At the outbreak of World War Two the village of Wellesbourne — just a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon — seemed an insignificant village. But by the end of 1940 it was very much at the centre of things. Rumours flew around that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a secret hideaway for himself and his cabinet, just outside the village, and that he — or his official look-alike — had been seen in the vicinity several times. Many said the Royal Family had bolt holes in the area.
In 1940 a large RAF base was built on the edge of the village, becoming one of many bases for the Royal Canadian Air Force, from which they flew the British twin-engine Wellington bombers — designed by Barnes Wallis — as part of their 6th Bomber Group. By 1941 post Dunkirk remnants of the Polish, French, Belgian, and Czech armies where also camped in the area, training to become an integral part of the British Army.
Then, in late 1942 the American Army moved in, but not as a unified force.
In the words of the late American military historian, Stephen E. Ambrose:
“…the world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated Army.” He went on. “ [but] It was worse than that: the Army and society conspired to degrade African-Americans in every way possible, summed up in the name Jim Crow.”
A popular World War II cartoon strip, The Sad Sack, personified the average GI as a naive, confused, lazy, bumbling private, and the worst sad sack of all, according to the strip, was a Jim Crow.
From 1942, until late in 1944, the US Army would not allow an African-American soldier to belong to a front line fighting unit (even though their grandfathers had fought bravely in the Civil War on the Unionist side, and in the trenches of the First World War), instead they were relegated to service units where they either worked in field kitchens, waited on table in the officers mess, or drove supply trucks.
The term “Jim Crow” itself derives from the first white minstrel Thomas Dartmouth, known on stage as “Daddy Rice”, who blacked his face with burned cork and did a song and dance routine that always ended with him becoming the old crippled Negro slave, Jim Crow, who shuffled about the stage like a wounded bird, singing his lament for lost agility and freedom:
And turn about, and do jis so.
Ebry time I weel about,
I jump Jim Crow, I jump Jim Crow.
Dartmouth was soon known as Ol’ Jim Crow, and became, during the Ante-Bellum period of the 1840s and 1850s, hugely popular across America and Europe. For generations afterwards the African-American was stuck with the Jim Crow image.
For most white, middle-class, Americans in the 1920s, 1930s, and the early 1940s, the African-American did not really exist as a fellow human being, until African-Americans and whites encountered each other in the rapidly expanding US military; and let’s not forget that over 2.5 million African-Americans, men and women, volunteered, or were enlisted between 1942 and 1945.
Things had to change, and it was General Eisenhower who insisted, by a general written order, that there had to be less — much less — discrimination within the American Army otherwise victory could not be assured.
Eisenhower’s order did ensure, by late 1944, that African-American service personnel were, in some units — especially Patton’s Third Army — fighting alongside their white comrades. It was a first, and seldom recognised, step, and only a step, toward a more integrated society — albeit very, very far from perfect — in post-war America.
But in Wellesbourne, in 1942, African-American and white American soldiers did not mix.
The African-American GIs — invariably part of the 666th Quatermaster Truck Company — were billeted at the imposing Wellesbourne House, in the centre of the village, just a mile from the aerodrome, with the white GIs, a mix of intelligence, airborne, and artillery troops, billeted a few miles away at Walton Hall — a huge mansion that is today a country hotel.
It has to be said that most of the inhabitants of Wellesbourne had, in the 1940s, never seen a black person, let alone an African-American. On the whole the locals were very welcoming, and not only to the Americans but to the Canadians, and the Polish, and anyone else who came along. What the locals could not understand was the open hostility between many of the white GIs and their African-American counterparts. It didn’t make any sense.
My father Roland, with his father Harry, ran a bakery in Wellesbourne. My father had wanted to join the RAF but was classified as essential civilian reserve. All my father was allowed to do, apart from bake and deliver bread, was join the Home Guard. And when not baking bread, and guarding the aerodrome, he played piano in his own dance band, “The Carolinas”. And it was at these twice weekly dances that trouble often erupted.
The dances were held in the Womens Institute (WI) building opposite the Post Office, and were very popular with the military and the young women of the village who were eager for dance partners, in fact eager for any sort of partner.
But for many of the white GIs watching a white girl dancing happily with an African-American was just too much to take, and invariably fights broke out between the troops. These fights were soon broken-up by the local police constable, PC Selwyn who, with a well- placed blow from his truncheon, and the threat of bringing in US MPs, could soon quell any disorder. But on the night of 5th October 1944, things got out of hand.
By October of 1944 Wellesbourne House, and Walton Hall, were being used as recovery hospitals for wounded GIs, with the same racial arrangements as before. My father, in an effort to raise funds for the war effort, had arranged a dance for that night — it soon sold out.
The dance was attended initially by white GIs, and a few Canadian airmen. Half way through the dance a lone African-American GI turned up, asked my father if he knew Duke Ellington’s “Saturday Night Function” (which he did), and with a local girl on his arm, the soldier let rip with a virtuoso display of jitterbugging. The locals loved it, but several of the white GIs hated it and without warning set about the lone African-American. Their violence didn’t last long of course: the Canadians saw to that, but for everyone else who admired the bravery of the Americans it was a shocking display of racial hatred. When the fight was over the white GIs headed for The Talbot, a pub just up the road. The lone African-American GI soon recovered and danced the rest of the night away.
In the early hours the African-American GI left the Women’s Institute building (a rather ramshakle corrugated iron construction from the 1890s) and began to make his way back toward Wellesbourne House. My mother and father, who were locking up the building, then watched as he was stopped by the three white GIs — now very drunk — who’d tried to beat him up earlier. They challenged him, but this was no back lane in Georgia.
“ What’re you gonna do this time, boy? No Canuck friends to help you out now?”
The African-American soldier made no reply, just pulled a 30 mph road sign out of the grass verge and set about the other soldiers. According to my father he ended up knocking all three over the bridge into the river. As he turned to replace the road sign the young man spotted my parents. He didn’t say anything, just saluted and made his way back to Wellesbourne House.