During the Second World War (1939-1945), over half a million United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) servicemen were stationed in Britain, including leading Hollywood stars such as James Stewart and Clark Gable who were commissioned as serving officers.
At the war’s end, around 2 million American personnel, including Black servicemen and ground support staff, would have passed through the country, together with women affiliated to the American Red Cross and the Women’s Army Corps, and others involved in administrative war work.
The men were known colloquially as GIs – a term widely believed to stand for Government Issue.
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, including 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.
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?
‘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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Tommy Trinder (1909-1989), 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 number of leading Hollywood stars joined the USAAF’s Eighth Air Force in Britain, including Oscar-winner, James Stewart 1908-1997, 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 (1901-1960), 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.
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 (1903-2003), who performed at Duxford air base in July 1943, and Glenn Miller (1904-1944), 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
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.
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.
Four statues (an airman, soldier, sailor and Coast Guardsman) are spaced along the Wall.
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.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
Banner Image: A child chats to American airmen in Burton Bradstock, Dorset. Image in the Public Domain.
“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”.
Hi Mike, thanks for your comment, we’ve updated the blog accordingly.
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.)
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.