A child talks to four American airmen sitting on the curb.
Historic photography Second World War

The Story of the US Army Air Forces in Britain During the Second World War

By 1944, over half a million United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) servicemen were stationed in Britain.

During the Second World War (1939 to 1945), over half a million United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) servicemen were stationed in Britain. They included leading Hollywood stars such as James Stewart and Clark Gable, who were commissioned as serving officers.

At the war’s end, around two million American personnel, including Black servicemen and ground support staff, passed through the country, together with women affiliated to the American Red Cross and the Women’s Army Corps, as well as others involved in administrative war work.

The men were known colloquially as GIs, a term widely believed to stand for ‘Government Issue’.

A black and white photo of an airplane dropping its bombs through a cloud layer.
A bomber, nicknamed Helen Highwater III of the 579th Bomb Squadron, 397th Bomb Group, drops its bombs through a cloud layer. © IWM. FRE 10905.

The Allied strategy was for the ‘Mighty’ Eighth Air Force of the USAAF, with its many Squadrons, Combat Wings and Divisions, to join with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in a campaign of high explosive bombing of targets in Occupied Europe. These targets included cities, factories, aircraft manufacturers, shipyards, military facilities and infrastructure, with the intention of fatally weakening the enemy’s fighting capacity.

Gaining Allied air superiority over the skies of Europe also would be a vital precursor to an Allied land invasion of Europe, which took place on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

A photo of 5 men in uniform standing in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress.
A bomber crew of the 95th Bomb Group standing in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress nicknamed ‘Sandy’s Refuelling Boys’, August 1944. © IWM. FRE 5857.

The American military brought with it a very different culture, along with with the extensive building of airfields and the commandeering of buildings, to towns and villages across the country where they were based, giving rise to social upheaval in the lives of local inhabitants and profound changes to the localities.

What led to the US Air Force coming to Britain?

A black and white photo of the American battleship, USS Arizona, on fire and sinking after being attacked at Pearl Habour,
The American battleship, USS Arizona, on fire and sinking after being attacked at Pearl Habour, Hawaii, by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service, 7 December 1941. Source: Public Domain.

During the first two years of the Second World War, the United States pursued a policy of neutrality. The devastating surprise attack by around 350 Japanese aircraft on America’s Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbour (Japan along with Italy was an ally of Germany, the Axis Powers), was followed three days later by a declaration of war by Germany and Italy on the United States. The United States responded with declarations of war against Germany and Italy, thereby bringing her vast resources into the conflict on the side of the Allies.

Rather than attack Japan in the Pacific theatre of war, Britain and her Allies’ priority (strongly promoted by the top brass of the USAAF) became the destruction, through long-range aerial bombardment, of Germany’s ability to wage war. Britain’s proximity to Occupied Europe made her the natural staging post.

A black and white photo of a man in uniform leaving a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.
General Ira C. Eaker (1896 to 1987), soon to be Commander of the Eighth Air Force, leaving a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, 17 August 1942. © IWM. FRE 12088.

In February 1942, General Eaker (Second in Command of the Eighth Air Force) and his staff officers arrived in London to establish USAAF’s Bomber Command and learn about the RAF’s bombing methods, before setting up the USAAF headquarters at Wycombe Abbey School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, two months later.

At the end of the year, Eaker became Commanding General Eighth Bomber Command and was one of the key architects of their strategic precision bombing campaign.

The USAAF arrives in Britain

A black and white photo of Hardwick air base from above.
Hardwick air base, Norfolk, a USAAF 8th Air Force heavy bomber station with three runways. This aerial photograph dates from 1945.  The base, which was fairly typical, had accommodation for over 3,000 American service personnel, 460 officers and 2,660 enlisted men, as well as hangars, workshops, stores, armoury, signals facilities, fuel storage and administrative buildings. It was part of the joint RAF/USAAF airfield construction and re-assignment programme. © IWM. CH14525.

The USAAF took over from the RAF, or built from scratch (67 bomber stations), more than 200 airfields across Britain, most in the rural east of England: Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Cambridgeshire. The thousands of resident American personnel often dwarfed the population of local villages. In the county of Suffolk, for example, 1 in 7 of the population was American.

Large local buildings were commandeered as headquarters for USAAF commanders or converted to hospitals for injured service personnel, or rest centres for exhausted aircrew. Farm buildings became garages for American military vehicles or maintenance depots.

A photo of a former one story green building with a military hospital van outside.
Former USAAF air base, Rougham, Norfolk, originally home to the 322nd and 94th Bomb Groups, restored and maintained today by local volunteers. Source: Wayne Cocroft.

