I am not the first member of my family to make the reverse migration from the United States to the ‘Old Country’, as my grandfather (who wasn’t of British or Irish descent) used to refer to the UK. In the summer of 1942, grandpa set sail from New York harbour for Northern Ireland. He arrived in early July and stayed for the next two years, first in Ireland and then in Wiltshire, before crossing to France on D-Day. He was part of what Wendy Webster terms ‘the great proposition’, a phrase taken from the opening scenes of The True Glory, an Anglo-American war documentary produced in 1945. ‘Funny thing,’ an American voice pronounces. ‘On the way over you felt like you were the whole works … but then all over the UK you’d see things that made you begin to realise you were just part of a hell of a big proposition.’
In addition to roughly three million GIs (a little less than 5 per cent of whom were African American), Britain saw an influx of troops from the empire and the Commonwealth, including half a million Canadians and tens of thousands from Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies; a quarter of a million Irish; a similar number of fighters from Poland, France and Czechoslovakia; approximately 150,000 refugees from across Europe, many of them Jews; and, by 1945, half a million German and Italian prisoners of war. In Mixing It: Diversity in World War Two Britain, Webster argues that this unprecedented influx gave Britain the strength to fight on to victory, and that immigration was a crucial component of Britain’s heroic Second World War narrative. At the outset she writes that far right groups like the British National Party place
the history of the Second World War – a symbol of British greatness in the past – in opposition to subsequent immigration, which destroys the nation. But as Mixing It demonstrates, movements of migrants, refugees and troops to Britain not only took place during the Second World War, but were on an unprecedented scale. Between 1939 and 1945, the population of Britain became more diverse by nationality and ethnicity than it had ever been before.
If the BNP sees the war as the last moment of British greatness, then there’s a logical fallacy in its argument that European co-operation is bad and ‘mass immigration and artificially promoted miscegenation is destroying Britain and the British.’
The chapters that follow both do and do not support this central argument. Webster traces a series of individuals and communities during their time in Britain and finds varying degrees of enthusiasm for these migrants among the British population. Some new arrivals were welcomed, sometimes. Others, including most notably African Americans, blacks from the British Empire, Poles and Jews, were regarded with more ambivalence, and occasionally outright hostility. And, in many cases, the wartime embrace proved remarkably fleeting. ‘The reception given to people who stayed on when the war was over or arrived in its aftermath was increasingly frosty,’ Webster notes. ‘Most West Indians who had served in Britain were demobbed back home. Those who returned were no longer in uniform, but in civvies, no longer “allies” but “immigrants”.’ Several of these West Indian allies turned immigrants were caught up in the Home Office push last year to deport members of the so-called Windrush generation and their children who didn’t have the proper documentation to prove their right to British citizenship under the 1948 British Nationality Act. Polish veterans were ultimately given a right to remain under the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947, but Poles who chose to stay in Britain – and to bring their families over in what Trump would refer to as ‘chain migration’ – were subject to hostility. As a letter-writer to the BBC put it in 1947, in language foreshadowing that of present-day militant nationalists: ‘[We are] tired of foreigners in Britain and what about putting Britain first.’
My grandfather was a young white American with no ambitions to remain in Britain after the war and a fiancée back home to whom he wrote regular letters. He wasn’t a threat to British jobs or to British masculinity and had a good deal of disposable income to spend in local cinemas, dance halls and pubs, and hence was welcomed. His main complaint was boredom. By March 1944 he began signing off his letters ‘Still England’, and long before that he took to complaining that enforced idleness was making him put on weight. But the Northern Irish and the English both treated him well. Several months after arriving in the UK, he wrote a long letter to my grandmother detailing his observations on the ‘native’ culture. ‘Chips’ are ‘French fries in our language’. ‘A lake is a lough – a truck is a lorry or lorrie … and a sweet is a rarity.’ One British term he claimed not yet to have learned was the equivalent of ‘no’. ‘Aye, pronounced I, means yes and as for the opposite of yes which is no in our language I cannot say for their answer is aye to everything.’
When my grandfather was let out of camp, he occasionally used the opportunity to go sightseeing, and his letters sometimes contain reports of castles and medieval towns. But the cinema and dance hall, where he spent more of his time and money, reminded him of home and underscored how far he was from Pittsburgh:
They do have movies here even though the pictures shown are somewhat on the obsolete side. Usually about 18 months old. Smoking is permitted in all theatres and the balcony is where the elite sit not the first floor as is the case back home. The price of admission is usually a shilling which in our money is worth approx. two bits. A pound in their money is worth approx. $4.06 in our money. Smoking is the thing in theatres. Most movies are Hollywood productions and the girls try to be the same.
The girls’ efforts were not in my grandfather’s view very successful. While ‘there are a few who seem to have weathered the storm and look none the worse for it … beauty here is not as abundant as back in US.’ Frequenting local pubs, he found that ‘the beer is weak, but that is due to the war.’ The one area that didn’t disappoint was the dance hall:
As for their dancing, it is all of the smoothie type. In all seriousness I think the fellows as well as the girls are very good dancers. The girls have ours of North Carolina beat as for dancing. Jitterbugging was just conversation with them until the doughboy moved in and now it is a reality. The girls just grasp at an opportunity to jit with a jitter from jitterdom (US).
