The Battle of Bamber Bridge
when america tried to bring jim crow to britain
When American servicemen came to Britain during the Second World War they brought many things with them; materials, money and of course new forms of music and culture. One part of American culture, however, stood out and shocked most people in Britain at the time, and that was segregation. Although during the Second World War Britain did have a problem with racism it was nowhere near as bad as it was with the Americans of the period. Everything in America was segregated – buses, schools, hospitals, bars, restaurants and even the armed forces. This shocked the British public who had been at war against Nazi Germany since 1939, and with Britain being the last free nation in western Europe since the fall of France in June 1940 had become accustomed to their country being a melting pot of various cultures including refugees and servicemen and women from all over, in a bid to combat fascism in Europe.
When the Americans arrived in Britain in January 1942 they tried to impose segregation in the British Isles, and this was met with mixed response from the British government, armed forces and general public. Britain was grateful for the arrival of fresh troops but confused on where to stand with the new demands for segregation. In the end, the British government acquiesced to those demands, which was met with hilarious reactions from dissenting local authorities such as the town of Bamber Bridge, whose three pubs put up signs saying “Blacks Only” in a reactionary move to spite the racist American servicemen. The tensions throughout Britain increased, such as the incident in London where two white GIs demanded that black GI’s stand and yield their seating, only to be told forcefully by the conductress that; “We don’t do that here, we won’t have it – so YOU can stand or get off.”. The white GI’s stood in silence for the rest of the trip. A saying developed in Britain at the time; “I don’t mind the Yanks but I can’t stand those white fellows they brought with them”. Despite this, many areas did start introducing segregation, usually in places where large American contingents were stationed. The signs usually read “No Blacks, no Jews, no dogs and no Irish” or similar. In one case in Norfolk a vicar’s wife produced a six point plan to keep coloured troops out of the area, but this was rebuked by her local community and the local paper responded with the following line; “Every Allied servicemen is welcome here and there is no colour bar. The narrow-mindedness of the vicar’s wife does not represent the people of Britain.”
The papers usually spoke of black American servicemen in a sympathetic way and wrote about them hiking, having picnics and joining in church services across the UK. But by June 1943 things started to spiral out of control on the American military bases due to the Detroit Race Riots on the 20th of June, and the white American military police (or MPs) started cracking down harder on the black GI’s. This came to a head on the 24th of June, 1943 in Ye Olde Hob Inn in Bamber Bridge.
On the evening of the 24th, two MPs received reports of trouble at a local pub. They had standing orders to arrest any solider being disorderly, out of base without a pass or improperly dressed. Corporal Windsor and PFC Ridgeway arrived at the Ye Olde Hob Inn, where black soldiers of the 1511th Quartermaster truck regiment were drinking. The MPs encountered Private Eugene Nunn, who was wearing his field jacket instead of his Class A uniform and asked him to step outside. An argument erupted from the local people in the pub and servicewomen of the Auxiliary Territorial service, who sided with Nunn as the argument escalated. A British soldier intervened to defend Nunn and his fellows, asking the MPs, “Why do you want to arrest them? They’re not doing anything or bothering anybody.” A black soldier, Staff Sergeant William Byrd, managed to defuse the situation and the MPs left. As they were leaving, a beer was thrown at the Jeep and the insulted MPs went for reinforcements. Their officers commanded them to do their duty and arrest the soldiers. The MPs later intercepted the soldiers on Station Road as they were returning to base and a fight broke out, in which shots were fired. Private William Crossland was shot in the back and killed.
The injured soldiers returned to base but the killing had caused panic amongst the black soldiers and rumours had begun to circulate stating that the MPs were killing black soldiers. The base commander was absent and his acting CO Major George C. Heris could not calm the situation despite his best efforts. The unit’s only black officer, Lieutenant Edwin D. Jones, managed to calm the soldiers by promising that justice would be done by Major Heris and that the MPs would be arrested.
By midnight the MPs arrived at camp in several Jeeps and an improvised armoured car armed with a large calibre machine gun, and this prompted the black soldiers to arm themselves with around two thirds of the bases’ rifles. They chased out the MPs and a large group left in pursuit. The MPs then set up a roadblock to ambush the soldiers of the 1511th, according to the account of a British police officer who could only look on as the events unfolded, with both sides now opening fire at each other. The black soldiers went around the town warning the townsfolk to stay inside when the firefight broke out, so that civilians would not be caught in the crossfire. By 4:00am on the 25th of June the fighting had died down with one officer, 3 black soldiers and an MP shot and wounded while another two MPs had been beaten. All the soldiers returned to base where all but four of the rifles had been recovered.
A court martial was ordered for 32 soldiers on charges including mutiny. The poor leadership on the base and the racist attitudes among the MPs were found to be the cause of the disruption, but four black soldiers involved in the initial brawl were sentenced to hard labour and dishonourable discharges. A further trial of another 35 black soldiers which concluded on the 18th of September also found that the MP’s attitude was the cause of the violence, but condemned 28 of the soldiers to sentences ranging from three months to fifteen years. A review of the sentencing led to one man being freed and a reduction in all the sentences, with most prisoners being released by June 1944. The longest sentence served had been 13 months.
The events of the battle resulted in General Ira C. Eaker (commanding the 8th air force) to place all black trucking units under a single command where all racist and inexperienced officers were purged from the ranks and reassigned. He also found that poor leadership from white officers and the racist slurs used by the MPs were the main cause of the battle and decided to integrate black soldiers into the MPs to avoid further confrontation between both groups. The morale of black soldiers stationed in Britain greatly improved after these changes were made, and although other instances of racial slurs and brawls took place the number of court martials were greatly reduced in the American forces. The news of the events was suppressed at the time in order to avoid similar incidents happening and interest only resurged in the 1980s when a maintenance worker in Bamber Bridge found bullet holes and enquired what happened. He was simply told; “That’s the remnants of the battle of Bamber Bridge.”