In an enduring legacy, some USAAF airfields survive today as heritage sites, including the original home of the 78th Fighter Group, IWM Duxford, Cambridgeshire, with the American Air Museum, although others are derelict or long gone. 

The plan of attack

A black and white photo of two American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses take to the skies.
Two American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, the leading heavy bomber of the Eighth Air Force, take to the skies. Source: Public Domain.

The first aircrews of the USAAF’s Eighth Air Force arrived in Britain in May 1942 and were stationed at RAF Grafton Underwood, Northamptonshire.

However, it was not until the end of the month that the first American fighter planes and bombers arrived in Britain, with 180 having made the 3,000-mile journey from the United States.

A black and white image of a group of men in uniform standing on the top of the control tower at RAF Grafton Underwood.
USAAF officers from the 97th Bomb Group, standing on the top of the control tower at RAF Grafton Underwood, looking out for the return of twelve B-17 Flying Fortresses following the Eight’s first heavy bombing raid in Occupied France, 17 August 1942, on Rouen’s railway marshalling yards. General Eaker himself took part in the successful raid. © IWM. FRE 887.

The intensive Allied bombing offensive against Occupied Europe began in the autumn of 1942.

By the following year, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) was at peak power and the Eighth Air Force suffered huge losses, especially during its 6 September raid over Stuttgart and over Bremen the following month. It was not uncommon to lose 30 or more aircraft on a single mission (around 300 men.)

Eighth Air Force morale reached a low point. A sense of fatalism prevailed, embodied by a phrase then: ‘fly in the Eighth Air Force was like holding a ticket to a funeral – your own.’ Aircrew suffered severe psychological disorders and recurring nightmares.

It was not until the end of 1943 when the P-51 Mustang aircraft was developed and introduced as a long-range fighter escort for the Eighth Air Force bombers, that the number of losses was drastically reduced and the balance of air power started to turn in favour of the Allies.

A black and white photo of an Eighth Air Force B-17 airplane from above.
An Eighth Air Force B-17 during a raid on a Focke-Wulf aircraft factory, Marienburg, Germany, 9 October 1943. Source: Public Domain.

In terms of the USAAF/RAF strategic aims, the joint offensive did come close to destroying the German economy by the end of the war. They had drawn the Luftwaffe away from supporting its fighting forces on the ground, contributing to the Allies’ air supremacy over Europe, and their ultimate victory over Germany.

But this came at a terrible human cost. The 8th Air Force lost over 26,000 men, with a further 28,000 becoming prisoners of war. More than 10,500 aircraft were lost, nearly half B-17s.

RAF Bomber Command lost around 55,500 killed, with the loss of more than 8,000 aircraft.

The joint Allied air raids over Occupied Europe resulted in an estimated one million civilian casualties.

Social impacts of the USAAF on Britain

A photo of two pages from a facsimile of ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942’ – a handbook produced for GIs by the United States War Department to help ease the American military into the very different British way of life. It gave guidance, for example, on customs and manners, women, language, money, sports, pubs, and not getting into arguments.
Two pages from a facsimile of ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942’, a handbook produced for GIs by the United States War Department to help ease the American military into the very different British way of life. It gave guidance, for example, on customs and manners, women, language, money, sports, pubs, and not getting into arguments. Source: Nicky Hughes.

The arrival of the USAAF servicemen in Britain was a seismic upheaval for a drab war-weary country suffering rationing, make-do-and-mend and widespread bomb damage. It was an equal culture shock for the young GIs, the majority of whom had never left their American homeland before.

A black and white photo of a woman saying farewell to three men hanging out of the window of an American bomber.
A woman saying farewell to the crew of an American bomber after a Christmas party at a USAAF air base, 1942. © IWM.

The Americans brought Coca-Cola, Lucky Strike cigarettes, candy, chewing gum, nylon stockings, R&B, blues and jazz and the exuberant dance, the Jitterbug. They wore smarter uniforms and were paid much more than their British counterparts.

A black and white photo of USAAF servicemen and local women milling in a courtyard with a row of trucks in the background.
USAAF servicemen and local women, Thetford, Norfolk, getting together for a Saturday night dance. Around 70,000 young British women became ‘GI brides’, crossing the Atlantic to start new lives with their American GI husbands at the end of the war. © IWM. FRE 13701.

Tommy Trinder (1909 to 1989), one of Britain’s top wartime comedians, reputedly helped popularise the phrase: ‘overpaid, over-sexed and over here’ in his comedy routines, pointedly poking fun at the GIs.