My grandmother’s letters to him didn’t survive the war, but it’s clear from his occasional defensive replies that, while she didn’t seriously question his loyalty, she could find this constant appraisal of Irish and English ‘roses’ a bit tedious.
As Webster notes, GIs ‘attracted more varied criticism from the British than any other group from overseas – they were “unsoldierly”, overconfident and arrogant, they threw their weight about, they mistreated their black compatriots, they were given too much publicity in reporting of the D-Day landings. There were also many complaints about their relationships with British women.’ Webster’s book expands on the research of Sonya Rose in Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain 1939-45, published in 2003, in which she identified the gendered dynamics of what Webster terms ‘sexual patriotism’ in stigmatising British women – pejoratively termed ‘good-time girls’ – who went around with American troops. My grandfather noted that many local women were timid around GIs, which he attributed to the ‘belief that the Americans have so much compared to themselves that they are not on a par with us’. The war saw close to 45,000 marriages between British women and American GIs, and a comparable number of marriages between British women and Canadian soldiers. British women also formed lasting relationships with Polish soldiers (who were perceived as real Casanovas), and 796 German prisoners married British women while they were still held in prisoner of war camps.
But nothing worried the wartime public like interracial liaisons and marriage. The quote from the BNP about the dangerous effects of miscegenation with which Webster opens her book could as easily have been plucked from wartime discourse. Walter White, the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, claimed that African Americans tended to be well received in Britain, which he attributed to the fact that ‘black GIs, unlike their white compatriots, did not consider the British backward, having in common with them an absence of “mechanical gadgets” in their homes. Black GIs were therefore less prone to make derogatory comments on British living than their white fellow Americans, and their better manners in any case meant that they would not want to cause offence.’
A shared absence of tumble dryers could only get you so far. The government promoted a ‘Friendly, but Brief’ policy for encounters between white British women and black colonial or American troops. A dance or two was permissible. A relationship was not. Britons were complicit in the imposition of ‘colour bars’ in many British clubs and dance halls during the war, ‘however convenient it may have been to blame white Americans for the[ir] introduction’. The Casino dance hall in Warrington was forced to shutter its doors after its manager refused to bar coloured servicemen from the club, as requested to by a US army officer. Shortly before the club’s forced closure a Ministry of Labour report noted dispassionately: ‘The Manager now finds that what he describes as his “idealistic” stand and his slogan “Fit to fight, fit to mix” … has already cost the hall over £3000.’ The BBC was similarly complicit; on the Sunday night Postscript series, one of the most popular programmes on wartime radio, there were never any black speakers. Learie Constantine, the West Indian cricketer who went on to a career in Trinidadian politics and to receive the first peerage bestowed on a black man, in 1969, was briefly mooted as a speaker for the Sunday night slot. On air, he talked of being denied a room in the Imperial Hotel in London and of successfully suing the establishment for discrimination. This did not go down well with George Barnes, director of radio talks, who wrote in an internal memo: ‘With a British audience I should have thought far more sympathy would be obtained if the speaker identified himself with his audience by describing … some of the joy of first class cricket.’ The broadcast was shunted to a weekday slot.
The outcome for most of the men and women who defied cultural expectations and forged interracial relationships was bleak. A postwar article in Ebony, the popular African American magazine, argued that many mixed-race children had been forcibly made illegitimate by the US army’s refusal to allow black GIs to marry white British women. ‘When the British woman was pregnant, the black American soldier involved was often transferred by the American army, while the British woman was counselled against marriage by British welfare organisations.’ The same welfare organisations failed to offer support to British women who attempted to raise their mixed-race children as single parents. An inevitable consequence was that many of these children were put into care, where officials made little effort to find them foster or adopted parents, believing that no decent British family would want to accept a mixed-race baby.
Once the war was over, the British government was keen to say goodbye to the Big Proposition. This included not only American servicemen, black and white, but also non-white imperial citizens, as well as Chinese seamen who had served in the merchant marine and the navy, and many European nationals. The imperial citizens presented a particular problem. ‘As they are British subjects,’ a 1945 Ministry of Labour memo noted, ‘we cannot force them to return, but it would be undesirable to encourage them to remain in this country. We should, therefore, take immediate advantage of every expression in favour of repatriation, as the longer the men stay here, the less ready they will be to go.’ The issue of foreign nationals initially seemed more straightforward. Chinese seamen were summarily reminded of the temporary nature of their landing permits and told to ship out or be deported, a cruel repayment for wartime service that elicited little protest from anyone beyond the seamen’s families.
The large contingent of Polish servicemen – more than 200,000 – proved trickier to handle. In July 1945, after Churchill and Truman agreed to recognise the Moscow-controlled provisional government in Poland, Churchill announced that Poles who had fought for Britain during the war would have a right to remain in the country after the peace. After the 1945 general election, the Labour foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, executed a reversal and declared that no guarantees could be offered on settlement in British territory at home or overseas for Polish troops. While the British celebrated VE Day as a triumph over Nazism, Poles looked with despair on a future which would see one tyrannous occupying force replaced by another. As one soldier wrote, ‘I will never go back to Poland if she is under Russian control because I don’t want to be in the Red Russian Paradise. It is better to die than to go there.’
