Thursday, June 2, 2011

2 Books on the GI-British Experience

In researching my book I was very interested to hear veterans' recollections of their time in Britain before the Normandy invasion. The men in my grandfather's battalion were stationed there from April to June 1944. The Americans were billeted in private homes and became very friendly with their English host families. This was actually a rare experience among GIs. Of the nearly 3 million US troops that moved through Britain only about 100,000 were assigned to live with local civilians. The vast majority of Americans lived in military bases and camps, and the US military wanted to keep them there as much as possible to prevent trouble with the British public.

Most GIs didn't live in the homes of local families, but they interacted with the British people in many other ways. An excellent book on this subject is Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain by David Reynolds. The nearly 600 page text covers every possible angle. Reynolds details the official American, British, and Canadian authorities' policies towards foreign troops mixing with the local people. The nations tackled issues such as soldier health, marriage, racial segregation, crime, public opinion, morale, and military readiness. The broad view of official policy is complimented with specific personal experiences of individual soldiers and civilians. A massive amount of research and detail went into this text, while the writing is still very engaging.

Some US troops passed through the UK in a matter of weeks. Many more were in the country for several months, and some (such as the personnel of the 8th Air Force) lived and operated there for years. For many GIs interaction with the people of Britain was a major part of the overall wartime experience.

Shire Publications recently released a new book in their Living History series. The concise and well-illustrated Wartime Britain by Mike Brown is a nice companion to Reynold's hefty textbook. As with other titles in the series, the writing is complimented by period photographs, images of historic objects, and specially commissioned illustrations. Although not focused on the American experience, Brown describes the British wartime life which the GIs encountered. The short chapters depict family life, neighborhoods work, food, safety, style, transportation, recreation, and the general mood of the country.

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