But the Americans also injected money into the depressed Britain, and helped strengthen what Winston Churchill later called the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States.

A black and white photo of three pilots sitting on their car, a Dodge Weapons Carrier.
Three pilots of the 82nd Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group, sit on their Dodge WC (Weapons Carrier), Duxford air base, 23 October 1943, prior to being taken to their waiting Thunderbolt aircraft to take part in USAAF daylight raids over Occupied Europe. © IWM. FRE 282.

Although there were sometimes tensions and clashes of cultures, the GIs became an integral part of the localities where they were based. Villagers would watch the fighters and bombers leave on missions, and count them back as they returned. The loss of aircrews and aircraft deeply affected communities.

A photo of a ceiling with graffiti drawn using cigarette lighters, candles and lipstick, showing the names and squadron numbers of USAAF/RAF drinkers.
Conserved ceiling of the Eagle pub, Cambridge, graffiti drawn during the Second World War, using cigarette lighters, candles and lipstick, showing the names and squadron numbers of USAAF/RAF drinkers. Source: Creative Commons.

In their downtime, GIs visited local pubs (getting to grips with the seemingly arcane customs) and partied hard at clubs in London. Towns set up special social clubs for them with pool tables and coffee bars.

A black and white photo of a group of men in uniform sitting in their basic metal hut with its single small stove.
GIs in their basic Nissen hut accommodation with its single small stove. © IWM.

There were dances and events at the air bases, and families welcomed the often lonely servicemen (usually accommodated in chilly airbase Nissan huts) into their homes at Christmas.

The experience of Black GIs in England

A sepia photo of Black GIs refueling an American truck.
Black personnel of the 2016 Quartermaster Truck Company refuel an American truck at a local petrol station. © IWM. FRE 14942.

Around 150,00 Black USAAF and other personnel arrived in Britain where the existing Black population was well under 10,000, almost all in the country’s port areas.

At that time in the United States, many areas of everyday life were racially segregated, particularly in the South. There was a strict colour bar, with Black citizens excluded from economic or social rights. The American military was only desegregated after the war in 1948.

While the British government did not formally implement segregation, it covertly supported it to maintain good relations with its most powerful Ally. There were also concerns over how its White citizens would react to Black servicemen.

A black and white photo of two Black GIs constructing something with wooden beams.
Black GIs were involved in vital work, such as the construction of airfields.© IWM. 33450.

Black GIs had separate training facilities, accommodations and units. Unlike their White counterparts, they were largely in service and support roles and worked in tough physical jobs such as building airfields.

A black and white photo of a Black GI dancing with a white female partner.
Black GI dancing with a White partner, Bouillabaisse Club, London, 1943. The capital tended to be a less discriminatory environment for Black servicemen than in the country where their own American commanders practised segregation. Source: Public Domain.

Many British people welcomed Black GIs, who found such racial tolerance a new experience. Some local people were also often shocked by the offensive treatment of Black GIs by their White counterparts. However, many Black soldiers still experienced strong discrimination in Britain.

Much came from their own military commanders who promoted the official United States policy of segregation on British soil, with segregated nights at local pubs and social clubs. In certain rural towns, shops had different designated days for Black and White GIs. American commanders claimed these schemes were a way of keeping the peace.

Which American celebrities served in the USAAF?

A black and white photo of two men in military uniform talking and sitting on a sofa.
Hollywood stars in conversation: Lieutenant-Colonel James Stewart talking to Major Clark Gable, RAF Polebrook, Northamptonshire, 1943. Source: Creative Commons.

A number of leading Hollywood stars joined the USAAF’s Eighth Air Force in Britain, including Oscar-winner, James Stewart 1908 to 1997, celebrated for such films as ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Rear Window’ and ‘Vertigo’. He was the first major Hollywood star to enlist. Stewart flew twenty combat missions over Occupied Europe and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.

Joining him in Britain was Hollywood legend, Clark Gable (1901 to 1960), best known for the film ‘Gone with the Wind’. He produced and directed a film, ‘Combat America’, focussing on aerial gunners, flying five B-17 combat missions as an observer.

A photo of a man in a trilby singing on a stage with a crowd of men watching him.
American singer and actor, Bing Crosby (1903 to 1977), performing for USAAF GIs, Duxford, Cambridgeshire, September 1944. © IWM. FRE 5954.

Well-known American performers came to Britain to entertain the Eighth Air Force. Bing Crosby, whose most famous song was ‘White Christmas’, was one of many stars during the war who helped raise the morale of American servicemen overseas.

