However, a West Country farmer put it more wittily. ‘I love the Americans,’ he said, when asked about the visiting troops. ‘I just don’t like these white ones they’ve brought with them.’
The Railway Children Return is out in cinemas now.