Unlike Chinese seamen and non-white colonial troops, the Poles had a significant political constituency at their backs, and this, combined with labour shortages, especially shortages of male labour, ultimately shifted Bevin’s attitude. As one MP said in a debate on immigration in 1947, ‘we are suffering from the falling birthrate of the late 1920s and 1930s and have no fewer than 200,000 numerically surplus women … On the assumption that we should take mainly single men, there are the strongest possible reasons for having an infusion of vigorous young blood from overseas at the present time.’ The need for white men for work and marriage played a role in the passage of the 1947 act which granted permanent residence to around 150,000 former members of the Polish army and their families, and helped lead to the introduction of the European Volunteer Workers scheme, which brought another 86,000 displaced European men and women to work in Britain, principally in the agricultural and mining industries. Few of Europe’s surviving Jews were among this group, as the Foreign Office decided that ‘the situation in Palestine, and anti-semitics [sic], clearly prevent the recruitment of Jews.’
The experience of many non-Britons who made their permanent homes in the UK after the war was pretty grim. As late as 1965, only 11 per cent of London housing advertised for private rental didn’t include the stipulation ‘no coloureds’. European Volunteer Workers were told to go home, and a particularly charming 1948 editorial in the politically progressive Daily Mirror, entitled ‘Let Them Be Displaced’, argued that
in taking in Displaced Persons wholesale, we have had a bad deal. Too many are living or working in some dubious way. Some no doubt are in the Black Market. They live on our rations – and live very well. They add to our discomfort and swell the crime wave. This cannot be tolerated. They must now be rounded up and sent back.
Here, arguably, are the roots of BNP-style racism. But if the roots were entrenched in the postwar period, the seeds were clearly sown in much of the British public’s response to the multi-national influx of the Big Proposition.
My grandfather spent most of his time in Britain based at Devizes in Wiltshire. As troops shipped out for France, the Devizes barracks were transformed into a POW camp, before reverting to regimental accommodation after the war. In 1979, they would again house foreigners, as one of the camps run by Save the Children to accommodate Vietnamese ‘boat people’, most of whom had come to Britain as refugees via Hong Kong. Devizes is one of 96 British sites that served as refugee camps during the course of the 20th century, and the experience of encampment in these sites is the subject of Jordanna Bailkin’s Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain. Bailkin’s aim is to draw continuities across time and place, showing how refugees from different eras and different regimes were physically held in the same spaces, spaces which in some cases – Devizes was one – also did duty as military barracks, prisoner of war camps and holiday camps. In a few instances, the same sites were used as residences for refugees and for British citizens, particularly those awaiting resettlement during the acute housing shortage following the Second World War.
Bailkin is successful in demonstrating the continuity of encampment as a feature of modern British life, but her emphasis on continuities overshadows significant differences between encamped communities and Britain’s attitudes to them. Basque children, between five and 15 years old, accepted into Britain for what was assumed to be a temporary period following the public outcry around the bombing of civilians in towns such as Guernica, were obviously different from the Polish veterans who remained in Britain under the terms of the Resettlement Act, or from the Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin in 1972 and the Vietnamese arrivals in 1979. The Vietnamese, like the Hungarian refugees who arrived after the 1956 uprising, were accepted as part of the Cold War project, and their proper treatment was driven by political dictates as much as by humanitarian ones.
This isn’t to say that they were welcomed without resentment. Wardens at hostels housing Hungarian refugees were instructed ‘to lecture non-compliant Hungarians about how Britons of all classes were contributing to their upkeep and that they were taking unfair advantage of their new countrymen’. Polish veterans’ status as refugees was more ambiguous. Their belief that the British state owed them for their wartime service fuelled a specific sense of entitlement, not unlike that felt by the Ugandan Asians, who insisted that they were not refugees but citizens. The Ugandans argued that, like the Anglo-Egyptians who had arrived on Britain’s shores following the Suez Crisis, they deserved compensation for what they had been forced to abandon as a result of the collapse of Britain’s overseas empire. While the government offered unsecured loans to select Ugandans, whom they perceived to be hard-working and entrepreneurial and likely to use the money to good effect, Ugandan Asians were not granted restitution on the scale of the Anglo-Egyptians. As with so many incidents detailed in Unsettled, it’s hard not to attribute this to race.
Faced with the prospect of a massive influx of refugees from Zimbabwe following the Internal Settlement in 1978, the British government drew up plans for accommodating what it assumed would be huge numbers of white Rhodesians – by some estimates as many as 180,000. Although the anticipated influx never arrived, the debates it prompted are illuminating. Many of the Rhodesians wouldn’t have had a technical right to return to Britain as citizens under the 1948 Nationality Act, but the assumption appears to have been that these white migrants would have been accepted in any event, even if they did not meet the conditions of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. Bailkin notes that ‘the question of race played a crucial role in this imagined refugee crisis.’ But if whiteness could buy you entrance to Britain, as both these books show, it could not necessarily buy you acceptance.
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