Among them was top comedian Bob Hope (1903 to 2003), who performed at Duxford air base in July 1943, and Glenn Miller (1904 to 1944), America’s most popular big band leader. At 38 he was too old to be drafted, so he volunteered to join the military to entertain the troops.

With the rank of Major, he was assigned to the USAAF and took his fifty-strong Army Air Force Band to England where he extensively toured American bases and clubs. He mysteriously disappeared on a flight en route to Paris in December 1944.

Commemoration and remembrance

A photo of many rows of white crosses on green grass at Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial Site.
Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial Site, Madingley, Cambridgeshire, administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Source: Public Domain.

The principal memorial in Britain to the USAAF aircrews is the Cambridge American Cemetery, the only Second World War American military cemetery in Britain. This 12-hectare site, framed by trees, on the north side of Madingley Hill, was donated by the University of Cambridge in 1943 as a temporary cemetery, then designated as a burial ground in perpetuity in 1956. Americans who had been buried elsewhere in the country were reinterred there.

The chapel contains an immense Great Map which includes the air sorties flown from the East of England across Occupied Europe and beyond. The walls and ceiling are decorated with mosaics of aircraft and angels.

A black and white photo of a mass military funeral, with a row of coffins draped with the Stars and Stripes.
A mass military funeral, coffins draped with the Stars and Stripes, held at the American Cemetery, possibly in 1943. Source: Public Domain.

The Cemetery bears the remains of 3,812 American military dead, with a further 5,127 names recorded on the Wall of the Missing, including Glenn Miller’s, (listed as Alton G. Miller). Most died in the strategic bombing of Occupied Europe and in the Battle of the Atlantic and have no known grave.

A photo of a white statue of an American airman standing to attention on the Wall of the Missing.
A figure of an American airman standing to attention on the Wall of the Missing. Source: Wayne Cocroft.

Four statues (an airman, soldier, sailor and Coast Guardsman) are spaced along the Wall.

A photo of a black village sign with a B-17 bomber flying over a church with 'Connington' written beneath.
Village sign with a B-17 bomber, Conington, Cambridgeshire, the settlement that housed RAF Glatton, home of the Eighth Air Force’s 457th Bomb Group. Source: Wayne Cocroft.

Many, if not all, former USAAF airfields have their own memorials commemorating the aircrews who flew from these bases, and many local villages still commemorate this short period of history in their village signs.

A photo of the blue insignia of a star in a circle with gold rings of the USAAF’s Eighth Air Force.
Insignia of the USAAF’s Eighth Air Force. © IWM. FRE 5298.

Written by Nicky Hughes

Further reading

6 comments on “The Story of the US Army Air Forces in Britain During the Second World War

  1. “But a devastating surprise attack…led the United States to immediately declare war on Germany” – but according to the official US Congress document at https://www.archives.gov/global-pages/larger-image.html?i=/historical-docs/doc-content/images/ww2-declaration-war-germany-l.jpg&c=/historical-docs/doc-content/images/ww2-declaration-war-germany.caption.html, that declaration was in response to Germany’s declaration of war on the US. There is no mention of Japan in the document, and the US declaration is dated 11 December 1941, four days after Pearl Harbour, quickly rather than “immediately”.

  2. Thanks for highlighting an important story. The impact of the USAF on the landscape of, in particular, East Anglia, was immense and still clearly visible today. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had done more to record and preserve the physical remains of this brave endeavour. (I say that as a member of a family that owns part of one of the bases where James Stewart served.)

  3. R James Youle

    When I visited IWM Duxford, I saw the uniform of James Stewart in the American Museum, it may still be on loan there. The story of Joseph Kennedy junior is also an interesting one, he died in the air near Blythburgh, Suffolk.

  4. Carolyn Stetson

    What about the Ninth Air Force based (in part) in Yorkshire and operating the P61 bomber, the first plane to have operational radar.

  5. No story of the US Army forces in Britain during the Second World War would be complete without a mention of the shocking fragment of history that is often brushed under the carpet.
    December 1945, the US Army convened a general court-martial in London to inquire into allegations of brutality and murder. These atrocities had been committed, not by black-uniformed Nazis in the hellish concentration camps of the Third Reich, but by American officers and enlisted personnel—and not upon our erstwhile enemies but upon other Americans at the 10th Replacement Depot at Whittington Barracks near Lichfield, England.

    Lichfield: The U.S. Army on Trial by Jack Gieck

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